Week notes: 1- 7 April 2024

"A veneer of caring", SLT grooming, exaptation, exactly 60 coffee beans.

I see your two 4-day weeks in a row, and I raise you another 3-day week. (I’m taking a couple of days off next week to do stuff with the kids). Which means work is pretty compressed rn, ngl. But life is good. I’m happy, I think.

“A veneer of caring”

I had an interview with recruiters for the trustee role I’m up for, and they’re commending me to go through to the “first round proper” (as Henry Kelly used to say on Going for Gold). To be clear, this would be additional to the day job (for anyone reading who’s unfamiliar with NED/trustee roles).

So I’m deliberating this weekend – making sure my interview and cover letter spiel about my motivations and capacity for taking this on are really true, not just convincing but rose-tinted narratives I’m telling myself based on what I think they want to hear.

Examining my motives for public service work always makes me think of Rory, the bloke who did my SCS recruitment occ psych profile and concluded I have a “veneer of caring”. He reckoned there’s a mismatch between my professed passion for helping people, versus how much I actually care about fellow humans. It really got in my head!

The main basis for his observation was my not knowing the names of colleagues’ partners and children – fairly spurious evidence (and now I know I have aphantasia and SDAM, downright harsh!) 

But his words hit a nerve, and still do. How much do I care about the actual living-breathing humans my work benefits, versus just enjoying making products and services (and orgs) work better for their users in the abstract? (And does it matter, when the net result is the same?) 

A related question follows: how much do I love doing public good through remarks about topline papers in a boardroom, versus leading the execution of process improvement, product and delivery?

Dunno. I’m enjoying straddling both at the BFI. But I sure do love process improvement, product and delivery! 

I’m confident I’d be good at the trustee role, and get loads out of it too, including a helpful perspective (from swapping hats) on working better with BFI’s board. And unless more digital folks speak up in boardrooms service design progress will continue to be slow

So it’s a tough one. Will keep pondering.

SLT grooming 

Speaking of product and delivery comfort zones, I spent a lot of time this week both DM-ing and PM-ing my senior leadership team’s work by grooming a backlog of our many shared tasks. 

We have so much to juggle and track across recruitment, procurement, supplier issues, reporting deadlines, comms, stakeholder management, and evolving the directorate’s ways of working. And of course, this stuff all sits over the top of my deputies’ own to-do lists and leading their respective teams. It’s a LOT.

Making it all visible and well-groomed feels immediately helpful (to me at least – will find out what they think next week!) – and having done so I’m determined to make it canonical and keep it current. 

I set it up Kanplan style, in Microsoft Planner,* pulling items from right to left (like in Pivotal Tracker). The infinite possibilities of buckets, labels and how granular to make tasks vs checklists within tasks was a hurdle to get past initially – and will doubtless lead to further tinkering!

*Hold your tongues Planner haters! While it has drawbacks (including ones it’s incomprehensible Microsoft haven’t addressed by now), it also many strengths – and it’s important my SLT dogfoods the tools we provide for the org!

That’s part of my intention too – the (non Liz Truss) trickle-down effect of agile methods and preferred tools. Hoping to replicate this kind of board for my other team, the BFI Exec.


I learnt a new word – “exaptation” (from the novel I’m reading). It refers to an evolutionary change whereby an existing part of a living thing that existed for one purpose takes on a different purpose in response to a new pressure (like feathers: originally for warmth, later for flight).

Covid and QR codes spring to mind – invented to track car parts, exapted to help the hospitality industry survive near-extinction. Or NVIDIA’s gaming GPUs, which have been exapted to power the gen-AI (r)evolution.

Could catch on as a swisher, sciencier name for a pivot? A posh pivot. You read it here first.

60 beans and other stuff

Spent a chunk of the short week with my SLT trying to get clear about dependencies and gaps between our plans and every other team’s in the BFI. It’s headfucky work but we are getting …somewhere?

I spotted this from Russell saying Beethoven brewed his coffee with exactly 60 beans so I tried that. I thought it’d be too many but it’s way too few, even for a single cup. Ludwig van lightweight.

