It’s People. Our Product is People.

A common saying in the internet-era is

If you aren’t paying for it, you are the product

Increasingly though I’ve started realising that in my world

If you are getting paid for it, you are the product

As someone who identifies as a product management professional I rarely actual manage any products anymore. As a consultant (am I a consultant? I don’t really know…) it is my knowledge, network and experience (and that of my colleagues) that my company sells. We are the product…and increasingly for me I am a product with a built in expiry date – the successful outcome is to be successfully replaced.

This is probably why I have become so fixated on ‘people operations’ – being better at hiring, developing, retaining, mentoring and just managing people seems the most important and useful place to spend my time educating myself. There is so much information out there about what both good and bad looks like and yet so little seems to actually change.

I’ve been circling this for years – since I started my newsletter at a minimum – but I’ve decided to use my new ‘day off’ in my four day week to get more serious about it.

The start is my job ads/description research which has started with the survey and will be followed up with some interviews and collected in a blogpost or two at some point.

I’m also looking to crowd-source recommendations for a reading list – especially on fairer, more diverse hiring, interviewing, ‘onboarding’ (hate that term so a replacement word would be good as well) and developing healthy cultures that reinforces everything. Blogposts, books, papers whatever. I’ve read a lot on the topic(s) but want to broaden my perspective.

Oh and any recommendations for online Futurelearn (or whoever) courses about ‘people’ stuff as well.

I have no clear end game in sight for any of this but for the next few months it seems like a rabbit hole worth diving down.

We’ll see.

Talking to myself…

A couple of weeks I was asked to created a talking heads video rather than to do an in person talk and – unusually – I was provided with the topic(s) for the talk.

It was only supposed to be five minutes (some of you might have seen me moaning about it on Twitter) and it was a bit of a mess. I couldn’t get the timing or the tone right and found it frustrating – plus I hate editing video and I’m bad at it (I probably hate it because I’m so bad at it).

Anyway I didn’t hate the words I wrote so here they are for posterity.


How do you see digital contributing to transformation for public service institutions?  

To start with I think it is important to start uncoupling the words digital and transformation in the discourse. Organisations embracing digital isn’t transformational anymore – it means reaching the baseline. 

As Tom Loosemore said (three years ago this week) digital can be defined as →

Applying the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

We are deep into the internet-era and responding to those expectations is now business as usual if you expect to succeed.

There is no doubt the COVID crisis shone a light on this. Previously immovable obstacles to embracing digital ways of working crumbled over night (or at least over a few weeks) but now the challenge is to not give up ground where progress has been made but also not to take the wrong lessons from these recent months.

Across public service – and especially the NHS – there was a surge of epic change to cope with the unfolding situation – new technologies were embraced, agile approaches were undertaken, risk appetites were reassessed. All of this could be considered ‘digital’ and all of it combined can speed the evolution towards becoming a digital organisation….and it is that that should be the goal because as Janet Hughes once wrote 

Digital is something you are, not something you do

Digital isn’t just about delivering digital products – it is about embracing all those elements from Tom’s definition – becoming an organisation that truly operates as a digital era institution. 

So how will ‘digital’ contribute to the transformation of institutions? It is the transformation.

Organisations that are going to be fit for the future need to make digital the beating heart of the organisation – the trick is to prevent the institutional immune system from rejecting the change.


As a leader, what will you do to deliver transformational digital capabilities that all users love when your teams are working with new in-house developed products, off-the-shelf products and highly integrated legacy products? 

Well I think ‘love’ is the wrong ambition – the success of digital should be when it stops being something you think about – it quietly supports teams delivering outcomes for users but isn’t a topic of a conversation in of itself. 

Anonymity rather than an object of desire.

For a start you need to truly understand your users – both external and internal. Your staff are users too…and often get the short end of the stick. This needs real, ethnographic research. Hastily designed surveys and cherry picked focus groups aren’t enough. You need to get under the skin of needs (not wants) and really identify where to prioritise to make the most impact.

I like to use the RICE method to decide where to focus – reach, impact, confidence and effort provides a simple little equation to remove bias. How many people can we help, how big an impact will it have, can we do it well versus how long will it take.

You need a way to prioritise because there is always too much to do and if everything is a priority nothing is. This is what has crippled more ‘transformation’ programmes than anything else in my experience – and another way COVID disrupted the status quo – it forced a priority!

As for the issue of in-house vs off the shelf vs legacy products I like the Wardley Maps continuum from Genesis to Custom to Product to Utility with each stage having strengths and weaknesses and requiring a real understanding of what your needs are and where the ecosystem for those needs sits. It is not about personal preference despite what you might think from some of the dogma. There are times when an off the shelf product is much more appropriate than building your own product and times when sweating a legacy solution is more appropriate than replacing it. The hard thing is understanding those underlying reasons and maintaining consistency across all your decision making and expectations. 

