Matthew Cain

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

Weeknote v10.37

Week beginning 20 September

I’m cross with myself this week. When you’re senior the expectations on you are generally less clear, in my experience. But there are some things that you obviously have to do well. And this week I did one of those things badly. I failed to prepare for a meeting about service performance. And rather there being one obvious reason, there are a few not-particularly-satisfactory reasons. It’s hard to know what to draw from the experience when you know exactly what you needed to do but you’re not clear why you didn’t do it. Needless to say, I don’t expect to repeat the mistake. 

There were positives too, but they were different. I had two in-person collaboration sessions. One was to draft a business case which is exactly the sort of task that I normally find too dull to concentrate on to the point of completion, instead finding it too easy to get it mostly done and then let the final bits drag. Sitting with Lisa meant that I was too embarrassed to quit early and so we pushed it to the finish line. Kelly and I then drafted a Playbook for customer services, covering all the different things we do, why and how we do them, in preparation for the new managers joining the service. We won’t truly understand its value in the next 3-6 weeks but over the next 12-18 months if it gets used and iterated. So it was good to create something good enough to find out whether it will persist. 

The highlight of my week was facilitating a workshop to explore how we match people and skills with projects. We’re currently structured in professional groupings and for our more hard-to-recruit professions making sure the right people and working on the right thing is non-trivial. But it’s also a task that can lead to friction for project teams. The people I asked to take part did so bravely and in the right way, which made my task easier. But if I’m honest, what I enjoyed most was dusting off my ‘design and deliver a workshop’ skillset and remembering how to do it. It’s been I-don’t-know-how-long since the last time and it always takes more care and attention than I anticipated. 

At the end of the week we got together the customer success managers to discuss our focus for the next quarter (or so). I’ve an idea around prioritisation which works theoretically but needs some care if we’re to make it work on a daily basis so I wanted to float it before the week was out. It was one of those sessions that would have taken three weeks to organise if we were meeting in person and booking a room. But I remain unsure about whether dropping that sort of idea late on a Friday is a good idea or not. 

So there’s enough to take comfort from, even if I have made more work for myself, and others, through my mistake. 

Next week, I’m back on the meetings treadmill for much of the week and it feels like very few are ‘mine’. But on Friday we’re coming together as a management teamwork work through the next level of detail about our future shape – and that’s worth looking forward to. 

Weeknote v10.36

Week beginning 6 September 

The more I think about this week the less clear I am on what to say about it. That may not bode well for you, dear reader. I began by thinking that I’d achieved most of the things that I intended. But on closer inspection I’m not sure I used the goals for the fortnight as actively which meant that whilst I did some stuff, I’m not sure how much I achieved.

Tuesday gave the best feeling. It had been a hot day and by the time I dropped my daughter at swimming I felt like I had no energy. Then I ran for an hour (there’s literally nothing else to do thanks to some non-existent spatial planning) and came back full of energy, which helped me smash through a number of tasks that I’d been delaying.

I also got some valuable feedback on how I was planning to set out our recovery status. In essence it was ‘don’t start from there’. I’d done enough to do justice to what I was intending and the feedback was clear enough to be able to change course without that leading to duplicate effort. 

From time to time I struggle to manage the back-and-forth involved in some tasks. There’s just enough time to do the first thing but then not the follow-up. I feel particularly bad about that when I’ve asked someone to do something and they do it efficiently, and then it sits back with me for some time. There were a couple of particularly good examples in facilities management this week. In the back of my mind there must be a better way of managing these things which aren’t quite tasks and definitely aren’t projects. But I haven’t found it yet. 

I was out of the office, as it were, for two days this week at the LGC pensions conference. It’s interesting to be immersed in someone else’s world, and I had also been asked to speak about cyber security. Being an expert in neither wasn’t going to deter me. And helpfully the Pensions Regulator makes cyber resilience a specific obligation on fund administrators and trustees.

Next week I’m expecting two genuinely collaborative days – working with a colleague on the business case for the next phase of develop of our data platform and building out the customer services playbook with Kelly. We’ve also got an important workshop about how we plan the always-too-contended allocation of software engineering skills across our products.

Weeknote v10.35

Week beginning 30 August 

It’s properly the end of summer now. The weather helped reinforce that it’s time to return fully to work. And last week was a fun enough holiday that I neither resented that nor had a broken night’s sleep in anticipation. But I did go through my diary and identify something each week to look forward to.

I spent the first day back in the office. It wasn’t much of an occasion- just video calls and hopping between screens – but it felt a useful way to re-establish a working mentality.