Joy is away (in a writing bolt-hole) so I’m solo parenting our boys again. Luckily they’re such good company. Dylan’s been offered a conditional place at his first-choice 6th form, yay.

A work connection asked for some mentoring which was flattering and enjoyable to do. We agreed to keep it going. 

I did an interview here for (Extra)ordinary Tech Stories. Nowhere near as interesting as Col Needham’s story (I keep thinking about this fascinating interview) but not entirely dull either, I hope!

Sunday: Mowed my pathetic, lumpy, muddy lawn. Walked to WeNo Feast for a street food lunch but they cancelled cos of high winds, boo. Did KFC instead which is good but it’s no Popeyes. Went swimming.

🔎 Found, interesting 🧐

Future-building. I wish I was half as clever as James Plunkett. This is so good on new governance models to make progress in the 21st Century. LOL and amen at this bit: 

“Hence why digital transformation — when an organisation tries to go from applying the old best way to the new one — feels a bit like it must feel to be a Werewolf mid-transformation, howling in the moonlight.”

Negotiating like everyone’s needs matter

CGL’s user-centred web transformation – first-class open working and establishes principles and methods for wider transformation. BFI’s web project (pre-me) was a similar Trojan horse.

The future of digital services in local government by David Durant. I lifted a choice bit for my scrapblog and others picked up on the same

A Brief Introduction to Digital Government by Eddie Copeland for Nesta makes the same point (as key point 1). I’d not seen this 2019 paper before and it’s bang on. Picking just 3 highlights: 

Key point 1: A technology-driven approach risks leading to technology-only reforms.

Key point 8: The level of transformation that digital technologies can enable is primarily down to how much of a process or way of working organisations are willing to change.

Key point 10: Organisations will not achieve the full benefits of agile projects if they insist on keeping older forms of project management, governance, budgeting and leadership engagement.

Ed Zitron on AI bubble trouble.

Steve Messer’s and Tom Dolan’s weeknotes both have good thoughts on roadmap and OKR practices.

If we think it is a game, then it becomes a game – good brain candy from Mark Hurrell. Didn’t know Heraclitus’s concept of Flux and, unsurprisingly, I love it:

“(1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so (3) everything is and is not at the same time.”

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy


📽️ Showed the kids April Fools Day (on said day). My first horror aged 12 c/o my big sis and it shit me right up – beginning my love affair with horror! Less good than I remember but has a special place in my heart. (It’s the featured image for this post).

📽️ Also showed them Beetlejuice, ahead of the new one. Another VHS I wore out in the 90s. Made me so happy to see it again!

📽️ Took Dylan to Brixton Ritzy for Late Night With the Devil and we had the best time! 

📽️ Took both boys to Everyman for Robot Dreams. Was sweet. Effective storytelling without dialogue, and I loved its fully realised world of a 70s/80s NYC populated by anthropomorphic animals.

📽️ Beach Rats, from my BFI Player watchlist. Quality. Harris Dickinson giving pretty and brooding. 

📽️ Afire, also on BFI Player. A searing, subtle black comedy about a self-absorbed novelist (amid wider themes of climate crisis). I completely loved this, agreeing fully with this review

📺 Two gripping, brilliant, true crime shows: The Push (channel 4) and Bad Surgeon: Love Under the Knife (Netflix). Creepy and horrifying with satisfying outcomes.

📺 Showed the kids Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Which made me want to listen to…

🎧 Famous Blue Raincoat, Leonard Cohen (“did you ever go clear…”). Also came across Ivy Lab this week. Mild Snake and Teacup (Lake Hills Remix) are bangers.

📓 The Mountain Under the Sea by Ray Nayler. Tis v good. Quoted a bit here (as well as it sparking the “exaptation” ruminations above). Bought it as my ‘one thing from’ our local bookshop (now pending a write-up) after seeing Dave Cates rate it on Goodreads.

🕹️ Cyberpunk continues to astound. 


Boundaries and bye byes! 


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Tom Dolan April 7, 2024 Reply

Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” is a very enjoyable and light read about exaptation.

neillyneil@gmail.com April 7, 2024 Reply

Oh cool, thanks Tom! I will add that to the pile.

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