Roger Swannell

Category: Blog (page 1 of 57)

A single piece of information: pipeline or platform

A few years ago, if an organisation wanted to present a piece of information to their customers they might go through a process something like: decide what to write, write it, publish it on their website, tell customers where to go to read it. This is a pipeline approach. The value flows from step to step in a linear fashion from the organisation through a single interface to the customer.

Nowadays, if an organisation that uses platform-thinking wants to present some information to customers, they’d take a different approach. They’d consider what words to use to make it as easy to understand as possible, what languages it could be translated into so more people can read it. They’d store the content in a system and format that enables quick and reliable access. Then the same content could be accessed via internal FAQ’s, customer service agents on the phone, automated chatbot, and the website. This platform approach multiplies the value of the content.

Pipeline-thinking comes from industrial production where an item was produced for a single use. Platform-thinking is of the internet age where data can be quickly reformatted and reused. Organisations that move their thinking from pipeline to platform can leverage their assets to maximize value. Organisations that maintain pipeline approaches won’t stand much of a chance against those that don’t.

Week notes #159

A lines in the sand

I’ve been working on three new pieces of work for the Shop product this week. They were all requested by stakeholders and the expectation based on previous experience is for the Product Manager to write up the request in a Work Request document and submit it to IT for them to undertake some investigation and come up with an estimate. This way often resulted in other parts of the organisation not being involved when they should be and work being undertaken that was of low value, so I don’t do it that way.

My way focuses on value. I use a broad framework of discovery, definition, development and delivery to guide the work. Discovery is the first step, but there isn’t an assumption that any piece of work will progress past that phase. The work has to earn it. It’s important that the success metrics for a piece of discovery work is defined at the beginning. This isn’t only to ensure that the project will have sufficient value, but to know whether we’ve reached that line in the sand before proceed to the definition stage. For example, one of the pieces of work is about a sever upgrade so the lines in the sand are about security and performance. If the discovery work doesn’t show that the upgrade will improve security and performance then there isn’t sufficient value in doing the work and my recommendation will say so.

It was interesting to explain to stakeholders the benefits of this work and show them that by clearly understanding the value up front, and setting a line in the sand that tells us whether there is value in continuing with the work, we can prioritise to achieve the most for our efforts.

Product Team Playbook

I spent some time thinking about how to help the PM’s shift away from the usual approach to work that is to ‘get on with the obvious thing in front of me’ to a more thoughtful, questioning approach that encourages the Product Managers to have more robustness in their practice that produces more reliable results. This robustness will come from adopting an open and flexible framework such as the Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver double-diamond model that I’m working on.

This model is in response to the issues I see of PM’s spending too much time working in the development and delivery space, which has greater complexity than it should because the PM’s haven’t spent enough time doing the discovery and definition work earlier. I’m aware that I need to provide more concreteness about how to do discovery work to understand the value that can be created and captured, so I decided to write a playbook. It might be that it only serves as a way for me to structure my thoughts, or it might evolve into a tool the team can use.

The purpose of all this is to help PM’s understand that their job is to convert ambiguity into certainty for the organisation, and how to do that job better. A playbook is a step along the way in them internalising that thinking so that they don’t need a playbook and are relentlessly focused on value.

Creating a picture

As we work on the new product we’re developing more and more we’re gradually creating a clearer and clearer picture of what it’ll look like and how it’ll work. We’ve been working:

  • Capabilities & Features – Capabilities are groups of features, and the features define a specific piece of functionality. Defining all the features tells us how the product will work, what data we need to provide, and what priority we need to apply when we start building.
  • User story mapping – The user story maps we’re creating describe the steps a user goes through in order to accomplish a task. We are associating the features that are required for each step to the map so that we can check that we’re building the correct functionality to enable that journey to happen.
  • Wireframes – We started with lo-fi mobile designs to spark conversations about what should and shouldn’t be on a webpage. Mobile first is important because, well, its the twenty-first century, and because it makes us be more considered and disciplined about what we put on a page and how we structure it.
  • Persona – The personas are created on axes of experience/seniority and size of organisation. This enables us to create content that meets the differing needs of a junior user at a large organisation, an expert user at a medium-sized company or the CEO of a small business. We’ll also map the content into influencer journeys so that nothing exists in isolation and every piece of content leads on to another.
Personas

Next week we’re beginning to share this work with stakeholders to get feedback and more importantly to communicate some of our thinking around the product strategy and design which is quite a departure from our current approach.

