A weekish-note – 3rd December 2022

Daisy and Milo decorating the tree. While V and I drink fizz.

I’ve been nudged by into starting to do weeknotes by Matt Jukes, my successor at DIT, after a big DDaT awayday where he took a lead on two of the sessions and talked about how more people should be doing this. I’ve realised I’ve become increasingly worried about the amount of my digital outboard brain that’ll evaporate if Twitter does finally go up in smoke, plus if this gets a few other team members comfortable with the weeknote format it’ll have been worthwhile.

Admittedly I started this post on Friday, just as a set of headings, and almost immediately had to DM Jukesie and say “oh, that’s why I’ve been knackered then?” Apparently that’s a side benefit!

I’ve also long been a fan of journalling gratitude/small victories, following Laurie Santos’ rather excellent ‘Science of Wellbeing’ free online course about happiness. There’s a tiny notebook by my bed for noting things that went well or I enjoyed – but since the summer it’s been rather neglected. So perhaps I can kickstart noticing more of the good things, alongside the wry takes on what’s been going less well. There’s been no shortage of Real Life going on since June-ish, and I’ve rather dropped the ball. Anyway, “we are where we are” now…so where is that?

Work things

  • I had the last day of running the Mind the Product Leadership course with Bea Kovacs/Barker. Every time I do courses with her I learn more about the art of teaching Product things well.
    In theory this was a much easier week, because there wasn’t a ton of slides and content to learn. However, week 4 is several hours of freeform “dear group, we’ve covered the core content, what else should we talk about?” As a result, there’s a fair bit of pressure on us as trainers. But I’ve really loved working with this group as they came out of their shells since week one. And the course is a really good excuse to delve into the scholarly side of Product Craft. Lots of reading that’s been on the to-do list for ages, or in some cases the “should really read this again” list. On which note:
  • I read Tendayi Viki’s “Pirates in the Navy” which is a nice tract about sustainable intrapreneurship, and all the ways that innovation units can fail in large organisations. Some of it felt like a positive throwback to the Fictionlab mantra of “innovation in the mainstream” in the early 2000s, but I also recognised some of the political traps that led to my problems there, at MTV and particularly ITV. And of course it was great to feel the presence of lovely Sonja Kresojevic behind much of it.
  • Continued updating the DIT CRM product strategy, adding in a set of ‘even over’ statements that felt like tangible things we could use as principles with the teams, and validate with stakeholders. e.g. “we currently value more targetted working of our frontline staff to get greater economic outcomes, even over fixing rekeying data for backoffice staff to increase admin efficiency”. Lots of really good structural thinking brought together, even if it was more of a slidument than I’d have liked.
  • Presented it to our SMT – along with the draft 18 month roadmap as a ‘worked example’ of the product strategy. This, sadly, didn’t down as well as I’d thought it would. Lots of questions, lots of divergent suggestions, not very much saying that the work was any good. Was quite dejected afterwards. But colleagues pointed out that the strategy was largely agreed – it was just the actual roadmap aspect where there was a lot of disagreement. So I’ve started going round individual SMT members saying “and what were you expecting from this roadmap thing anyway” which will hopefully bring it together next week.
  • Big awayday. Being in a room with about 200 other people was loud and draining. Really good sessions on things like storytelling and burnout. I found the burnout one particularly hard, as the stories told felt like layers of the last four years. I realised that I’d been getting more and more run down on each bit of work, and then to counteract the burnout from that I’d find a new project to pour myself into – and sometimes those projects were teams or people. Which it’s even harder to disengage from when things go awry. Lots to think about on the back of that.
  • A few people have already shared my blog post about ‘what I’m looking for in my next role’ which has led to a few interesting approaches already. Thank you everyone. All LinkedIn shares or even recommendations are very welcome. Particular shout outs to Matt Jukes for including a link and kind words in his weekly digital public service jobs newsletter. You should subscribe to it if you haven’t already.
  • Sat on some interview panels for Content Leads. It was nice to use some different bits of my brain.
  • Applied for a job.

Home things

Went to a lovely gig at Islington Assembly Hall with my percussionist/TechArch friend Steve. A silly but lovely modern progrock band called Frost*, who combine glitch etc with classic Genesis vibes. There was a Casio VL-Tone solo.

Frost*

Support was from a lovely two-piece called Quantum Pig, featuring my friend Mark Stevenson on vocals. His fabulous book An Optimist’s Tour of the Future has been bought and given away sooo many times, so it was lovely to see him doing something else. In a Carl Sagan t-shirt.

Quantum Pig

I did lots of piano practice, just in case someone at the work awayday spotted a piano and tried to get me to play something. That bullet was dodged, but the work led to a really good piano lesson on Saturday, getting into some really interesting new nuances of some current pieces I’m working on.

