Product is a team sport

Talk at Design Swansea 2nd June 2016



Hi — I’m Matt. I work at the Office for National Statistics in Newport and I’d just like to thank Benjy for the invite. First up I think it is important to say that while I do work for ONS what I am talking about this evening is very much a set of my opinions based on what I learned over the last two years running the project to rebuild the organisations website, publishing application and infrastructure. I’m not speaking officially on behalf of the ONS — these are my lessons learned.




I’m just going to give you a bit of background about the ONS and then talk mainly about the two things that I think are most universal — pretty much everyone has been hired at some point and understands the frustrations involved and I’m sure many of you have been on the hiring side of the equation as well. The other related topic is building a team culture that attracts people to join and then encourages them to stay. The demand for skilled staff these days is high and the competition is fierce.




We love a Game of Thrones related graphic at ONS — in fact the design team were finalists in the ‘Information is Beautiful’ awards for this work and everyone loves a time series line chart (well everyone who visits our site!)




GDS was/is a game changer for digital projects in the Civil Service — not exactly a constituency with a stellar reputation in years gone by. They built a great team that initially just acted as an example of what was possible but them over time their direct influence widened. Spend controls meant you needed GDS approval to undertake any digital projects or programmes and the ‘Digital by Default Service Standard’ was what any team would be judged against (and failure to meet the ‘standard’ = no more money). The ‘standard’ was all sensible, good practice though so for many of us it was a tool to force change locally as much as anything.




The 3rd point of the ‘standard’ says;

Put in place a sustainable multidisciplinary team that can design, build and operate the service, led by a suitably skilled and senior service manager with decision-making responsibility.

So here we were — an organisation committed to a major digital undertaking, a ‘standard’ to comply with and (organisationally at least) a new way of working to introduce (which thanks to the Service Manual had a blueprint to follow).

So we needed to build new teams, fill gaps in our capability and do all this while meeting a challenging timeline for delivery.

It was here that my education on the topic of hiring really began.


Is it really a digital talk without a Jobs quote? Anyway this might have been said by Mr Jobs. It is also slightly unhelpful — the reality is closer to ‘hire the best available’ and if you aren’t Apple (or Google or Facebook) that is about the best you can hope for — however high standards are important. I’ll touch on that again later.


There are few people who have done more damage to the reputation of Internet-era organisations than the first person to use ‘rockstar’ in a job ad. Or ‘ninja’. Or bloody ‘guru’. You know what I want? People who are good at their job, who care deeply about doing quality work and are passionate about something else.


This is the most important thing I learned. Spend some time and research job titles. Check the job boards, run searches, use Google Trends. Talk to the kind of people you’d love to hire — what are their job titles? What do they consider their profession? GDS did this great post about the different types of designers and what they call them. It is part SEO and part user research but if you want the right people to (a) spot your job and (b) apply for your job they need to (c) recognise your job.




Once you’ve done that research it is worth A/B testing any options you have come up with (especially if you are likely to advertise similar roles again.) Doesn’t have to be too clever but place ads with different titles a few (free) places and track which lead to the most traffic to your job ad.

Once you’ve got them to the ad you want them to be tempted to learn more or maybe even apply straight away. You don’t want them to run away screaming or perhaps laughing hysterically. I regularly see job descriptions that ask for the world — often with entirely incompatible skills listed side by side in the Essential section. It is OK to be aspirational but be realistic and actually explain what the person will end up doing rather than vague, generic language.

To help with this ask for help. I stuck job descriptions on Google Docs and Hackpad and encouraged comment from my Twitter followers — many of whom are people in the professions I was hiring for (albeit ones I could never afford!). Get the language right and credibility increases hugely — get it wrong…




Sometimes you just can’t compete on salary or it certainly isn’t enough to make you stand out from the crowd — so you need to make your case. You have to do this everywhere you think interested people might be and you have to decide what you are going to say to convince.

For us it is about the chance to contribute to a vital public service, to work at the heart of open data in the UK (and internationally), to be in at the early stages of massive organisational changes and basically to work at scale but in genuinely agile ways. It is starting to work.

