Week notes #200

I did some stuff this week:

Deliverables and requirements: which leads to which?

Should requirements be identified first and then used to define deliverables, or should the deliverables be agreed first and then the requirements defined to meet them? In the case of the things I’ve been working on this week, the deliverables came from the needs of the organisation to be able to work digitally with young people and the requirements came out of the technical capabilities of the products we have available to meet those needs. With neither of those two things negotiable the exploring of options in between has become even more important.

Solutionising

I’ve been getting into the details of solution architecting Microsoft products to understand how we can use them to enable volunteers to work digitally with young people. As Microsoft products are designed for use behind the walls of an organisation, are all interconnected in some non-obvious ways and don’t handle external users very well, it’s been an interesting exploration. One of the things I figured out is how to use Outlook to schedule Teams meetings for external users that meet our safeguarding, security and privacy needs, which I’m actually quite proud of (small things). When I’ve been writing requirements I’ve always given anything to do with safeguarding, security and privacy the highest priority and said that if we can’t meet these requirements there is no point even going on to functional requirements.

Feedback loops

As we prepare to roll out products to enable young people to get more and better support, we’re always working on training for those products, and whilst on a call with some colleagues I heard the phrase ‘feedback loops’. A big grin sprung across my face. I was so happy to hear someone else talking about modern ideas for how to build things. There was recognition that we have to make use of feedback loops from pilot users and early adopters to tell us what to include in the training to other users. Asking the people who are going to be trained doesn’t work because they don’t know what they don’t know or will need to know. Asking the product experts doesn’t work because they don’t know how the products will be used, only what they can do. But getting a small group of people to experiment with using the products and feeding back their learnings for others, that works.

And I studied some stuff:

How much is it?

This week’s lecture was about pricing strategies. We discussed lots of different ways a business can approach pricing the products and services they are selling (freemium, versioning, two-tier, etc.) but interesting nothing about how to choose the right pricing strategy. Since pricing is really just a proxy for the value exchange mechanisms between an organisation and a customer, thinking about how that exchange happens is really important and probably not thought about enough. If your business has something someone wants and they value what that gives them (do they really want a spade) more than they value the money it costs, then market factors such as availability, competition, etc., aside, both parties make the simple exchange. 

For charities the value exchange mechanisms are far more complex. A charity offers something that certain people in certain situations value. Often, because of the situation they are in that causes them to value what the charity is offering they aren’t able to purchase that help, either directly from the charity or to find another solution, so the charity provides help at no cost to the person benefiting from it. But that service still has a cost. It has to be paid for somehow, and so the charity raises funds from donors, funding bodies, corporate partnerships, etc. Those that fund the charity don’t receive any direct benefit but they do get some secondary value from feeling good about their contribution. So here is a three way value exchange with more layers of value than a simple commercial transaction. Thinking of it in both those ways, the number of players in the value exchange and the levels of value those players receive would make an interesting mapping exercise.

And I thought about some things:

The Digital Charity

I started working on a long-form essay about what being a digital charity means and why it’s important. It covers how the internet and digital technologies have changed the way society thinks and are being weaponised to increase the inequalities in the world, so if charities are going to be capable of tackling these issues they will need to drastically change their approach to digital from thinking of it as a channel for marketing and being able to work from home to utilising concepts about how networks produce exponential change at a global scale, how people can no longer be thought of a simple biological individuals but are now complex socio-technical assemblages, and how unpredictable and often weird things arise out of the complex interactions in this new world.

Not enough whitelabeling

I see the current product landscape as falling into three main camps. They are enterprise products, for use within the walls of an organisation and generally don’t cross the boundary into the customer’s space, e.g. Microsoft. There are consumer products, such as Spotify, which are paid for and used by individuals. And then there are those products which are B2B products but are used by individual consumers, things like Magento and WordPress which are used to build websites that essentially become an interface between the organisation and their customers but are built by a third-party business. If an organisation wants to develop a product for their customers they pretty much have to build it. They might buy in services like identity management and payments but the functionality of the product will be developed, even though their product probably does the same thing as lots of other products. So, why it’s there more white label products available to businesses that they buy rather than build?

The no-code products like Bubble are edging this way but they are still more website-focused and aren’t at the enterprise-ready level yet. So, I predict a growing trend towards drag-and-drop product builders over the next few years that will enable businesses of all sizes to quickly buy in a product that enables them to build the product that meets their customers needs and is branded for them.

Looking at levels

I’m a big believer in loosely-coupled ecosystems of products that together meet the needs of the organisation to deliver support for young people, and give the organisation greater flexibility and adaptability because one part of the ecosystem can be replaced without disrupting the whole. But I’ve also been thinking about taking this approach to the capabilities level. So, for example we need a means of matching young people to mentors. On the product level we can buy in a mentoring platform that will meet that need. But on a capabilities level what we really need is a means of ‘matching’ different things. We want to match young people to mentors, young people to programmes, delivery partners to courses, etc., etc. I’ve thought a bit before about the logic behind how we match but the idea here of building a capability rather than buying a product (which clearly is different on two levels) is that it can serve a deeper need. With things the way they are at the moment, buying in products to meet specific needs is definitely the right approach, but I wonder where the threshold is for deciding the right problem to solve and right approach to solve it.

Updating my OKR’s

I’ve been updating my OKR’s to align with the shift in my life. So, out goes being a mental health carer and things that rely on me being in the same place regularly and in comes things about a more minimalist, digital, nomadic, hermit lifestyle. The three objectives of leading an intentional life, having an effective education, and having an impactful career in the charity sector persist but how I intend to achieve those objectives will change, which is kind of the point of OKRs.

And some people I follow tweeted:

Building a business on someone else’s land

Two of the people I follow, David Perell and Daniel Vassallo tweeted about building their business on Twitter. It’s interesting to me because it brings up the question of how much a business should control its supply chain. Paraphrasing Teece, the more of its supply chain a business controls the less risk it carries and generally the greater margins it can achieve. But in the modern internet world, is being on someone else’s land just part of the new business ecosystem, with the aim of getting email addresses so you can be in touch with your customers directly. In my weeknotes from last week I mentioned a renewed interest in email newsletters and some trends for email.