Saturday was stupidly busy in other ways:

  • Rearranging our little loft storage space to find the decorations
  • Picking up the christmas tree
  • Doing lightly-worrying things to my right thumb with a saw while trying to get said tree safely into the stand
  • Picking up Daisy from Stratford bus station
  • Dragging everyone to Prezzo in Chingford, wherre we were eating dinner before…
  • Watching Vicky’s choir performing Mozart and Haydn
  • Then decorating the tree – assisted by kids and cats, and quite a lot of fizz.
Finished xmas tree. Ooooh.
Special helper.

Today’s been about roast dinner, and prepping mentally for the week ahead, where I have to start disengaging from DIT and creating a vacuum. Tomorrow also brings a concert at St john’s Smith Square – Rach 2, among other things, which should be rather a treat.

But yeah, no wonder I’m tired.

This is for everyone (updated)

UPDATE: this story reads really well, but it turns out the start isn’t actually true. Actually, James Darling was the first person to spot this at MOJ, and I was just carrying the flag without realising. Memories, eh?

For most of the early part of my career, I worked in the private sector. Even when I was at the BBC ’97-’02 it was pretty flush. Yes, Jon Drori’s “cost per user hour” comparison against telly made me feel a bit guilty about how many streets-worth of licence fees I might be gambling on some new interactive format, but I hoped innovative new ways to engage an untapped audience would eventually fix all that. So I didn’t really notice the ambient pampering – and it was nothing compared to the offices I’d worked in before…or would go on to work in. (Yes, you, AKQA)

These days all public institutions have to be much more careful with their money. It needs to go on the things that really matter – public services, being delivered as efficiently as possible. Not luxuries.

This can lead to some fascinating cultural contradictions. And – for most of the time I’ve been inside government – I’ve been fighting a quiet war against one of them.

You see, civil servants have values and behaviours they’re supposed to live up to. Hearing the voices of others, working together, seeing the big picture – that sort of thing. Where you really need to know that you’re all in it together as colleagues. There’s nothing stopping that tight-knit collaboration. Particularly if you’re trying to work as high-functioning multidisciplinary teams with high levels of psychological safety.

So I was slightly aghast when – many years ago – I first went into a civil service kitchen, opened the fridge, and found a vast array of small milk cartons all with individual initials on them.

It was like being back in a student flat. I had flashbacks to the “who stole my milk” arguments, horrendous bulging cartons from people who’d gone on holiday, and someone putting green dye in their milk out of sheer defiance.

I just couldn’t understand it. I mean, that’s not 100% true. I could totally understand it. Public money is precious. You don’t want to waste it on fripperies. But you’re effectively reinforcing a weird niggling individualism with every cuppa.

And I thought “This is insane. This shouldn’t be just one more big of grit people have to put up with when they’re worrying about fixing the justice system or reducing reoffending rates. I’m paid pretty decently as a contractor. I can possibly fix this.”

So I went out to the corner shop and bought two large cartons of semi-skimmed milk, took them back up to the kitchen, got a sharpie and wrote “for everyone” on them. And every few days – when it got low – I’d do it again. Because, you know, milk is pretty cheap – particularly compared to the staff cost of loads of individual people having to get into a lift down twelve floors, through security, out to the shop and back again. If someone’s only on £10 an hour, and it takes ten minutes, that’s £1.66 spend on “popping out”- so you’ve actually lost money by not buying them the milk. And we were quite senior people!

I carried on doing this at GDS, up until we introduced the milk club there, and then picked it up again at DIT when we were all in Windsor House. Every so often I’d head out, get as much milk as I could carry (this was quite important, given the cost of *my* ten minutes), and bring it back up to the fridge for all my digital colleagues.

And now we’re in a new building, in a hybrid environment with fewer staff in the office, so the milk lasts a lot longer – but it’s still going on.

Some milk, in a fridge, with the words "for all" written on the side.
Proof

And you know what – it really works.

I’ve had people catch me putting it in the fridge in the morning, writing on the side and saying “oh you’re the ‘milk for everyone’ person; the other day we were just saying how great this was and how it had helped us out”. And best of all – sometimes I’m out of the office for longer than I’d planned, I’ll come back and find someone else has done the same thing. Just because it’s a nice thing to do for everyone, at very low cost, and leaves a tiny bit of delight that enables a slightly kinder culture – particularly when people are already working on challenging stuff.

So please, if you’re in one of those types of civil service offices – quietly break the cycle. I promise you it works. And you won’t have to do it forever.

“What are you doing next?”

This is a good question. I’m only starting to look now, because my time at DIT comes to an end in December and then I’m taking January off (plus ideally a good chunk of February) to work on musical projects and spend some quality time with my family after quite an intense few years (see the CV for more context on that).

Where I’ll be in January.

I’m looking for a role as Chief Product Officer or Head of Product at an organisation using technology for some sort of public good or purpose. Public sector, sustainability, B corps, employee-owned, mutuals, education, NGOs and charities. Ideally I’d be using technology to create jobs, not reduce them, but transformation work that makes scarce money be more effective is still valid.