Idea of the week

I ‘presented’ (ok, I chatted about) the idea that in order to support machine interpret-able standards we need to change the way standards are written. Currently, standards are written through a long process of committees of experts producing a document, and if we wanted to make the contents of the document machine interpret-able we would need to understand the context of use and apply a taxonomy for the data, but that the problem with this is that we aren’t able to know the context or what taxonomy and data our customers might need in the future.

So, the solution to this is to create standards in a different way. Stop writing documents and start writing just the data that is machine interpret-able. We still won’t know what context and taxonomy apply but we’ll be able to iterate so quickly on create the standard that we’ll be able to start with any taxonomy, put it in front of customers and quickly develop towards the create taxonomy for any hyper-specific context.

Scared penguins

The question is, who are we in the video? It’s one of those ‘open to interpretation that reveals how you think’ questions. The usual answer seems to be that the penguins all worked together to defeat the orca, so we’re the penguins. My interpretation of the video is that the penguins aren’t working as a team, they are acting as individuals each motivated by fear. The fact that they are all driven by the same fear creates the illusion of alignment and teamwork.

Later that day, someone for HR came over to me and said in a bit of a whisper that there was something I had to do because someone had ‘escalated’ it. I took from the look on her face and the tone of her voice that I was supposed to be scared by this. I did the thing I needed to do, it wasn’t a big thing, just one of the many things I hadn’t gotten around to yet, but it left me feeling a little baffled. I’ve haven’t encountered that kind of penguin fear so blatantly before, although I’ve seen plenty of under currents.

If we’re supposed to be the penguins, it raise the question of who is the the orca? Is the orca the one who seizes the opportunity, takes control, initiates? Is the orca the senior person that was escalated to, are they the ones that represent the fear? Or is the orca anything and everything that scares us to all exhibit the same behaviour?

If you’re going to be a penguin, be one of these penguins:

Week notes #158

This week seemed like a large ramp up in the number of things I’m working on. My planner board went from 124 things to 182, approximately half again in just a week. Most of the new work is around the new product we’re working on and people stuff so it seems like the right things for me to be working on but it’s still a considerable increase.

The director of product mentioned that it seemed like I’d been at BSI for longer than I actually have because I’ve done a good job of hitting the ground running. Getting up to speed as quickly as I can has been an aim of mine but perhaps the consequence of that is that more work comes to me than I know how to handle effectively. I’ll continue to prioritise and focus as I usually do, balancing between getting stuff done in the short, setting things up for medium term, and thinking for the longer term.

Why do we have a product function?

I’m still questioning our entire existence. Why does the product function exist at any organisation, and why does BSI have a product function? These questions aren’t meant to suggest that we shouldn’t have a product function but instead to guide it’s future direction.

One conversation I had about this yielded the insight: “We dont monetise the product, we utilise the product to monetise our assests” This makes sense to me and reinforces that we are definitely not a platform business. So, perhaps the question is, “Is it necessary to be a platform business in order to have/need an effective product function?” Or to turn it around, “Is an effective product function a necessary prerequisite in order to create a platform business?”

Resilient interconnected platform

I introduced some of the project team to Microsoft Planner and explained how we are going to use it to coordinate all of the people that get involved with our project work but who don’t usually have any sight of what we’re doing. I know it’s quite a shift from the usual way, and its going to require a lot of discipline from people to keep it up to date but I think making the work visible (at least a bit) will help to encourage the right behaviour.

We’re trialling one project to start with, which is probably a safer bet, but the real value will only come when all of the projects are on there and we get a picture of who has too much to do, who isn’t meeting deadlines, how much there is to do, and how all of the work is interconnected.

I feel like I’ve spent sufficient time understanding the current processes and it’s time to make some improvements. Using a planner board is a change I’m fairly confident about yielding positive results in a short space of time and increase in value the more we use it.

This is just one small step in a theme of making the product function more resilient. The current culture/approach is for one person to be responsible for particular things and have fixed lines that prevent anyone else from taking any responsibility. It creates lots of bottlenecks and dependencies (something I hope the Planner board will help to show) because of its pipeline nature. I want us to aim for a more interconnected approach in the future that will support more of a platform operating model.