Prove it

Steve MacLaughlin tweeted, “The enemy of innovation is the mandate to ‘prove it.’ You cannot prove a new idea in advance by inductive or deductive reasoning.” A quote from Roger L. Martin. I can’t help but think that innovation’s association with failure hasn’t done it any favours. An entire business can be started speculatively without the need to prove future success, but as soon as it’s called an innovation its viewed with this ‘prove it’ mindset.

Week notes #199

This week I did some stuff…

Online mentoring

I’ve been working how we can use Microsoft Teams to facilitate online mentoring. Fundamentally, Teams is built as an enterprise collaboration platform with certain assumptions built-in, things such as everyone in the organisation knowing who each other is, which don’t always meet the needs of mentoring where safeguarding and privacy is really important. Our challenge is that Teams is the tool we have, and we won’t let not having the right tool stop us from enabling mentors to support young people, so we have to find ways to make it work. 

One of the things I like about my role is that I get to do a lot of zooming-in and zooming-out, so I move my thinking from almost philosophical ponderings about the value young people get from one-to-one mentoring to the technical details of how Teams handles permissions for certain types of users, and the organisational stance on safeguarding and the volunteers experience of using Teams in between. I think finding the best solution to a problem comes from being able to hold all those different and sometimes conflicting perspectives and figuring out which parts trade-off against which other parts. 

Teachers using Teams

Microsoft wants to get Teams into 27,000 schools across the UK. Lots of people don’t like MS Teams, and it certainly has its product peculiarities, especially if you are used to ‘one-product-one-function’ approach like using Slack for messaging, but Teams is a far more complex product, and I wonder if the hate comes from not taking the time to learn how it works and how to use it. I’m sure this is something all those teachers will go through as more schools introduce Teams.

If the schools had good IT people to teach the teachers, or if Microsoft provided really good onboarding, then Teams would make a huge impact on digitising schools, but I worry that it’ll come up against the same old problem of expecting the tech to solve/change everything and not do enough for the people using the tech. When Teams is used as part of an ecosystem with other MS products it could take a huge chunk of what schools do onto the internet. Teams and Sharepoint could be a far more effective intranet than lots of companies have. Timetables could be managed in Shifts. All school work could be done within documents in Teams, allowing teachers to provide fast feedback and students to iterate on their work. Lessons delivered via video could be recorded so that students can watch them again later if they missed anything or was absent. Chat between students and teachers would be secure and monitored for safeguarding issues. There are so many benefits schools could get from Teams and I can see a future of education where location is irrelevant and rather than attending a school because they live near it, students will attend ‘the school’ because it will be the one and only online education platform.

Anyway, back to real life. We’re using Sharepoint to build a content repository for teachers working with young people outside of mainstream education. Sharepoint can be used to produce some quite interesting public facing websites, but the question of whether Teams is the right frontend is an interesting one. On one hand, if teachers are using Teams in their school then they will be familiar with how it works and can switch accounts to access our content easily. One the other hand, it doesn’t look like a marketable product and something that will encourage adoption, especially if teachers have had a bad experience with their Teams. So, as with so many product decisions, deciding what to make trade-offs between is part of the challenge.

Cookies

I’ve become a bit obsessed with cookies (the website tracking files, not the confectionery) and how websites handle them. GDPR and the ICO say users should be given the choice about whether to accept non-essential cookies (those used for analytics, advertising, etc.) but the vast majority of websites don’t do this. I think it’s an interesting moral choice; should you respect your visitors enough to not track them without their permission, or as you own the website should you be able to implement things that work for your business objectives? 

It makes me think back to my old ‘hierarchy of compliance’ that says comply with laws first, e.g. GDPR, then industry specific regulations e.g. PCI-DSS, then your organisation’s policies, e.g. security, then your organisation’s procedures and practices. Should morals be first and above laws, or does it belong alongside every layer?

Browsers don’t differentiate between essential and non-essential cookies. If you block them all, some stuff on the site won’t work, and then you have to allow all cookies again. Browser controls are too blunt a tool. When Chrome shows that cookies are blocked on a page it uses a red square with an X in it, the universal sign for something bad or wrong. Interesting, but not surprising that Chrome tries to signal to us that blocking cookies is bad given Google advertising business model. 

But the Cookiepocalypse is coming. Before too long cookies won’t be a means of tracking users on a website. Some browsers block third-party cookies by default already. And Google looks like it’ll follow suit in time, but probably not before they’ve introduced a means to track users without cookies and so lock-in websites to using Google Analytics.

There’s so much to those little cookies, if I get time I’d like to write up all the stuff I’ve learned.

User Guides

I wrote some more for my Whiteboard product user guide, and tested how formatting in Google Docs renders as an ePub file. I’m keen to make my little shop of user guides the next project I put my time into after I’ve finished this term for my masters.

I’ve also started thinking about how this might evolve into online courses for using products more effectively, and how a course could be delivered by email, perhaps with a button in the email that triggers the next part of the course so that learners can control their own pace.

And studied some stuff…

Reinforcing business design decisions

An effective business model is made up of “business design choices that reinforce one another” (Osterwalder, 2005). This week’s lecture was about business models. Something that lots of people talk about and very few can explain. I like Osterwalder’s definition. It helps us understand that a business model isn’t a finished, discrete thing that exists ‘over there’, but actually is made up of lots of choices that in order to be successful need to reinforce each other. Lots of organisations, that probably don’t do enough business model thinking, seem to make choices that have them competing internally or one department requiring a level of support from another department that they don’t have the skills or people to do. A business with a good business model makes choices that makes the parts work together.

