Matthew Cain

Personal blog. Day job: Customer services, digital and data in Hackney

Weeknote v10.47

Week beginning 22 November

I feel two contradictory feelings about this week: I’m pleased I did everything that I set out to do, but am worried that I’m limping to the finishing line already. Literally, I’ve consistently ran less far than the previous week and don’t care enough to fix it – even though my stretch target of 1,500 miles for the year remains in view. I also lay awake for hours at least twice this week, which might have had an impact. Sadly, I don’t often notice that I’m tired until I find myself constantly refreshing my phone. 

I spent most of the week in the Service Centre. Nicola is leading our work to improve the experience for residents, making it more welcoming, simpler and ensuring we have the same visibility of what’s happening as we do for services we provide on the phone or on web chat. It’s lovely to join a video call in the atrium and have colleagues remark on what an impressive building it is, more than 10 years after it first opened. And I enjoy working where I can be in the middle of the hustle and bustle rather than being marooned in a meeting room. 

Ron started as head of customer operations. He’s brought a great energy and natural enthusiasm already. His first few weeks are all about orientation and observation and I suspect he’s having to work hard to curb his instincts to get things done.

We also had seven new starters hit the phones on our priority housing repairs lines. We recruited them through the Hackney Works service which helps ensure the heartbeat of the service stays local. The early signs suggest it’s already having a positive impact for tenants, with average waiting times around five minutes for our emergency lines. 

The Repairs Improvement Board met on Friday, providing an important senior-level oversight for the improvements that are needed. It’s important to maintain that system-level view so that we tackle all the things that are making it harder for residents to get the service they need. There are short term improvements we’ve already started to make, and we’ll need to ensure that we address the deeper issues also, so that the changes we make are sustainable. 

I got stuck-in to two projects (our cloud engineering excellence and documents products) in a way that I really enjoy, don’t get a chance to do often enough but also constantly worry about. Getting into the detail of who needs what, when and how that’s best achieved makes me feel like I’m practically making a difference. But I worry that I’m either duplicating what the team is able to do without me or pushing people in the wrong direction as a result of having partial information. 

I also spent some time tackling one of the three thorny issues that I wanted to resolve by Christmas. We’ve got a way forward, which is positive, but I’m also worried that our contrasting opinions on the root cause is going to trip us up. We can’t not act, but will need to tread carefully to ensure that the difference doesn’t undermine the good intentions. 

And with that, next week I’m sort of on holiday for the next week. There are a few work-related things that I want to do but am largely going to be unavailable during working hours. I hope it’ll give me a new perspective on the opportunities and challenges we’re going to tackle in 2022.

Weeknote v10.46

Week beginning 12 November 

I couldn’t handle the pressure of a team that hung on my every word (and it wouldn’t be healthy) but I still get a thrill when I throw something out and someone picks it up. So my week started well when I checked my inbox to find people eager to help deliver the five things that I wanted to see us achieve by Christmas in v10.45. I had a moment on Monday where I had to double-check that I really was committed to those being ‘the things’, But after a year of setting weekly, then fortnightly goals for the software and data recovery workstreams I’ve got much more confident in defining and committing to outcomes. 

I’d resolved that this week and next would be focused on pushing things over the line. It’s the third time this year I’ve had that kind of goal. I don’t enjoy it and am not even sure it works. I’ve never got personal satisfaction from getting things done. If anything, it leaves me feeling dissatisfied. But I’m also uncomfortable with the leadership style. Yes, it says to teams that have been battling with something for a while ‘we’re here to help you get it done’. But it also creates an additional reporting layer which doesn’t add much value and it rarely makes anything go quicker. It also takes a degree of humility; I feel like we’re never less likely to meet the goal within the timeframe than when it’s nearly achieved. Of the three applications that we’re trying to get done by the end of the month, the one that was looking least likely a week ago now looks most likely. 

We published the next level of detail on our plans for the future shape of IT. We’ve made some important adjustments to the previous proposals whilst remaining true to the vision and purpose. We’re pretty confident about the big pieces but the stuff that will affect the day to day for most people needs to be worked through, and we can only do that together. I hope that calling out to lots of our questions will help the team see where they can help make this work. 

