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Category: Social Media

Reaching out.

A blog for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek 2019

It’s mental health awareness week, and I’ve seen lots of things about “I’m always here, reach out to me if you need help”, or “show you care, support those around you by reaching out to them and seeing how they are doing”.

And I wholeheartedly love both these sentiments. We should be talking about mental health more and more. As a society we’re having more conversation about what we can do to support each other and be kind to ourselves, and it’s great.

My problem is the thought of reaching out to anyone, to say I need help, or to offer support, fills me with dread.

I’ve talked before on social media about my Imposter Syndrome and social anxiety, and Gavin Elliot does one of the best blogs out there about what Imposter syndrome is. It makes you feel like you add no worth. So reaching out to ask for help, or offering help to others, is very very hard to do, because it is imposing on others time. Butting into their life uninvited. Interrupting them. Giving them the opportunity to see you.

I’ve been told in the past people don’t assume I ever need help because I seem confident. That I can seem imposing to approach. Yet I always try to help other when I am approached, I will share what’s going on in my life and the things that are bothering me if I am asked about them.

But the ability to reach out first? To drop someone a message out of the blue? On a bad day I can find that simple act almost impossible.

That fear is something over the years I’ve worked hard to overcome, and I will now try and force myself to reach out, both to ask for help, and to ask if I can help without waiting to be given a direct opening. But even on the best day, it still takes effort for me to do so, it is not natural for me.

It’s something I oddly find a little easier in a professional setting, as I know what my role is and my responsibilities within that, but outside of that scope then it becomes much harder for me to reach out first.

And the thing is, even when you’re doing well, and have been doing well for a while, it’s easy for your confidence to take a hit, and for you to take a backwards step. For things you thought you had overcome to rear their head. 

And that is ok.

There will be times when you’re doing well and can do the things you find hard. And times when your can’t.

However you manage your mental health, the first step is knowing yourself, knowing what you find hard and what things can set you back, owning that knowledge. But its also important to recognise the things that can help you do the things you find hard. That good days and bad days exist.

And I just want to say I hear you. I’m here should you ever want to talk. Whether you can reach or to me or not, I want you to know you are not alone.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, Mind can be a good place to start if you need some help. 

What is the value in a Head of Product?

Our numbers are growing, but what is the role, and what value does it add?

When I first took up the role of ‘Head of Product Management’ back in October 2016, I was one of the first in Government to have the title, and within a few months there was a very small band of 5 of us, who were responsible for looking after the Product Management professionals within our own Government Departments. We were professional leaders, tasked with building capability and skills, and building communities of practice. The original job description we created for a Head of Product was very different to what I do now.

In my first 12 months of the role I focused on the people, working with the others across government to develop a capability framework, training and development plan and a career pathway that Product Managers could use to develop a proper career as a Product Manager within Government.

A lot of our time was spent debating the skills Product Managers needed, and what value Product Managers brought to Projects and teams. It was, upon reflection, a very inward focused role; which given the maturity of the profession at that time made sense. But several years later user needs have changed and I think it’s a good time to reflect on the value we Heads of Product now find ourselves adding within our work, and making sure everyone understands the work some of us are now doing and why. To discuss what that difference is between what we were doing and what we are doing now, and does everyone understand and agree that difference.

This change in the dichotomy of the Head of Product role came up at our last Head of Product catch up, for those of us in role a few years ago, we have all separately found that our focus isn’t purely on developing that community and the professional skills and capabilities of Product Managers anymore.

Instead we are now focussing on Product strategies, on aiding Prioritisation of portfolios, of working with Senior leaders to break problems down, understanding the value we are trying to gain, or the outcomes we are trying to achieve through the Products and Services we are developing. We’re running roadmap workshops across directorates, debating Targeting Operating Models and strategic alignment.

Most departments are now hiring ‘Head’s of Product’ or ‘Deputy Directors of Product’ to be part of their Senior Leadership teams within Digital, and personally I think that is the right move.

As organisations mature in their agile ways of working, the role of prioritisation has become ever more important, and as Product Management professionals, the ability to weigh up data and evidence to make decisions about priorities is our bread and butter. As organisational budgets continue to be constrained we all need to get better at focusing on outputs and understanding the value we are looking to deliver through our projects and programmes, ensuring we are meeting user needs whilst spending public money wisely. Determining priorities and ensuring we are delivering value for users are the fundamental objectives of the Product Manger role, and as such it makes sense to utilise those skills at an organisational level.

We are, in fact, much closer to our counterparts in the private sector determining Returns on Investment etc. than we have ever been before. Yes, we as Head’s of Product still work with Product Managers and teams to help them ensure they are meeting the standards and delivering value, and we still look at the resource demands of teams and make calls on which person within our professional community might be best placed to work on with Product; and in some departments the community is so big that actually they still need someone to focus onleading that; but for the most part, our communities and our people have grown along with us, and most don’t need the level of support from us as community managers that they did before.

