Roger Swannell

Work notes #150

It’s my second week at BSI and I feel like my rate of learning has increased since last week and I’m getting a clearer picture of how things work and what things need to change. I don’t think my thinking is quite big enough yet but I’m happy to focus on fixing foundational things over the next few months.

The conceptualization I developed last week to describe the three areas of work is holding true. People, Process, and Product are still my priorities and I’m getting a clearer idea of what needs to be done with each

Process: learning by doing

I’ve been increasing my understanding of how the current product development and management process should and actually does work.

There are lots of smaller parts to the process that need drastic improvement, such as how we prioritise work for development without 3 and a half working hours spent force ranking a list of features into priorities based on knowledge only one person holds. We need to think about how to formalise the prioritisation as ‘seizing opportunities and avoiding risks’ so that ultimately the work can be perpetually prioritised in Aha and the IT Project Managers can access it any time they want, but that’s some time away yet.

But before we get into those smaller optimizations we need to get the overall process in place. We going to experiment our way towards the best process but we’ll start by using the double diamond to give us four broad phases: Discovery, Definition, Development and Delivery. To make it clearer for everyone I think we need to map the diamonds to functionality in Aha, some tools to use, and the expected outputs.

Discover

This is the ‘why’ of the entire process. It’s where we should ask bigger questions about whether this is an idea worth exploring, whether it seems to fit with our strategy, and what outcome we think we might be able to achieve for the customer.

We use ‘Ideas’ in Aha for this, which is where we record the outputs from our discovery work which might include market research, customer interviews, internal infrastructure investigations, etc. This stage is meant to be expansion and all about collecting everything we need to understand the problem but we shouldn’t be coming up with solutions yet. Once we’ve done enough discovery work we’re score the idea on it’s desirability, viability, feasibility and strategic alignment to decide whether the progress with the idea.

Define

This gives us the ‘what’ that we’ll be working on. It’s where we take the expansiveness of the ideas that we’ve agreed to progress and tighten it down until we converge on a solution. Some to the tools for doing this might be a cross-functional team workshop and writing user stories.

In Aha the Idea gets promoted to a Feature and this is where we’ll continue to record all the work we do to ensure that we don’t lose any useful information or insight. When we’re ready, we’ll push the user stories from Aha into Azure DevOps for the IT team to see what they’ll be working on (although they’ll already know as they were involved in the discovery stage).

Develop

This section gives us the ‘how’. It’s the part of the product process where the developers work on the user stories that we wrote in the Define stage.

In Aha the Feature will be prioritised in the Backlog, which will replace the need for prioritisation meetings with IT Project Managers as they’ll be able to see a perpetually prioritised list of things to work on.

Deliver

And this part is the ‘when’. It tells us when the work will be released into the production environment.

In Aha the Feature is added to a Release that matches the release schedule that the IT team will be working to.

Discovery and Definition cover the problem space and is where we should be spending most of our time, and Development and Delivery are in the solution space.

In the medium term we’ll working towards turning ideas into opportunities rather than thinking about each idea leading to a single feature in isolation. Then, opportunities should lead to outcomes for customers, so for example an idea to change the content delivery network would be part of the opportunity to improve the infrastructure of our products, which adds to the customer’s outcome of using secure, reliable and scalable products.

Experimenting with our processes

Next week we’re going to start our first experiment.

  • Why: Inspect & adapt to improve. Safe-to-fail space to try different things. Evolve towards a process that is easier for us, more fit-for-purpose and achieves for the business, and delivers more value to our customers faster.
  • How: Pick a problem area within our process, understand the problem (discovery phase), agree what change we’d like to happen and how we’re going to measure it (definition phase), think of lots of ways to solve the problem and pick one to try (develop phase), make the change we decided upon and see what effect it has (deliver phase). So, we’ll use a product development process to experiment with and improve our product development process whilst learning how to evolve the process.
  • When: Every two weeks, starting 17th June. We’ll try meeting on Monday morning to pick the problem and experiment with the solution over the following two weeks.
  • What: We’ll spend a bit if time choosing our problem-to-solve for our first experiment. I’d suggest that we start with parts of the process that are within our control, e.g. creating a shared knowledge bank by working in the open and keeping Aha Feature cards up to date with the progress on that Feature so that over time.

Challenging myself to not go rogue

In previous roles ownership/accountability so I could go off on my own to get things done. I have to keep holding myself in check in this role to prevent myself from doing that. Now I need to take a more responsible for direction/leading role and temper bringing people with me with understanding where they want to go and helping them get there.