I want to be working for a senior leader that has some commitment to agile and user-centred ways of working; it’s OK if they don’t know it all, because I can help build their skills too. Their curiosity, and a want to learn together, is important.

I’m looking for a role where I can 

  • coach product managers to get better at their craft, and build a proper community that learns together
  • help stakeholders understand it’s ok to look at assumptions and test them before committing vast amounts
  • build the space for empowered teams
  • use my breadth of skills to build alliances between disciplines to build better multidisciplinary leadership – using my understanding of content, infrastructure and user research to get better outcomes
  • Help improve strategic thinking around hypotheses, the opportunities and metrics that matter
  • Use my creativity, but also show people how to filter promising ideas through the lens of proper user-centred practices
  • Get stuck into some complex problems with messy data and organisational flows – I’ve survived tariffs, after all.

At DIT I’ve been coaching a community of 17 product managers, with line management responsibility for 4, as well as providing support to colleagues in many other professions. It was a matrix environment, so I wasn’t directly responsible for outputs, but together we were looking after the work of well over 100 people. As a Product Lead at GDS I was directly responsible for 4 product managers with a combined team of around 70.

Teaching “Opportunity Solution Trees” to DIT product and delivery managers.

I’m a trainer for Mind the Product, which helps me keep my craft up to date and gives me new perspectives on the teams I work with in the day job. I’d want to be able to take unpaid leave for this. This would probably be a maximum of two days per month, and that’s only when I’m teaching the Product Leadership course.

I’d be open to roles that don’t require me five days a week – from 3d/week up to 9d/fortnight. I’d also be interested in short-term projects to help develop people and capability, or bootstrap product strategies. But I’m also prepared to get fully stuck in for the right opportunity.

It’s worth knowing that I’ve got aphantasia – my imagination is almost entirely verbal – and so I like working with designers and technologists who can fill those gaps.

I’m happy to go into offices 2-3 days a week, on average, and probably wouldn’t want to be fully remote. I’m based in East London (Zone 4), and my heavy commuting/staying away from home days are behind me. I don’t mind the occasional trip, but for everyday travel spending more than an hour each way door-to-door would be too much.

Given the above, I wouldn’t rule out working for agencies or consultancies, but I don’t want to be in a primarily business development role.

If talking about permanent roles, I’d like to know how you’d invest in my development. As a contractor, I’ve spent a lot of money on developing myself – with workshops from Marty Cagan, Jez Humble, Nicole Forsgren etc, as well as conferences such as SXSW. I wouldn’t want my curiosity to atrophy – but please know that I’ve always brought my knowledge back into the office.

Oh, and I’m not cheap, but I’m also not greedy.

Oh, and if scrolling all the way back to the top is too much hassle, here’s another link if you want to look at my CV. You can follow me on LinkedIn (and read some nice things from other people that have worked with me). Also I’m on twitter at @tomskerous – while it lasts – where you can see various other bits of low-grade rambling. Twitter tends to be more about music and wine and cooking, but there’s also some product stuff in there too.

The trap of ‘the 18 month roadmap’

Yes, I know what some of you product purists will be thinking. But this isn’t a snarky post about how stakeholders want Gantt charts really. It’s more about how easy it is to become accidentally stupid and switch into ‘feature team’ mode, even if you’ve been doing this for a really long time.

As mentioned two posts ago, I’ve largely handed over my Head of Product role to my Civil Servant successor. They’re doing a great job, and I need to give them the space to do it without feeling overlooked – and to do it the way they need to. I didn’t get everything right, because I was setting up a profession at scale for the first time, and in some places it’s a good opportunity to fix some lumpy corners. Meanwhile, I’m being kept on until the end of December doing what was referred to in the 90s as “special projects” – keeping me busy and around until the end of my contract in case something crops up that needs my memory.

The thing that’s keeping me busy is setting up a new multidisciplinary leadership team that sits across several of our products which were previously a bit siloed.

We’ve got a companies/contacts/interactions/events database platform thing; we’ve got a data analysis/visualisation platform; we’ve got some quite specific workflows around particular types of triage; we’ve got ticketing systems; we’ve got a public-facing platform (great.gov.uk) that does data capture; we’ve got bulk email tools; we’ve got a SaaS event management platform; there’s a suite of marketing tools etc etc. All of these things are part of what you might call “CRM”, but they’re not necessarily seamlessly integrated for our users – and we probably send staff around the houses between teams a bit more than we should when they’re asking us how to get something done. And so sometimes stakeholder say “perhaps we should just go and buy [insert any major CRM vendor here]”.

So we’re creating (for a while) a CRM Leadership function, that’s taking a holistic look at all these journeys – through the lenses of data, design, business, product, architecture etc. We’ve also got a CRM subject matter expert on the team, who’s worked with all the big off-the-shelf tools, to make sure we’re not doubling down on our in-house builds unnecessarily.

The team was formed about six weeks ago, and I spent the first while trying to define and refine and priorities our OKRs.