One of the themes that keeps returning at the moment is the shortcomings of change that focuses on one part of the operating model (just tech or just skills, for example). That sort of change has its place tactically, where it opens up broader opportunities but can also lead to lots of effort to make marginal progress or, worse, lots of hard work to improve something that remains fundamentally the wrong thing to continue doing. In those cases, designing technology that’s fundamentally simple and flexible is so important because it reduces the cost of future change. 

I had two days in the office this week, which were really enjoyable. There was just enough mix between time to just ‘be around’, meetings where some of the people were also in the office and communal space to do video calls. 

I’ve observed before how it’s hard to stand back when you’re operating in crisis mode. But I wanted to understand how the last year has affected the culture in one of our teams. I was really pleased to get an interesting set of responses to an anonymous survey. Most people thought the culture had changed considerably in the last year and there were some positive insights about the culture and the areas where we need to improve were things that we had already identified. 

Next week Ron starts as our head of customer operations. It’s a vital role to get right. It has to have the same agenda as Angharad’s customer experience team but with different horizons. We need to support the customer success managers to continue to evolve into their new roles and make sure that our proactive work to support vulnerable residents is matched by operational excellence for our transactional services. 

Weeknote v10.45

Week beginning 8 November

A lot of this week was about Thursday evening. It actually started on Wednesday evening. Zoe messaged me following a show & tell about Link Work. This is a new team that is using our Better Conversations approach, developed through COVID, to call residents who we haven’t heard from in a while where who might need our help. The show & tell, held out of hours, had excited the team so much that it ran late. And Zoe thought I should join the next one. So I got into Hackney early on Thursday morning so I could listen to the team share their experiences and promote the work ahead of the next round of secondments we’ll be offering to join the team. I asked about the conversations when people weren’t so pleased that we’d called and was really impressed by the thoughtful, calm response that Maria gave. 

At Thursday lunch, Jasmeen led the IT strategy show & tell to share her experiences of Lauren Currie’s Upfront course. Her presentation was so good that everyone was still buzzing from it that evening when we gathered to say goodbye to Rich Smith. More of the team were together than at any point since last March and it reminded me about all the best things about our team. 

But Thursday also saw the news break about the appalling conditions of a tenant’s home. There’s little about that which benefits from my commentary. But the recent work that we’ve been doing, in close collaboration with the housing leadership team is the most important thing in my job right now and my ability to make a positive difference will be an important part of how I’m judged in the role. 

There were three conversations that really stood out through the rest of the week. I was given some feedback by one of my peers about a project we led together. It was kind, constructive and direct. For me, it makes the difference between being motivated to tackle the issues rather than spending energy getting cross about how the message was communicated. I hijacked the (software) development team meeting to review the progress we’d made following a session in July on their ambitions and goals. We’d made tentative progress towards tackling some of the issues we’d discussed but it also reminded me how much more we could do. I’ll need to work smarter if I’m going to have more impact there. And finally, I took part in a feedback session about another project which has been going well on the surface, but been more challenging for the folk involved. I was pleased I had done it, but also a bit frustrated with myself for not having looked more closely sooner. I’d heard bits about some issues bubbling away but not worked hard enough to understand their importance. 

So my agenda for the last six weeks of the year is looking increasingly clear… and I’m partly committing this to paper to hold myself to account:

  1. We’ve got some clear goals around improving the tenant experience of accessing our repairs service; 
  2. We need to embed the Link Work model so that it can grow int of central part of how we do ‘customer services in Hackney
  3. There are three new projects we need to set-up well, ready for a fast start in 2022 (single view, temporary accommodation and data platform)
  4. Putting the detail on our plans for the future shape in IT
  5. Supporting the new customer operations and customer experience teams settle-in and accomplish their short term goals
  6. There are three thorny internal things that I’ve committed to tackling where progress needs to be tangible before Christmas

Good thing I’ve only got the one week off!