There are no rational agents

I listened to the recording of last week’s lecture about the nature of digital goods. It was about the nature of different types of goods and how defining them along the lines of excludability and rivalrousness leads to four types of goods: Private, which are things that a person can own and so prevent another from using and can only be used by one person at a time, e.g. a car, Public, such as street lighting which anyone can use and using it doesn’t stop anyone else from using it, Common-pool resources, which anyone can use but if they are that prevents anyone else from using them, and Club goods, like television which requires particular access and you watching a show doesn’t prevent anyone else from also watching it. It’s a bit of a revelation to me to think about the model for providing a product or service being driven at the micro level from the nature of the goods themselves and not from the marco level of whether the government or the commercial sector should provide it. Internet access (see Cassie’s tweet below) is an interesting example of this. Currently my access to the internet is somewhere between a private good and a club good, because I can prevent anyone else from using it, and has some technical limitations on how many people can all use it at the same time. To shift internet access to being a public good would require tackling the technical limitations that then mean everyone could access the internet and no one accessing it prevents anyone else from accessing.

As lectures this term have been digital, starting as video meetings with the lecturer presenting the slides and moving to recorded lectures for pre-watching and then group exercises and discussions over video calls, it has made me consider the format of lectures as a means of providing information. I got a lot more out of listening to the recording of the lecture and listening live, perhaps because the lecturer was more focused. Lectures often seem to have tensions between providing information because it’s part of the curriculum, providing some context and real-life examples to aid with learning, but not biasing the content. I have to sometimes remind myself not to get lost in exploring ideas.

The economics says that Public Goods shouldn’t work because a rational agent should free ride as they get all the benefits without any of the costs, but people aren’t rational agents they are social creatures which is why we have Public Goods paid for indirectly through taxes.

Bigger and better

Worked on my analysis of Shopify’s business model, digital product offering and pricing strategy. Shopify announced its partnership with Facebook and their stock price jumped up. I saw a tweet that said investing in Shopify after their IPO would have given you better returns than investing when they were at Series A funding, which is usually not the way those things work, and perhaps shows . Anyway, it’s been interesting to work on something that feels so ‘now’ but still uses economic thinking from the seventies.

And thought about a few things…

The business of charity 

Over the years there have been a few occurrences of business people thinking they can apply business thinking and techniques to make charities work more efficiently. It never works because charities are obviously different to businesses in lots of ways. Having been thinking about the nature of economic goods I wondered whether part of the reason for this misunderstanding is that the nature of the services charities provide are excludable and rival, like many commercial services. Being excludable means the services provided by a charity aren’t available equally to everyone, and being rivalrous means that if the service is already being used by someone it can’t be used by anyone else.

In contrast, a service that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous (the classic examples are lighthouses and streetlights) can be used openly by anyone regardless of whether anyone else is also using it. So I started thinking about how charity services could be public goods. The closest example I could think of was Citizens Advice, whose services are available to anyone via their website. They came from, and still have a rivalrous & excludable aspect in the face-to-face advice sessions that they provide, and I’m not suggesting that any charity should get rid of the face-to-face work they do if its meeting a need, but most service delivery charities haven’t figured how to make the shift, and arguably because most charities tackle issues that affect a small segment of society, but it’s interesting to think about the thinking of how they would scale services as public goods if they need to.

New news

I’ve got into email newsletters lately. Email, and so email newsletters seem to be making a come back. The idea that web messaging was going to kill email didn’t happen, instead email evolved, and I think for the better. I’ve mentioned before the trend of emails becoming more like an editable document that passes between people, so that’s one trend of improvement. The other trend is in improving how people use email, something hey.com is working on solving. And then the third trend is in the quality of content that utilises email’s unique features. Emails aren’t limited in size like a tweet, and can either contain all the content for the reader or links to more content. They can be read at a time that suits you and are easier to find later if you want to go back to something interesting.

Email newsletters are also a great means of building an audience as even if you took a no-tracking approach you’d still know how many people are sign-up to receive your newsletter. If email could solve the problem of being able to select which content you want to read before you get it (usually informational products problem) then I would definitely rather have the ‘our content/thoughts/opinions sent to me’ approach rather than ‘we put our content on our website and expect you to find it if you search hard enough. Also, an idea for a product, imagine getting search results by email rather than websites. Describe in greater detail what you are actually looking for and get a high-quality curated list of links emailed to you for you to read at any time. That’s pretty much how I search for things, it’s just that I do the work of copy-and-pasting into my notes.

And some people tweeted…

Internet for everyone 

Cassie Robinson tweeted, “Digital infrastructure should be considered a vital 21st century public good “We need to build a digital landscape that provides world-class connection to all, is sustainable, privacy-enhancing, rights-preserving, innovative & democratic by design.” Having studied public, private & club goods, and common-pool resources, it makes sense to me that access to the internet should be a public good (in the economic sense) that is available to everyone. If Raymond Coase was right when he wrote The Lighthouse Economics then existing purely for the good of society is enough of a justification for making a good public, and it would be hard to argue that internet access isn’t good for everyone. 

Limiting meetings in progress 

Woody Zull tweeted “Heuristic: If you spend “too much time in meetings”, it is likely that you have too much work in process. Limit WIP for a week and see how it affects your meeting time. Adjust accordingly.” ~@duarte_vasco

One of the replies to the tweet was about how many problems vanish when work in progress is reduced. I think this is because it reduces complexity across the whole system of work rather than just allowing individuals to focus more.

Fluid office 

The Verge tweetedMicrosoft’s new Fluid Office document is Google Docs on steroids”. Microsoft is getting into blocks in a similar way to tools like Notion, where a document (if there will even be such a discrete object in the future of work tools) is made up of lots of blocks from different sources that pull content and functionality into the ‘document’ you are working on. 

I think it’s another step in the journey of information moving from being centralied to be decentralised and distributed in an internet-y way, and the next step will be in how content is made discoverable to pull into a document, so the author doesn’t have to write original content that becomes locked into the document if someone else has already written it or the data is already available. Rather than having to go and find last year’s sales data and create a chart to then create an image to be embedded in the document, you would import the live data into the document and the chart would be up-to-date in real time.