  • We’re having to define what CRM means at DIT.
  • We’re having to build a roadmap that sits across all those products
  • We need to help shape each team’s missions for Q4
  • We might get into defining what we most need to learn from trialling any COTS solution
  • We also hope we can do a bit of “showing what good looks like” when working on complicated cross-portfolio and cross-product work.

We need to do the roadmapping work in consultation with the individual teams of course. We want them to truly own their problems, and feel empowered to solve them in the best way possible. They’ve also got people on their teams who know what’s possible these days – whereas I still really only think in old-skool relational databases. So that means trying to follow the Netflix model of “leading by context”. Not defining the solution, but making sure teams know enough about what matters that they can’t do something completely leftfield.

The teams also truly know their users and working patterns, fragmented as they are across the UK and the globe, so are best placed to know whether any new process ideas are likely to land…as well as being able to quickly and cheaply test the ideas behind them.

And, of course, they already have their own roadmaps – for the next quarter or two. Some of which was based on really good user insight.

But the catch in the second of my key results was something quite specific. It wasn’t just “a roadmap”. It was “an eighteen month roadmap”. As I mentioned in the title of this post.

So why do they want that? Isn’t that just a Gantt chart?

Well, yes and no.

You see, there are some understandable worries about the way I’d normally be doing this – which is how I regularly advocate for people to do it when training. I love the “now, next, later” roadmap format. I love Roman Pichler’s goal-oriented roadmap. But I can also understand the concerns of people who’ve previously been burned by MoSCoW prioritisation when working with traditional IT suppliers – that you might as well assume anything that isn’t in your Must list just isn’t going to happen, so you put everything in Must. Similarly, I can see how a roadmap like this can be read as “now, probably next, never”. Particularly when priorities change and there are a lot of stakeholders you had to tell about it – some people might miss the memo and that erodes trust.

So the challenge is to create a roadmap that’s more of an 18-month-long worked example – given that things will undoubtedly change, and teams will be making decisions about this long after I’m gone. They’ll also be finding out some of my assumptions were wrong or based on sketchy inputs, long after I’m gone, and that has to be an integral part of the process. But that also needs to be part of the playback to our stakeholders as well – this is not a commitment, this is the first iteration of a joint process.

But a roadmap like this involves hard choices. There are some vocal user groups who have problems – but fixing those isn’t necessarily the most urgently valuable thing to be doing now. There are software changes we could make that *we* think would be hugely impactful, but there’s nobody in the wider organisation that can do the process change needed. There are also things we could do which would be hugely valuable (and which both our users and stakeholders ask for), but because a set of suppliers all did things differently before they were inhoused, and key decisions about a converged process haven’t been made yet, sow were are blocked. And of course, there are features we’ve built that sit underused/misunderstood, or where we find out during research that people are using the same word to mean different things – or represent completely different mental concepts.

So the roadmap we create today is a symptom of that context.

I’ve spent a lot of the last week looking at the things we could be working on, and documenting two things:

  • what I think the value/priority is, and the questions I think we need to be asking next to be more sure
  • writing down the underlying principles that led me to those decisions, so that we can update the roadmap if they change.

I’m due to present this roadmap to our SMT in a few days time, and the introduction is going to be quite a few slides of “the context as I see it, and therefore the underlying principles that emerge”. I’ll be talking about the readiness of various transformation programmes, the levels of business ownership around known pain points, capacity constraints around must-do technical tasks like migrations etc. This is also going to lead into some prioritisation principles like:

  • Build things for people who can make change happen
  • Developers are expensive, so if users are complaining about a missing feature that already exists, then comms about intended use should be tried first
  • Backoffice staff having to retype things *is* annoying and wasteful, but given development constraints and the bigger goal of economic prosperity we should concentrate on making sure our staff working face-to-face have everything they need to to focus their work…unless the backoffice processes are blocking that.

As I seek feedback, I’ll find out that some of the landscape is wrong and I’ll have to replan. As I talk through the principles I’ll realise that they need to change.

But late last night, as I was thinking about all these artefacts I’ve created to support my first draft of an eighteen month roadmap (slightly against my will), the penny dropped.

I’ve written a product strategy.

How long have I been doing this job? How did I not spot this?

But someone asked me for an 18 month roadmap, and I blindly got on with it, and didn’t spot that actually we needed a product strategy, with a candidate roadmap to come out of it.

Be careful about the words your stakeholders use. They can lead you into all sorts of traps, and approaching problems from completely the wrong end.

(Of course it may be that I’d still have had to do all this work anyway, and I would have been Totally Making Up my product principles if I hadn’t been staring at those really specific prioritisation tradeoffs, but anyway.)

Update:

I realised that some of the choices the teams and I were trying to make were hard because we weren’t aligned around the overall context. I could see the value in solving the problems they saw their users dealing with. There was a lot of junior people doing quite a lot of retyping. But, given some of the big strategy documents I’d been reading, that didn’t feel urgent. That fixing this user problem, but delaying a bigger goal, might not be seen as the right tradeoff.

