Weeknotes #261

What I did this week:

Wider learning

Our team did presentations of our work to others across the organisation. It’s an important part of communicating and embedding the changes that we’re introducing but the really interesting part was all the comments that hinted at questions we haven’t answered and questions we didn’t even know to ask. There’s so much experience and expertise for us to absorb into our work and I hope that if we get that right it will help us create a better product that doesn’t repeat old mistakes our ignore old learning. If continuous discovery is a mindset was well as a practice, then looking out for these opportunities to uncover more unknowns is exactly what we should be doing.

I’ve been thinking about the complexity of the situations that the product we’re building interacts with across the organisation. My conclusion so far is that it’s important not to down play the complexity and try to create a simplified (and probably false) view. That would risk creating simplified solutions that don’t really solve problems. Some of the questions I’ve been asking myself is, ‘where is the right point to intersect with existing systems and processes without causing disruption or unintended consequences?’ and ‘how can we help other teams improve how they do things in ways that don’t cause downstream problems for others?’.

Innovation interviews

My interviewees have started returning their answers to my research questions. I’m still hoping for more but I can begin collating the answers I have so far ready for analysis next weekend. Those that I read so far have been really interesting and make me wish I could have long chats with people about their understanding and approach to innovation in charities.


My website hit 20,000 views this week. That’s not many in the grand (or even not so grand) scheme of things but it still amazes me that people visit the site. I’m sure most of it is by accident or when looking for something that isn’t there, but it’s interesting how the traffic has increased over the last five years from averaging 1 view a day in 2016 to 8 in 2019, 26 a day in 2020, and so far in 2021 32 a day.

What I thought about this week:

Causal chain

I’ve been thinking about and trying to learn more about Theory of Change. The part that interests me at the moment is the how the causal logic of ‘c’ will lead to ‘b’ and ‘b’ will lead to ‘a’ is built up. If ‘a’ is the ultimate change, the larger impact on society, then ‘b’ is what needs to be true in order for that change to be realised, and ‘c’ needs to be true in order for ‘b’ to happen. So, the thing I’m struggling with in this backwards logic is how it can be anything other than a pyramid of hypotheses which could all just as likely be untrue and true. I guess that’s why it’s a theory of change rather than a plan for change, but I wonder how clearly that aspect of ToC’s are communicated. They basically say, ‘here’s lots of guesses that may or may not lead to the change we’d like to see, and those guesses are based on lots of assumptions and biases, any of which could prevent the causal chain logic from having the desired or expected effect’, but they are often presented as a more certain plan for achieving change.


Bottlenecks are designed to be just that. They are designed to reduce flow, or to put it another way, to control flow. It wouldn’t be quite so easy to pour the wine into your glass if all of the wine bottle was the same width all the way up. So why do we refer to bottlenecks in systems and processes as a negative thing? Perhaps we’re better off accepting and understanding bottlenecks as essential and necessary to any system design. Maybe constant and continuous flow at the maximum rate in the wrong places causes floods.

Product Octagon

If you believe everything you read on the internet then most products are driven by the triad of Product Manager, Engineering Manager and Design Manager. The product I work on is driven by the octagon of programme, project, product, technical, content, design, delivery and impact. I’ve only just started to think about how these eight roles interact, where each of their responsibilities lay, and how they can all be aligned to work effectively together, but as part of my ‘charities need good product management‘ thing I’m keen to explore other models of developing products and what effective product management looks like in different contexts.

And what I read this week:

Digital exclusion

Digital exclusion: a growing threat to your charitable impact, strategic objectives and funding, looks at digital transformation in the voluntary sector and what impact it might have on the digital exclusion of those the voluntary sector organisations are trying to help. The article suggests three ways that can contribute to tackling digital exclusion, which is really just social exclusion; grassroots action, funding, and campaigning. Including people in society, which is very much digital, requires a far bigger approach. So whilst tackling digital exclusion is undoubtedly a good thing, it seems to me like an impossible problem to solve. The use of digital in society is going to increase and it won’t be long until all cars are computers on wheels, money is a virtual number on our phones, and accessing any service will require digital literacy. As these changes, which are predicated on a certain level of wealth accelerate, more people will become digitally excluded than can be caught up. The argument that as digital technologies become more ubiquitous and every one alive has grown up with them is like assuming that everyone knows how to fix an internal combustion engine because they’ve been around for a while, or that everyone knows how to drive because there is an infrastructure in place to teach (some) people. I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s good that more organisations are recognising digital exclusion as an issue and looking for ways to contribute.