Progress measures

OKR’s continue to play on my mind but I’m beginning to develop a plan for how to shift the team’s usual way of using measures (or not) and how OKR’s can be used towards some middle ground. My hope is that we can get to the point where we are reviewing the key results monthly and either continuing with them or resetting them based on feedback loops for the next month so that they can drive the right behaviours. This feels like a truer and more effective use of key results as they become direction-setters and progress-measures.

I also need to set my objectives soon and decide on the best key results to measure my progress. Setting them in isolation is easy as I’ve always been clear about what I want to achieve, but fitting them in with the rest of the team’s is going to take a bit more thinking.

If snails did recruitment and nobody did onboarding

Recruiting a new Product Manager is taking so much longer than it should. I know that’s mostly my fault and I need to find time to progress it, but I’m also feeling uncertain about how the role will work. We’re essentially trying to recruit someone with a detail-oriented approach to focus internally on delivery for a year or so and to switch around and think strategically about the external bigger picture. Its a massive expectation to put on someone (newly recruited or not). I guess that’s the nature of drastic change.

I’ve also been reflecting on my onboarding experience from the past two months, including getting my pay wrong, not being told simple things about the building, not creating accounts in all the systems I need, and not giving me a great deal of info about anything much. I want to make our new PM’s onboarding experience better, so I’ve set up a Planner board which will help to guide them through joining and teach them a bit about how we work.

Mapping unintended consequences

I’ve been thinking about how to map the unintended consequences of a certain state. Kind of a “A” because of “B” because of “C” because of “D thing. It came from trying to understand how OKR’s, PDR’s and delivery measures fit together and I could see how the three things being so separate drove particular dysfunctional behaviour, so creating a simple this-is-caused-by-that list helped me understand why the behaviour was happening. It’s a useful tool and exercise. I’d like to do more of it before I get too settled in and lose sight of this kind of thing but I doubt I’ll have time.

Idea of the week

I submitted this week’s innovative idea. It was essentially ‘black box for small businesses’. It’s a service that helps small business owners to track that their employees are following best practices, e.g. coshh in a cleaning company, and reports to the business’s insurance company to demonstrate how safe they are in return for lower insurance premiums.

Tweet of the week

Tweet of the week goes to Bob Marshal.

Digital transformation tweet by Bob Marshall

Although it’s an obvious thing that I don’t think anyone would disagree with its interesting to think about the implications of using technology to drive changes in behaviour, culture, mindset, etc. In a way its what technology is good at; driving changes in behaviour. Its something we see all around us but it occurs in an unthought-out way. I wonder if it’s possible to drive the digital transformation of an organisation without needing to use technology as a catalyst.

Week notes #157

Why do we have a product management function?

I had intended to have a few conversations this week to understand why people in other teams think we have a product function, but I didn’t get the opportunity (for that, read I didn’t make the opportunities).

My answer is: “The role of product management is to balance risk mitigation with exploring and exploiting opportunities to create and capture value for the organisation and it’s customers.”

I think there are six interesting elements in that statement. Breaking it down a bit:

  • Risk – the biggest is building the wrong thing for the wrong market at the wrong time. Product Managers mitigate this risk through market and customer research, testing and validation, etc.
  • Opportunity – there are always other problems to solve, other markets to enter, other customer segments. Product Managers explore these looking for
  • Customer – creating value for people through solving their problems.
  • Organisation – capturing value in return for solving customer problems.
  • Balance – change is constant, so the balancing is an ongoing effort to achieve product/market fit.
  • Value – is the outcome. The sweet spot of maximum value is the optimum outcome.

I think the parts most people would struggle with are the risk and opportunity. I think they’re likely to misunderstand what risks there are to a business that a product function could have any affect on, until perhaps we say that one of the biggest risks to an organisation is not capturing value from its customers. That very quickly leads to no organisation.

Finding the right balance of mitigating risks and exploring opportunities leads to the sweet spot of maximum value creation. A PM that is too risk averse and waits for 100% certainty before making a move or doesn’t explore opportunities to move into new customer segments won’t find the sweet spot of maximum value. Similarly, a PM that is too focused on exploring new opportunities and doesn’t spend enough time on risk avoidance activities such as market research is also unlikely to achieve maximum value. The balancing of mitigating risk and exploring opportunity is at the core of what a Product Manager does, and as no other department does this, is why we need a product management function.