Weeknote v10.44

Week beginning 1 November

A lot of this week was about how much you need to really want something to make it happen. I realised that this week’s note is much easier to write than last week’s poor effort. I’d always prefer to have weeks that are good or bad – never those that just ‘happen’

We managed to haul over the line two things that were complicated and important (a contract issue and an organisational change proposal), and had now become urgent. Rob’s taught me something about diligent unpicking of issues and I’d like to think that I bring the impatience necessary to force an issue. 

I also had an exit interview with Rich where we reflected on how we’d both changed, and how the team has changed, over the three years or so that he’s been in Hackney. The focus that we’ve had over the last 18 months has been necessary and beneficial in many ways but has come at the cost of the audacity of the previous period. I did once wake up on a Saturday morning, design a project and publish a tender for an idea that I had. Now I dream of document migration projects.

We’ve talked about transitioning from start-up to scale-up to try and capture the journey we need to make. But it’s now blindingly obvious to me that, even though most of the team won’t have worked in a start-up, the concept is obvious and the idea exciting. But what on earth is a scale-up, and where’s the benefit of that? It makes more sense as ‘manager needs’ rather than ‘user needs’. There are benefits; in terms of making simple tasks easier, needing fewer conversations and providing more tools to enable teams to focus energies on higher value tasks. But we’ve not explained that or spelt out examples of where we’ve achieved it. (I can be rude about this because the concept was my idea). 

I used the energy from being in the office this week to come up with ideas of how to improve the customer experience. I’ve been wondering what the Hackney version of the Timpson promise might look like. It’s so simple that it would be easy to do ineffectively. But done well it could be a powerful contract between residents, customer services and the wider organisation.

We also did a retrospective on a complex case in order to understand how we could design a more systematic way of identifying emerging problems, earlier. Here to Help is teaching us that there’s a category of problems which aren’t severe enough to justify intervention from any one one service but when we look at all the contact that someone has had with the council we can see a clear case to work together, across our services, to provide early support. 

I was also surprised and delighted by a couple of things the team had done. The facilities team have produced a realtime dashboard showing availability in the service centre, our main building. It’s a tool to help staff feel confident in planning their week. And there was a brilliant post from one of our customer services advisors on their experience of paying council tax to another local authority, with some practical tips for the team on how to ‘be the guide’ and ‘make things simple’ – two of our key behaviours. 

Next week, in fact the next two weeks, are finally feeling ‘lighter’ in terms of diary obligations. I’m hoping to use the extra time to give some real focus to some things that could do with a bit of a push – mostly projects at an early stage that need to get going, and those at a later stage that need to finish well. 

Weeknote v10.43

Week beginning 25 October

Well, I wasn’t anticipating that. There were various scenarios that I thought would have a material impact on my concentration levels this week. The one that I hadn’t considered was the impact of wanting to read every word of every article on the fall-out from the match. A diary full of meetings was helpful in avoiding too many distractions.

The biggest challenge at the moment is the experience for tenants calling for a housing repair. I said to a colleague that on becoming responsible for repairs customer services, I haven’t been able to look at a rainy day in the same way. For all the smart things we can do, fundamentally the team isn’t currently large enough to meet the demand. We’re fixing this – and need to address the underlying challenges. But until it’s better, it’ll continue to bother me (and rightly so). 

The football also made me think about how much of my week was played in my head. On Thursday I went for a run on a course which includes a steady hill between miles 4 and 5. I was so focused on the conversation in my head that I hadn’t noticed reaching the top of the hill.  By the end of Friday I felt like it had been a good end to the week. I’m not sure that there was anything materially different about Friday to, say, Wednesday. The same situation approached with a different mindset just felt different. 

We hosted a visit of colleagues from Brent on Friday to share notes about the customer experience of visiting a Council. It was a chance to try and step outside of what we knew and what we thought and view what we did through a different perspective. I was asking myself, ‘If I leave today, will I be proud of what I’ve contributed?’ The truth is that too many of the gains remain fragile and we haven’t confronted enough of the core challenges. But I’m also fortunate that there are a number of issues on which we’re starting to see a moment to change, which hasn’t been available over the last 18 months. 