I was particularly excited by the customer services leadership team away day. The very words contain enough to make others shudder. But with the new structure starting to take shape I wanted to get the team together so that it felt like a new start. For those who were promoted there was a danger not enough changes – particularly with other roles still subject to recruitment. I also wanted to share with the team some of the techniques that I’d learnt to practice through responsible leadership.

The agenda was overly ambitious – and I was nearly thwarted by the trains being cancelled. But I got there and we got there, covering the meat of the day and still avoiding the 5.30pm close that I’d threatened.

We had a different style of session with the IT management team to establish the next level of detail on our future shape (more PostITs, more jargon). We’ve done a significant amount of activity since we published our first ideas and now need enough time to do that justice and enough urgency to keep folk with us.

I had a bit of a scramble in what spare time I had, to move forward the goals for the fortnight but the discipline remains positive. Unfortunately, there are a number of tasks that went on my list in early August and are still glaring at me. Most are important rather than urgent but two knotty things in particular need more care than I’ve been able to give.

Two in-person workshops and three trips to the office left me sitting in front of the TV on Friday night wondering when my family last felt this mysterious. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Next week promises less glamour – although a trip to a pensions conference is more exciting than it may sound, even if it does focus on cyber security. We also need to progress our proactive outreach pilot – one of the initiatives I’m most invested – before it gets too close to the great boiler switch-on in housing repairs. But more prosaically, I returned from holiday determined to get out of bed when my alarm goes off – and failed each morning. Must do better next week.

Weeknote v10.32

Week beginning 9 August

It’s been three weeks since I’ve written a weeknote. You might have noticed the internet running faster without all that traffic going to this (humble?) blog. The first week I should have done, but chickened out. There was a thing that would have been bizarre not to talk about but where doing so wouldn’t have been helpful or useful. Then the next two I was sort of on holiday. I was away with my family but wanted to fit in some interviews. It felt wrong for colleagues to live with uncertainty whilst I was kicking back on the beach. I probably ended up displeasing everyone. Hey ho. 

We flew back on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday did feel like returning to work – but I was carrying the standard 80-or-so unread emails, rather than the several hundred that a two week break normally inspires. 

Pleasingly, we made some decent progress against all of the goals I set for the last few weeks. We’re transitioning to fortnightly goal setting to fit better with the flow of projects. The challenge is making sure these are big and strategic enough that they aren’t just weekly goals strung out over a longer period. 

I’m designing a challenge exercise to get some different perspectives on the progress of our software and data recovery workstream. Depending on the last email I’ve received I’m either feeling confident that we’ve got things under control or intimated by how much further we have to go. 

The interviews weren’t always easy and giving bad news to good candidates is hard, but I’m really pleased with the outcome. Next week we’ll be unveiling the leadership team for customer services and I’m really excited by the balance and blend it offers. We’ve particularly benefited from the input of a group of staff who participated in a ‘meet the candidates’ exercise. They didn’t get to vote on their preference but their insights helped emphasise some of our own thoughts and reflections on what we’d learnt through the structured process. 

The work on the data platform project has helped us learn more about our vulnerable residents. Shortly we’ll be able to put this to use by proactively contacting people to make sure they’re getting the services they need. A personalised, proactive offer is critical to our vision for customer services and I believe that it can ultimately help us provide better services at lower cost. So it’s an exciting moment to put some big, and much talked about concepts, into practical effect. 

Next week is my last before an actual holiday so I need to prepare properly. The new structure in customer services takes effect in September, so we need to make sure it feels different for the team. We’ve made good progress with our phone roll-out and will shortly move into the exciting phase of introducing it for the contact centre. We’ve got a couple of software projects moving into implementation phase. And we need to make sure that we’re doing all of the rights things so that the last four months of the year will be as effective as the first. 

Weeknote v10.28

Week beginning 19 July

A week where we achieved every goal that I set. But we also grappled with a couple of significant things that blew us off course and were generally a bit demoralising. There are two things that I find challenging about these scenarios. As a leader I want to be consistent and proportionate. So when bad things happen I need to work hard to channel how I feel in the right way. And it’s also important not to carry feelings from one meeting into the next. That’s particularly hard when the only thing separating two meetings is the ‘hang up’ and ‘join’ buttons on the screen. 

We had a productive session when Rob’s management team on Tuesday. We spent a healthy amount of time in the park, and everyone else was too grown-up for me to suggest taking the logical next step to Pub on the Park. We made a useful contribution to the thinking about how we can meet the savings challenge (but gosh that’s hard to do well) and thought about how we can set clearer expectations for our teams. Potentially the most powerful thing we did was to make some personal commitments for the next six weeks or so, and found a way that we can hold each other to account for whether or not we succeed.  