Week notes #198

This week I’ve been doing:

Go Manchester

Our new website went live, and very smoothly if I do say so myself. 

The only issue we had was with how third party analytics services handle cookies and being GDPR compliant. I’m clear on my stance for any product I work on that GDPR compliance is more important than tracking so I made the decision to remove the tracking scripts until I can figure out how to implement them in a compliant way. It wasn’t a popular decision but I strongly believe in adopting a stance of putting our users first, and if we can’t reliably give our users the means to choose whether they want to be tracked then we shouldn’t track them. Given how many websites implement cookies correctly ( I read it was somewhere around 11%) and that the ICO isn’t proactive in fining websites for it, this decision isn’t even about avoiding a financial risk, it’s a moral decision about how we treat the people that come to our websites for support.

Show & Tell

I did a show & tell for a new educational product we’re developing. Show & tells always reveal lots of things. This one showed that the requirements aren’t really the requirements, or maybe that in addition to functional requirements there are expectations and ideas people form that are never implicitly communicated. Helping people verbalise them and be open-minded about how to approach things is a challenge. Next week we’ll take the PoC into a research and development phase (if there is such a thing as phases) so that we can begin testing it with users to understand where it is and isn’t meeting their needs. I’ll also start working on a go-to market plan to help figure out some of our questions about adoption and place in the market.

Notes on a second brain

I turned what used to be the Reading section of my website into a Notes section to collect more diverse ideas, off the back of The Building A Second Brain podcast. I deliberated between using Notion or WordPress as the tech bit of my second brain. Notion is better as a database for things like my books, but WordPress is easier to add to and the Tags work better as a means of connecting things. Anyway, for the time being I’m using WordPress and have started posting more to the Notes section, including my daily journal entries as private posts, tweets I like, links to websites I’m using for research, etc. 

This week I’ve been studying

I missed this week’s lecture on the nature and characteristics of digital and information goods but read through the slides.

And I added a little to the framework for my assignment. My assignment strategy is the go through all the slide decks for the lecture series, pull out any references, models, useful info, etc., into each of the sections of the assignment, then find references to Shopify’s pricing model, revenue performance, etc., and then link them into some kind of coherent essay.

This week I’ve been thinking about

Collaborative working with myself

The majority of the tools I use seem to be built for teams and collaborative working (e.g. Teams, Planner, Trello), which makes me wonder about previous tools that were for individual working (e.g. Word) and how such tools would be built today.

Loose-coupling

The idea we need most for re-shaping a more resilient near-future society is that systems can (and given what we’ve seen throughout the coronavirus crisis, should) be built with less dependency on each part. The more loosely coupled the different parts of the system are, the easier it is to route to other parts of the system if one part becomes overwhelmed and replace parts that fail. This applies to all kinds of systems. After decades of globalisation and optimisation, the supply chains of goods being manufactured and shipped around the world are tightly coupled. How this can be changed to accept more variability and quickly replace one part with another will be essential in the new world. 

Information networks for alignment 

I think organisations set up communication in the same way as power, and I think this is what makes it difficult to achieve alignment. But enabling and allowing communication networks rather than enforcing hierarchies offers a better means for reaching alignment. 

This week people have been tweeting about:

Wardley’s Doctrine 

Simon Wardley tweeted about his doctrine: universally useful patterns that can apply regardless of context. It’s almost like having all the modern practice thoughts on one place, things like ‘move fast’, ‘be transparent’, ‘there is no core strategy’, and ‘listen to your ecosystem’. What seems to read as the most advanced is ‘design for constant evolution’, which is at the same time the biggest challenge and most essential focus for any organisation. There is still far too much industrial folly in what and how orgs build everything that presupposes the project mindset, fixed timescales and some ambiguous notion of done.

Communication is fundamental to good product management 

Bhavika Shah tweeted about the most important artifacts product managers use to communicate, and it’s a really interesting list. I wonder how those artifacts are received. Communication being a two way thing, I think there is lots of education required in interpreting each of these.

Week notes #197

This week I did:

Does it work?

I’ve been writing test cases for a new website, and I’m keen for them and the results to add to a body of knowledge about how the product works. Testing that is just about making sure it works as expected is useful but isn’t as valuable as testing that validates assumptions that have grown throughout the design and development. 

Teams and Sharepoint 

I put together a Proof-of-Concept implementation of a Microsoft Teams site with content powered by Sharepoint and automation by Flow. It’s an interesting and potentially powerful combination, especially for teams and functions that are document heavy. The trick is to get the meta data structure right from the start. It makes me wish for a block-orientated content management system from Microsoft that could drive consistent information out to a variety of sources and applications.

This week I studied:

Data, information and knowledge 

We discussed the differences between data, information and knowledge, and how they are used competitively by businesses. I’m interested in knowledge management as a competitive advantage, and I like understanding the definitions of concepts like these so I found it an interesting topic.

  • Data is raw facts and observations
  • Information is processed data
  • Information can be processed information
  • Knowledge is processed information
  • Knowledge can only be produced by intelligent beings (humans at the moment but maybe not for much longer, but that’s a whole other debate)

Unfortunately I’m finding the lectures a bit dull. I don’t know if it’s because they are delivered over video call or if the pace is too slow, or that the content isn’t engaging enough but I don’t think it should take two hours to understand the difference between data, information and knowledge.

Analysis of Shopify’s business model 

I’ve chosen Shopify for my assignment because their business model involves lots of topics from the Digital Business module; they use open source software, produce a digital good and support information goods and have a pricing strategy that creates a coherent business model around maintaining a certain level of quality in their customer’s use of their product. I’m going to enjoy the analysis but the recommendations of what they can do to improve might be a bit more of a challenge. 