#ProductPeople

Most of the communities now across government are self-sustaining, events like #ProductPeople are being set up and run by members of the community; and while we as Heads of Product are still here to help champion Product Management, and to support the people in our communities, the role of the Head of Product Management as a community lead, has adapted and gown into what our organisations need now, someone who can use those Product Management skills at an organisational level.

As such, I think it’s time we look at the Digital Data and Technology capability framework again for Product Management, talk to community, and review the job description for the Head of Product role we initially developed and iterate that. We need to understand the role of the community lead and the need for that, whilst also recognising the value of Product Management and the skills Head’s of Product can bring to our senior leadership and our organisations.

The Day Data went Viral

This week the UK Government and Parliament petitions website has been getting a lot of attention, both good and not so good. This site has been a great example of how the Digital Service Standards work to ensure what we deliver in the public sector meets user needs.

On the 20th of February a petition was created on the petitions website to Revoke Article 50 and remain within the EU, on the 21st of March the petition went viral, and as of writing this blog has currently got 5,536,580 5,608,428 5,714,965 signatures. This is the biggest petition to have ever been started since the sites launch. Not only that, it is now the most supported petition in the world, ever.

Screenshot of the petitions website

The first version of the site was developed in 2010 after the election. Originally intended to replace the Number 10 petition site, which had a subtly different purpose. The new version of the Parliamentary petitions site was then launched in 2015, as an easy way for users to make sure their concerns were heard by the government and parliament. The original version of the service was developed by Pete Herlihy and Mark O’Neill back in the very early days of Digital Government, before the Digital Service Standard was born.

The site was built using open source code, meaning anyone can access the source code used to build the site, making it is easy to interrogate the data. With a number of sites, like unboxed, developing tools to help map signatories of petitions etc based off the data available.

Screenshot of the unboxed website

Within the Governments Digital Design standards using open source code has always been one of the standards some departments have really struggled with, it’s digital standard number 8, and is often a bit contentious. But looking at the accusations being lobbied at the Revoke Article 50 petition, that people outside of the UK are unfairly signing the petition, that people are creating fake emails to sign the petition etc, it shows why open source data is so important. While the petitions committee won’t comment in detail about the security measures they use; examining the code you can see the validation the designers built into the site to try and ensure it was being used seurely and fairly.

britorbot data analysis

Speaking of security measures, that’s digital service standard number 7, making sure the service has the right security levels, the petitions site apparently uses both automated and manual techniques to spot bots; disposable email addresses and other fraudulent activities. This works with digital standard number 15, using tools for analysis that collect performance data; to monitor signing patterns etc. Analysing the data, 96% of signatories have been within the UK (what the committee would expect from a petition like this).

tweet from the Petitions Committee from 22nd March

Another key service standard is building a service that can be iterated and improved on a frequent basis (digital standard number 5), which mean that when the petition went viral, the team were able to spot that the site wasn’t coping with the frankly huge amount of traffic headed it’s way and quickly doubled the capacity of the service within a handful of hours.

tweet from Pete Herlihy (product manager – petitions website)

This also calls out the importance of testing your service end to end (standard number 10) and ensuring its scalable; and if and when it goes down (as the petitions website did a number of times given the large amount of traffic that hit it, you need to have a plan for what to do when it goes down (standard number 11), which for the poor Petitions team meant some very polite apologetic messages being shared over social media while the team worked hard and fast to get the service back online.

tweet from the Petitions Committee from 21st March

The staggering volume of traffic to the site, and the meteoric speed in which the petition went vial, shows that at its heart, the team who developed the service had followed Digital Service Standard number 1. Understand your user’s needs.

In today’s culture of social media, people have high expectations of services and departments with there interactions online, we live in a time of near instant news, entertainment and information- and an expectation of having the world available at our fingertips with a click of a button. People want and need to feel that their voice is being heard, and the petitions website tapped into that need, delivering it effectively under conditions that are unprecedented.

Interestingly when the site was first developed, Mark himself admitted they didn’t know if anyone would use it. There was a lot of concern from people that 100,000 signatures was too high a figure to trigger a debate; but within the first 100 days six petitions had already reached the threshold and become eligible for a debate in the Commons. Pete wrote a great blog back in 2011 summing up what those first 100 days looked like.

It’s an example of great form design, and following digital service standard number 12, it is simple and intuitive to use. This has not been recognised or celebrated enough over the last few days, both the hard work of the team who developed the service and those maintaining and iterating it today. In my opinion this service has proven over the last few days that it is a success, and that the principles behind the Digital Service Standards that provided the design foundations for the site are still relevant and adding value today.

tweet from Mark O’Neill (part of the original team)

My user manual:

A user manual is a document that tells users how to use a particular system. More recently personal user manuals that help others work with you better have begun to spring up.