A couple of times I sensed a kind of tiredness/grumpiness in a couple of the issues that I dealt with. And we had to deal with some tricky (though not unusual) situations in our service centre. I feel awkward about looking forward to a break, because it’s only 7 weeks since my last one. But I suspect the heat has made the last week harder. 

I used the goals for the week (and my endless lists) as a device to bring myself back on course on Thursday morning. It was a way of checking whether I was finding enough focus on the things that mattered. But I’d also like to think more actively about what things I need to make sure are done really well, as opposed to just finished. I’m having to make lots of trade-offs at the moment and would benefit from having just enough opportunities to retain a clear sense of what ‘excellence’ looks like. 

I learnt most this week in a session with our development team. We were hoping to meet face to face but that didn’t feel responsible given the infection rates and, frankly, how central they all are to the delivery of so many important pieces of work. I facilitated a session to find out their ambitions for the next 18 months and what needed to change for them to achieve them. There were a few themes that I was expecting, but three things I wasn’t. There’s a real desire to play a more dominant role alongside our agency partners, to have a clearer strategy for our approach to front-end development and an ongoing challenge to balance delivery, learning and wellbeing. I’ve got partial answers for some of this but frustratingly I had to leave the session before we’d really finished. So a challenge to return to. 

We’re shifting to fortnightly goal settings from next week. That will help us fit into the rhythms of the teams more neatly and introduce a less frenetic cadence to our work. But it will also place more emphasis on ensuring that we look long as well as short so that we know we’re on the right track. We’ll also need to keep a close eye on blockers so that they are identified and resolved quickly. I’m also expecting to spend a significant amount of time on recruitment over the next few weeks, so it’ll be important to plan my diary appropriately.

Weeknote v10.27

Week beginning 11 July

Strange week. I actually did some useful things, I think and twice managed to avoid doing things that would have been disruptive. But it felt unsatisfactory to be part of. There isn’t a single cause. And sat in the sun this morning, it could be worse!

The five main things that I took responsibility for . . . 

Developing a business case for the next phase of work with social care. I was lucky enough to have two decent-length train journeys which was enough to take a deep breath and tell the whole story in a way that (hopefully) is simple enough to make sense without being so simple that it could be misleading. 

How we’re going to tackle voids management in our housing programme. Voids (the process which manages a home from the point at which it’s becoming vacant to the point at which it’s occupied), is, I’m learning, a meta process. It draws together processes which work on their own and need to be joined-up to keep to a minimum the period where the home is empty. Thankfully there’s some good public literature we can draw from and we could orchestrate a good conversation with the product teams in repairs and tenancy management. 

How we’re managing asset data in housing The Building Safety Act requires a golden thread of safety information for landlords managing a building. There are lots of asset management databases that do these tasks. But we also need to manage adjacent activities – like repairs, rent accounts and supporting vulnerable tenants. So making sure we have a single source of truth, whilst ensuring that tools support those workflows isn’t trivial. So I wanted to make sure that we were approaching this in the right way. 

How we’re embedding an engineering mindset in development. Rashmi has been leading some really impressive work to codify more of the work we’re doing in solution architecture, security and reusable components. None of that’s mine, but I wanted to make sure we had oversight of it at Cyber Silver so we could ensure we’re having the right conversations and scrutiny throughout the development lifecycle. 

We’re at a different stage of development with our cloud platform but similarly, we need to take stock and capture what we’ve achieved, where we’re making progress and also reflect the things we haven’t yet done. I gave some thought to the areas we needed to cover and hoped that I’d left enough space for James and Darren to figure out how best to convert that into something useful. 

I looked at these in a different light thanks to my Steve Gerrard revelation last week. It was probably too late (or I was too slow) to work appreciably differently. But it did help me think more deliberately about the holes I was leaving elsewhere on the pitch.  

I was fortunate that there were so many things that I could just glance at. A full list would be too long. Marian is leading the next stage of the rollout of our new phone system and has taken forward the useful things we learnt from the initial release into a set of further phased releases. Zoe has led the new stage of work on Here to Help which has involved an evaluation by UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and collaborating with Newham Council to create a toolkit for services looking to adopt preventative approaches. The housing finance products team has brought our arrears management tools back into use to support the income collection team.  

But I also started making a list of the things I wasn’t doing. In theory, it should give me a reference point either for times when I’ve got spare capacity and/or when those things move from being important to urgent. That’s three lists now: the things I actually need to do; the things I need to watch and the things I’m not doing. 

