Weeknotes #260

What I did this week (and didn’t do):

What do I require?

I spent a lot of time working on (and even more time thinking about) what some people might call requirements. I regularly get my thoughts tied up in knots trying to understand what we mean by ‘requirements’, ‘goals’, ‘objectives’, etc., but using ‘This is what we want to achieve’ and ‘These are the things we’re going to try’ seems much less ambiguous, so I tried . The problem I have, especially with ambiguous jargon but in general when defining or explaining anything, is the coastline problem. That is, how the problem looks depends on your measure. A circle drawn with only four big straight lines looks a lot like a square, but a circle drawn with a thousand small lines looks pretty circular. So, a requirement or goal specified at one level looks very different from another level. And then levels of what? My bottom-up answer would be, ‘levels of abstraction from the user behaviour’, but that opens up a whole load of other questions.

Why do charities use the innovation processes that they do?

I submitted my draft literature review and research methodology. I had originally thought that my research should be able how charities are using innovation processes, but I’ve realised I’m much more interested in why they are using them the ways they are. This creates more of a challenge as it requires qualitative interviews, but I just need to get out of my comfort zone and get on with it.

Embedding a theory of change in your learning

I signed-up for NPC Labs user research session on theory of change (which I’m interested in) and learning (which I’m really interested in). I’m not sure why, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Swimming with seals

I’ve went swimming in the sea almost every day this week. The best one was around sunset and I was alone on the beach. As I lay floating in the water a seal surfaced, looked at me for a few seconds, I looked at it, and then it swam away.

Didn’t get feedback

Listening to One Knight In Product with Teresa Torres made me realise that I haven’t done any of the discovery work I set myself for July. So, if anyone reads this and wants to do me a favour: sign-up for my charity product management emails and tell me what you think about them.


What I read this week:

Mobile traffic to charity websites is rising…

…but only a third of charities pass Google’s ‘Core Web Vitals’Mobile traffic to charity websites is rising, but only a third of charities pass Google’s ‘Core Web Vitals’

Why? Because it depends how you measure. And if you’re in the business of measuring and judging websites in order to rank them in search results then maybe you want some level of influence over how websites send you signals that you can judge them by.

Why? Because it’s easier to focus on frontend/visible aspects of technology and think that if the website is responsive then it must be optimised for mobile, which isn’t the case but many website platforms don’t get that stuff right by default.

Why? Because not all ‘Jobs To Be Done’ can or should be done on mobile devices (and with mobile behaviours). Sometimes, friction, intentional or unintentional, is good for getting people to stop and think. Convenience isn’t everything.

Why not? If your user research shows that the people that need your services find you through organic search results, need a highly-performant online experience, and only have mobile phones. The points is; do what your users need you to do, not what a search engine says.

Digital adoption within the NHS

Shock treatment: can the pandemic turn the NHS digital?, asks whether the NHS can maintain the level and pace of digital transformation that came about as a result of the pandemic, and also raises the ‘fix the plumbing or fund the future’ investment question, which I think is very closely connected. These are the questions facing every sector and organisation. Charities included. I feel like the answer is obvious; yes and no. Do organisations realise how important digital transformation is for them? Yes, at least a bit more than they did. Will organisations maintain the pace of change we saw from the pandemic? No, not without the huge external pressure making digital an existential question.

Decoupling time spent from value produced

James Plunkett’s article on the four-day week was shared around Twitter this week. It talks about the Iceland experiment and how it resulted in increased productivity, and more interestingly, predicts that, based on the historical data trend of reducing working hours, the four day working week will be generally adopted in the early 2030’s. If that’s the case, we might have a few more decades to go before society is ready to make the shift to decoupling the value we produce from the time we spend doing it. Stuart said it best, “Being at work never equated to doing work“.


What I thought about:

A diamond and a tree

Speaking of how we judge value, I had an interesting conversion about why different jobs are paid different amounts and how the job market values uniqueness of skill over what the role achieves. My analogy was ‘a diamond and a tree’. A diamond is considered to have high value because of how rare it is. Trees aren’t considered all that valuable but have an important impact on the environment and life (being able to breath, mostly). Maybe we’ve got our values round the wrong way.

Accepting responsibility

There’s lots said about blame culture and how toxic it is but I hardly ever see anything about the flip side; responsibility culture (if it’s even a thing). I think taking responsibility is one of those underlying amorphous parts of a product managers job. Obviously, everyone should take responsibility for their actions, but product managers are often the ones to be most aware of the trade-offs that exist when decisions are made (even if not actually making the decision), and that knowledge comes with responsibility. Taking responsibility for knowledge, not just actions, is an interesting responsibility to take.

Do charities need innovation?

Does any organisation, in fact? An amalgamation of ideas from a conversation on Twitter, Ann Mei Chang, and some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about for my dissertation takes my thinking towards this: If the problem is unknown and the solution is unknown, then innovation is an approach, a mindset, a skillset, a method that can help to make both known. If the problem is known and/or the solution is known, then innovation isn’t needed.