This week I thought about:

Start simple, use what works, evolve towards complexity

Gall’s Law says, “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”

Maybe Gall’s law provides an interesting parallel to Mui’s famous mantra of “Start small, think big, learn fast“. So, “Start simple” tells us that beginning with what is known and easily expressible gives us a reliable foundation. “Use what works” tells us to be realistic and pragmatic in how we build on validated knowledge and proven mechanisms. “Evolve towards complexity” tells us to remember it’s a journey and that good outcomes are best achieved in increments. 

Visualising over conceptualising

Humans are visual animals, no doubt about it. We take in information visually, communicate visually, and when we’re trying to build a product to solve a problem it seems easier to start with ‘what’s it going to look like’ rather than ‘how is it going to work’. This can be problematic. A Proof of Concept most often provides the proof part visually to show how something works, and this is considered more important than the concept part, which is either assumed or ignored. If we don’t understand our concepts in a meaningful way we run the risk of misunderstanding how things actually work. How we express and discuss concepts coherently is another challenge. 

This week on Twitter:

The league of accessible websites

Silktide has an index of public sector websites ranked by accessibility. I think it’s a fantastic idea and think UK charity websites should be on there.

Browser detection for better website experience

James, Ross and I had a chat/online brainstorm about cookies, responsive content choices, accessibility, and using browser feature detection (in a way that doesn’t exist yet) to allow users to shape the experience they have of a website.

How small teams do good work

Amir Salihefendic, CEO of Doist, tweeted about his experience of how small teams work best to do good work, including things like vision, constraints, autonomy and dependency. 

Strong tools, loosely held

Interesting thoughts from Andric Tham on not relying on specific tools to enable a workflow but instead having strong mental models that can be applied whatever the tools. Useful if you work in an organisation that has policies about tool use and because getting the right mental models is so important for so many things. 

Twenty five takeaways from Escaping the build trap

Escaping the build trap is right at the top of my ‘to read’ list, but in the meantime Paulo Andre tweeted twenty five useful things to think about from the book.

(Twitter seems to be getting over its Covid-shock and returning to its usual self)

Week notes #196

This week, I’ve been doing:

Another busy week at work

With a new website going live next week, and another two high profile products also being developed as quickly as possible, it has been a week of ruthless prioritisation and fast-paced getting things done. Our team talked about how everyone is feeling the effects of the increased workload and increased demand and we talked about ways of dealing with this. My examples of less time in video calls and more time using asynchronous communication and decision-making didn’t feel like it offered much of a solution but i think it’s an essential aspect of a digitally-mature organisation.

I’ve been feeling a bit self-conscious about my effectiveness and whether I’m meeting expectations. I think there is an expectation for me to demonstrate ‘leadership’ (whatever that means at the time to the person saying it), which seems to be synonymous with demonstrating confidence, which seems to mean being more vocal. As an INTJ/introvert, being more vocal isn’t my natural approach. I’m more inclined to listen, take it away and think about it all before knowing what questions I need to ask or opinion/information I should provide. I hope that as I become more familiar with how all the different moving parts work I’ll have sufficient knowledge to reduce my thinking time enough to be able to ask useful intelligent questions during the discussion.

Next week I go to working three days a week. It means I’ve got more time to study and work on personal projects but it’s going to impact heavily on the amount of work I can deliver.

Too many ideas, not enough time

I have a tendency to start lots of things and keep all of them progressing at different paces depending on what I’m interested in at any one time. At the moment I’m working on:

  • Digital business module – This is the fourth module for my MSc and the last one of the first year. My grades have been in the distinction zone so I’m keen to do a good job of the assignment and essay to try to keep my average grade up.
  • Future.charity – a thought experiment about what the charity of the future might look like. I want to actually register Future Charity as a charitable organisation, set up a governance structure, and all the other things to create a real charity whilst also challenging the underlying assumptions and thinking behind each of those things to test how future-fit they are and experiment with alternative approaches. The problem is that it requires like-minded people, which requires a lot of time to find and work with.
  • Shop – I set up a shop on my website and had the idea of writing product user guides for things like Trello and Microsoft Planner. I don’t think anyone would actually want to buy them but I’d like to test the idea of selling my writing.
  • Pain to knowledge – I started a social change short course with Leeds Beckett University. The first lecture was on affirmative ethics and I wrote an essay in response to the question ‘What does Covid-19 reveal about ethical decision-making on a macro and micro level?
  • RogBot – My chatbot that surfaces information about me from multiple sources. Of all my projects this one is probably the most fun and the least useful.
  • Team of the Future – An essay about the Team of the future; the history of practices, politics, principles and philosophies that underpin knowledge work and management, and imagining how they might be different in the future.
  • Digital in charity – An essay about why digital is more important for charities than a new website or using Facebook Donate and is going to be an essential part of tackling the inequalities in society now and in the future because the forces that make society more unequal are already weaponising digital technology to affect political outcomes and sway public about policies that affect the under-represented and marginalised people in society.
  • The Fire Control Problem – Or, how to hit a moving target, is about how to approach achieving something when it changes and moves, and the environment it is in changes too. There’s some philosophical stuff about the nature of change and some technique stuff about fast feedback loops and course correction. It was going to be a book but I might turn it into an essay. 
  • 2288 Days – Another long-form essay piece of writing that charts my journey as a mental health carer and what I learned applying entrepreneurial and start-up thinking to help with managing mental illness.
  • And lots of other projects that never got past the idea stage.

I need to pick four or five to work on to maximise my new working pattern, and find a way to put the others out of sight so that I don’t keep going back to them every time I think of something to add.

This week, I’ve been studying:

Digital business

It’s the first week of the term and the first lecture delivered over online video. It was delivered using Blackboard (interesting to me because we’re looking at education platforms at work).

We talked about the digital economy, competition and protecting digital assets from piracy:

  • Lesson #1 – When something becomes digital, piracy always takes place
  • Lesson #2 – Neither technology nor law (alone) can prevent piracy
  • Lesson #3 – Piracy cannot be prevented, but it can be avoided with the right business model!