I spent more time than I expected thinking about brands – this week about the meaning and mission of what comes next for the IT team. We’ve got some big characters leaving us shortly which is great for their personal growth; we’re proud of what they’ve accomplished and grateful for having their dedication over the last year. We’re evolving out of the cyberattack recovery and need to re-cast the story of who we are, what we do and why we do it. We’ve also got some exciting new joiners who’ve brought a fresh energy and determination and we can harness this to build a new proposition. 

Part of the conversations we’ve been having about facilities management is what we’d do differently if our focus was on colleague experience. To state the obvious, managing the facilities isn’t an end in itself. Part of the challenge with FM is that it’s mostly obvious if something isn’t working. So we’ve been thinking about how we can provide reassurance that we’re there, looking after things behind the scenes. It’s important we do this together to avoid ideas that are good in theory but don’t add value in practice. 

I’m looking at my diary next week and again struggling to spot a theme or direction, beyond ‘busy-ness’. So it’s a perfect opportunity for me to work on my balance. There have been slightly too many occasions recently where I haven’t quite got it right. I’ve tried to be more comfortable in setting clear expectations and providing feedback. But occasionally this has tipped into expressing frustration because it’s the easier option, rather than the more helpful one. So next week I’ll try and take it one meeting at a time. 

Weeknote v10.42

Week beginning 18 October 

I spent much of my week thinking about brand, one way or another. There were four different aspects of my responsibilities that prompted this – and highlighted a challenge that I’ve not yet tackled.

The early part of the week was about preparations for work we’re doing to agree what needs to be completed to have finished the recovery from the cyberattack. I had picked up a bit of a theme that some colleagues had heard too much about the things we were proud of at the expense of things we knew we hadn’t done well enough. So the senior managers network was an opportunity to explain why it was reasonable to be proud and optimistic about what else our recovery enabled us to achieve but also be frank about where we’ve fallen short. Humility certainly isn’t part of my brand (even if flagellation may be) but openness in our team is a prerequisite for an effective technology service.

We’ve been exploring how we can use the report to define recovery to update residents on progress. Whether software A or software B is now recovered isn’t interesting or helpful for someone to know, but ‘can I do x?’ is simpler to answer now than previously. But it’d be even more helpful if we could personalise these so that we’re able to provide an update that’s relevant to their circumstances. As always, we’ll need to get the detail right if it’s going to build confidence in what we do. 

I heard more about the proactive, preventative work we’re doing to support vulnerable residents. It’s still in an experimental phase. We’re trying to learn about how we can use our data and our skills to have a meaningful conversation with residents to understand their circumstances and helps us work together to tackle their problems. If we could turn that into a core part of what we do it could have an extremely positive impact. And part of how we know we’ll have succeeded is if we can make it part of the promises we make to residents and their expectations of us.

In amongst all of this, the public health team led a session to consider how our services could help address health inequalities. Through the discussion we talked about trauma informed approaches, psychologically informed environments and the strengths-based approach, Make Every Contact Count. We’re also trying to embed equalities and sustainability in everything we do. It made me think about the richness of what we can achieve by working together and how fulfilling these roles can be for staff. But also the risk of significant confusion for staff. I left wondering: how can we synthesise these into some practical tools that help colleagues actively apply this whilst also remaining effective?

I was invited to participate in an event with colleagues from easyJet Holidays and the DfE about customer experience. I used the words of our Resident Liaison Group as the starting point for my theory: “don’t call us customers, we don’t have a choice”. I explained that as a local council there’s no good that comes of an experience that doesn’t meet someone’s expectations but that we should aim higher than a transactional service that ‘doesn’t make me think’, towards a citizen relationship. The subsequent conversation helped me reflect on how much more we could do to define our brand, and therefore the experience we want to offer. 

It’d be lovely to think that I could do something with all of these thoughts next week. But it’s currently feeling like a very different challenge. I’ve got 42 meetings scheduled about (roughly) 30 different things; three reports to write and then somehow to find some time to spend on things that need to happen to resolve issues and challenges that have emerged over the last couple of weeks. None of that will really matter if we beat United on Sunday. But in the meantime, it’s probably time to start making a list.