Weeknotes ‘258

This week I did:

Understanding problems

I was only at work two days this week due to exams but I was trying to be disciplined with myself about understanding problems before jumping to solutions. It made me stop and step back a few times. And it meant asking more questions, which even though I tried to explain why, I think some people found it annoying. Something to work on.

Last exam

Did my last exam. So that’s all of the modules for my MSc finished. And I got 76 on the last assignment I submitted. It puts me right on the borderline between distinction and merit, so depending on what result I get for my exam, it should push me over the line.

Productising services

Started some more product advisor work. It’s interesting to see organisations thinking about how to productise their services. My sense at the moment is that the majority will settle on a kind of business-process-as-a-service type model that gives some flexibility around people performing processes and the automation of other aspects. The charity and social good sector doesn’t feel quite ready for fully product business models.

Innovation processes in charities

Had a good chat with my dissertation supervisor about the literature review and research methodology I’ve been working on. I have a better structure in mind for the research and feel like I’ll soon be in a good position to finalise my research questions and send out the questionnaire.

Interface Integrate Iterate

I had my first sign-up and I pinned a tweet about my four email series about some of my ideas about the role product management can play in charities. Hopefully I get some feedback on the ideas that helps with my thinking about what makes good product management in charities.

And thought about:

What good product management in charities looks like

How to get the value of product management into charities that don’t value product management? That’s the question. That’s the challenge.

Microloans

As part of my revision for my exam I read about blockchain being used to provide credit to the four billion of unbanked people in the world. It made me thinking about microloans as a funding mechanism for charities. So, a charity could launch a campaign to secure zero interest loans rather than (or in addition to) donations, use the money to fund recruiting a fundraiser, who then raises enough money to pay back the loans, pay their salary, and fund other work for the charity. I’m sure in reality managing loans is massively complicated, but in my head it all makes sense and seems like a good opportunity (this why I don’t work in finance).

Public roadmaps

I’m a bit smitten with public roadmaps. It isn’t the roadmap itself, whatever it’s format (lets not get into that discussion again), it’s the courage and commitment to publicly state what you’ve achieved recently and will be working on in the future. Organisations that have public roadmaps are up there with remote-first organisations.

And read;

Value creation 101

Jelmer tweeted an interesting thread about value. Although I don’t agree with everything in the thread, for example about value being connected to scarcity and supply & demand, I think concepts like this are important to think about.

Product Management Handbook

I’ve started reading Scot Colfer’s Product Management Handbook, and Lauren Crichton’s Q&A with Scott. I love this quote, “Product managers don’t do anything. We listen. We think. And we talk. We understand other people’s perspectives and find value in the sweet spot where those perspectives converge. Product management is a role based on the power of conversations.” I wonder if its why some organisations, delivery-focused organisations perhaps, struggle with product management, because it doesn’t look like it delivers anything in the way designers and developers do. So the showing value in other ways becomes important, often through tangible artifacts, documentation, etc.

Principles vs. rules

The BetaCodex Network looks really interesting. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Weeknotes #257

This week I did:

Blueprinting

I spent quite a bit of time creating blueprints for how parts of products might interact as a way of exploring the translation from programme design into product development.

Service blueprint

In some ways, it was a week of visual working. We’ve been talking about how we do documentation better so that it’s quick to produce and easy to understand, and settled on screenshots being a good place to start. And one of the project teams is using Trello to track their work. I think, at the back of my mind, I’m taking onboard a comment someone made in the DigiScot talk about async working when we we’re talking about how we replace meetings, that drawing and visually representing ideas is a useful alternative to writing, so although I still write a lot, I’m trying to also work more visually so that more people can be involved.

Digital governance and risk management

I joined a really good talk by BeMoreDigital & Beyond Profit about managing digital risk and governance. I’ve been thinking for a while about how things like governance and risk management in charities, which are done in traditional non-digital ways, so it was really helpful to see others thinking about it. Governance is part of the business model of charities so as those business models become increasingly influenced by the internet, its important that we think about different ways of doing things like risk management.

Charity product management emails

I finished the first iteration of my ‘Interface – Integrate – Iterate‘ emails series about why charities need good product management. Next thing on the list is to get some feedback and figure out what improvements I can make. My aim (at the moment at least) is that this might develop into a project for after my dissertation about how to get good product thinking into charities.

June retro

End of the month. Time to look at the delivery plan I set at the beginning of the month and see how much I achieved and plan for what I want to achieve next month. Although this is only the second month of following a monthly process of reviewing progress and setting new goals for next month, it seems to be working really well.

And I thought about:

Influence

All a product manager has to get things done is their influence. And when something happens that damages that influence, even if it was out of the PM’s control, the thing to do is get to work on building up that influence. Vaguely connected, at least in my mind, is how this shows as a micro version of internet economics with attention and reputation being the currency. No one on the internet has authority over anyone else, but lots of people have more influence than others. So, for digital ways of working, whether on the internet of within an organisation, building and managing influence is important.