14 habits

I really liked this Twitter thread, 14 habits of highly effective Product Managers, from Lenny Rachitsky. My top three are ‘quality of thinking’, ‘hunting for misalignment;, and ‘sending good vibes’. Lenny says that quality of thinking shows in the quality of documentation PMs produce. I think high quality documents are essential for good asynchronous working but they depend on having the time (among other things like practicing writing well) to do the thinking. Hunting for misalignment and getting things into alignment is so important for effective working, but is so hard to achieve. There are so many contextual and points-of-view barriers that we don’t even recognise well enough as misalignments, as well as the obvious and known misalignments. Good vibes make all the difference. Anything that can be approached with a negative, defeatist attitude and can be approached with a positive attitude.

Weeknotes #251

This week I did:

Rethinking risk

I spent some time this week working on how we think about risk, and start to recgonise that estimating and quantifying the likelihood of a risk occurring isn’t a very helpful way of thinking about some risks. For some risks, the kind of risks where even a single occurrence is unacceptable, severity is what matters. The tendency of likelihood-focused thinking is to assume that risk can be mitigated to point of being extremely unlikely to occur, and so severity doesn’t matter. But severity-focus thinking assumes the risks of high severity are always high severity, however likely or unlikely they are to occur, and so either need to be accepted or removed entirely.

Rationalising requirements

Of course no product manager should just be taking business requirements and handing them to the development team to build without some rationalisation and validation, but I’ve been spending quite a bit of this week figuring out what a structured rationalisation process might look like with getting caught in a bootstrap problem. Our programme design teams want to add something to the courses we deliver, and that thing requires some costly and complex technical development, which we don’t want to do unless we’re sure it’s going to get used and so we ask questions about how people might be trained in using this new feature, how many people might benefit, what is the total value, but of course those are hard questions to answer with only an idea of something to add. So where to start, that is the question.

A porous membrane for the organisation, and why it matters for product thinking

I’ve been thinking for a while about how and why the boundary between an organisation and society can be made porous to allow for knowledge to flow both ways. Whether this is Friedman’s nonsense about the purpose of a company or Macleod’s ideas about how organisations use blogging and social media, or how technology products act as interfaces between organisations and customers, the nature of the relationship between organisations and society is changing.

Simple machines

I went to a launderette and used a change machine. I’m fascinated by simple machines like these that have a very direct logic about their interface and require the people using them to make the decisions. Most of the software we use is other people’s decisions.

And thought abut:

What problem does Product Management solve?

A colleague asked me about what I do as a product manager, and as usual I struggled to articulate anything more than, “whatever I can to help the product be a success”. Generally, the usual explanation of being at the intersection of technology and what we can do with it, business objectives and how we achieve them, and customer needs and how to meet them, works but doesn’t help anyone understand the what or how of product management in a charity. There’s acceptance that there are lots of overlaps with what other roles do, there’s some business analysis, technical architecture, UX design, customer support, etc., but what does product management do that is unique to product managers? Or to put it another way, what problem does the role of a product manager solve for the organisation?

Change isn’t failure

Making a decision that was right at a point in time but, having learned more since then that makes that decision now look wrong, doesn’t actually make it a wrong decision. It’s better to make a new decision based on new information. Not making a new decision, continuing with the old decision, is more wrong now than the original decision. How we frame learning and making new decisions not as failures and changing minds, but as progress and the mark of good leadership in a digital organisation is a challenge.

And I read about:

Team topologies

I listened to a podcast about Team Topologies and patterns that help organisations achieving a fast flow of change in order to be more successful at software delivery. The three key principles they talked about were: Optimising for faster flow in live systems, using rapid feedback from those live systems so teams can course correct, and limiting team cognitive load. These allow teams to assume end-to-end responsibilities and develop solid practices. I’m definitely going to learn more about this.

Rethinking the ‘rainy day’ myths of charity reserves

Charity reserves are an interesting thing. There’s a lot to rethink and and lot of perspectives to rethink from. In start-up terms, it would be called a runway. It’s how long the organisation can operate before it runs out of money. For a charity, and more so for the people who are helped by the charity, the length of that runway is even more important than for most startups. Thinking around reserves crosses-over with the financial literacy of the trustees running the charity, the appetite for risk vs. interpretations of responsibility for overseeing the correct running of the charity, the types and sources of funding available, how many people are paid employees of the charity. All of these things and more should inform each charities position on reserves. It’s a more complex calculation than blanket guidance of x number of months operating costs can cover.