Weeknote v10.41

Week beginning 11 October

It’s hard not to view this week entirely through the prism of Friday. That’s not what I expected. But before I get too self-indulgent, whilst Friday was personally challenging, the tragic and foul news of David Ames’ murder was a reminder that what I faced wasn’t that difficult. 

I’d ended Thursday so well. I felt productive and full of energy to such an extent that I had to make an effort to actually stop working. That had all disappeared by Friday morning. And by the afternoon the thought of looking at my inbox was intimidating. 

There are two things that I’ve found harder in my current role than I expected: the realtime pressure of customer services is different even compared to when I was responsible for running our (then not particularly robust) business applications. And even for a gadfly like me, one way I manage the breadth of my responsibilities is to try and reduce my focus. So when it feels like I’m fighting on multiple fronts in realtime, I’m still adapting. 

Friday began when a technology options paper that we’d invested a lot of time and care to in preparation for senior leaders, didn’t land well. We had limited time so had to move beyond how we felt about that towards what we’d do about it. The commute into the office was really helpful for me, because I used it to try and separate my investment in the work to date in order to view the feedback we’d received differently. Whilst we were writing it, my inbox started to fill up with another concern from a tenant whose home needed repairs work. I immediately thought back to the fortnight last winter when we had no heating – but also knew how privileged I was by comparison. And then in the afternoon, some difficult news about one of our buildings and how people reacted to that, created a different flurry of activity and concern. 

Early in the week I felt as though I was making good progress. I wasn’t exactly ticking this off a task list but a startling number were moving forward. I even had a chance on Wednesday to check against the goals that I’d set and recalibrate what I was doing on Thursday to manage the gap between my tasks and the goals. It hasn’t stopped me having a few chunky reports and proposals to work through over the next couple of days, but there’s something about that feeling when you’re getting things done on your own terms which is satisfying. 

As part of my theme of leaning in to complex challenges, I ran a short session to learn from a recent application outage. We’re exploring how product teams could give clearer responsibility and skills for tackling these sort of challenges and I wanted to learn what the experience meant for those proposals. The answer, interestingly, was less than I assumed. But it also identified two specific things we can improve around our processes. Because they’re important but no longer urgent, I’ll need to try particularly hard to find time to move these forward next week. 

I also presented work to our Cyber GOLD command on recovery from the cyberattack. We’ve always known that there will be differences between the points at which software will be available, data will be recovered and the service that residents receive will be efficient. The challenge I heard wasn’t unique to recovery but can be found in any transformation initiative: How do you make a clear commitment to residents about the future which will not only be reflected in their own experience of a service but also amplified by staff? 

Next week I’m most looking forward to taking part in a Forward Institute event on engaging responsibly with consumers and citizens. I’ll get to learn from some peers in easyJet and the Department for Education whilst reflecting on where the relationships between citizens, residents and customers (the same people, where the language implies different values) can both improve and inhibit public service delivery. My particular challenge for the event is how to balance between provocative and interesting whilst remaining considered and thoughtful. But I’ll be taking the words of the Resident Liaison Group into the session: ‘don’t call us customers – we don’t have a choice’. 

Weeknote v10.40

Week beginning 4 October

We called it a year to define a decade and there’s now just 12 weeks left. That’s enough time for me to influence the extent to which we can end it on a high.

It’s striking quite how supportive colleagues continue to be. I treasure that because it’s the harder choice. At Friday’s Council Silver command (the 46th cyber I’ve done) we shared an early draft of a status report of the work done, in progress and still to do; broken down by search service. My hunch is we’d all benefit from an agreed definition of ‘done’. More than ever we’re now also delivering key outcomes beyond cyberattack recovery whether to upgrade the Wi-Fi, or upgrade our Academy database. So we need to make sure we’re not leaving important things un-done and that we can deliver the next phase of work sustainably.

I also had to revisit the early days of the attack this week in a presentation to technology leaders from European cities. It was a year ago on Sunday that everything changed. It’s a story that’s important to tell and I’m passionate about sharing what we learnt. But it’s getting harder, not easier, to go back there. Nevertheless, I’m toying with doing a personal retrospective. Working in a crisis does compromise your ability to be truly reflective and I should spend a bit of time assessing where I’ve been least effective.