Consequences

I’ve been thinking about linear processes for product development (since that’s kind of what my dissertation is about) and how communication works throughout the process. I think there is a kind of entropy at play where well-ordered ideas and become more disordered at each stage as they become designs and then code. It’s a bit like playing a game of consequences where each time there is a hand-off to a different team, what was produced is hidden from the next and they only have the contextual rules of the game to guide what they then add. So, I’ve been thinking about how to reduce the entropy that occurs throughout the product development process.

Competition on the internet

My Twitter is made up of three ‘worlds’; charities, product management, and creator economy & nocode types. I see myself, one day, contributing to bringing those worlds closer together, but in the meantime I learn a lot from being part of these worlds. The lessons I learn from how the creator economy understands how to use the internet help me think about how the charity sector uses it internet (not really a spoiler but its way behind and doesn’t understand nearly as much). ‘Competition’ is a good example of that. The creator economy people know that they aren’t in competition with each other, even if they are doing very similar things, because they have an abundance mindset (something the internet has enabled). The charity sector, on the other hand, still has a scarcity mindset that drives competition. Competition works fine for usual market dynamics because the forces that drive it are mostly hidden, so everyone expects to be in competition but no one really knows who wins what. The problems occur when competition takes place in internet spaces which are more public, because then it’s easily taken as an attack.

And read:

Assemblage Space

I read John Willshire’s email newsletter Artefact 229 where he talks about his idea of Assemblage Space as a tool for thinking about the future and where our ideas about what the future might hold come from in our past. I was particularly interested in ‘the narrow now’ as the gateway through which how we remember the past and how we think about the future goes through. It helps us be aware that we are coming from a particular perspective, but it doesn’t help us see that the narrow now is always moving towards the future. Its the metaphysical conundrum of whether we conceive of time as a continuum or a series of fixed moments, but as John says in the video about A Spaces, the cone isn’t really the thing to focus on: the thing to focus on is the groupings of the things in the cone and how they relate to other things.

Lean impact

I read some of Ann Mei Chang’s Lean Impact which talks about whether/how innovation methods such as build-measure-learn loops can be used in the not-for-profit and social good space. There are some unique and obvious challenges about how impact projects are funded which make learning and scaling impact more difficult, but as Brid Brosnan from the British Red Cross shows, it is possible and it is changing.

Andragogy

I stumbled across the concept of andragogy, which is the theory of how adults learn from Macolm Knowles. Knowles said that when adults learn they should be self-directed and take responsibility for their decisions. “Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning: (1) Adults need to know why they need to learn something (2) Adults need to learn experientially, (3) Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and (4) Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.” So, adult learning programs should take these things into account.

Weeknotes #256

Things I did this week:

Took some time off

I sat by the river and watched the fish swimming slowly among the rocks. I knew I didn’t need to be anywhere else doing anything else. I had no Internet connection. No one else was around. It is only by the peacefulness of these places that we know the chaos and conflicts of the other places.

Game plan

I did do a bit of work this week. I’ve been thinking about how to create a game plan that allows us to join Programmes, Projects and Product, and the various teams and stakeholders. It represents the people involved, the value creation steps they’ll take, the outputs they produce, etc. So my next step is to find someone to present it to and validate it’s usefulness.

Product management in charities

I didn’t get as much done on my Interface, Integrate, Iterate emails about the roles and benefits of product management in charities as I would have like to have done, but I am making progress. I don’t think I’ll hit my target of completing them by the end of the month, but I’m still trying. Then I need some charity digital/product people to test them with and see if they make sense.

The end of blockchain

Not the technology, just the module I’ve been studying. We had our final lecture and I’ve started revising for the exam. Once that’s over I’ll have finished all the module study for my masters and achieved 40% of my grade, so now just the other 60% from my dissertation.


Some stuff I thought about:

Simple services

I saw a poster for Citizen’s Advice in Torpoint which explained how in simple, clear language the one and only way to get in touch to get help. Send a text message (the simplest and most prevalent channel available) and they’ll call you back to arrange an appointment. The poster could of also had a phone number, and an email address, and QR code, and a web address, but none of that is necessary. Rather than offering lots of ways to get in touch, which could confuse people and then requires all those different systems to be joined up, much better to offer a single simple way into the service. I’d love to see the metrics on the SMS booking service.

Citizen’s Advice’s vision states “You won’t ever struggle to get help from us. Our services will be available when you need them in a way that works for you”, and this poster is a great example of how the vision a charity holds can work on the ground, in a real life situation.

What do charities compete with?

Wayne Murray tweeted about how charities are in competition with Netflix and pubs when trying to engage people. There are so many ways to look at this. It’s undeniably true that we all only have a limited amount of time and attention so if we spend it at the pub we can’t also spend it volunteering with a charity. If people consider supporting a charity as on par with watching TV and socialising, then maybe there is direct competition. But if donating time and/or money to a charity is an extraordinary act for most people, then maybe it doesn’t compete with ordinary activities. And if you look at it as ‘doing good for myself’ (relaxing, socialising) and ‘doing good for others’ (supporting a charity), then maybe they are both worthy activities that have their place, which may or may not be in competition.

Can a charity live without a website?

James Heywood tweeted an interesting question about whether a charity can live without a website, and what some of the positives and negatives of doing so might be. It made me think how interesting it would be to take two similar small charities and create different digital strategies with the same objectives, where one strategy uses a website and the other doesn’t, and see which performs best.