To fix this, I created a set of ‘even over’ statements to discuss with the team. Things like:

  • We will support our workforce to make the most of their face-to-face contact with companies because that is what will have the most economic impact, even over reducing the back-office admin that we know feels unnecessary for a few more months.

The team might tell me I’m wrong about some of these. The wider stakeholders might say “no, actually, efficiency savings are key”. But at least we’ll get clarity.

I’m also trying to make sure we live by Janna Bastow’s maxim that “your roadmap is a prototype of your product strategy”. We’ll find out how right the strategy is by looking at the roadmap, and vice versa. And we’ll user test the product strategy with everyone from end users to senior stakeholders. Whenever something doesn’t look right, either in a goal or feature people were/weren’t expecting, or in one of our principles – we’ll then work out as a team which thing we need to go back and change. It’s a great way to make the thinking explicit – and fallible.

An Approach to People and Succession Planning

Vacancies are weird things. They sit their on your org chart, and you keep trying to find the right people to go into them, but recruitment remains hard and so you tend to prioritise the (thankfully few) leavers you’ve got and the key initiatives that really need a dedicated person.

Of course, your profession is not alone in this. If you were to hire a product person, you know there probably wouldn’t be enough developers for them to have a meaningful team. Maybe there aren’t quite enough designers or user researchers either. And so, over time, your aspirations for the work you’re trying to do kind of shrink to fit what’s in front of you right now and who you’ve got. You organically manage to start new things, but it’s a bit of a squeeze, and sometimes feels like you’re artificially splitting an existing team in order to enable the new initative.

Where I work we’ve got a lot of people in ‘Senior Product Manager’ roles. They’re all on their own career journeys of course, and developing in different areas – and working on a wide variety of projects. But it’s always felt a little fragile that we only had senior staff – and weren’t developing a pipeline of new, more junior, product managers. However, this does mean you have to have problems that are right for more junior staff to work on – the right sorts of stakeholders, the right level of risk, the right balance of strategic and tactical user research needed. And for a long time I didn’t think we had those ‘to hand’. Which meant the problem slightly persisted: our senior folks were busy on big problems, in a fast moving environment, and scoping out something nicely doable by a more junior PM felt kept slipping down the to-do list.

It takes something of a crisis to make you rethink a situation like this. To say “we need to take a bigger look”. And in my case, the crisis was that – over the course of about a week – I realised I was looking at the arrival of potentially four new Senior Product Managers within the next few months, who’d all need something meaningful to do. Especially as they were proper civil servants, not contractors.

That was going to take some pretty radical thinking. I couldn’t just reorganise a few contractors. After all, some of them had very specific domain knowledge , or the products they were working on would be out of active development by time the civil servant got up to speed.

So I created two tools to help with this:

  • A map
  • A gameboard

Sadly, showing you any of this is going to be really tricky, but hopefully I can walk you through what I did.

The Map

I started by thinking about all the things people had ever asked us to work on. Initially I mapped them out as tiny yellow postits on my desk. And then I tried to connect them to what the problem was that we were trying to solve. I also started adding in any looming crises, migrations, technology issues, or known pain points. This enabled me to start forming some interesting clusters: for example “how do we better triage clients” and “how do we determine eligibility” and “we need to replace our ticketing platform” all felt like very related problems – probably one person’s job.

But now I’d said that this was probably one person’s job, I had to decide what sort of person.

I realised my map needed a vertical axis – how senior the person needed to be in order to solve the problem.

Fixing the way we take inbound queries, deciding if they get digital or personal support, and routing that to the right person – that’s definitely something for one of our most senior Senior Product Managers. A proper gnarly problem, technical and policy issues, stakeholders in different directorates etc. Job done, yes? Sadly not.

The only catch was that they couldn’t start on it yet. Some of that work is blocked by a higher-up problem: getting standardisation on the business processes in this area. And the initial mustering of stakeholders and leading them to agreement around the need for change is something only a Lead PM really has the skills to organise.

Meanwhile, if we want to divert some of those users to more online support – keeping face-to-face contact focused on the most valuable businesses – then someone needs to be creating the content journeys for that. Which is definitely something a normal PM could be doing – assuming a different Senior PM had engaged with their stakeholders and set out what that content was. And that might in turn unblock some opportunities for an Associate PM to look at optimising content or discovery features. So I could also look at all the other things we might meaningfully get junior people to learn from – if only someone was empowered to shape that work.

And all this is full of moving targets. There are platforms we suspect we’ll have to migrate from in about a year’s time, including changing our hosting provider away from GOV.UK PaaS. Some of those might mean thinking about ‘how we design and measure campaigns to make them more effective at driving online traffic to a wider variety of our services’ – which would allow a more junior person to look at ‘executing a specific campaign well’, but also depends on ‘defining our offer and candidate journey for each user groups’.

