The case for the Unavailable PM

This post is a response to Embrace the Interruptions over on the Aha! PM blog. It really resonated with me, and on further reflection over the last week I realised that it’s only half the story.

As much as I embrace the interruptions, taking the time to be unavailable is as important.

As a product manager your primary responsibility is connecting with stakeholders, understanding their needs, and working with your teams to solve their problems. The more you hear from everybody around you, the more you learn. Every interaction is a chance to pick up something new, to continue to develop a relationship, to make Better Product.

That’s a big tick for encouraging interruptions.


The above means that you know your product better than anybody else.

That is exactly why you owe it to the product to make sure you get enough time to yourself. You need time to focus on exploring the problems, and you need time to make yourself a better PM.

In very simplistic terms, if you spend too much time on input you’ll never keep up with processing. And, if you don’t dedicate any time to improving your processing, it won’t get better.

Create some distance

Focus time is hard in my office. We’re open plan, and it’s great that people wander about and chat about projects. It’s pretty distracting when we’re all working on interesting things though.

When I need a quiet hour or two I’ll often head out. That could be to an empty meeting room in the building, home, or somewhere else offsite. What I’ve discovered is the physical distance buys focus. For my teams, picking up the phone or pinging me on Slack feels like more effort than wandering down the office, so not all the interruptions reach me immediately. I’m not completely unavailable, but there’s just a little more friction.

Reserve time

Calendars here are shared. It’s easy to see where people are and what they’re working on, book in meetings and conversations where there are gaps.

The risk with this approach is it is easy to consider blank space in a calendar as free time. To help with this I reserve time for activities that I need to complete on my own.

I’ll block out an hour or two if I have a time critical task to work on, once a week I have a lunch blocked out that I use to read my queue of saved articles in Pocket, if I plan to leave early that goes in the calendar too to make sure it doesn’t get filled.

It takes discipline to stick to these, and I’m not 100% successful, but it helps me keep a level of priority on personal tasks and improvement.

Use it as an opportunity

The flip side of all this is focus works the other way around too. Once you know you can control the time when you need to be alone you can emphasise the value in your interactions.

With protected time and space to work alone your time when you can be interrupted can also become 100% focused.

Go to the stand-ups. Be there, be available. You’ll need to skip them sometimes, but if that gets common find a way to attend remotely. This regular contact sets the cadence for the rest of the day, control this and you have the rest of your schedule largely mapped out.

On office days spend quality time with members of your team. Attend meetings and be 100% present (not also scanning through your inbox…), drop in and see other demos/etc, be a positive presence in the building.

And, don’t forget the no.1 rule of product management. Talk to your customers. Every day.

Should we ban mobile phones in school?


It seems that the hardest part of writing any research is coming up with a good title.

Earlier this month King & Baatartogtokh published a paper examining the theory of disruptive innovation that was made famous in the book The Innovators Dilemma. They found (8 years after publication..) that less than 10% of the case studies cited in what has become something of a management bible actually demonstrated the theory in action. Their paper shifted ‘disruptive innovation’ from being a goal all companies should aim at to an observation that occurs in rare cases.

It should have been huge news, but they gave their work the less than exciting title of ‘How Useful is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation‘ and nobody seems to have paid much attention.

In the ed tech space we seem to be going through a phase of coming up with more sensationalist titles and abstracts to get work noticed.

The problem with this is people still don’t seem to be reading the papers, but instead come up with a version of what they think it might say based on a few lines at the start.

Which is nice.

The recent media hype around banning mobile phones is a pretty good example of this. Tracing back, it seems the source is a Centre for Economic Performance paper published in May.

They went with a fairly neutral title of ‘Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance’. But there’s a couple of lines in the  abstract that suggest something bigger is within:

“…we find that student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases post ban.”

“results indicate that these increases in performance are driven by the lowest achieving students.”

And they finish it off with:

“restricting mobile phone use can be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities.”

All of which sounds like we should be rethinking our policy of allowing smartphones in lessons.

The study itself is interesting, and the method is strong. They have a large data set (91 schools) and have controlled for other variables (such as policy or leadership change) that might have had an impact on results.

The impressive results show an improvement in test scores of 6.41% of a standard deviation for the student body as a whole, 14.23% for students in the lowest quartile of prior achievement gain after a mobile phone ban.

But what is missing in the coverage of this story that I saw is the nature of mobile usage in these schools before the ban. The key line from the conclusion:

“these findings do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured.”

Somewhat less eye catching than where we started.

What I take away from this study is that students will become distracted if not engaged in their task (whether that task includes ‘technology’ or not), and that smart phones are distracting things. But, while the research did find that a ban had an impact in these schools they also acknowledge that making use of the tools for learning could do the same.

Certainly a ban would be easier to implement than the kind of large scale curriculum redesign and training required to include smartphones in lessons, but this paper shouldn’t discourage schools who have started down the BYOD route. Mobile devices could be a distraction and there are certainly lessons where they should remain switched off, but they could equally be used for good too.