Measures and motivations

I spent some time with one of the Product Managers from a different team working through our understanding of why our performance measures don’t work as well as we’d like in driving the right kinds of behaviours.

We agreed that in a fast moving competitive marketplace its impossible to set meaningful goals in January and still have them be the right goals any time after that. That means, we need a performance measurement process that allows/encourages/forces regular course correction through feedback loops. An OKR-type system could do this but part of the problem is that our PDR system has fixed annually-set goals and as this is the system that drives bonuses it’ll alwats be the measures that people default to.

The only way I can see of using two systems effectively is to have them solve two separate problems. PDR’s can be a measure of personal performance over the year, and OKR’s can be used to measure and drive the products we manage. It’s twice as much work to administer (even more if we get the feedback loops and course corrections working properly) but arguably they are two jobs that need to be done.

The fire control problem

Also known as ‘How to hit a moving target’, this is about how to approach solving complex problems in dynamic situations, where the goal you want to reach keeps moving. It underpins the OKR vs. PDR thing above because we recognise that it’s impossible to set static goals far ahead of time and expect to reach them (which is the PDR approach), and so we need a different approach to actually and truly measure our progress.

This approach requires accepting that we can broadly agree what we want to achieve but that the definition of that goal will only become clearer the closer we get, that the goal is very likely to move whilst we are chasing it, and that there may never be an end point where we can say we have achieved it because it just keeps moving.

Working on this way requires a realistic assessment of the situation, and keeping that assessment up to date as the situation changes. It requires regular measurement of your progress, feedback loops, and course correcting activities to keep you pointing at the target.

The metaphor I use when talking about this is firing a missile at an aeroplane. If you fire your missile in a straight line at where the plane is now you’ll miss because it will have moved by the time to missile gets there (this is building something without paying attention to market and means you never get product / market fit because competitors got there first, for example). If you try to predict where the aeroplane will be at some point in the future you can fire your missile at that point and have a slim chance of hitting it, depending on how good you are at predicting the future (this is the big upfront planning approach, the waterfall approach that agile reacts against). If instead, you fire your missile in the general direction of the aeroplane and when it reaches a certain point you check where the aeroplane is now and change direction towards it, fly on for a bit and then do the same, and keep repeating this until you hit the plane and blow it up. I’ve been searching for a nicer metaphor but I can’t find one that fits as well.

The funniest conversation I had about this was with someone who said that the market we are in doesn’t move very fast. I asked how they were measuring change in the market and pointed out that just because you aren’t aware of it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

This week’s product ideas

I had two ideas for products this week:

Horizon scanner – A tool for senior managers to keep up to date with how things happening in adjacent industries might affect their industry.

Policy generator – A tool for small businesses to submit information about their organisation which is used to generate policies (health and safety, cyber security, etc.) that conform to best practice, current legislation and regulation, and of course the current standard.

I’ve set myself the challenge of coming up with and submitting to our labs team one idea a week. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep it up but I’m already working on a couple of ideas around hyper-specificity and access control for next couple of weeks.

These ideas serve a few purposes; they help me to learn about how the organisation works as new ideas always challenge the status quo (part of that perimeter testing I’ve been thinking about), and they build towards my understanding of how to innovate every part of the standards development and commercialization process, which ultimately is about how to move from a pipeline business model to a platform (although it’s nothing to do with my role it’s an interesting problem to solve conceptually).

Duplication of work

The whole team is working on a new product. Some feature definition work has previously been done and recorded in one system. But we didn’t know that. So, more recently we started from scratch and began defining features in a different system. Soon we’ll have to do a copy-and-paste exercise between the two systems to get to a single source for our feature definitions. I think it might be easy to regard doing this as a waste of time, but I don’t it is. I think its an editing opportunity, a chance to check our understanding and add any knew knowledge.

In a complex product you have to keep going back over the same things from different points of view to help integrate new knowledge.

Next week I’m looking forward to…

A meeting with project managers about project managers.

I think we all recognise that managing all the projects in the way that we do isn’t working very well and that we need to try to improve it. There is a lack of visibility, which seems to be due to all communication being funneled through the project managers and them tracking project status on a spreadsheet, which results in no one really knowing what’s happening, people not being involved, and things being missed. The only communication tools we have is two status update meetings a week and occasional emails.