I realised three things at this point:

  1. I was building a vast network of problems and problem clusters, with a vertical axis based on seniority – covering things we were doing, might have to do, and couldn’t do yet.
  2. How I chose to cluster the problems was a pretty key decision, with implications on a lot of other team topologies
  3. I was going to need something more than postits on a sheet of A3 if I was going to keep track of all this

So I started building this network in Invision, using the connection tools to keep track of links between my postits as I moved around the clusters, and decided how senior those clusters were.

I can’t show you the detailed diagram (although I plan to ask) but you can see the overall shape of it here:

Yeah, sorry, it’s super fuzzy.

The grey boxes are “nouns” or tasks. We do have some ‘just do it’ things, or where we’re pretty sure that we know the most likely approach, and that’s part of the setup. But we can give them context by tying them back to the overall problem a product person can ask – the white boxes.

You can also see the dependencies mapped between them in the arrows. Sometimes I even found circular loops that I had to break.

And you can see the vertical hierarchy of where I thought we might have work for PMs or APMs…if we had the time to unblock it.

There are also annotations around whether things are product problems or service owner problems, opportunities to empower junior staff, where things are critical, or where we might have skills gaps/other blockers.

I showed this to someone the other day and they described it as “the org chart”. But it’s not. It’s a map of all the org charts we could potentially ever have – if we had all the people we could ever need. But we don’t have all those people – so we have to be strategic about where we focus. We need to make sure that our leads know where seniors will depend on them to create clarity once they arrive, and seniors need to know the questions that matter if we’re imminently going to be bringing in PMs to work on smaller product problems. So having created this map of all the possible options, we need step 2.

The ‘game board’

I don’t mean that this is a game. It’s deadly serious. But having worked in interactive entertainment, I know that shaping the way you explore the problem is critical. You need a toolkit that shows you the moves you’re able to make, and which ones you can’t. You need to simplify the map to make tangible and meaningful choices. So thinking about these things like you were designing a boardgame is a useful approach.

Going back to my original problem: I potentially have four new senior product managers starting, and I need to work out what they’re going to do.

Based on my bigger map, I can now pick a subset of ‘senior PM’ problems that are either in progress, ready, or (with the correct Lead PM focus) could become ready within the next two months. I can lay those out in powerpoint slide as a similar but simplified map – and save it as a template. (I’m paranoid, I’m even going to duplicate it and turn on “hide slide” to stop me breaking it by accident)

I can then look at all the people I’ve got available – their strengths and interests – and put them on the side of that map against their grade. I can now try out all sorts of combinations, just cloning the slide each time. The title of the slide says what factors I’m considering.

I can look at future options – where do we need person x to be developing, and what problems could we have ready for them in a year? Again, it’s just a cloned slide and some comments to say what I’m thinking. Possible long-term flight risks if we’re not able to keep challenging them? The same.

I can then sift the most useful options for how the ‘game board’ plays out to work for our people and the problems – and start talking to others about it. Could the Leads get these things ready in time? What happens if that contract gets extended? Would that allow us to focus key staff on something more valuable?

Net result

By mapping out all your problem spaces, seeing how they cluster together, what blocks them, what they unblock, and what level of seniority each problem cluster needs, you’re in a position to start looking at possible futures for your product function and team topologies. You can choose the areas of focus from within this set of options, and match them to the work you think would be most valuable for your people to be doing next.

The editorial temptation to add “quickly” into that previous paragraph was quite strong. It’s not quick. This is quite hard work, you’ll need to block out time for it, and come back to it repeatedly – both to validate it when you make your first plans, and when you come back to check how the landscape has moved.

But I found this such a useful approach that I thought these initial steps – and particlarly hat it’s a two-stage process brought on by a crisis I hope none of you face – might help kickstart your own ways of thinking about it.

Do please let me know what you think in the comments!

What happened to that countdown then?

Ah, yes.

So I got a new job. It was quite a busy one. And so my priorities had to change a bit. I started to write a few songs – and I even finished one – that fit the brief. But there wasn’t the time to dedicate to it in the way I’d have liked.

I still managed to play some amazing music at my 50th birthday party. A roundup of some songs that meant loads to me, with my friends Des on bass, Steve on drums and Pete on guitar. We were supplemented by a whole host of singers and guest musicians to play the following:

  • Scissor Sisters – I don’t feel like dancin’
  • Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill
  • Smokey Robinson – Tears of a Clown (with real bassoon)
  • Groove Armada – Song 4 Mutya
  • Talk Talk – Life’s what you make it
  • Abba – Dancing Queen
  • Kylie Minogue – I should be so lucky/Can’t get you out of my head (a medley we joined together in the most horrendous way with Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer’s Star Cycle, and a bit of Blue Monday)
  • Madness – It Must be Love
  • Dubious Brothers – Yes Man
  • Buggles – Video Killed the Radio Star
  • Phil Oakey/Giorgio Moroder – Together in Electric Dreams
  • Divine Comedy – National Express
  • Paul Williams/Bugsy Malone – Good Guys/You Give A Little Love. (You know, the bit at the end when they’re all covered in splurge gun stuff and custard pies)

It looked like this. The Red Lion in Leytonstone was an amazing venue.