There are already digital principles as articulated in Service Standards and Manuals across public service and all digital solutions should be assessed (not necessarily formally) against them and no approach should get an ‘out’ by default. Off the shelf products should be held to the same user experience and accessibility standards as an in-house build. In-house builds need to think about security, scalability and service levels to the same extent as off the shelf products. Nothing is perfect and trade offs will always have to be made – but the criteria for the compromises should be consistent. 

So in summary I’d commission deep user research with external and internal users, prioritise opportunities in a consistent way and use the right option for the right problem without prejudice or dogma – holding everything to the same (Service) Standard.

Thanks for your time.

June 2020

Huh – turns out I’ve been doing these #monthnotes for a year (May I swapped it out for the 10 weeks post.) Looking back at June 2019 is a reminder of how much has happened in that time. I’d almost forgotten about my failed dalliance as co-CEO. Obviously my brain blocking out the trauma. Also my #jukesiejaunt seems forever ago now.

Amazingly there is even more change afoot.

What about June 2020? Well to be honest it has been mainly dominated by continued struggle to shake off the COVID. I remain under-powered mentally and physically. My chest is tight more than not and I get hit with waves of fatigue. It is mainly frustrating as I don’t feel that unwell just unproductive for the most part. I’m aware I’ve started to be a bit whiney and one-note about it all as well.

I’m lucky though – the three days a week with Essex turns out to be just about what I can cope with at the moment. The work is also right in my sweet spot – a bunch of webby challenges and advocating embracing an agnostic agile product way of working. There are regularly conversations I can honestly say I enjoy and I am working with a great bunch of people. I’m learning loads about local government as well which is really an eye opener at times. So glad I landed this gig.

With the three days pretty much wiping me I have switched to a four day week – as of today actually. I work for Essex Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and spend a lot of my Fridays doing 1-2-1s, admin plus what I guess you could call ‘pro-bono’ work (mentoring, talks, assessments etc) so they don’t tend to be too onerous (but still leave me wiped) but Mondays I’d been trying to overfill I think and it wasn’t helping my health. I suspect my down time won’t look that different to my work time – just less pressure to perform.

I took a week off early in June. It was nice not to be on video calls every day and I had a lot of fun messing around vandalising my garden wall with the spray paint I bought. Much as I love graffiti I was never that great and it has been 25 years since I properly painted regularly. I tried six years ago but I bought cheap paint and my hand basically locked up so I gave up quickly. This time has been different and its been great to get away from one screen or another, actually get outside and just mess about. I’ll be sticking with it.

The week was a bit frustrating otherwise though as it kind of made me feel even more housebound. As I can’t drive or cycle, won’t currently use public transport or Uber/taxis and can only walk 30 minutes without getting puffed out my options were pretty limited. I really wanted to go to the BLM protests but just couldn’t do it between those transport issues and my fear of crowds now (which was already a dislike before all this!) As a sidenote Bristol becoming the centre of an international anti-racism was interesting.

When I have work to anchor the week that doesn’t bother me as much. It is probably my biggest concern about things getting back to semi-normal if I’m honest – how will I get anywhere!

The news about Warren Ellis and his predatory behaviour was a bit of a gut punch. I don’t tend to look up to people but beyond being a writer I enjoyed Ellis had a lot of influence on me – books I bought, my approach to blogging, side projects I have enjoyed. The fact that it was obvious an open secret in a community I support with my money was also really disappointing.

On a more positive note I finally binged Parks and Recreation and Schitts Creek. I’d tried before with both of them numerous times but this time I got sucked in – I loved Parks and Rec and came to enjoy Schitts Creek but think it is a miracle either ever got a second season! P&R was a struggle until part way through season two and SC didn’t click with me until season three.

Musically RTJ4 has been pretty much the soundtrack to June – though Jazzy Jeff’s Summertime mixtapes are making a late move.

Still not really reading anything but old comics and Robert B.Parker Spenser books. Still buying books though. I mean I’m still me.

I did a bit of blogging – I was pretty pleased with this one.

It was the five year anniversary of my #jukesiejobs side project. I’m currently going through one of my semi-regular ‘I should do more with this’ quandaries – maybe there is something in the simplicity and purity at the moment.

Here is to a better July.

Recruitment research?

I really enjoyed Dan Hon’s masterful picking apart of the MIT Media Lab job ad/description for their new Director. It constructively demonstrated that with thought and care the job ad could be crafted to be a force for good, be more inclusive, re-set their mission and change the narrative – all while improving their chances of hiring someone great.