We put the project managers in a difficult position of being this funnel, where on one side they have people demanding answers to questions they can’t answer, and on the other side they have people providing answers they can’t communicate. We don’t give them the authority to manage budgets or the availability of the offshore development team, and yet we expect them to be able to give reliable schedules for multiple complex projects that other teams can use to plan their work. It’s like some weird sit-com about how not to manage projects in a modern world.

So I’m going to suggest that we decentralise communication to remove the pinch point of relying on the projects managers, and shift the project managers focus from being about coordinating the flow of information on each project to helping everyone see the big picture of all the projects together. We need to elevate their role, take it up a level (see above), reduce the need for administrative effort and give them greater responsibility for coordinating how the projects run. Their objective shouldn’t be the usual project manage stuff about ‘on time, on budget, in scope’ because they aren’t given control over any of those things.

Week notes #156

Testing perimeters

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of perimeters this week. In this context, a perimeter is the farthest allowable reach within a team, department, directorate, organisation, industry or society. It’s the limit for things like which opportunities you are able to explore. It’s what is considered acceptable, by yourself and others, given the point you are currently standing at. It’s the line you aren’t allowed to cross.

So, I’ve been asking myself, “What perimeters exist for teams and individuals? Where are the perimeters of my influence? How far out does my influence extend? What things can I affect? How can I extend my perimeters? What if I extend too far, am I likely to lose focus on the nearer things?What areas of the business can I watch but not influence?”.

And I tried a few experiments to help me test my perimeters:

  • I presented at a Labs scoring session to suggest my idea to take the BSI’s approach to developing a best practice into a consumer market. There are lots of parallel propositions and offerings around this but essentially its about providing “How to guides’ for anything where there is a clear process for how to do. Moving from being a B2B aggregator business to a B2C business that publishes it’s own intellectual property is a considerable shift outside an organisational perimeter and my professional perimeter as coming up with ideas like this is outside the perimeter of my role.
  • I went to a Release Retrospective. We all wrote postit notes to say what we thought went well, what didn’t go well, and what we could do better next time. There was some discussion, but when I asked what was going to happen to all our feedback the answer was that it will be put into a document. I asked how we were going to improve on things for next time, but it was clear that wasn’t the purpose of this retro. I decided to push out of the perimeter that says I’m not allowed to question how other teams work and suggest that for testing of the next release we could have everyone in the same room for half a day so that we could get answers to questions quickly and discuss the tests we were running. There were lots of excuses about why we couldn’t do this. Clearly I crossed the line with my radical suggestion.

Some perimeters are quite explicit whilst others are very implicit, but I think it is how we conceptualise these perimeters that creates the dreaded silos, and that organisational structure isn’t entirely to blame (or, at least, it is but only because it is a bunch of perimeters itself, it isn’t the underlying problem). It’s what we think and do that reinforces or crosses these perimeters. It’s a ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ thing. A strategic goal might be to work more collaboratively but the culture of perimeters wins and prevents achieving it. I wonder if there is a way to map it.

This train of thought is still full of ambiguity for me, but one thing I’m certain of is that there is risk in staying within your perimeter (risk of complacency, slow or no progress) and risk from going beyond your perimeter (not achieving your set objectives or getting fired). How do you go far enough but not too far?

Low tolerance for failure

One of the impacts of close and inflexible perimeters is that they create a low tolerance for failure. Everyone knows that repercussions await anyone who crosses the line. The retro is a good example. The meeting was held because someone was told to hold it. Tick done. I bet the retros weren’t suggested by someone on the implementation team who wanted to improve how they work. And no one takes any action to make improvements following the retro. No improvement. No growth mindset. No learning. And partly/mostly because (I think) of perimeters that don’t allow people to fail in a safe way, which means the only way to be safe is to stick to the plan, do everything by the book, don’t deviate, and then if something goes wrong it wasn’t your fault.

So, the question for me is, “How do we ensure rigor and robustness in what we do (which in a traditional command-and-control style organisation would be through strict adherence to quality-controlled process) whilst giving product managers (and everyone else) the creative space (wider perimeters) to explore and develop their practice with 21st Century thinking around distributed and decentralised leadership, embracing uncertainty and variability, and optimising-for-consumption to deliver maximum value.