Digital business models fascinate me, and I recognise a clear difference between a ‘digital business model’ as a means for an organisation to drive value that has been built on a solid understanding of digital and internet principles and user behaviour, and a business model that uses digital to deliver value. Examples are Netflix, which has a digital business model where its revenue generation is not linked to assets (users pay a subscription no matter which films are available or how many they watch), and YouTube, which has a business model that uses digital as a delivery channel (users purchase each film individually and watch it streamed over the internet).

This week, I’ve been thinking about:

Advice on the internet

Advice, by its nature, is an individual request for guidance about something specific to the situation the person asking for the advice finds themselves in. Advice on the internet (especially in the form of an article on a website that is designed to be read by lots of people) has to be generic and broad because the writer would never know the particularities of the situation the readr is in. 

So this is the conundrum of advice on the internet. Providing information is different from advice as it either isn’t context specific or the context is narrow enough to be defined. It leaves me wondering if it is possible to provide advice on the internet.

Vaguely connected to this (at least in my mind) is the launch of Service Recipes from Catalyst, which provides examples of how other charities have set up things like using web chat to support clients. I think it’s a brilliant idea (probably better than my Charity Workbook project that didn’t get very far). My concern, when I read the recipes, was that all of them had a technology aspect to them but none of the mentioned cyber-security or privacy which should be really big concerns for charities using consumer-to-consumer (rather than enterprise-to-consumer) technologies like WhatsApp.

The other vague connection is to my User Guides project which came off the back of various discussions about using tools like Microsoft Teams, Trello and Zoom and led me to want to test the hypothesis of whether the knowledge I’ve developed about these tools is worth anything to anyone. And it amuses me that I’m adopting a business model that isn’t digital but uses digital to deliver in order to do this. And also my older project of Charity Workbooks which provide a way for charities to work through building something like a web messaging service to reach their own answers.

Platform charity models

I thought some more about what a platform charity might look like (rather than the pipeline that every charity I can think of uses) and I still struggle to see how any charity would ever be in the position to invest enough in developing a platform business model, and how it could even work.

Charity pipelines look like this: Get funding > deliver service > benefits to service user.

A pipeline might look a little like: Recruit volunteers > more volunteers can deliver more services > more services equals more impact > more impact is used to recruit more volunteers (assuming that is what motivates volunteers to get involved). And so it goes around getting bigger and bigger, and other loops come out such as some of the volunteers being fundraisers > raise more money > deliver more services (and on to recruitment again).

Platform thinking is usually tied very closely to the technology underpinning it, and I guess in the examples above which rely on measuring impact would need good tech to make it workable.

The difference between a website, a microsite, and a web portal

As with most things, the difference depends on how you choose to define the difference, but if the choice is between public/private and generic/specific then we can have a (probably completely useless) understanding.

Week notes #195

A week of working, walking and writing

Working

Work has been really busy this week. I’ve been doing quite a lot of what feels like ‘translation’ work, digging into configuration settings of various products and then writing recommendations and guidance on setting up and using the products. I’ve actually really enjoyed it (which is good as I have lots more to do) as I get to build mental models about how a product works, which is something I’m really interested in , and I get to write for other people to understand, which is a skill I want to improve.

We’ve also been building a new website, which will probably launch next week. It would be good to get a BCW (that’s Big Chunk of Work. I saw it on a presentation and it amused me) done before we move to reduced hours.

I’m beginning to recognise some of the differences and effects of our completely distributed way of working. Working in an office has more distractions but those distractions often mean getting up from the chair and going to see people, but working remotely means far more time sitting down. This takes a bit of a physical toll but I find its easier to do more focused deeper thinking work, which on turn has a mental toll. The context-switching and social interactions that used to occur in an office environment actually seem quite refreshing now, but back then I longed for more focused time. Basically, human beings are never satisfied.

Walking

I’ve been getting out for short walks each evening, often in time to see the sun set.

Writing

I’ve been working on my essay about the team of the future. I’m not sure how to explain what it actually is I’m doing, which is why I call it an essay, but it’s kind of an imagining of how a really good team would work effectively in a future where they aren’t constrained by our current outdated thinking. I’ve restructured it a few times, but at the moment there are four sections: practices, policies, principles and philosophies, and each has sub-sections that contrast the outdated thinking with new thoughts in deliberately adversarial ways. The section I’ve been researching and writing about this week is called ‘Distributed, decentralised & diverse vs. Command and control’, and talks about how management and leadership thinking that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century worked for manufacturing but isn’t effective for managing knowledge work. So the team of the future will utilise thinking of management in distributed, decentralised & diverse ways.

And some other stuff

I haven’t had a much time for Twitter, or reading and post links in the Reading section of my website.

I received a grade of 74 for my case study about Amazon’s approach to innovation, my highest grade so far, and definitely helping me keep my average in the merit range.

Week notes #194

This week I’ve been doing this week:

Security and privacy in video conferencing 

I’ve been getting into the detail settings of video conferencing tools to understand how to make them more secure. The two products I’ve been focusing on are Microsoft Teams and Zoom. In some ways they are the opposites of each other with Teams being more security focus and less about ease of use, and Zoom being more about ease of use and less about security. The commonalities are that with both products (along with ever other product in the world) people sign-up and start using them without really understanding how they work and configuring them to meet their use case. For Teams it’s often the organisation’s IT team that set it up how they think they should without finding out how users want to use it. And for Zoom it’s often the end user who uses it without reviewing the default settings. Zoom has over two hundred settings, many of which affect the security of calls, but I bet very few users know that. I might write ‘A charities guide to setting up Zoom securely’ blog post if I get time over the next week.

I’ve also come to realise that in addition to security, privacy is a far more complicated issue to deal with on video conferencing platforms. Every service I’ve looked at, most of which are aimed at business-to-business customers have built-in assumptions that everyone on the call will want to know who everyone else on the call is. They expect that all users should reveal their identity along with a certain amount of personal information (name, email address, phone number, an image of themselves). None of the platforms are built privacy-first with settings to allow different user types to be able to protect or reveal their personal information in different circumstances. In my line of work this is a problem and leads to us having to think of ways around how the video conferencing platforms are built to ensure individual’s privacy.