Coincidentally, I also visited a bar on Thursday night that I’d last been in the night before lockdown. It’s part of my commitment to investing in local businesses, of course. But Friday afternoon might have been more energetic if my commitment wasn’t quite so strong.

Over the last week or so I’ve been actively working on responsible leadership. In particular the importance of setting clear standards. It led to me twice being cross on a single day which has almost never happened (as far as I know). I’m not sure that’s a particularly good thing. It’s not inherently bad but it doesn’t leave you very far to go and it’s not particularly constructive. More helpfully I’ve been trying to eek out time to confront some of our thornier challenges. I’m partly culpable for many of these things and I can see the frustration that they cause. They still exist because there aren’t easy answers so I also need to make sure we can focus on actually developing solutions or else bringing the issue into view could lead to greater frustration.

Next week’s a bit of a TK Max week – a jumble of things where it’s hard to work out where to find the value. It’s the first week in a while. But it also coincides with our new head of customer experience starting in Hackney – so that’s exciting, and hopefully I can find enough time to make that focussed and fulfilling rather than vaguely overwhelming and scattergun. 

Weeknote v10.39

Week beginning 27 September 

Objectively that wasn’t bad. Three of those four important meetings went well. I left having given a good account of the current position and had a mandate to do what was needed. The other was cancelled – which wasn’t a bad sign. I didn’t actively work the goals for the week but for one that I delayed (on which, more later) the others have all made satisfactory progress. I also had time for the other issues I needed to care about immediately meaning the goals didn’t distort. 

Most importantly I felt as though we made progress in developing a shared understanding that we needed to work together to improve the experience for residents in one of our most in-demand services. Previously we’ve been stuck in a bit of a silo and we’ve now got an opportunity to be ambitious and look at addressing the whole problem. The team had gone to considerable effort to help me prepare well. I also remembered the importance of taking a piece of work on the last mile myself. It helps me really question and internalise the argument. 

We spent some time working together to improve how we use our specialist skills following an initial workshop a couple of weeks ago. It’s almost certainly a wicked problem or at least the wrong question to ask. The competing demands and overall too many activities required of some people are a consequence of a myriad of other issues. They need to be tackled too. But as we discussed at the workshop, the causes are also related to our culture and mindset. My hypothesis is that if we were to attempt to fix one of these problems in isolation, we’d find that the problem wasn’t solved. 

I found myself asking people for updates slightly too many times. That’s a criticism of me, not them. I’ve always felt that as a senior manager spending someone’s time to update you on their work is asymmetrical – you’re the only person getting any value and you’re providing an explanation to someone for whom it is more important, which is typically because priorities aren’t aligned. It highlights that you’re not close enough to the work to know what’s happening and that you may not have prioritised the right things. Yes, that’s sometimes necessary but I’m not pleased with myself when I have to do it. 

I’ve also been ineffective at making good time from things cancelled at short notice. I had three or four spare hours this week. But rather than seize them as an opportunity to do one of the longer, more involved tasks on my list I tended to fiddle with lots of things. I’ll pay for that over the weekend!

Subjectively it wasn’t a good week. There were one too many things where I understood the issue but I was just grumpy about how other people positioned themselves on the issue. Perhaps it’s better than being surprised by their positioning. But it’s still not good. Possibly the biggest difference between working in-house for the long haul and consultancy or shorter term missions that I’ve done previously is the importance of sustaining long term relationships through the ups and downs. By Thursday evening I was delighted to be able to sit in a pub on my own. Although the feeling hadn’t gone by Friday. 

There’s lots I’m looking forward to next week. I’m attending an event for digital leaders in a number of European cities. We’re getting better at learning from our peers in England but I know far too little about digital in other cities. We’ve got two important meetings with senior stakeholders about our strategy in customer services. We’re interviewing for a growth opportunity for team members. And generally it’s one of those weeks where most days are sufficiently busy that they will take care of themselves. 