OKR’s and interoperability

There are three teams within the Product department, who all work on different things in different ways. So, starting with the assumption that we want to show the rest of the organisation that a Product function has value for the organisation, that Product is a cohesive team, and that the work we do as individuals is good work, then a) all of those things need to be true, and b) there needs to be a certain amount of interoperability between the teams.

For teams to have interoperability there needs to be common understanding about what each other does, shared vocabulary so terms always mean the same thing, and shared goals that everyone contributes to achieving. For OKR’s to be the right mechanism for aligning the teams around achieving shared objectives, I think it makes a big difference how there are arranged.

Structure for Objectives and Key Results

Given the mindset of different teams, it seems easy to organise the OKR’s around asking each team to set their own Objectives and the individuals to set Key Results that are concerned with their team’s work. But this means that the first point at which there is shared commonality of what we’re trying to achieve is at the Strategic Goal level. Which means the three product teams are no more aligned than three teams for three completely different departments.

Perhaps a better way would be for there to be department level objectives that each individual, regardless of team, sets Key Results to show how they are going to contribute to the shared Objective. This aligns what the teams are trying to achieve at the earliest point of convergence. Either we achieve together or we all fail.

What measures we use, and how we measure, incentivises behaviour. At the moment there is a disconnect between the things we say we measure (using OKR’s) and the PM’s experience of being measured by other people they work with, who judge them on delivery. Delivery is important but it isn’t a fair measure for the PM’s as it is so reliant on lots of things and other people, and yet it’s the main incentiviser of behaviour. So, how do we change that? How do we make it so that PM’s have greater control, autonomy, and power over the direction their work goes?

There are so many ways round to consider the whole team measurement piece.

Connected to the OKR’s discussion, is an ongoing discussion about which tools we use to work in the open and share knowledge, and track and report on our work. The options include the usual Microsoft Planner, Aha, and Trello. One of the downsides of Trello is a lack of reporting capability so I built a quick bot that uses the Trello API to pull information from a board. I used my Life Roadmap board as a kind of proof of concept to see what kind of information I might be able get and how I might use it. ‘Roger’s Trello Reporting Bot’ just lists the names of lists and the cards on those lists, but it could be expanded to look at different boards, display the cards, count cards and labels, and report on the activity of the board. I wonder if there’s an opportunity for a product there.

Being induced

I spent a day with lots of other new starters at the Milton Keynes office for induction training.

The organisation’s strategic imperatives were described to us as a mesh with our business offerings (Knowledge Solution, Consultancy, Accreditation) on one axis and key sectors (Food, Healthcare, Aerospace) on the other axis. The value exchange occurs at the intersection of offer and sector. I get how this works for a hard-to-scale business model like consultancy where focus on being sector specialists is a big part of what sells the service into that sector, but I wonder how it works in a more scalable model such as Knowledge Solutions where aggregating information and providing it to clients requires being sector agnostic in order to get scale.

An insight I found interesting was that 85% of our clients don’t cross-purchase from us. If they bought training, they might buy more training, buy they’re unlikely to buy consultancy or use one of our products. Of course we recognise that up-selling is always easier that cross-selling, but other than that it makes complete sense to me that the majority of organisations only buy a single offering. If all of the offerings from the BSI ultimately solve the same problem (business improvement through standardisation) then why would an organisation buy two things to do the same job?

I was listening to a podcast on my way back and the phrase, “The magic of innovation happens at the intersection of different things” was used. It reminded me of how part of the genius of someone like Steve Jobs is that they are really good at synthesizing lots of other influences into a coherent and distinct new thing. They aren’t starting from scratch and creating something completely new (postmodernism pretty much destroyed that myth of the hero-artist-originator but perhaps it still exists a bit in innovation), they are finding intersection points between multiple things . It also fits what we’d been talking about earlier in the day, as to me it asks, “How can we innovate at each of those sections (and who would be allowed to do that (perimeters again))”, and “How do we innovate into sectors that aren’t a focus”.

There’s more thinking to be done about the ‘broad offer vs. specific solution’ in our product strategy.

Thought of the week

I wonder if “the culture of consensus” is an excuse for not taking responsibility and making decisions.