Direct Acyclic Graph

DAG’s are the latest and coolest implementations of Distributed Ledger Technologies. They tackle many of the issues that the sequential DLT’s such as Blockchain suffer from (although of course have their own downsides). As interesting as the technologies are, and s interesting as the use cases for the technologies are, I think the most interesting thing is how the ideas behind the technologies are going to affect our worldviews. We haven’t even figured out how the technologies of the internet have affected us, and here we already experiencing very different concepts.

Weeknotes #210

This week I did:

Principles for organising 

We were doing some product demos with some volunteers and I picked up on some confusion around how content is accessed in a number of scenarios. I realised that we hadn’t yet defined the principles around how we organise content and so it wasn’t surprising that we couldn’t explain it clearly. 

I spent some time writing about my thoughts on what principles we should use figured out how to split all the variations into six boxes divided by two situations in which content would be accessed and three ways in which it would be used. This gives us clear direction for decision-making.

I gave the solution an amusing nickname. And later when talking about it realised how it makes it easy to get adoption. Having a shorthand phrase for a long explanation means that once everyone understands the explanation the nickname is all we need in order to talk about it. 

Although in total it was probably about half a days work I feel like it demonstrates some of the good practice around getting our thinking straight, having clear guiding principles, and finding ways of communicating better. 

The language we use

I read some of our user research feedback and one of the key points was about making sure the language we use is right for the young people we work with. I think Lou Downes Good Services book is really good for helping thinking about this too. The language we use with young people starts with the language we use with ourselves and our colleagues, and I’m keen to do things like make headings in documents say ‘What problem are we solving?’ rather than ‘Problem statement’.

Why charities exist 

I wrote a bit about the identity crisis of the charity sector when it focuses on the narrative that charities exist to fill the gaps caused by government policy and that instead they should focus on what charities can uniquely do for society, which I think is to bring people together around a cause

Charities in an AI world 

I’ve been working on my essay about the weaponsiation of digital, and blogging some of my ideas along the way, including a quick one about what a future with AI might mean for charities. I also mentioned my idea about solutions in increasing orders of magnitude, so we should be implementing solutions on a 1 – 2 year time scale, investigating solutions for in 10 – 20 years, and imagining solutions for in 100 – 200 years time. 

More accessible today than yesterday

I watched a webinar with Jonathan Holden and Webflow about accessibility. It was really interesting and I learned a lot more about accessibility as a vision and aspiration that just a technical checklist. One of the interesting ideas was that all concepts for websites start out being accessible and the barriers that make site become less accessible are built with every decision that doesn’t consider all of the user’s needs. I did a lighthouse audit on my site, fixed a couple of things and reached 100 on the accessibility score

Thought about:

Where strategy goes wrong

If (and there are lots of other definitions) we say that strategy is ‘where we are now’, ‘where we want to get to’, and ‘how we’re going to get there’, then that creates a conundrum for those setting the strategy. In order to have the impetus to move towards the desired state of being they have to be able to express what isn’t working about the current state, otherwise why would there need to be any movement away from it. But expressing to people that what they do and how they do it is no longer desirable is a difficult thing to say and to hear. I think most strategies and leaders shy away from that. But without it there isn’t motivation to change, why would you if the message you’re getting is that you can carry on doing what you’ve been doing. That’s where strategy goes wrong.

The intersection of introversion and confidence 

Someone I was speaking to described themselves as a ‘confident introvert’, to mean that they feel comfortable talking to people, being assertive, etc. (the kinds of behaviours you might expect of an extrovert), but they need lots of time on their own to recharge afterwards. I guess I could refer to myself in a similar way. I don’t have any anxiety about talking to large groups (perhaps because the introvert in me doesn’t care what they think) but I prefer to spend more time alone than with people. Someone else I spoke to described me as ‘calm’, and I guess that comes from self-confidence in knowing how to deal with all kinds of difficult situations, and perhaps from spending lots of time on my being calm. Anyway, perhaps our use of extrovert/introvert as shorthand for lots of human behaviors, feelings, etc., isn’t always helpful. As is often the way with so much dualistic thinking.

Everybody stalls

I was watching two brothers in a little black car. One teaching the other to drive. They were practicing reversing, getting the biting point, checking the mirrors, feeding the steering wheel through his hands, all going fine… until he stalled. Everybody stalls. I’ve been driving longer than that learner driver has been alive and I still stall. A moment of inattention, too many other things to focus on, and the important part that keeps you moving is the thing that stops you.

For this young learner driver that stop started him crying. Through tears and sobs out came all the times his dad had shouted at him for getting things wrong, telling him he was stupid, a failure. Slowly those feelings were put away again. Not dealt with, not stopped, just put away. He started the car and pulled away with perfect clutch control. 

Every stop is a start. And everybody stalls.

