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Questions to help you define your mission - a thing for product managers

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Best practice, How we work

GOV.UK is a busy programme. Every fortnight, we in the programme team check in with our teams to find out what they’ve been up to, what their blockers are, and what they need from us.

I began to realise that sometimes we thought we were talking about the same thing, but when it got down to the details, we weren't. So I wrote up a list of questions to form what might be called a ‘mission brief’. It follows this structure:

  1. What problem is your team solving?
  2. Why are you solving it?
  3. How does it contribute to the wider GOV.UK and GDS mission?
  4. What are the phases to your work?
  5. What questions do you need to ask yourself to make sure you’re delivering the right thing sustainably?
  6. How are you testing and measuring your work?
  7. What deadlines are you working to?
  8. If you had just one month, where would you focus your effort?
  9. How will you know when you’re done?
  10. How much does each sprint or unit of time cost?

The idea is that you could use these questions before starting some work, or (less ideal!) afterwards to make sure the right things are being thought about and considered.

For new missions or unclear pieces of work, this exercise helps with:

  • ironing out the fuzzy bits around the edges - they’re often the things that slow teams down or make prioritisation difficult
  • getting to the ‘why’ - It’s important to find the real reason for the work, interrogating that helps us think more clearly
  • the gap between what the team think they’re doing (which sometimes varies from person to person!) and what the programme team think they’re doing - this is especially important to help bring new people up to speed. We can’t presume they know stuff about things like the connections between pieces of work
  • making sure things are thought about upfront, or in areas we’ve overlooked
  • providing early warnings if a proposed mission is too big, so we can stop and think again

Even when everything is fully understood and agreed, it still helps because:

  • it gives product managers a thing to go back to when prioritisation choices are difficult or unpopular
  • it shows where we’ve deviated from the original plan, and if they’re desirable deviations
  • it is easier to show what’s been delivered because measuring the work impact has been thought about early on, and we know what questions need to be answered

The real purpose of this exercise is to understand:

  • the real ‘why’
  • what the aim is
  • how it’s being measured

The questions help us answer those 3 points.
If you’ve got alternate ways of approaching the same thing, let us know in the comments.

Jennifer Allum is GOV.UK's Lead Product Manager. You can follow Jen on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by Mark posted on

    This is a great list, Jen. I shall be stealing it.

    I'm interested in this one:

    5. What questions do you need to ask yourself to make sure you’re delivering the right thing sustainably?

    How are you defining sustainability? Is this of the team, the work, or both?



    • Replies to Mark>

      Comment by Jennifer Allum posted on

      Hi Mark,
      Glad it's of use! I'm defining sustainability in a broad sense - the pace the team can move at without burning out, as well as how we build so that we aren't always needing to do 'just one more thing'. We're in the process of writing a blog post about sustainability though, so there's more coming on the subject!