A few things I read:

Is product management in continuous discovery?

I read a few posts by Teresa Torres, ‘The Best Continuous Discovery Teams Cultivate These Mindsets‘, ‘The Path to Better Product Decisions‘, and ‘Stop Validating & Start Co-Creating‘. They made me think about the function and discipline of Product Management and whether it’s definition is too fixed, not defined well enough, or the kind of role that should be in continuous discovery to figure out how it solves the right organisational problems within a range of scope.

The Computer for the 21st Century

Mark Weiser wrote The Computer for the 21st Century thirty years ago. In it he predicts the success of wearable tech as a means of collecting and presenting data, and explains why Virtual Reality never really took off. His premise is that in order for computers to be fully adopted they need to become unnoticeable, to “weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”. Virtual reality takes people into the computer’s world rather than the computer coming into our world, so for all it’s usefulness it can never be as widely used as wearable devices which as easy to forget about but continue to do their computational work. Why does it matter? If he’s right, then maybe the idea serves as a guide for new and emerging technologies such as Voice, automated vehicles, blockchain, etc., and our adoption and response to it. The more a technologies blends into everyday life, the more it we be adopted.

Skills for the 21st Century

Online courses that that teach how to do something, e.g., take notes, write, produce newsletters, etc., are great but really what we need is learning opportunities for developing the top twenty skills for the 21st century.

  1. Judgment and Decision Making
  2. Fluency of Ideas
  3. Active Learning
  4. Learning Strategies
  5. Originality
  6. Systems Evaluation
  7. Deductive Reasoning
  8. Complex Problem Solving
  9. Systems Analysis
  10. Monitoring
  11. Critical Thinking
  12. Instructing
  13. Education and Training
  14. Management of Personnel Resources
  15. Coordination
  16. Inductive Reasoning
  17. Problem Sensitivity
  18. Information Ordering
  19. Active Listening
  20. Administration and Management

I think there might be a new project in there somewhere to figure out how to learn these kinds of skills…

Weeknotes #250

This week I:

So close

We were very close to launching a new product. We’ve been working really hard on it but it’s just not ready, and neither are our people. Some times that’s how it goes. The thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that product development codifies organisational complexity. It’s Conway’s Law on another level. The strengths, weaknesses, gaps and skills of the organisation will show in the product. I wonder whether it’s even avoidable.

Every organisation is going through digital transformation

Every organisation is going through digital transformation, some just don’t know it yet. I attended a board meeting where we discussed the strategy for Bucks Mind for the next two years. We’re at an interesting stage in the growth of the organisation where technology is becoming essential to it’s success. It’s a big step to take, and quite an unknown for many people in the organisation. The idea that technology solves problems, takes care of itself, increases efficiency, etc., when in fact technology increases complexity, dependency, demands more formalised skills, etc.

How and if to educate users

I had an interesting chat about educating users of a product. On one side of the argument; if you have to explain how to use the product maybe it’s too complicated, but on the other side, people don’t have time to explore every piece of functionality. Can education be a barrier for some and an enabler for others? Maybe education should help the user know what they can achieve, but then the product should help them achieve it without having to think about how to do it. Maybe it’s ‘educate for outcomes, self-explanatory for outputs’.

What is the role of DLT and blockchain in the future of work?

I picked the essay question for my assignment for the Blockchain module I’m studying. I had thirty to choose from, which I filtered down to:

  • How can blockchain technology change the structure and the operations of organisations?
  • Discuss how blockchain can have a positive impact on the UN Sustainable Goals.
  • Assessing the concept of Decentralised Autonomous Organisation (DAO) as a new corporate structure highlighting benefits and downsides.
  • What is the role of DLT and blockchain in the future of work?

…but I think I’m going to do “What is the role of DLT and blockchain in the future of work?” There should be some interesting things to think about around how smart contracts are and can be used, how necessary trust and transparency across supplier networks, and how organisations profit from digital asset ownership.


Thought about:

Solving interesting problems

The problem with not having any slack time at work is it stops us from tackling interesting problems. When faced with barriers and no time, we pick up the easier work instead in order to get stuff done rather do the tangential work to remove the barrier. This completion bias keeps us doing shallow work, work that needs to be done, but at the ultimate expense of creative work. So, more slack time at work. More slack thinking.

Who measures impact?

Funder gives charity money, charity uses money to help people (or animals, environment, whatever), charity measures impact of helping, charity reports impact to funder. That’s how it usually works, I guess. But what if funders didn’t ask charities to report on their impact but instead to enable to funder to measure the impact directly with those who received the help. Or, what if there were organisations that specialise in measuring and reporting impact that act as intermediaries between funder, charity and beneficiary? Why should it be that charities measure their own impact? Apart from any ‘marking your own homework’ issues, it probably isn’t the core capability of most charities and maybe they’d benefit more if their measurement efforts were focused on service delivery improvements.


I read:

Useful things for privacy and ethics in tech innovation

A list of agile sessions, tools, frameworks, blog posts and other useful things for considering privacy and ethics in tech innovation, from Steve Messer.