It is working particularly as we realised that it really is all about ‘who you know’. The power of the network in hiring is huge though it needs to be carefully wielded — you need to consider diversity when hiring and not ending up with a monoculture. The reality is though that for any given role you are probably only a couple of degrees of separation from the right candidate — you have to take advantage of this.




In 2015 I ‘performed’ 55 interviews and hired 7 people. It is a skill that needs to be taken seriously. Each interview needs to be prepared for and clear understanding of what you are looking for agreed. Make sure people with the right know how are doing the interviewing — borrow people with the skills from elsewhere if need be to support you…

…but don’t rush. Like I said earlier — unlike Apple we might not always be able to hire the best but we should take our time to get the best fit. The pressure to hire can sometimes be overwhelming but it is one of those things you just have to get right.

[red because we didn’t do this well] Once you have interviewed, sent out rejection emails and made an offer the job isn’t over. Those rejection letters should have useful feedback. The successful candidate needs to be made to feel taken care of — not sent piles of reading or documentation in advance but aware they can ask any questions in advance and get quick responses. Take them for a coffee before they start. Make the transition as sooth as possible — nobody likes being the new kid at school.




‘Design’ the welcome and introductions. Terms like induction, on-boarding, orientation etc all seem a little cult-ish to me but there are a set of tasks that everybody needs to go through when you start somewhere new while you get acclimated — spend some time thinking this through. Make it a mix of the mundane and the interesting. Make time to get involved in the nitty gritty early but try not to through them in the deep end.

Now on to Culture and a quote from Peter Drucker he probably didn’t say but cliches have their place — especially in my talks.




Too often organisations try to just create (or more likely recreate) a culture by top down edict with some carefully chosen words (from a branding consultant) and maybe some workshops. The reality is culture emerges and it is born from the behaviours exhibited by the individuals and then reinforced (for good or bad) by leadership. You need to identify the good behaviours — those that represent the kind of culture you want and harness and nurture them.

I love the idea of team (design) principles — the most influential for me, again, came from GDS very early on. In my corner of ONS we recently had the whole team contribute principles and then had everyone vote on them. What we have ended up is our ‘First 11’ (the only remaining sports reference in a talk that initially was rife with them..!) Here are a few of the principles I contributed for consideration.




Culture is more than posters on walls or words on blogs. However without that visibility and reinforcement it is incredibly difficult to make things stick. The ‘It’s OK to…’ poster spread around UK digital gov outposts in just a few hours after initially being tweeted — it met a need far and wide.

But beyond the posters and blogposts it is often the details that matter. Making sure your team have the tools to do their jobs, removing as many of the petty gripes that erode morale as possible as early as possible, giving staff space to learn (in a style that suits them not the organisation).

Get the team sat together — if possible let them arrange the desks in the configuration that optimises communication. Agile projects need walls — and walls are going to get Blu-Tacked to hell so prepare the Estates team for that.




Protect your creatives (developers & designers) from unscheduled meetings and interruptions — create some kind of ‘tie on the door knob’ ‘do not disturb’ signal for the team.

Making this kind of team work is all about trust but that only really works alongside openness. You need to trust the team to make decisions — you hired them for their expertise — but decisions need to be made in the light and disseminated widely with the ‘why?’ clear for all to see.

If you are talking about trust it is worth reading this by Ade Adewunmi from GDS — this is what trust looks like in product teams https://medium.com/@AdeAdewunmi/when-the-team-is-the-unit-of-delivery-trust-matters-96c8d78d24f1#.s3lgs5432

During all this the team lead — whoever that may be — needs to be a shit umbrella (I was lucky I had my own umbrella covering me while I covered the team.) The enemy to user-centric, agile working is the fabled HiPPO — stay vigilant!




If I have time I will refer to this brilliant blogpost from James Darling that I was recently reminded of by Roo Reynolds.

[back in the red for things that were hard] Team cultures often exists as subcultures within much larger organisational cultures. This is tough. How/when to integrate. How do you shield yourself from behaviours and processes that are unhelpful to your growing culture?


Team culture is often only as strong as its weakest link. The team lead needs to be constantly keeping an eye on the health of the team and if any individuals are struggling or poor behaviours are being introduced under the cover of expediency. It is something that needs constant care and it is easy to get distracted and complacent.