It was a timely read as well as yesterday I found myself frustrated by this recruitment ‘microsite’ where even armed with the knowledge of how I had gotten there I could initially find no reference to the job or anything that would make me want to dig deeper. It was however produced by an expert executive search agency – one I see used time and time again – so maybe I am just the outlier and my expectations are unreasonable.

Week after week I come across horribly written job descriptions that are a struggle to decipher and lack some of the basic data you would expect. The fact is the average isn’t great so the fact so many stand out demonstrates something of an effort.

I’ve been thinking a little about running a bit of a Discovery comparing what job seekers (probably for digitial roles,probably in and around public service but maybe wider) find most useful in making their decision to apply for a job. What is their thought process? How do they find roles?

Alongside it though – and this may be a bit harder – is I’d like to essentially ask HR/recruiters what information they think is most useful. Where do they think is the best place to publicise roles?

Then compare, contrast and publish the findings somewhere. Even it proves I’m well and truly wrong.

Truth be told I’m not much of a user researcher – I find it too hard to remove myself and my opinions from the interviews/observations – but maybe I’ll invest a little of my hard-earned in this and get some help for the planning at least.

It isn’t stealth research for some secret start-up plan nor anything of particular interest to my employers I am just properly fascinated in the gap between my expectations and the reality and the missed opportunity when you read something like Dan’s piece as to what is possible.

Managing from a distance

100 plus days into COVID-19 restrictions and I can confirm I still don’t like working from home. I have no desire of returning to the pre-March status quo – instead I dream of an workspace like the Campaign Monitors space I have lusted over for a decade or even that of Fog Creek from even earlier. One with private offices and large collaboration spaces. Socially isolated together.

This isn’t going to happen. My best bet is still going to be a garden office of some kind!

Anyway this isn’t about all of that. This is about what I see as the biggest issue on the horizon for this switch to mass distributed working.

Managers.

I just don’t think many managers – at least not in the circles I operate – are ready for this massive change in how they will have to operate. Just as worrying I don’t think there is an appropriate support system available yet to help them adapt.

Too much management in recent years has been reinforced by ‘walking the floor’ thanks to the prevalence of open plan offices. It is management by presence and performance management by presenteeism. Showing up is perceived as more important than shipping outcomes. It becomes a weird mix of off the cuff and process driven but removes the responsibility of managers to ‘lead’ or communicate objectives clearly. As long as their teams see them and engage with them at the assigned times and in the approved manner then they are seen as a success whether or not that team actually understands how they fit in with the wider vision of the organisations – never mind whether they successfully contribute to it.

In an office environment all of this is balanced somewhat by the osmosis effect. Teams with better managers share insights with those who don’t, walls are adorned with posters and Kanban boards, conversations are overheard in kitchens and in corridors. The institutional organism finds a way to survive.

Moving to a distributed model breaks all of that…and the longer we are in it the more broken it gets – teams went into lockdown with existing relationships and rhythms and managers continued to oversee whatever objectives was on their slate at the time…or they went into COVID crisis mode…soon that will change. New teams will spin up, new faces will join, new priorities will emerge and it will be the job of the managers to get shit done without the crutches they leaned on before.

Don’t get me wrong some will just try and replicate things – there is a reason the sales of staff surveillance software is going through the roof (uuurrgghhh!) but many are going to have to make like Clint in Heartbreak Ridge. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Thanks to Holly I came across a really management technique that provides a great foundation for these new challenges.

Devised by Peter ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ Drucker ‘Management by Objectives’ (though I’d prefer ‘Management by Outcomes’ for my take) is a very modern, almost agile, approach given Drucker started popularising it in the 1950s!

At its core MBO believes that if management clearly articulates the required ‘outcomes’ (this is my version after all) then the team members will work out the best way to get it done.

This means that the outcomes and success criteria have to be clear and well communicated – putting the pressure on the managers to get this right from the start. This will be a big change for a lot of people – it isn’t about cascading messages from above but translating and unpicking them to provide ‘local’, actionable, goals for their teams. 

From then though it is a case of managers having to trust their teams and in fact supporting rather than supervising them (servant leadership is definitely a factor here). This doesn’t mean washing your hands of it all though – it just means you delegate, observe and assist where required.

Another plus is it is an approach that favours more of an asynchronous style of working – which is going to become increasingly important if we are to succeed in this new distributed environment.

I think this MBO is my natural style of management but I definitely need to work harder on setting clearer goals with better definitions of success. It is a way of working at the heart of product management – which is probably why it appeals to me so much – but for managers from other disciplines it is going to require some new tools I suspect – especially around things like providing outcomes, designing and communicating visions, providing success criteria that can be tested…whether you can learn to trust is another thing altogether.

My next blogpost will explore some of those tools and how I approach them – and how I wish I did and maybe some thoughts on building trust one video call at a time.