It came to me when someone was telling me yet again why one of the Product Managers couldn’t do something without getting permission from lots of stakeholders. I challenged them as to whether getting consensus applied at all levels including the lowest level of deciding to make a small change in their work, and whether if consensus was achieved at a higher goal level did that mean that people could then get one with doing what they need to do to achieve the goal. Of course there were no answers, as you’d expect from a culture things like that, but maybe the question is enough without an answer.

Question of the week for next week

The question I’m going to ask people next week is, “Why do we have a product function at BSI?”. I’m pretty sure people don’t do a lot of ‘challenging why’ thinking so I’m not expecting any profound or deep answers but I have my own view so if the question becomes a discussion I have my stance on why product functions exist in any organisation, so it would be good to see what others think of this.

Week notes #155

Release the hounds

Saturday was release day. That means we released the past three months of work into the live environment. The infrastructure team did most of the work, I was just there for testing. It wasn’t perfect, there were some issues, but sometimes accepting issues to not be a blocker is more important than achieving perfection, especially in all or nothing situations.

Agile humans

This tweet from Ron Jeffries about Agile being about people resonated with me.

It gave me a different perspective on the Agile values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools – As the first value this basically says, “Put people first”, and put more effort into how people work together than you do following processes and procedures.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation – I think this value points to what intelligent creative people should be spending their time doing in order to experience autonomy, mastery and purpose. And it isn’t writing pages and pages of documentation that no one will ever read.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation – Getting close to customer, seeing what problems they have and building solutions gives meaning and purpose to the work. It makes makes all that effort feel more worthwhile. Establishing relationships with people is so much more fulfilling than communication being through a proxy of a binding agreement.
  • Responding to change over following a plan – Life is a dynamic situations, things change, get used to it. Forcing people into situations where they have to stick to a plan causes frustration, demotivation, and stress to get the plan as close to right in the first place.

Access control

I went to a ‘UX in Publishing’ meetup, and chatted about market trends in the publishing industry. The main trend we discussed was how publishing organisations are controlling access to documents. It’s interesting to know a bit about what’s going on in the wider publishing market as we’re moving in a similar direction, away from purchasing documents and towards accessing a service. I wrote more about it.

Ill Communication

In one day I received just seven emails. Some people might consider that a good thing. I think it’s indicative of the lack of communication. It isn’t that we are communicating using other channels, we just aren’t communicating.

And when we do communicate, we don’t communicate well. Emails are typically sent to offer some awareness, perhaps of an issue and usually only go as far as saying, ‘we found this issue, we’ll deal with it tomorrow’, or to request so information or action, in which case they never offer any background or context. I’m guilty of this, telling myself that they don’t need to know the context because I only need an answer to my question and then I’ll figure out where it fits in the wider context. But of course, they have a wider context that I’m not aware of.

There are some parts of our Golf Team culture that I don’t think we can change but it seems to me that challenging the culture of not openly communicating, sharing things or contributing to shared learning is worth trying.Change happens at different levels, from processes to philosophy, and each is more profound and meaningful than the layer above, so:

Practices > Processes

Principles > Practices

Philosopy > Principles

So, we could try to fix the communication problems at the ‘processes’ level by introducing another process, but it’s much harder to make that stick unless the underpinning Practices, Principles and Philosophies are also changed. And of course, the deeper you go the harder is it to change something. Implicitly accepting a philosophical standpoint that humans are social creatures and so have an innate need to communicate creates the right kind of thinking to be more explicit about the principles of good communication and then the practices of how to communicate well. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, other than taking small steps, trying stuff, and communicating more thoughtfully.

Whether or not I can do anything about our communication problems, I feel satisfied that I finally got a Beastie Boys reference into my week notes.

Roadmappin’ across the universe

I’ve been trying to create a roadmap for our product suite. It needs to distil our strategy for each product onto a single document that shows our intentions for the things we want to achieve and allows other teams to align with us without it becoming a commitment or a timeline.

That is difficult because some of the other teams expect us to be able to tell them when we’ll be doing some piece of work. I think that what they would really like is a project plan rather than a roadmap. That’s a different thing and something else we’re not great at doing.

How do we represent the lifecycle of a product, show when we’re expecting to retire a product, how that affects our investment decisions? How can we show a shift in focus towards building new products? Over what time period? Should it show from now, or show history, even back to the launch? Should it even have time as a element?