So I was a bit musicked out after that. Although I really loved the suit.

And then we went on a massive holiday around America. Which the kids didn’t always fully appreciate.

And then the pandemic hit. And I was working on Brexit things from the bottom of my garden. So I couldn’t talk about tons of stuff.

The money I saved on coffees went into modular synthesisers. Which are wonderful and exciting and delightful, and a total distraction from the day-to-day of staring at a computer screen. But not great for actual songwriting.

Eventually some normality resumed, by which time I had a new job to get used to – with a new boss – as Head of Product. We’d just moved to a matrix structure, and I spent a lot of time being the first person to hit the challenges and changes this would bring about. I also had to work out what the job was, with said new boss who was also working out what her job was at the same time. This period was just a wonderful collaboration, but soooo much going on – ergo still no new music.

I did manage to get to SXSW in the spring though. Seeing the likes of Self Esteem from about four feet away was just incredible.

And finally, as is the way with these things, I was able to replace myself with a civil servant who’s now doing great things while I’m on “special projects” for a few months of handover.

And at the end of December I start the next chapter. Which means it’s time to restart this blog all over again as I think through who and what I am.

223 – so what do you actually *do*?

I’ve been pretty lucky for the last five years, in that I’ve not had to apply for jobs.

I mean, I did apply for jobs, it’s just that other people were a better fit. But they were always levelling up on what I was doing. The day-to-day carried on, and slightly more interesting projects appeared for me to do. (Some of them I will describe differently when drunk, but that’s another story) But I always carried a certain amount of history with me, some Tom folklore and reputation.

One of the things I’ve learned in the last day is how easy it is to forget to discuss the absolute basics. I spend a lot of my time thinking about culture and strategy and people and alignment and value – and how to adapt myself to the gaps in the organisation around me. I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about what product management is and should be.

I’m also quite good at what I do, so it’s quite weird to get to the end of a conversation with someone new and have an odd feeling at the end, like they didn’t get quite what they wanted.

And then I remember, oh you wanted me to talk about backlog grooming and user stories and roadmaps…and I didn’t actually say any of those words. Because it’s obvious to me, and one part of a big toolkit of getting the right thing done. However I need to remember to make the implicit knowledge explicit.

This is also much in my mind after a very odd article in The Register today. Unsurprisingly, the thrust was that GDS had run its course and you needed to get grownups in the room who understand backend technology where agile isn’t much use, and here’s a man from IBM who can talk about the mindset of e-commerce not being relevant to government transactions.

The comments were also a joy to behold.

But what it made me realise is how misunderstood Agile and the digital mindset actually is. Because we don’t talk about the implicit knowledge. We don’t talk about technology being a function you delegate a project to, it’s core to the way of doing business – and core to policy. We know that policy is flawed and messy and prone to groupthink, cultural disconnect, a lack of frontline operational awareness and more. We know that our automated testing practices make it easier for a team to support our services and make releases more quickly. We know our user-centred approach around an alpha or MVP will tell us a lot more about a policy intent’s chance of success in the real world than a pilot of the finished system. And that building it with our users mindset from the start will mean they’re far more likely to find and complete a task on their own, without needing an army of in-house people to fix the bad data where the user simply didn’t understand what we wanted for our internal processes.

And because we don’t talk about this, folks think it’s just about wearing jeans and writing user stories and thinking about frontends – not running a Proper Technology Project. When actually we’re thinking about the whole system and making it work for everyone.

As ever, it’s also worth pointing out, how lucky we are to have some air cover to work this way. The folks writing those comments aren’t more stupid than us, they’ve just never had the chance to that this was what good could look like. We should remember to be kind.

Metrics update:
SLIs: all fine, although I could have phoned a recruiter back who sent me her number on LinkedIn.
Health metrics: spent way more than four hours under a laptop, and didn’t get to write any music. Having a deliberately lazier morning tomorrow.

225 – the first day of the rest of (the next bit of) your life

Today I didn’t go into GDS towers. Because I no longer work there.

There was originally a plan that I’d be working somewhere else today, but that fell through last Monday, with four days to go. Which – in summary – was a tad annoying. But I’m choosing to look on the bright side, given that I’d wanted a bit of time off really and it’s a chance to look around and think – yet again – about what I might want to be when I grow up.