Change your mind

I hear lots of talk about change. I listen out for it because I’m interested in it, but I never hear anything about changing the thinking. I often come back to Pirsig’s point about if you tear down a factory but the rationality that built the factory remains it will just build another factory. I see this as the challenge with digital transformation (or whatever we call it) and changes in response to the pandemic. If organisations do new things with old thinking, the old things will appear again. If you want to change, change your mind. 

And read some tweets:

Words don’t matter, except when they do 

Sarah Drinkwater tweeted, “Are you interested or building tech that’s inclusive, accessible, fair, innovative, not extractive….? If so, what do you call it? Kind of obsessed with how language blocks us; ethics or responsibility don’t resonate with all, and they’re processes we use versus destination”

The replies are really interesting. Lots of clever thoughtful people grappling with the same questions. I think there are two questions here; one about the tech and one about how we name things and communicate about them from a shared understanding. 

For the tech and responsibility question, the aim I would hope is to just be able to call it ‘tech’ because all tech is responsible, ethical, sustainable, etc. Responsible people build responsible tech. So its a people problem (aren’t they all) and the challenge is how we move people from where we are now (a long way away from responsible people building tech) to where tech is responsible by default because that’s how people build it, which takes lots of discussion and is why we need to name things.

I wonder if by naming something we think that we give us shared understanding, but then, as Sarah says, the words get in the way, and we slowly realise that we don’t have a shared understanding so we go looking for more words to have more discussions. The perhaps- useful thing is that we don’t have to have an agreed understanding. Responsible tech can mean what it means to you and you can explore that and build from it. And responsible tech can mean something else to somebody else, and they can explore and build from their understanding. Sometimes we think we need to reach agreement when really what we need is diverse exploration.

Words are the boat that carries us to the other side of the river of understanding, and once there can be left behind as we continue our journey. Intent matters. And action definitely matters. But words don’t matter.

Co-creating the Future

Panthea Lee tweeted, “I’ve architected, negotiated, led a lot of co-creation work. True co-creation. With stakeholders from diverse backgrounds (regionally, economically, politically, culturally) + some that hate each other” and goes on to share some of what she’s learned.

It’s fascinating. I’ve said before how with everything, the more you look the more you see. Everything has deeper and deeper layers and it’s easy to assume that when we say ‘co-creation’ we mean the surface layer stuff of getting people together who wouldn’t normally be together to work on something. Panthea is really clear that that isn’t true co-creation. True co-creation challenges power imbalances, reckons with historical injustices, leans into tension and confronts controversy, and invests resources in standing up what comes out of the process.

I read this and it blows a little bit of my mind. There are so many deeper layers to go into, with co-creation and with so many other things.

Alternative Education 

Ana Lorena Fabrega tweeted about curating a list of alternative education resources around the subject of ‘micro schooling’. It’s the first time I’ve heard the term but |I’m really interested in it. Micro schools typically have fewer students in a class, often of mixed age and ability, and make use of a wider range of educational activities. 

Given the pandemic and the situation of it being potentially dangerous to put large numbers of students all together in the same place at the same time, and being economically unviable to keep all those students at home where they need parents to also be at home, perhaps some models of micro schooling an offer some solutions. It certainly seems to be where adult education is heading but educating young people in this way will have very different challenges.

Personal site stack

Indie Hackers tweeted, “What’s your tech stack for your personal website?”

There are lots of really interesting approaches and wondered what you’d learn if you mapped the approaches against what each person was trying to achieve. For some it’s an intellectual exercise in making different pieces of tech work together, for others it’s about simplicity of use, and for some its about reducing cost (although probably as another intellectual exercise rather than because of the money).

One of the sites mentioned was built using Notion and Fruition. I’m really interested in this approach to building websites, especially for wiki/knowledgebase/note-taking sites. It’s probably the opposite from the completely hand-coded approach and might be really poor for accessibility, SEO, performance and best practices, and those things are worth considering, but as an easy for a group of people to work together in the open it’s pretty hard to beat.

The confusions

People are bad at predicting the future.

Past performance is not related to future behaviour.

But we still look for examples of past performance in order to understand what behaviours to expect in the future.

Humans are pattern matching creatures who correlate unrelated events.

Easy metrics are often used to try to understand behaviour.

Short term patterns are used to predict long term behaviour.

Applying patterns to different settings doesn’t provide predictability.

We like to maintain the status quo . Because it offers less of a threat than change.

We make bad decisions because of that fear.

Potential is a better indicator of future behaviour. And potential comes from attitude, which is indoctrination and environment.

If we realise how bad we are at predicting the future we’ll stop looking at the false clues and look at the ones that truly matter.