There’s a possibility that next week is my last full week at work for a couple of weeks. I’ve got a vague plan for a holiday. I’m often reluctant to really commit to a break – and COVID provides cover for legitimising that. But as we think about the shape of recovery, it feels as though we’re coming towards the end of a phase where some really big ticket items are coming to a conclusion. Some of the next wave of projects have taken longer to get going than we’d have liked (typically for reasons beyond our control). But they’re no less important. So we need to be careful to ensure they have the same energy, commitment and focus whilst being realistic that it’s going to be hard to muster that over the 6 weeks around August particularly if parts of a team are unavailable at different times. 

In the meantime, I have a list of three to attend to . . . 

Weeknote v10.26

Week beginning 5 July

PSN: we did it. There was, inevitably, another unexpected step required. But some three months after I thought it could be done, it was. Clive Woodward talks about conducting post-mortems after success and letting go after failure. But on an occasion like this, you reach the finish line and it’s hard to muster the energy for very much. 

I’m not a fan of programmes, mostly. Too often they design a heavy governance structure that removes senior decision makers from the messy reality of project delivery; suck up time in unnecessary levels of coordination and work within artificial boundaries. But our work in housing is benefitting from some of the positive aspects of programmes: an emerging sense of community and common purpose, a forum to talk about dependencies where they’re identified, and just enough independence that each team can deliver on its own merits. That’s particularly important now we’re working through cross-cutting processes like managing housing ‘voids’, citizen sign-on and cautionary alerts.  

Emma’s done a cracking job in supporting the teams developing modern tools for social care, which I’ve also learnt from. I’ve a constant fear with Agile that it’s too interested in itself – the process. But the social care technology teams were in crisis mode for a long time – always scrambling towards the next big milestone. Eventually that came at the cost of our ability to deliver value continuously. By prioritising how the team was working she’s helped unblock what they’re doing. 

Most of my week wasn’t about the efforts to convert the Hackney Service Centre into a vaccinations site. That was the work of the public health, facilities team with the support of customer services managers and user research. But there I wager that these sorts of efforts have done more to integrate councils and local health services than a year worth of health integration boards.  

I’ve been thinking about the early-stage career of Steven Gerrard this week. Not just because I’ve been trying to identify the root cause of my Ingerland fatigue. Gerrard was thrilling to watch – tackling, shooting,passing, defending, scoring. All action. But every job he was doing meant that there was another job he wasn’t. There are a few things that I’ve worked hard to really immerse myself in. But I was wondering whether this comes at a price. Do I just vacates a space that I should be occupying: to be able to stand-back and view something more objectively? I know that there are some things I struggle to critique because I feel responsible for it as a co-creator. 

We talk of technology being an enabler of providing value to residents. But in a context where we’ve simply not had enough of the basics, it’s easy for technology to become the end in itself. Sometimes in our recovery that’s the right approach. But the combined impacts of COVID, the cyberattack and the vulnerability of our residents means it won’t necessarily be. I’ve been thinking about our portfolio of activities and working to steer a couple towards an approach which is more holistic. 

Next week

We’re looking to confirm the key goals for the next three months of cyberattack recovery. With so much to do, there’s real merit in forming a shared opinion of how our performance will be judged. But it’s hard to know how far to push this: either in describing how ‘priorities’ will be treated relative to all the other things that should, and will happen and the extent to which it matters that we’ve got common priorities. At some point soon, I also need to look ahead to the end of the year: where do we want to be and have we got sufficient focus and impetus to get there? Doing this before September feels important so that we’ve got time to respond. 

Weeknote v10.25

Week beginning 28 June

I’ve struggled to hit my stride with weeknotes in the last few weeks. My oldest friend asked last weekend why I share them publicly. And when I’m not writing well, I wonder the same. At the moment my weeknotes are particularly conditioned by how I feel on a Friday evening. But I do it because the habit helps for when I really need it. So bear with me. 

The best thing happened right at the end of the week. I ran a session with customer services officers to understand what we could do to support their career development. The Council created a redeployment pool to support service delivery during COVID and I wondered how we could build on that. 

Some of the team were frustrated by the knock-backs and even talked about “giving up”. But there were some cracking ideas for how to change the situation, including establishing a peer support group, and analysing job descriptions to identify particular skills they might be missing. We’re also going to explore how we can showcase the skills in the team so that hiring managers can consider secondments when looking for short-term roles. It was energising and impressive to hear people wanting help, but who were also willing to commit to tackling the problem. 