Blockchain’s role in the future of work and organisations

Digital transformation

Weeknotes #247

This week I did:

Launch time

You know that scene in Apollo 13 where all the NASA people repeat, “Go Flight!” to confirm they are ready for launch? Yeah, product launches aren’t like that. Launch is more of a phase than a point in time, but this week we launched our new young person -facing product that will help young people sign-up to Prince’s Trust courses completely digitally. Our deputy CEO referred to it as “a step change in how we will support young people.”. It’s a complicated beast of a digital service that connects eight systems and we did it in two months. Now the hard work begins.

Vanlife Lockdown Survey

I started a new project (as if I’m not busy enough right now) to conduct research into how lockdowns have affected people who live in vans, campers and cars. I set up an online survey, and used Cloakist to mask the survey website URL with my website domain name (which is actually a world first) in order to make the survey easier to find and so I could put it on the flyers I got printed. So, as lockdown eases and I resume my roadtrip I can ask other vanlifers to complete the survey and build an understanding of this marginal part of society (I have a hypothesis that they were less affected than the general population but we’ll see that the results show).

Got jabbed

I had the first dose of Coronavirus vaccine, and didn’t have any side effects. No flu-like symptoms, no changes to my WiFi, and absolutely no super powers.

Bought some books

I haven’t bought any books for a long time, but this week I bought a few. Most of them were about innovation management for my dissertation and the others were by Colin Wilson and Alan Watts. One day I’d like to write a book, and what that book is about changes depending on what I’m interested in at the time. Right now it would build on Wilson and Watt’s work on ‘the outsider’ and figure out how they apply to the modern digital world.


And thought about:

Five years time

Sometimes I have conversations with myself. And sometimes I ask myself questions like the usual career progression questions, “Where do I want to be in five years?”, to see what answers I come up with. I had three thoughts:

  1. I want to work on hard problems. I thrive on the complexity and constraint of figuring out how to be clear about what problem we’re tackling and then how to build a solution that brings together people, systems and processes. Charities have the kinds of problems I want to be contributing towards, and usually where the solution involves digital thinking and technology.
  2. I want to maintain intrinsic motivation. I want to work because I enjoy what I do and why I do it. I don’t want to be motivated by money or status or anything that depends on others.
  3. I want to widen and deepen my knowledge rather than progressing upwards. There are enough middle-aged white men in management/leadership roles in charities so I don’t want to contribute to that problem. And if there is any truth to the idea that people rise to their level of incompetence then I’d rather stay at and improve upon my current level of competence.

Product lifecycle

I wondered a bit about how Product Managers fit across the entire lifecycle of a product. Should they have more focus on the initial product development phase or equal focus as a product becomes operationalised and eventually closed down. I guess what I’m wondering is how we maintain a position of validation and value delivery throughout the life of a product?

Digital upskilling

I spent some time thinking about how to approach increasing digital skills. The Government Essential Digital Skills framework is an interesting and useful place to start as it defines (quite loosely) what a basic level of skill looks like. From it, I think you could create an intermediate level (where the difference between basic and intermediate is ‘knowing how to use a tool’ and ‘knowing how a tool works’) across the five skills: Communicating, Handling information and content, Transacting, Problem solving, Being safe and legal online. So, an example might where the basic skill is ‘set up an email account’ and the intermediate skill is to ‘set up rules, know how to block a sender, etc.’.

Visual working

I’m a big fan of visual working, whether on a physical wipeboard or virtual canvas, but I’ve become increasingly aware how much easier it is to misunderstand and misinterpret drawings and diagrams. We have a much more developed sense of when writing makes sense or not (I mean, just consider all of these rambling and you’ll know what I mean), than we do for visually communicated work. Does left to right in a diagram always indicate the passage of time? Is something always more important if it’s at the top or in the middle? We just don’t have to critical understanding of diagrams and drawings to know. And this lack of robustness in interpretation makes it harder to ask those clarifying questions about the diagrams, which makes it harder to build up those thinking skills.


And read:

Digital Has Killed the Strategic Plan

This article from 2016 (shared by Ross in his newsletter) on how digital has killed the strategic plan, is five years old now, so it’s interesting to look back at it. I take it to essentially be a call for shorter planning cycles and better feedback loops (two aspects of digital work that have become more familiar in the last five years) to replace long term planning for businesses. It ends with how “strategy in the digital age has become an increasingly interactive process”, which seems to mean that strategy and tactics have become more intertwined (I’d suggest they always have been in the reality of achieving a strategy, just not on PowerPoint presentations and website articles). Perhaps not that much has changed in the last five years.