Minimum viability

I’ve been writing some more discussion posts for future charity. There are lots of interesting questions about the history and nature of charity in its current paradigm that can help us to question what the charity of the future might look like. I wish I had more time to write more in-depth and thoughtful pieces but in the spirit of minimum viability and iterating later I think it’s more important to get a sufficient number of discussion posts live and get out with something bigger.

The bigger things I need to work on are understanding charity law and the regulations around creating a charity so that I can figure out how to launch a minimum viable charity, and then speaking to some people to get feedback on the concept of future.charity and hopefully recruiting them.

Impromptu half-marathon

On Friday evening I decided to go for a jog. I don’t normally run very much, although I’d really like to do more. This jog turned into a 13 mile cross-country run in the dark. It felt so good to be in such a simple situation. There was just me and the path ahead. All I had to do was keep running.


This week I’ve been studying reading:

Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics

I haven’t really been studying this week, but I have been reading some interesting papers that have become the background of some future.charity discussion posts. Sir Steven Bubb’s History of Charity and Florence Gaub’s Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and choice for Europe. Both gave me lots to think about, one around where our current paradigm for charity came from, and the other about what issues charities might be dealing with in the not too distant future.


This week I’ve been thinking about:

What does it mean to be strategic?

I watched Sophie Dennis’ presentation for FutureSync20 about what is strategy, why it matters, and what good and bad strategy looks like. The witticism of “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics” (which was derived from a longer and more useful statement by a United States Marine Corps General) fits nicely with Sophie’s talk. She talks about strategy not being madlibs buzz words nonsense but being a “coherent plan to achieve a goal that will lead to significant positive change”, which seems very logistics focused to me.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve recently written a product strategy for a piece of work and want to run Spohie’s tests on it, and because some of the work I’ve been doing has required me to get into the details of how a product works, which in the eyes of many people is the opposite to being strategic. I don’t subscribe to the duality of strategy/details but that doesn’t mean others agree. It’s an interesting one…

Theory of change and direction setting as you go

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about future.charity and whether setting it up as a minimum viable charity (rather than just a thought experiment) is the right way to go. I keep coming back to the theory of change I wrote which says about coming up with a workable model that has been developed through experiments. I don’t think this can be achieved by thought experiments alone. And if the only way to register as a charity is to be a traditional type of charity then we’ll have to think about whether having the status of a charity is more important than being able to challenge the current paradigm or whether being a different type of organisation might give us more flexibility.


This week people on Twitter were talking about:

After the honeymoon

Laura Martin tweeted about the Phases of Disaster graph that shows how people react to dramatic situations (such as global pandemics). It’s interesting to think that we are only in the heroic/honeymoon phase and that we have a long way to go before we’ve dealt with the emotions of it all. It seems that we have too much focus on the end of lockdown and the expectation that everything will be back to normal shortly afterwards.

I’ve bin everywhere, man

Harry Trimble tweeted about his project to catalogue all the wheelbins in the UK. Twenty years this would have been an art project, with the blurring of art and life, but nowadays it’s an ‘open-data tech side hustle’. Things move on, but not that much.

Digital service for charities

Chris Thorpe tweeted about Service Recipes for Charities, a project to make it easier/possible for charities to share and use each other’s work. It’s a fantastic idea, very charity-as-a-platform, whereby if a charity wants to implement a digital service, such as providing support through online video conferencing, they can take an established practice with all the learnings from other charities, and create that service far more quickly and with less of a need to learn for themselves.

Week notes #193

This week I did:

Investigated MS Teams for Education

I spent some time learning about Teams for Education and whether it might meet our needs. It is very conceptualised around schools, but that might not be a bad thing, even for less formal education as it brings a certain amount of expectation on the part of the student. They already understand that they will be classes at certain times led by a tutor, for example. I think it’s important that we (all) don’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can easily take things like education and learning and simply deliver them through an online platform and expect the same results as when delivered in-person in physical environments.

Some of the thinking I’ve looked into around online education, includes how Massive Open Online Courses suffer from very low course completion rates, the differences in how people respond to live vs. pre-recorded video, how groups work together in synchronous, semi-synchronous, and asynchronous learning, how much individualised support from someone who cares that the student learns well improves learning, and how the concept of learning as education-as-entertainment where students are spoken to as passive consumers of information rather than engaged active learners affects the outcomes. We need to reboot things like education, not just redeploy them via a different channel.

Online video conferencing 

I spent some time comparing online video platforms. One of the interesting things is how much network data they consume when accessed on a mobile phone. Someone using a £10 32gb Pay-As-You-Go top-up could use up a third of their data on a one hour video call, costing them £3. It’s definitely something charities need to consider if they are pushing people to access support via online video.

Nominet worked with some major internet providers to allow zero-rate access to the NHS website, so that people can access important health information during the pandemic. I wonder if it’s a model that could be rolled out to charities working with disadvantaged people.

Time management

The team discussed moving on to reduced hours and how to manage workload when we do. I also thought about what I’d like to do with those extra hours:

  • Complete the Digital Business module for my Masters. 
  • Write three essays for my website.
  • Figure what I want to do with future.charity

All of these involve writing, which is something I want to do much more of and get better at to improve how I communicate ideas.


This week I studied:

Metamodernism 

One of the essays for my website is called ‘Team of the future’ and is about the shift in thinking that teams will apply to be successful in a digital world. Understanding metamodernism and how it underpins the culture of our times is an important part so I’ve been reading, thinking and writing about it. Some of the key themes seem to be around postmodern thinking making greater use of opposites and certainty, and in contrast metamodern thinking accepts greater uncertainty and more options. Understanding how something so pervasive as a cultural paradigm bubbles up into the behaviors of a team is interesting.

Certification

As MS Teams is becoming the dominant workplace platform for many organisation, central to our IT strategy, and a part of collaborative online working, I thought I might learn more about the technical side of how to set up Teams. Of course the interesting part is always the cultural side of adoption and use, which is something I’d like to figure out more about too.