I’ve seen a few great examples of personal user manuals recently, most recently from Dan Barrett, and I really like the idea; Unfortunately I’ve never had the time to sit down and draft one.

As I approach the end of my current role and prepare to start at somewhere completely new, I thought it was a good time to reflect on myself, and what it might help others around me to know.

Conditions I like to work in:

  • I like open plan offices, but every now and then I will need a day working from home or a quieter office where I can focus and recharge.
  • I have a high tolerance for background noise, but I don’t like harsh or unexpected noise; similarly with lighting, harsh lighting can give me migraines. •I’m not a fan of hot desking, I prefer having a desk I know is mine. Even when visiting other offices I will always default back to the desk/s I normally sit in. In my office you can always spot my desk as it will have my lego name plate and some bobble heads on it. This may seem odd, but it helps me feel ‘in control’ even when evening else keeps changing.
  • I do enjoy a good workshop, especially if it has post it notes and sharpies, but I’m less of a fan of traditional meetings.
  • My favourite environment is sat with my team, where we can discuss and share what we’re doing, solving problems and achieving things together.
  • I enjoy working in fast paced environments, I’m best when I’m busy and getting things done.

The times/ hours I like to work:

  • I don’t work Fridays, there will generally be an hour or two where I catch up and respond to emails, but Friday is my day for sorting out all the things I need to at home so that at the weekend I can give my son my full attention.
  • I’m usually in the office by 9:30, but I’ll log on at 8 am and start responding to emails and calls on my commute in. I generally leave the office by 4:30, but will answer emails up till 5pm, and then usually log back in for an hour or so once my son goes to bed.
  • For childcare reasons I have one day a week I can’t travel far and tend to work from home or finish a bit earlier, but I balance that by having one day a week I can stay over night or work late.
  • I have the most energy late morning or early afternoon.

The best way to communicate with me:

  • I generally respond quickly to text messages or WhatsApp. •Twitter DM’s are ok, but if I don’t follow you I probably won’t spot DM requests.
  • I don’t like ringing people, and prefer to only answer calls from people I know.
  • I’m not a big fan of emails, especially not long formal email chains. I respond best to quick and easy requests that I can deal with on the move. If it needs proper consideration it will probably have to wait until I have time set aside to be at my desk.
  • I much prefer informal conversations, and respond best to people coming and talking to me. If I’m in an open plan office I’m always interruptible unless I have my headphones in, at which point leave me a note and I’ll come find you when I’m ready.

The ways I like to receive feedback:

  • I prefer feedback one to one in person, rather than in a group.
  • I’m trying to be better at receiving positive feedback and not being embarrassed/self-deprecating,
  • I do like written feedback especially if it’s constructive or critical feedback so that I can properly reflect on it and refer to it, but positive feedback is good in writing too so I can save it and share it with my manager, or with myself when I need a boost.

Things I need:

  • I need to know I am empowered, I need to feel trusted and given autonomy.
  • But I also need to feel supported, I need to know where to go when I need help or just to talk something through.
  • I need to have open conversations, both in a group and one to one.
  • I need big messy problems to solve.
  • I need to be doing things that matter, that are helping people.
  • I need the opportunity to coach and support others, especially when I’m not hands on with a project as it helps me feel like I’m still helping others.
  • I need to have the time to go to events and network, these help me recharge.

Things I struggle with:

  • Putting my thoughts down coherently or capturing action points etc. I’ve worked hard to improve my written and organisational skills, but I know they are not my greatest strengths. When asked for written briefs etc I do better when I’ve got the chance to run it past someone else before submitting. When it comes to organising things, I tend to surround myself with those who are better at it than me.
  • I can find conflict draining, especially if it carries on for a long period. When dealing with conflict I need to be doing something else at the same time where I’m working with ‘my tribe’ and achieving results positively.
  • My memory isn’t great, and I’m usually balancing a lot of things, so if I forget something, do remind me.
  • Delegation, I’m trying to get much better at delegating, but my tendency will always be to protect those working for me, so I need to be reminded that people want me to delegate so that I don’t feel like I’m putting burdens on others.
  • I struggle with unnecessary hierarchy or process. I find it frustrating to explain the same thing over and over again.
  • I struggle to initiate conversations, and I’m not great at small talk with people I don’t know, but I do love talking to and getting to know people.
  • I’m not always great with connecting names to faces, even of people I know, so please don’t be offended if I need a reminder.
  • Talking at people, conferences/ events/ even large meetings are hard for me, but having one or two friendly faces makes all the difference.
  • Eye contact, it’s not you, it’s me. I am listening and I do care. The same with fiddling or doodling. It’s how my brain works, please don’t take it as a sign I’m not paying attention because I am.