Working in the open is definitely not part of the culture. I even had comments about my wall (a rogue behaviour I’m not keen to lose) being wiped clean because of the risk I might share business secrets. That tells me it’s a problem-to-solve and one we’re going to work on as a team.

People: changing the space the Product Managers work in

I’ve been looking into which stage in our current process for developing a feature the PM’s spend most of their time, and it looks like it’s at the development end where they seem to fall into multiple roles of doing a bit of admin work, bit of project management, bit of business analysis work, bit of delivery management, and then spending a bit more time fire-fighting issues and liaising between IT to make sure work is delivered. This really isn’t where they should be spending their time, but I think I’m beginning to understand some of the reasons why. There’s a bit of the PM’s not having a clear perception of what their work should be, and a bit of a lack of trust in others. Whereas other organisations might have delivery managers to oversee that part, here the product managers feel like it’s their responsibility.

There are two parts to changing that; one around removing that work from them to give them the space to do the things they should be doing, and another around changing their aspirations and skills so they know what to do and how to do it.

I’ve started looking into the production support process, which isn’t very clearly defined, to try to remove the first line support from the PM’s role (and perhaps moving it to a Customer Success role in the future). And I need to spend some time with the Product and Project Managers to try to help them get clearer ideas around how is responsible for what during the development phase.

I had an idea that if I could find a similar organisation with a more mature product function perhaps I could arrange a visit so we can see how their product managers work. I thought of a few different sectors to look at but like the idea of visiting the HMRC product team. There seems to be just enough similarities in that both organisations provide information services to businesses without being too similar that we fail into the trap of trying to copy what they do. We somewhere aspirational not instructional. So next week I need to work on making it happen.

I have to keep reminding myself that process can change far more quickly than people are likely to so I have to keep sense-checking myself that all these things are on the right trajectories so that they can meet at the right point in the not to distant future.

More broadly than within the team, I spent a bit of time thinking about the stakeholders for the products I’m involved in and what their motivations are. It’s clear (if a little frustrating) that most people just want to do their job without having any interest in their industry or sector, and are motivated by an external locus of control. This makes it a little easier to understand their hopes and fears in the short term but it makes it much more difficult to encourage improvement over the longer term. People that live and breathe their industry generally want to get better at doing what they do. Anyway, understanding people’s motivations behind the decisions they make is something I want to develop over time.

Product: breaking the cycle

I started a new piece of work and progress a couple of others. I’m conscious of the need to keep the pipeline of work full because that is the expectation at the moment, but I haven’t yet got much of an understanding of the capacity of the pipeline or how we can optimise it. I also learned a bit about how the financing works and have some ideas about how we can change it to be no longer on a feature by feature basis but fund a set run rate for development work and then optimise our pipeline to match.

Some of the feedback I’ve heard is that the right people aren’t always involved at the right stages of developing a feature. The idea of ‘starting together’ seems like a good experiment to try in to improve on this. Every time we want to do something we get all the relevant stakeholders together (either in person or virtually) and we Brain Dump (copyright Suky Semhbi) everything we can think that might affect the work we’re considering. It can become one of our Discovery phase ‘tools’. I’d hope that doing this kind of thing won’t only align the right people early on but that it will also build better relationships between the teams.

The bigger challenge I’ve picked up on this week is a chicken & egg situation of where a team can’t invest in providing data services for products without a clear justification and benefit, and the product team can’t build things that deliver value without the data services from the other team. I think the way forward is for both teams to step back, stop thinking of it on a feature level and come up with more direction for data and products together.

Week Notes #149

This was my first week as Lead Product Manager at British Standards Institute. As I’ve changed jobs, and obviously changed what and how I work, I thought I’d change the format for my week notes to be a bit more fluid and give myself scope to talk about whatever has come up over the week.

I’ve had a really good week. Brilliant, in fact. I met the team I’ll be managing and some of the stakeholders I’ll be working with, got a bit of an understanding about how BSI works and what the culture is like, and gave myself enough thinking time to develop my mental models for my new role and figure out what I want to achieve.

Things I want to achieve

I think the things I need to focus on are:

  • People – Coaching the product managers to adopt the new practices so they can focus on delivering value to the business.
  • Process – Developing robust product management processes that brings rigor to our practice without stifling our ability to innovate and adapt.
  • Product – Product managing the BSI Shop to maximise the ROI on future development work and help the organisation develop a clear vision for ecommerce.