I think effective roadmapping is possible the hardest part of Product Management. Everyone means something different, no one agrees on its purpose, and no one uses it after that one meeting to discuss it. Maybe the answer is no more roadmaps.

Feature definition workshop

We had our first Feature Definition Workshop for a new product we’re going to develop. It went really well. We had some really good discussions about product strategy and agreed the core set of capabilities that we need to work on.

The really good thing about the workshop was getting the team in the same place at the same time and working together on the same thing. It’s the first time its happened since I’ve been there.

Aside from that I’ve been thinking a lot about the team and how they work. I’m pretty clear that trying to make them into a team isn’t going to work, so I need to help them develop a really strong product practice to take out into the business.

Other random stuff

I interviewed again for our Product Manager vacancy and have another interview next week. I still feel unsure about what I need to achieve (other than the obvious of filling the position), but I think its one of those things that will just happen even if I’m not entirely leading it in the way I’d like.

I had a funny meeting with a team who produce approximately one CD-ROM a year and felt that we should build an automated service to zip files to replace their manual process. A few questions to help identify the cost/benefit difference and they’ve decided to find an alternative solution.

I learned a bit more about how our data publishing systems work and where the team that manage all that are aiming to get it to. I think they are struggling to get investment to take it to the next level and so need closer alignment with the Product teams to demonstrate the commercial benefits of their work.

UX in publishing meetup

The ‘UX in publishing’ meetup put on by OpenAthens, the academic single sign-on service with the goal of creating a seamless end-user journey for people accessing password protected e-resources across all platforms and publications.

We talked about:

  • RA21 – the publishing and medical industry’s initiative to improve the user experience of people accessing academic articles whilst ensuring that only those entitled to access get it. They recently published their ‘Recommended Practices for Improved Access to Institutionally-Provided Information Resources’. It’s slightly ironic that their website doesn’t have great UX, but it’s interesting that they are working to make it easier for people to get access, or that they are tightening their grip on controlling access, depending on your point of view.
  • Publishers using ‘impact factor’ as a metric for understanding how successful an article is, and how that is made up of things like how many times the article has been cited. I think the idea behind a single metric like this is to provide librarians with a guide for purchasing and customers a guide . I wondered if there was any use for a similar approach with Standards that uses socially-driven measures from other customers to help potential customers make purchasing decisions, something like ‘x number of business have used this standard’. This relates to how publishing as a concept communicates it’s value proposition when the purchaser doesn’t know if they are going to get value from what they read until they’ve read it, but they have to pay up front in order to read it. It’s a commercial model weighted in favour of the supplier and using a traditional optimised-for-production approach. I wonder what publishing (books, articles, standards, or any communication of ideas) might look like if it took a more modern optimised-for-consumption approach.
  • Chest Agreements, which are negotiated preferential licence agreements for software and online resources for the academic sector. The business model here is that universities are judged by how much money they save rather than how much they spend, and so an organisation that negotiates with the likes of Adobe to agree bulk purchase prices on behalf of academic institutions can corner that market. Then, they become the default place to go for purchasing access to software and other digital products such as books published by the American Psychological Association. They serve as an intermediary and aggregater, and are attempting the tackle the issues around access control of digital content and software products.
  • Sci-hub, the pirate website “that provides free access to millions of research papers otherwise locked behind paywalls. Widespread dissatisfaction with scholarly communications has led many to overlook or dismiss concerns over the site’s legality, praising its disruptive technology and seeing justification in the free access it affords people all over the world.

So, clearly there is a theme running through all of this that is about controlling access to content, on individual and institutional levels. There is some thinking around shifting away from the commodity approach of accessing individual articles, standards, etc., towards accessing the service that provides those things. I wonder how much research has been done on how accepting the market is of that shift (although I probably wouldn’t be able to access it even if there was research about it).

I also read Open Source Beyond The Market, DHH’s Keynote on open source software, markets, debts, purpose from RailsConf 2019. He reflects a similar line of thinking; that selling digital products is often based on the unit economics of our traditional commodity commerce where each individual thing produced had a cost, and so the selling price had to be based on that, but that with software and access to digital content, there is no unit production cost, and so the old way of thinking breakdown. As he’s talking about open source software he’s talking about allowing free access rather than developing different different pricing models, but he presents some really interesting thoughts on the context of it all.

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