Things I love:

  • I love coming up with ideas and solving problems •I love working with a team or one or two others.
  • I like making people laugh
  • I like feeling needed
  • I love building teams
  • I love making a difference, and improving things for people.
  • I love getting to know people, what their interests are, what makes them tick.
  • I love to smile.

Other things to know about me:

  • I am neurodiverse, Dyspraxic with ADHD and Dyslexic tendencies; things like eye contact, doodling, memory etc are all part of this. But I’m good at thinking outside of the box and approaching things from a fresh angle.
  • I am incredibly loyal, if we are friends/colleagues I will always have your back, if you need help I will always do my best for you.
  • I am adaptable and resilient, I will always try to keep going and be flexible in my approach in order to deliver the right thing. I’m good in challenging situations. I get things done.
  • People don’t always think I’m taking things seriously, but I’m very committed and passionate about what I do, I will take on the toughest situations, but I’ll do it with a smile.
  • I’m a people person.
  • I’m a ridiculous extravert and a massive geek, I recharge by spending time with my tribe.
  • I’m a single mum to a neurodiverse child, I work hard to balance my work and home life, and talk openly about the challenges of that in order to support and encourage others to do the same.

Me in a nutshell:

I like to think I fight for what is right, helping others and using my networks and skills to solve problems, just like a certain lady detective. But obviously with less murders and less fantastic outfits.

The Honourable Phryne Fisher

Finding your tribe. My path to the Civil Service:

That’s been some great stories shared on twitter today, and it really got me thinking about why I joined the Civil Service, and why I’ve stayed in the public sector.

Homeless till I was almost 4, I grew up on a council estate, daughter of a single mum, and like many others seemed to do, I joined as a temp.

A friend of my Mums worked at the Defense Vetting Agency (part of the MoD) and suggested I take a summer job there between college and university.

Seemed simple enough, but I failed the test the temp agency set. I have Dyspraxia, and my typing accuracy wasn’t high enough. But the MoD (or more accurately my family friend) agreed to give me a trial anyway (as long as I didn’t tell anyone else about my Dyspraxia in case they thought I couldn’t do the job). I worked there as an AO for three months and then headed off to university thankful for the extra cash in my pocket.

I was asked if I wanted to stay on at the MoD and build a career in the Civil Service, but I was the first in my family to get into university and I was determined to make the most of it; with dreams of becoming an anthropologist in my mind. So, I worked there as an AO for three months and then headed off to university thankful for the extra cash in my pocket.

3 years, a 2:1 degree and a load of student debt later I returned to the DVA. I’d decided anthropology wasn’t for me, ended up with a degree in politics I didn’t know what to do with, and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life now, so the DVA seemed a good place to work while I came up with a plan.

I was welcomed back with open arms and asked if I was aware of the Fast Stream graduate scheme. I wasn’t, but figured why not give it a shot. I spent three years on the Fast Stream with the MoD in London, working on various policy areas (if we’re ever in the pub together ask me about the most common FoI requests the MoD gets) and doing a stint in project management, before a relationship breakdown forced a move back home to the North.

I spent a year on loan to the Department of Health working on policy consultations and legislation changes before I was offered a role in the Department for Works and Pensions.

The DWP quickly became home, and I had the chance to work in the commercial strategy team and within benefit centre operations before being asked to join the newly forming digital team as a Product Owner.

If DWP was my home, the Product Owners were my tribe, and it was this role that really sparked my career and made me feel like I finally belonged. I spent over a year working in that team before I got a promotion to G7 within the relatively newly formed Government Digital Service where I spent 18 months learning that I had a lot to learn when it came to agile development!

I returned to DWP again as a Product Owner with a spring in my step and new tools in my digital arsenal, a year later I got my G6 as a Digital Service Manager, and 18 months later I was asked to take the Head of Product role on TDA to SCS, and here I am.

So 12 years, 4 Departments and 5 grades later what have I learned?

1. Not to be ashamed of my disability. Its part of who I am. The same as my gender. My sexuality. My religion. My love of Harry Potter. They are the things that make me ‘Me’.

2. That I couldn’t have got where I am without help and support to grow and develop. That my job is to help and support others to grow and develop themselves.

3. That nobody is perfect. Imposter Syndrome is a thing, but even those people you think have it all together, don’t. We all need to be more honest in owning our strengths and weaknesses.

And why have I stayed?

Because this is where I belong. I passionately believe in what we as Civil Servants do. We want to make things better. We want to solve problems for people. We’re not here for the money but for the purpose. And I’m so proud of all I’ve achieved, of the people’s lives I’ve positively affected.

I believe you have to enjoy what you do, you have to be passionate about it if you want to do more than simply work to live, and for me the Civil Service gives me that sense of purpose. The people are the things that make any job bearable, and the people here are the very best.

They are my tribe.