Read the full discussion paper here.
Great coverage of The Innovators Dilemma story at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Go read.
Image CC licensed on Flickr by


Testing online booking software

Each year after the GCSE results are released our careers advisor offers 1:1 meetings to students who need guidance.

As a school we’ve used Google Apps for a number of years, and staff are used to using the calendar to keep track of appointments. What we wanted to do is give students an easy way to book their careers meetings straight into the calendar, removing another paper-based system in the process. appears to offer everything we need. We can customise the appointment times, avoid duplicate bookings, and it automatically syncs with the careers advisors’ Google Calendar. Students visit the page (embedded into our website), pick their time and get a confirmation email of the booking.

And, it’s free! Worth a look if you’re trying to do similar online booking tasks for your school.

Using Gmail filters to get to inbox zero

inbox zero

I’ve been working at (or very close to) inbox zero for about a year now. Anything more than about 10 emails in my inbox and I get twitchy.

In the main I achieve this following an action / hold / waiting labelling strategy that sits well with the GTD approach to productivity.

I also use the filter settings in Gmail to make sure my inbox only contains email I actually need to review now.

Google have a quick intro to filters here, this is how I have mine set up:

1) Any email that contains the word ‘unsubscribe’ should skip the inbox and go straight to a label called ‘newsletters’

This rule takes any email that gives me an option to unsubscribe, stops it appearing in my inbox and places it in a folder for review when I have time.

It catches all the newsletters and sales blah that I never need to see urgently and hides it until I’m ready. Obviously it’s not foolproof, but I tend to review it at least weekly so I’m never too far from an email from someone who inadvertently used my trigger word.

You should use this alongside actually clicking the unsubscribe link in those that you never read.

2) Any email logs skip the inbox and go to a label called ‘logs’

This is probably a bit specific to the IT admin part of my role. I use the same technique to archive all the various email status notifications I get of successful backups, WordPress updates, etc.

I do a bit of fine tuning on these filters to make sure logs containing errors (that I need to deal with quickly) do hit my inbox.

3) Any email receipts skip the inbox and go to archive

I like to keep a record of purchases in my archive, but I don’t need to see them when they arrive. If I need to find them in future for any reason I can just search.

Beyond these three I have a few custom rules in place to catch more specific cases, but for most cases this keeps my inbox nice and calm.


IFTTT Do & the slow death of the digital camera

I’ve been playing with the new IFTTT camera app and it got me thinking about how the original camera app on my iPhone isn’t as useful as it used to be. After all, it’s just a camera app. If I want it to actually do anything with the photo I’ve taken I have to tell it what to do. By pressing more buttons. How very 2014.

If you haven’t already seen it, IFTTT Do is a set of apps that extend the original IFTTT idea where you provide some simple rules and the software automates them. For example, if I take a photo of a receipt it automatically puts it into my expenses folder in GDrive, a photo of the little monster doing will end up in a shared album for my family. It does what computers do well and automates repetitive manual tasks.

This made me wonder what the market for old school digital cameras was looking like. According to the Camera and Imaging Products Association sales are looking pretty much as you’d expect. Heading down:

Total shipment

Looking at our internal logging we see the same with equipment our staff and students are using for taking photos. Data here is for every booking made to our central equipment pool for activities related to photography:


And, on a more anecdotal note the images on the SD card inside my digital camera have been there for months. There are things from October last year that are really nice but I just haven’t got round to getting them imported.

The reason why I haven’t taken the photos off my camera, why staff & students are borrowing increasingly more iPod Touch, and (I guess) why IFTTT Do exists is that in the main we don’t like the middle steps in the process.

Does that mean our ever smarter ways of working are great because we’re streamlining our processes? We’re more efficiently arriving at our goal with less time wasted on the unnecessary.

Or should we worry about what we’re losing?

By using a smartphone rather than a digital SLR I’m thinking less about shot composition, learning nothing about all the variables that go in to creating a good shot.

Not doing any edits on those pictures takes away a whole load of graphics skills that are easily transferrable to other projects. I might not have learned Photoshop if all I ever did was share pictures from a smartphone.

If the photos never leave the camera roll of your smart device are you sure you know where they are? Are they backed up? Who can see them? Do you even own them? Maybe you’re the next poster family for the anti-gay marriage lobby.

Automating the distribution process seems like it could take the personal touch out, remove an element of control, maybe even proper consideration of the how/what/why of sharing.

Personally I’m finding the IFTTT apps really useful. They’re time savers and fit nicely into my work style. But in our drive for efficiency I wonder what learning opportunities we’re taking away.

I like that I can spend less time faffing with low value pictures and leisure time with my SLR but is that a reflection of the market? Sales don’t suggest it. Will this be the usual routine of sales drop, prices rise, less people can take part in the hobby? Feels like a potentially risky time for the field.