Believing in the Barnum Effect

I read The Barnum Effect: why we love astrology and personality tests by Anne-Laure Le Cunff, and immediately thought that everything it describes about how we interpret personality tests also applies to the obscure business/life advice tweets that so many ‘creators using Twitter to build an audience’ rely on. Those short, pitchy, out-of-context statements can apply to you personally if that’s how you interpret them. The trick to thinking about personality tests (I think) is the same as how we interpret what we read on Twitter. If it has resonance for us, then it’s a starting point for thinking about what we think of it. You aren’t meant to swallow it hook, line and sinker. If you do, then you are biased and suffering the Barnum Effect, but that isn’t the fault of what someone wrote on Twitter or the personality test. The opposite is equally true if you choose to interpret personality tests and tweets as not holding any meaning for you without some consideration. Personality tests both describe us specifically and are very generalised. And both of those things can be true. They’ve always both been true but we’ve been raised to believe in a single, rational, scientific truth, and it’s only now in a post-truth world that we’re beginning to understand a different perspective.

Understanding problems and why technology almost never solves them

Why we need a better understanding of problems

Einstein probably said “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” In fact I’m sure it’s true because I read it on the internet. He was a pretty smart guy. he knew what he was talking about. And that’s what I hope I can encourage you all to do today; to spend more time thinking about problems.

What happens when you try to fix air pollution in Mexico city?

In the late eighties, when I was just a lad, Mexico city was suffering from extreme air pollution. To the government of Mexico City the solution seemed obvious. “We just need to reduce the number of cars on our roads”, they thought. “Surely that’ll reduce pollution, right?” So they created a law that prevented 20% of cars from being driven on any particular day. If your number plate ended in a 6 you couldn’t drive on Tuesday, and if it ended in a 3 you couldn’t drive on Fridays, and so on. But of course, people still needed to get to work and school and do their shopping, so whilst some did what the government expected and used public transport or car shared, others found ways around the new law. They bought second cars, which had different number plates but which were often older and produced more pollution, or they took taxis more often, or drove more on days they were allowed. And so the air pollution increased. What seemed like a simple problem with an obvious solution was actually a complicated problem that the city government didn’t understand well enough before they implemented their solution. Had they taken the time to understand the problem better, to find out about people’s motivations and behaviours, they probably wouldn’t have attempted such a solution.

So, what makes something like air pollution such a difficult problem to solve? It’s because it’s what’s called a ‘wicked problem’.

Why some problems can’t be solved, and why charities choose wicked problems

Coined in 1973 by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, wicked problems describes problems that are particularly complex and difficult to solve. Whereas ‘tame’ problems have knowable, predictable solutions, wicked problems, like air pollution, homelessness, climate change, and a million others, are impossible to pinpoint a single solution for. Wicked problems don’t always have the same contributing causes, so what causes the spread of an invasive plant in one environment is different from another. Wicked problems often never have a finished end state where you can be certain the problem isn’t going to return. And anything we do to tackle a wicked problem will always have unintended consequences.

Why does what two German urban planners from the seventies have to say matter to us? Because charities invariably choose wicked problems to tackle. No charity ever picks something easy. Charities love problems, they love tackling difficult problems, and helping people facing those problems. Perhaps part of the reason we all choose to work for charities, and what we love about them, is that they aren’t afraid to tackle the tough problems. I wish I could tell you how to solve those wickedly tough problems, in fact I wish I could tell you that there even is a solution, but hopefully instead I can help you think about ways to understand these wicked problems better.

So, let’s get practical.

Why leaping to solutions doesn’t help, and why technology is almost never the solution

The five biggest problems in the UK today, according to YouGov research, are health, economy, Brexit, the environment and education. These are the wicked problems of an entire society. Obviously these problems are of their day. If we were doing this talk five years ago, that list would look quite different. That tells us that problems, and how big a problem is, changes over time.

Leaving aside Brexit and the economy, because no one knows what to do about them, let’s look at three of those issues in the little county of Buckinghamshire. Despite being the 33rd smallest out of 40 counties, Buckinghamshire has over two and half thousand charities operating in it. 388 are focused on health, 272 on the environment and 1400 on education. Does that tell us that education is bigger problem than health? Well, no, because we’re already mixing up problems with solutions. Those educational charities might be educating people about health or the environment or any other issue. In their case ‘education’ is the solution and ‘health’ is the problem, but for other charities, ‘education is the problem’. Being able to keep problems separate from solutions is an important thing.

Of those 388 health charities, let’s look at just one as an example. This small charity supports people to look after their mental health by providing them with therapeutic activities in group settings. What problems does this charity face? Well, right now, in the midst of a pandemic, as with lots of charities they are facing the total disruption of their services. Instead of us trying to understand the problems that creates for the charity let’s consider what might happen if we leap straight to solutions?

The charity wants to stay in touch with the people they support. Like many others they turn to Zoom for video meetings, they send more emails, they start a Facebook Group. They do everything they can think of because they just want to help. Like we said earlier, that’s how charities are. But how do they know those things will help? If they didn’t ask those people they are trying to help, if they don’t understand what new problems those people face during a pandemic, how can they know they are actually helping? How do they know that being on Zoom calls doesn’t make people feel self-conscious and anxious. How do they know that people have a good WiFi connection or enough mobile data for video calls? How do they know that people check their email? How do they know that someone doesn’t avoid Facebook because they’ve been harassed on there?