Platforms

I’ve been reading the Platform Design Toolkit, and as a “framework that one can use to envision, develop and rollout platform strategies that mobilize ecosystems”. Given that platform thinking is, or will be, fundamental to every business model (even if they don’t know it yet) it seems useful to understand some of the thinking.


This week I thought about:

Cause-agnostic charity 

Cause is central to what it means to be charity (under traditional thinking). The Charity Commission regulations require a charity to select what type of cause the charity will be focused on when registering to be a charity. But what if there was such a thing as a cause-agnostic charity, one that could point it’s fundraising, service delivery, etc., skills at whatever issues are facing society at the time? It would diversify funding streams as the charity could apply for cause-related funds for the issue they are tackling at the time, and it would cross-pollinate ideas and techniques from different areas of issues.

Product eco-systems for charities

Product development at charities seems stuck in a descending spiral. Charities can’t reasonably commit the resources to develop products that would better fit their needs when there are commercially available products that come close and have dedicated software development teams. This means that as a sector, lots of money is spent buying the same not-quite-right solution again and again. If charities worked together more to create an ecosystem of products for charities, that any charity (our charitable developer, partner organisation, etc.) to use and contribute to, then the entire sector might benefit from products that are more fit for purpose, and having one place to go for solutions rather than having to go through assessment and tendering processes every time. Maybe it’s an extension of charity-as-a-platform, but it’s a hard spiral to get turning the other way.


This week on Twitter people were tweeting about:

Don’t blow up whales

Doncaster council tweeted about a dead whale that washed up on shore in Oregon and then blown up against the advice of experts, and what this can teach us about responding to coronavirus (basically, listen to the experts and stay at home).

Tips on group management for online video

Will Myddleton tweeted about tips for delivering video sessions which I want to write up and keep as some good guidance.

COVID-19 isn’t a black swan

The centre for the study of existential risk at the University of Cambridge said that the coronavirus is not a black swan event and is not an existential risk to humanity. It’s bad, but it was predicted and what it really shows is how unprepared we are as a hyper-connected society.

Week notes #192

This week I was doing:

Product strategy

I’ve been working on a product strategy for a new product. I’m keen that the strategy aligns on multiple levels; helping the programme achieve its goals, improves capabilities across the organisation (Communication, notification, surveying and reporting), and aligning with the technology strategy and roadmap.

Two of the most interesting things I read around product strategy were ‘What is product strategy? and ‘What is good product strategy?’, from which I particularly like Melissa’s description of having a target state and having to work your way across unknown territory from the current state. It fits with our approach to product strategy of moving towards different target states on different levels.

Content and proposition 

One of the products I’ve been working on has changed proposition from being about showcasing real world activities and encouraging young people to sign-up, to providing supportive messaging about how the Trust can help young people and encouraging them to make contact. The new proposition has required the content to be rewritten to be more authoritative and trustworthy. It’s interesting how important content is for a product like this to succeed. 

future.charity

I set up a website at future.charity. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it but it’s going to be some kind of thought experiment about what a charity of the future might look like.


This week I was studying:

Who holds the power in the labour market?

I finished my last assignment for this term. Although my least favourite it was actually quite interesting. My argument was around how liberal market economies were deregulated as a means of trying to increase firm productivity through introducing supply and demand mechanisms to the labour market but failed, resulting instead in firms adopting more low-road human resource management policies to reduce cost and so increase performance.


This week I was thinking about:

Lockdown

Lockdown has become very much part of life. There’s no going out to beaches at the weekend, even going shopping seems like a major mission, and perhaps the hardest thing is not knowing how long it will last. Thinking about my roadmap for this year seems more difficult under such constraining conditions. There are definitely plenty of things I want to do with my website, but I’m not sure that feels like enough of an achievement for a year.


This week people were tweeting about:

Who knows?

I spent almost no time on Twitter this week. A combination of being busy at work, writing my assignment, stuff in my personal life, and Twitter being all about Coronavirus, just made me not bother with it.

Week notes #191

This week I’ve been doing:

Taking action

This week at work we’ve been mobilising our response to the effects of the coronavirus on young people. We launched our Young People Action Plan. Moving fast, changing priorities. 

I’ve been impressed with our leadership team and the level of response they have taken. They could have taken the approach that the current situation is temporary, made the least change possible to continue to deliver services for young people, and waited for it all to go back to normal. Instead they seem to be taking this as an opportunity to rethink and redesign how the organisation supports young people in a digital world. 

Goodbye cruel world

Lockdown started early this week. I spent the last evening of not-lockdown-ness on the beach.

I wonder how other minimalist digital nomads will cope with having to be stuck inside in one place for the next few weeks?

How to create a life roadmap 

I wrote a short guide to creating a roadmap for your life with the aim of helping someone find some focus and direction. It’s a technique I’ve used with a few people and I wonder if it’s something I should write more about.


This week I’ve been studying:

The effects of deregulation of the labour market on the power balance between firms and employees

This assignment is a tough one. It’s on a topic I’m not very interested in, and is in two parts, one of 500 words and the other of 3500 words. To counter my lack of interest I’m being more organised, breaking the work down into small chunks and scheduling them over the next couple of weeks to make sure I finish it before the deadline.


This week I’ve been thinking about:

My life roadmap 

I’ve been considering the future, what’s important to me, reviewing the five principles I wrote x years ago, and asking myself if they are still relevant. It’s a difficult thing to do in such uncertain times but it feels even more important than usual for focusing and making the most of my time.


This week, people I follow on Twitter have been saying:

National infrastructure

Paul Smith tweeted “I’m biased but seriously, Just how good is http://gov.uk?! – Fixing publishing for government was such a good and wise thing. Can you imagine the disarray of outdated and repeated information on those 100’s of sites before? #nationalnfrastructure” 

Government digital teams ‘fix the plumbing’ approach has proved it’s worth.