People

It’s a different team challenge than at BHF. There, the challenge was to form a team that could work well together, but at the BSI the challenge is helping the team take good practice out into the rest of the business. So, not only do we need to figure out that good practice for our context, we also have to get confident at bringing others along with us.

Even though it was only my first week I stepped into a coaching role quite easily. It always surprises me how much I enjoy working with people, especially as an INTJ and someone who doesn’t at all consider themselves a people person.

Currently, the product practice involves other parts of the business requesting features to be built or changed, and product managers acting as the conduit to the product they are responsible for, but lacking any customer insight about what they are being asked to build and feeling like they are unable to challenge that.

Each of the Product Managers needs to be involved in experimenting our way forward to focus on driving the business value from a joined-up product vision. This means that over time they can stop being a specialist for a particular product and become a generalist who can deliver outcomes for customers on any product.

How are we going to do this? By experimenting with our practice and with ways of giving the PM’s the skills and confidence to deliver the good practice we develop.

Team meetings

We have two team meetings each week, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. At the moment both are check-ins on what the team is working on but I might turn the Thursday meeting into more of a retrospective to talk about how we work, what problems we’re facing and asking thoughtful questions to help us be more reflective on our practice.

One to ones

I have weekly one-to-ones with each of the Product Managers in my team which will be mostly about the day-to-day work they are doing to start with but over time we’ll move the discussion to things like developing a vision for their products, gaining customer insight, and delivering value to the business,

Meetups and book clubs

Two of the ideas proposed within the team to help Product Managers develop their knowledge are a book club, and going to meetups. It’s a difficult thing to encourage as it requires time outside of work to be spent on work-related things and not everyone is able or willing to do that, but as I’ve always been keen to be reading and learning I think it’s going to be an easy thing to model. I’ve found a ‘UX in publishing’ meetup so I’m going to go to that in a couple of weeks, and be disciplined about spending time reading. Luckily I’ve recently cataloged my books.

Process

The current Product process seems to be focused on delivering features requested by other parts of the business and without a great deal of validation with customers. It follows IT’s processes rather than leading with a Product process, it focuses on outputs (business cases, capex requests, work request forms) rather than value for the business or the customer. Changing this approach is going to be interesting as it will affect lots of other teams but it isn’t something we can delay, it needs to have some progress over the next few months so that it’s embedded by the time we make the make shift from PM’s being responsible for particular products.

OKRs

Using the Objectives and Key Results framework is pretty new at BSI but I definitely think I can help to make them more meaningful and achievable over time. Each Product has OKR’s and each team has OKR’s (along with the usually organisational PDR’s for individuals). So keeping them all aligned is going to be something to keep an eye on.

Tools

Aha! is our tool of choice for the product teams. It looks like it works well for what we want to achieve, we just need to stop using as a to do list (like Trello) or as a replication of the Work Requests that IT require (they use Azure DevOps which links to Aha so I need to find out more about how we can use the two systems together).

I spent a bit of time conceptualizing how we reflect the product management process that we want to evolve towards in Aha so that it serves as a tool to support the change, and give greater transparency of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and what progress we’re making. We already track our OKR’s in Aha but we need to get it set up to handle how we want to work on Features and use User Stories more.

All the usual office systems are Microsoft, but you can’t have everything.

Task management

I’m going to experiment with a few different ways of managing tasks but my first experiment was setting up a database in Notion. This allows me to set metrics against task completion, track the number of days a task has been active and get a general picture of how many days I’m ahead or behind. That kind of thing might not be useful in the future but I’ll see what results I get.

Product

I product manage the Shop website, the ecommerce platform that enables businesses to purchase single-license pdf’s of standards them them to use to improve their business. It’s run on a fifteen year old platform that is made up of lots of other old systems so developing on it is difficult and complicated.

Features

There are a few piece of work at various stages so I spent some time trying to get to know the background of each to see how they came about, what value they are expected to deliver.

One of the features I’ve inherited is in the early stages and has just been analysed by one of the BA’s. Given the complexity of the work, the lack of customer insight driving it, and the questionable business benefits I’m going to recommend that we don’t proceed. I was about make that recommendation when I noticed that one of the key stakeholders was someone I hadn’t met yet. I thought that might not be the best way to get off on a good foot so I’ve delayed the decision until the middle of net week to give me time to introduce myself. I feel like this was a good catch and that building a better relationship over time is more important than making a decision quickly.