Leadership in a digital age

I’ve learnt a thing or two about leadership in a digital age, certainly since the days when I encouraged leaders to show their digital credentials by blogging or listening to Twitter. I’ve recently led software and data recovery from a cyberattack during significant pre-planned organisational change. The more I see, the less I’m convinced that efforts at digital capability building are aimed at the right target. 

So what does it take to lead an organisation towards adopting the practices, cultures and technology of the internet-era to respond to people’s ever-increasing expectations? Rarely a training course in technology. 

It does require credible, collaborative and unrelenting technology leadership. You can’t be an organisation fit for the 21st century on premise. If your technology leadership is more into blockchain than user needs, you’re doomed. If your technology leaders can’t connect with staff handing down infosec judgements from on-high, no amount of McKinsey can save you. But that’s fixable. 

Technology leadership and leadership of an organisation powered by technology aren’t the same and pitching the former to the latter won’t appeal. So what are the broader attributes required of organisation and system leadership to foster a truly digital culture?

There are four aspects of public service transformation in a digital era where traditional leadership techniques come up short:

  1. That change is driven by citizen / customer expectations where we don’t get to determine the solution and the consequences of not meeting expectations are much more visible
  2. The speed of change and that it’s continuous and iterative in nature requires much more attention to governing change as a process rather than the result
  3. We’re tackling complex, inter-connected problems which aren’t well suited to traditional analysis and measurement
  4. To succeed in this changed environment, we need to default to working in the open and being genuinely inclusive – both of which can feel threatening

Technology-driven change doesn’t fail because senior leaders don’t understand the technology but because they don’t understand the change. That’s where capability building needs to start. 

Customers over helicopters

Analogue leaders take a helicopter view: have we got the big issues across the operating model? They prefer to stay out of the detail. They’re routinely shielded from messy realities. They’ll happily chair any number of status update meetings talking about the ‘thing’ but not for them witnessing the experience. 

Digital leaders take a customer view: what’s the experience we want to provide and what’s causing the gap with the current experience? They’ll start with customers and work back, translating between their direct experience and the anecdote they hear from customers and staff and the work that they’re leading. Digital leaders understand the value proposition and what capabilities need to work together to achieve it. 

Process and outcomes

Analogue leaders prize results. They want to know if we’ve done what we said we’d do in the time that we allocated. They want to know the number of things: widgets shipped on time, trends over time. 

Digital leaders don’t sacrifice the process to achieve the output*. They understand that change is continuous and want teams working at a sustainable pace. The outcome is more important than the output. They want to achieve scale and systematise where success can be replicated. They’re comfortable with numbers and curious about the outcomes: have we solved the problem for people? They understand that outcomes can be complex and uncertain and not always achieved through replication.

Managing technical and adaptive change differently

Analogue leaders manage all change as if it were the same. They convene people around a problem and instruct them to solve it. They may track progress to a fixed point; manage variation against the initial guess and get cross when the two vary. 

Digital leaders spot the difference between certain change to a fixed point and uncertain change to an ambiguous feature. They know when to make things simpler how to carry uncertainty for others and when to lean in to tensions.  

Demanding openness and inclusive

Analogue leaders default to working in private. They value structure as the mechanism to identify what matters and to know who to call to instruct a change. They trust their team through clearly defined accountabilities. 

Digital leaders are open by default. They recognise that continuous change can only be achieved through small, interoperable capabilities working well together. They know that openness is a prerequisite for innovation. They are comfortable working across and down the hierarchy. They manage teams and actively work to foster an inclusive culture. They don’t, often enough, challenge their own behaviours and assumptions to ask how they are standing in the way of genuine inclusion. 

Meeting in the middle

You can’t make analogue leaders digital through a sheep-dip in Agile, an immersion in micro-services or writing code in a day. It’s about culture and mindset. 

But the digiterati could stop making things worse. ‘I’m young and/or can write software and so know more about running your organisation than you’ is a curious kind of pitch – though it continues to be made. ‘If you don’t understand our lingo or dress like us, you can’t be in our club’ works more than it should. 

Helping people think differently needs to start in a safe place: with problems they recognise and solutions they’re yearning for. Taking the digital out of leadership might be a start. 

* I re-worded this after advice from @Pentri

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