Had a friend staying over this weekend, hence the late weeknotes. There was plenty going on last week, including but not limited to

  • wrapping up the comments on my light framework for deciding what to work on next
  • planning an asynchronous session that makes use of the framework
  • a team retro and sprint planning, plus writing up the cards for the new sprint
  • catching up on what Data Services (previously Data Labs on GOV.UK) are up to
  • a chat with a product manager from government who’s moving to work on the BBC’s design system
  • a check-in with the senior management team on the progress towards our objectives
  • figuring out our community strategy with our community designer, including changing the channels we engage through
  • coaching a colleague and finding a way to support their development with their line manager, and
  • chatting to an international government about how to set up and run a design system, through the Tony Blair Institute.

Coaching and managing

On previous teams I’ve had a lot more hands-on input. This is natural when you’re an associate or mid-weight product manager, I think, you get into the detail more. But when you’re a senior, looking after larger or multiple teams, you’re required to step back more. This is distinctly true with the design system team as they’re leading a lot more of the work. I reflected on this with a friend.

I feel like I’m in the right space and where I want to be as a product manager on this team. Floating around the squads, not really doing much on the day-to-day (bar the Frontend squad), mostly nudging and reminding them where the boundaries are. Intervening in the system to make it simpler, more sustainable, more scalable. Coaching more, but still managing.

I’m not sure how to describe what coaching more than managing looks like. Steve Borthwick said something in a pre-game interview this weekend about the England rugby players being the ones to go out there and play each week, them being more in control of the results, which fits. That’s different to a football manager who directs from the sidelines during a game. Influence over input?

How to hack your career

There’s an organisation-wide pay review coming up. I vaguely remember this from when I was a permanent civil servant at GDS: if there’s no opportunity to get a promotion and move up a level or grade, you can demonstrate how you’re working at that level anyway and get paid extra. (That’s how it’s supposed to work but apparently there are some problems with the model.)

Folks are worried about this review because, in order to demonstrate how you’re working at a higher level, you’ve got to write up a body of evidence and have that supported by your line manager. It means looking back through everything you’ve done over the past 12 months and talking about it.

I didn’t find this hard to do during my previous time at GDS because I’ve been managing my own skills development since 2016-ish. For ages I’ve been meaning to write about my process and share it, but now is a really good time to do that as it might help the team out. I’ve started preparing a talk about it, which I’ll deliver on Tuesday and blog soon after.

How to get my job

A few weeks ago I was asked to appear on a podcast and talk about my route into product management, for a podcast called ‘How to get my job’ by Found by Few, a recruitment agency. Through them I found and hired an excellent product manager, when I was head of product at the tax startup, as they focus on overlooked talent. Their podcast is aimed at people from minority and low socioeconomic backgrounds, so I thought it worth sharing my story.

You can either listen on Spotify or watch on LinkedIn. I chatted about my time working in kitchens, how strategy and storytelling are important as a senior product manager, and how bigging yourself up in interviews feels dirty but is key to success.

You need service design

The tax startup I worked at has announced it’s pivoting from its tax service to a platform play. It’s a reminder as to why you can’t just slap a better form on something and hope to achieve significantly improved outcomes, that you need end-to-end service design to radically improve things.

The product definitely made it easier for users to apply for R&D tax credits, reducing the amount of learning users needed to do before tackling the process. And it also made it easier for our tax agents to work on claims, giving users a better structure for writing about their innovation activities that makes the narrative clearer for tax agents. But the goal of getting tax relief paid out to customers more quickly was always dependent on HMRC’s claim processing times.

HMRC have decided, for whatever reason, to make more enquiries about claims, which means slower processing times. Despite more robust claims arriving at their front door, having been checked and derisked by the tax agents, they’re taking a closer look at everything that arrives with them. This is possibly an area where the startup and HMRC could have collaborated, for example, establishing a shared standard for checking claims and a transparent risk-scoring methodology.

That happens during service design, when folks are working to shared outcomes, but that wasn’t what happened here. The startup didn’t have any agency over it, so it’s not their fault, but it’s a good example of why full-stack service design is better than improved forms.

(During research interviews, it was clear that some customers preferred working with consultants, the higher price tag gave them some sense of security. It’s clever that Claimer has pivoted to SaaS, making best use of their knowledge by helping competitors gain efficiencies in their operations. I wish them the best of luck!)

Office chair

For the last 6 months I’ve been using a dining chair as my office chair. I think this has caused a knot to form in my neck, which means it’s hard to turn my head, and my neck is often painful in the evenings. It’s not doing my back any favours either, plus sitting down for extended periods is uncomfortable.

This is all my own fault. As a contractor, I’m not sure whether GDS have to do anything about, but I feels like they shouldn’t and it’s an area I should look after. So it’s silly I’ve done nothing about it.

A new chair is arriving on Friday, which I cannot wait for. If you’re sitting uncomfortably, I hope this is a good reminder to sort out your desk setup.

Home alone

And, for the next fortnight, I’m home alone. My girlfriend is holidaying in Canada with her brother, visiting relatives, so it’s just me and Barry the cat for a while. I’ll go to the office more, top up my social contact and reduce the leccy bill in one fell swoop. Get two birds stoned at the same time.