Vision

I’m keen to halt the ‘create more work requests to look like we’re making progress’ approach and do some work with the various stakeholders to begin setting a vision for the shop. Vision is something that is lacking across all products so I can use the shop as an experiment in how to develop that vision and then work with the other PM’s to develop vision’s across all the products that help keep them aligned with each other and their customer segments.

Metrics

I’m keen to set and start measuring some success metrics for the product work on the Shop. I’ve been thinking about three metrics that roll-up into a Customer Satisfaction Score that is represented as a percentage of 100%, which shows how far we are from achieving our target score. The three metrics will be Revenue Per Visitor, Site Load Time (because the connection between site speed and conversion is well documented), and CSat (a 1 to 5 score provided by visitors to the site). Once I’ve been able to get a closer look at the analytics I’ll be able to set targets and then measure whether the work we do affects the metrics.

Challenges I can foresee

A culture of consensus

The entire premise of how Standards are produced is baked into the culture at the BSI. Get a group of experts together to discuss something until they all agree and a consensus is reached. So, one of my challenges will be how to innovate in a culture of consensus, how to move away from the upfront planning approach that requires everyone to agree before we move forward to being able to discover the path as we go, and knowing when to work towards achieving consensus, when to challenge it, and when to fly under the radar to get things done.

Scheduling my time

Balancing my (thinking and acting) time between People, Process and Product, each of which could easily be a full time job and each of which has different stakeholders with various priorities, is going to be a challenge. I think it’s going to require a bit of juggling to start with until I get into my ‘calm-little-centre’ position where I can pull things to me rather than them being pushed onto me.

I’d really like to start my MSc this year, which means finding ways to give myself time to study. So the schedule I’ve been working to this week is to get up at 5am, get to the office by 7am, study till 9am, get on with my work for the rest of the day, leave at 5pm, be home by 7pm, and then household and life stuff until I go to bed by midnight. When I start the course it’ll mean two evenings a week are given over to lectures but as long as I can stick to the discipline of ten hours of study time every week over the next few months I think I’ll be in a good place to start the course in October.

Bucks Mind Awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service

Buckinghamshire Mind, the mental health charity, has been awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the highest award a voluntary group can receive in the UK.

The award recognises the incredible contribution of the charity’s volunteers and the huge benefit they bring to the community. Buckinghamshire Mind has over 570 volunteers who are integral to the delivery of many of the charity’s mental health services. Over two thirds of these volunteers are children and young people who have trained to be Peer Supporters within their own schools. All the volunteers enable Buckinghamshire Mind to deliver services at a scale in the community that it simply could not do without them.

Buckinghamshire Mind’s Chair of the Board of Trustees, Tori Roddy, attended a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, hosted by Her Majesty The Queen, on 29th May, to represent all the charity’s volunteers and celebrate the award to Buckinghamshire Mind of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. She was accompanied by Andrea McCubbin, Chief Executive of Buckinghamshire Mind.

“As a volunteer myself, I am absolutely delighted that Buckinghamshire Mind’s volunteers have been recognised with this most prestigious award. The contribution of our volunteers is invaluable, enabling us to better respond to demand and help so many more people. I was deeply honoured to be able represent all our wonderful volunteers at the Royal Garden Party and I’m looking forward to celebrating with my fellow volunteers when the award is officially presented to Buckinghamshire Mind.”
Tori Roddy, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Buckinghamshire Mind.

Week Notes #148

What happened this week…  

  • Answered Defibrillator enquires and processed orders.  
  • Handed-over Freshdesk to CSC. 
  • Completed handover notes. 
  • Discussed medical sign-off for Blood Pressure Monitors. 
  • Interviewed for the new Ecommerce Executive role. 

Read this week…  

Doing next week…  

  • Answering defibrillator enquiries.  
  • Right To Be Forgotten requests. 
  • Central Ordering site support questions. 
  • Processing monthly purchase orders. 
  • Second interview for the new Ecommerce Executive role. 

Uninteresting stat of the week…  

  • During my time at the BHF the online shop had 6.7 million visitors, took almost 62,000 orders, shipped 572,000 units, and did over £2 million in sales. 

In the not too distant future…  

  • A new role at the British Standards Institute

Blue Barn Farm

Blue Barn Farm is where my nan worked as a land girl harvesting hops during the second world war.

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