I’ve been in this stage before though, after the BBC and ITV, and this time I’m determined to do it a little differently. If you’re like me, basically a massive introvert who’s quite good at faking it in a crisis, there are a few possible routes to go down:

  1. sitting under a laptop pressing refresh on your inbox and social media feed for hours at a time in the hope someone’s come back to you, but being terrified when the phone rings as you’ve not spoken to a real human in five weeks
  2. internalising what happened and buying a ton of books to make up for some gap or other
  3. filling the day with household chores so you don’t have to look the bank balance in the eye
  4. going to the pub for the whole afternoon and thinking solitary thoughts
  5. going to the pub for the whole afternoon with colleagues in a similar boat and drowning your sorrows together
  6. picking up some exciting new/old hobby which is more fun than actually working and throwing yourself into that, while your other half notices that you’ve increasingly neither a) done the washing up, b) got a job

In this case, 2 doesn’t apply – because it was just that my contract at GDS had to end. I’d been their for long enough, and it’s completely appropriate some folks thought it was time for me to move on. Also, at what point do I become an overpaid dysfunctional employee?

5 doesn’t apply either, because I’m the only one who’s had this happen.

So how do I avoid the solitary confinement, domestic displacement activity, pubsitting, or drowning myself in fun?

In short, I’ve written myself some SLOs and SLIs (not SLAs) and some health metrics. The SLOs are based on what I think “normal” should look like from the outside world. Not hitting them isn’t bad per se, but they’re probably an indicator that something else is up and I need to check in on myself. As ever, an SLI should be a reason to have a discussion.

They include things like:

  • An in-hours SMS should get a response within 2h
  • Between 70 and 90% of phonecalls should be answered, even if you think they’re spam

Meanwhile the health metrics include:

  • Spend an hour outside a day
  • Look for work, but don’t do it for more than four hours per day

Based on the list at the top, I’ve also added the health metric

  • close email and only open it at particular times

which led to me revising an SLO

  • email in-hours should be answered in less than four working hours, but more than 30 minutes

That gives me permission to actually do other stuff – including having space for some of the hobbies, domestic chores and recuperation I desperately wanted before starting the gig-that-was-not-to-be.

But once you’ve written these things down you start to notice the cheats. Your workarounds. Your twitches. Ways to deal with the dopamine. Ways to get the phone back into your hand or a browser reopened. So I’ve added one other health metric.

  • LinkedIn alerts and Twitter DMs are to be treated the same way as email.

Put the bloody phone down, Tom. Run outside and play. Run outside and play the ukulele.

238 – breathing out

So I’m (kind of) moving on from GDS at the end of next week. There’s a fair amount of stuff to do between now and then – including a day and a half out of the office at Mind The Product events. But it’s definitely a finite amount of time left here, and a finite number of things I can do.

The first watershed of my departure happened about two weeks ago. I tried to arrange a meeting with another busy person like myself. There was no time within working hours we were both free at the same time between now and when I left. A whole month, but it wasn’t enough time to get an hour together. (NARRATOR: they are going to the pub instead)

At the time I noticed this wryly, but I was too busy with our quarterly planning process and preparing for a talk at our end-of-quarter away day to really take in that this was The Beginning Of The End.

But this morning I looked at the enormous to-do list I started in September of “things I need to do before I go” and realised there weren’t actually very many left. Mainly people-stuff tasks. The civil service loves those.

The other thing I’m getting used to is that I’m now – just at the point where I’m on my way out – only doing my own job, not juggling bits of some other people’s because they aren’t yet part of the team. That’s an odd feeling, only being a Lead Product Manager. It’s very nice, and I would say “I could get used to this”. But I won’t get the chance to.

I’m going to be sad to leave lots of these people, but it has been a very hard journey bringing this thing into being. I learned a lot, but it’s time to move on, and it’s also time to let someone who didn’t go through all that pick it up and make it their own.

526 – gently removing the dopamine IV

So today I made a bit of a bold move. I logged out of Twitter on every device but one, and deleted the apps from all phones and tablets.

I know a lot of people have said that 2017 was their last year on Twitter. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, not least because it’s actually a key part of the various day-jobs I’ve had. But it’s definitely become too much of a time-sink, and also too much of an intention sink. The never-ending stream of lightly-interesting things, occasional outrage, and sometimes horror wasn’t a good companion for my frazzled state at the end of the year. It’s been easier to react than do. Easier to hit refresh ‘just one more time’ than to do any of the more meaningful things I’m trying to get on with. The things that only I can do.

There’s a vast pile of unread New Scientist, Wired, Screen International and Sound on Sound magazines next to my bed. I actually want to read them. I’ve got games I want to play and films I want to watch. I have kids to read to. I have instruments to practice and music to write. I want to do these things. I really really don’t want to get cross about Toby Young all over again – particularly not at 11pm.

So goodbye Twitter and Facebook. I’ll still check occasionally, but there’s email and text messages and all that stuff if you know me well enough.

Like all clearouts though, it’s addictive. ‘Dots’ has now gone from the phone. I’m thinking I could probably lose all of the games now, given that the kids have their own phones.

Actually…

They’re now gone. Goodbye Rayman Run, Angry Birds, Trism, Peggle, Tiny Wings. Goodbye Threes, even Drop 7. All I’ve now got is Mastertronic’s Chess (which I’m rubbish at) and – because I can’t get it back again – Flappy Bird.

I suppose I’d better go and get some stuff done, hadn’t I?