Of course, in a crisis, sometimes any solution is better than no solution. But if they had been able to understand the problems, they might have still used the same technology but they might have been able to use it in ways that better meet the people’s needs. Actually, I’m not referring to a real charity here, it’s hypothetical situation, but it’s one I’ve seen play out time and again in charities of all shapes and sizes. Using technology to implement a solution before understanding the problem.

What happens when we leap to technology being the solution

First, in defense of tech, where is it the solution? Technology is part of the solution when the problem is well understood, even if the charity doesn’t understand it but others do. In 2010 Ethan Marcotte wrote an article called ‘Responsive website design’. In it he talked about the need for websites to be built in ways that meant they adapt to the screen size of the device viewing the website. I bet back then, very few people in charities understood the trend towards mobile devices, but it didn’t matter because the need for people to be able to use a website on a smart phone was well understood by others in the web design and development industry. So, if a charity wanted a website built any time after 2010-ish, it was built to be usable on any device size. That was the default solution regardless of whether people in the charity understood that trend.

Let’s look at some example of where tech isn’t the solution…

Will a CRM improve relationships with donors?

No. A Customer Relationship Management tool can’t improve the relationship a charity has with it’s donors. It can be part of the solution, but unless you understand what donors want from the charity it isn’t going to improve that relationship.

What problem does the CRM solve for the donors? Do they want the charity to communicate more with them? What do they want to hear about? How regularly do they want to hear from the charity? Answering these kinds of questions will help understand what the donor’s problems look like rather than what the charity’s solution looks like.

If ‘improve relationships with donors’ actually means ‘increase donations’, then being clear about that will help the charity understand what problem the CRM is actually trying to solve. And tackling the problem of ‘increasing donations’ rather than implementing the solution of a CRM offers more scope to understand the barriers that are preventing donations, which might uncover a problem in the website donation process or some other cause of the problem.

Will an app increase engagement with service users?

No. Some charities have tried developing apps but if people aren’t already engaging with a charity already they aren’t going to download an app with which to do it. If the app lets people access a service with the charity is the app going to be an enabler or a barrier? The only way to know would be to speak to those people you expect to use it. A charity should only think about developing an app if it needs to use a sensor or technology that only phones have like GPS or Bluetooth. In the majority of cases a good website will work better and be easier to maintain.

Oxfam announced recently that they are shutting down their app because having talked to their supporters they found they would rather Oxfam communicate with them in other ways. The app was originally developed to give supporters more control over their donation amounts in response to falling income. It’s good to see them approach making the decision to shut it down by speaking to their supporters about whether it is still meeting their needs.

Should a charity be on Clubhouse?

No. Unless you know what you are trying to achieve with it. Who are you hoping to reach? Are the people you want to reach using Clubhouse? Do they all have iPhones or will you exclude some people? If a charity wants to create an account on every new social media to make sure they’ve claimed their name, then great, but before actually using it they should be clear what problems they are using it to solve for their service users and supporters.

Where technology isn’t the solution is any situation where the problem isn’t well understood, which is almost always situations where those experiencing the problem haven’t been involved. So let’s have a look at how to involve people in understanding the problems they face…

How to be better problem understanders

There are lots of problem solving frameworks and methodologies that charities can use to get a better understanding of the problems their service users have: Design Thinking, Double Diamond, Charity Digital Design Principles, Public Digital’s Internet-era ways of working, and the Digital Scotland Service Standard. They are all really useful for approaching complicated and wicked problems and they all have something in common.

Start with users

This is the number one golden rule of understanding problems. Start with the people who have those problems. Speak to those who are using the charities services. They are the experts in dealing with that problem. No one knows more about the problem than they do. They probably don’t know what the best solution is, but they can certainly help understand the problem. Lived experience is a kind of expertise and we should let those people be the experts of the problems they face.

So why is it so difficult? Well, as we said earlier, because the problems are so complex. If charities were Amazon all they’d have to do to meet user needs is make it really easy to click that buy button. But charities have to deal with a person’s problems on many levels; behavourial, emotional, social, financial, etc., etc. It’s not an easy thing to understand problems like these but every step a charity takes towards starting to understand the problems is a good thing.

How do we do it?

User research can be done in many ways: interviews, surveys, focus groups, even just chatting with people in an open way about the problems they face. There are some ethics to consider around it, so it does need thoughtful planning in order to be effective, but conducting user research really is the best way to understand problems. This can be supplemented with information about the situations those people are in. This could be anything from bus timetables if people are struggling to go somewhere to statistics about how many people suffer from a health condition. It all helps in understanding the problems.

Once some understanding of the problems has been reached, there should be a standardised way of expressing the problem so that all that knowledge doesn’t get lost. Again there are lots of ways of doing this but broadly we call them problem statements.

How do we express problems clearly?

Problem statements are a summary of our understanding of a problem. They can express big problems or small, and there are lots of ways to write problem statements. But what is important is that they tell us who is facing the problem, what they need to help them with it, and why this problem should be solved. User… needs… because… is probably the simplest format for a problem statement.

User… needs… because…

So, problem statements might say:

  • Primary school-aged children need to be able to express their feelings about being home-schooled because they have experienced considerable upheaval in their routines, social lives and education.
  • The parents of a child with autism need to be able to talk to other parents because they feel isolated and excluded from mainstream activities.
  • Those who come to our lunchtime club need to know what time lunch will be served because they feel anxious about eating in front of others and need to prepare themselves.

Now, behind each of these statements there could be lots of research documentation that explains the detail of the problem, but the thing about problem statements is that they don’t suggest a solution. Once we have good problem statements then, we are in a position to start thinking about prioritising them and developing solutions. And we can be confident that the solutions we develop are going to be tackling the right problems.

Takeaway

If you take one thing away, let it be this… “Speak to those with lived experience, they know the problem best”

References

Weeknotes #242

What I did this week:

Rescope and replan

Another change. Such is the nature of offering a service that has many dependent and tight-coupled aspects. We re-scoped and re-planned to come up with a version of the product that still meets the user needs but it much simpler to build in the time we have available. Thinking about the changes over the past few weeks has helped me realise that a product being minimal and viable isn’t enough. It also needs to be acceptable. It needs to meet some stakeholder’s expectations to continue to get support. One of the positives of the changes and increased pressure is that it seems to be forcing us to work more closely as a team, especially design and development. It has also helped me see more clearly where we have mis-alignments that need to be resolved.

Agile Project Management

I wrote up some of my thoughts about agile project management not being the project management of agile software development but about how project management can adopt some of the ideas of agile to produce iterative project plans that help to identify gaps in the schedule.

Revising convergence

I’ve been revising the concepts from the New Media and Digital Creativity module I’ve been studying, including the idea of convergence which describes how media used to be in separate forms, for example print on paper and music on radio waves, but through digitisation technologies has converged into a single media of 1’s and 0’s. McMullan talks about how this digitisation creates the ‘proto-affordance’ of computability that fundamentally shapes our culture. There’s no going back.

Writing day notes

I’m still writing a short pre-formatted status post every day as part of an experiment in reflective learning. I think it needs some form of review trigger that makes me look back over the week, or to this time two weeks, etc., to reflect on whether things have improved, are issues persisting, what am I learning, etc.

A few things I thought about this week:

Charities shouldn’t be trying to put themselves out of existence

Do businesses try to put themselves out of existence? Do they ever say, ‘We’ve made enough money now, lets stop.’? Do governments try to put themselves out of existence? Do they look for ways of devolving power to the people? No. Why not? Because both businesses and governments have a place in society. They serve a role larger they just the benefits they seek for themselves.

Charities are the same. I know our assumptions about charities as organisations are closely tied to the cause they are tackling, and that’s why it’s easy to fall into the idea that if the cause didn’t exist then charities wouldn’t need to either, but I say this is false logic. A charity builds up lots of expertise in some fairly unique capabilities and to throw all that away because they we’re so good they achieved their mission would seem to me to be very wasteful and a great loss of all the other benefits charities create for our society, like volunteering and prompting people to make change.

Oblique strategies for alertness

Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, random instructions printed on playing cards, are reputed to have been responsible for some very cool music. Following the instructions forced musicians out of their comfort zone and made them pay attention. They disrupted the complacency of expertise. I’m interested in what the benefits of this kind of thinking might be in digital work, whether it might help us deal with uncertainty better. So many of the tools and techniques we use convince us that they are all we need to have certainty about things, and I’m not convinced that’s a good thing.

What does it mean to be a product-led charity

What might a product-led charity look like? How might it differ from a non-product-led charity, and how would you tell the difference? To be clear, when I talk about ‘product’ in this sense I don’t mean the technology. It’s very likely that a product-led charity would make use of technology in their products but a product is more than the tech. A simple example is Hullo. Their product is the offer of a conversation with a friendly stranger, not the phones they use to have those conversations.

I think it might require a move away from idea of charities providing value as one-way stream (from funders, through the charity, to service users). Being truly product-led might mean recognisjng a mutually reciprocal value exchange along the lines of how service-dominant logic explain it. I’m pretty sure it means repositioning the IT/Technology department to no longer be seen as a support function for fixing your laptop. And I’m certain it’ll bring all kinds of funding challenges where income is usually associated with delivering projects.

Some stuff I read this week

Where do good ideas come from

Chance favours the connected mind.

New product development body of knowledge

All the right answers.

OCVA Digital Needs Survey

I read the results of the OCVA Digital Needs Survey. Apart from the very un-digitalness of embedding a pdf on the webpage, it’s a interesting survey. Some of the responses includes things like how to better meet the needs of people who are digitally excluded, procure digital products, make the most of Microsoft 365 and use video meetings software better. These are all things that large charities seem to struggle with too, so it seems it’s a general lack of digital knowledge across the sector rather than being specific to a certain size of organisation.

A while ago I started a blog post on how small charities can assess and procure digital products so maybe I should finish that, but I also had a quick look around for ideas about how I might be able to help small charities improve their digital skills. I found a charity mentoring organisation but as all of their mentors were white, middle-class and middle-aged it didn’t look like somewhere I would fit in. I wonder how oblivious organisations are to this kind of stuff of if it’s implicitly intentional.