I had a catch up with the team exploring how we can use technology better to support the administration of elections. They’ve got a clear brief, and their weeknotes have provided enough depth to understand progress. But part of what we’re asking was necessarily about working in ‘splendid isolation; whilst also exploring how many of our existing assets they could re-use to explore this solution. It was impressive to see the clarity of thinking and how well they’ve stuck to the task. 

We also had a productive discussion with social care leaders on our work to support the service.  We’ve got a shared understanding of the roadmap over the next three months and Emma’s been able to work hard on how the team is working so that we’ve a more sustainable approach to delivery.

But the most meaningful achievement was working with the NHS to turn the Hackney Service Centre into a vaccination site for the weekend. I sat back and watched in awe as the facilities and customer services team worked with our user researchers, data protection team and public health colleagues to design the experience and manage everything from the temperature of the building to the way we’d use SMS to manage supply and demand. And I can claim absolutely no credit for any of it.

All those good things notwithstanding, there were some pretty tricky bits this week, too. I set too many goals and failed to meet them. We did as good a job as we could with the launch of the new phone system (given how I’d framed the project) but we learnt late about some of the questions that users had, which I hadn’t anticipated. And there were some people things which I found personally challenging.

I was also frustrated with myself when I failed to be an active participant in a couple of short and tells. There was one in particular that didn’t quite work – but I couldn’t quite work out why. And promptly got distracted by another meeting. I need to do better by actively thinking about what I’m hoping to learn from the event so that one got a clear criteria by which to judge it.

So next week I’ve “rolled over” a few goals and need to magic some time out of thin air to attended to the growing number of things which need my input if they’re to move forward. Success for the week probably looks like getting to the end without dropping anything too pressing. But that dynamic often helps me focus.

Weeknote v10.24

Week beginning 21 June

I feel basically pretty positive about this week. There are good reasons to. The launch of Repairs Hub was basically successful and within 24 hours reduced the length of the average emergency repairs call by a minute and by the end the week to about two minutes, or 16%. That’s the power of designing tools with staff, that work the way they need to. 

Accompanying that, Kelly had built out the action plan so that we could share with councillors and residents the steps we’re taking to manage the expected high demand for repairs, now that normal service has resumed. 

I also had time to design the high-level plan for a career development scheme in customer services, sufficient to start a discussion with colleagues as we tailor it to their needs. 

On three occasions I had enough time to do things that were important, rather than just those which my diary determined to be important. So lots of reasons to feel positive. 

But it’s all about perspective. We still haven’t been able to solve access to the PSN. I committed to doing a document to help progress our elections work, and did one but not the other. We solved a capacity constraint, but because of Soraya’s hard work and because we got lucky, rather than anything I did. 

What I’m learning

I need a bit of an ego to keep going. But a saga like PSN is a healthy reminder that I can’t make things better by getting stuck-in. I also managed to break hackit.org.uk by trying to rush a software update (I think). There must be a sweet spot somewhere in the middle – where you’ve enough confidence and sense of possible achievement to get the extra motivation you need but not so much that you expect to succeed. Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. Sadly, Gramsci might also have contributed to the culture wars. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I did three creative things this week. It was playing on my mind that I’d spent so long thinking technically that I’d not actively thought imaginatively or creatively of late. The first time was on a task that I did in a car park in Barnet during my daughter’s swimming lesson, but it seemed to make it easier to do two more. I’ve got low expectations: the results don’t need to be particularly impressive, but I do enjoy weeks more when I have done different types of tasks. 

Next week

I’ve got several things to dig into next week which are only loosely aligned to the cyberattack recovery. We’ve got the first wave of users adopting the new phone system; some questions about property data architecture to resolve and need to agree an approach for how we design citizen login as a reusable component. 

Whilst it’s good to have the variety, we’re also reaching the middle of the year so it’s time to revisit the ‘year to define a decade’ and reflect on what we’re learning, where existing plans are maturing and where we need to accelerate. 

Weeknote v10.23

Week beginning 14 June

Being ready to learn

I didn’t set my goals for the week particularly thoughtfully. But they were still useful enough that at our midweek checkpoint they helped remind me to push forward some important things. In particular, we’re creating a couple of fixed term roles which both reflect the new skillsets we need to support recovery and an opportunity to reduce the costs, by insourcing talent. We also committed to providing senior leaders with a clear way forward for recovery of records from our corporate document management system by the end of the month. It’s not my workstream so I got to reveal other people’s hard work at our regular Silver command meeting on Friday. 

Our PSN saga is closer to its ending but took an unexpected turn as we learnt another layer of detail about how it works. But depending on our partners, we should be able to finish it off next week. It was frustrating to learn something new, at a late stage in a piece of work where we tried to anticipate and remove every hurdle. But there are some things about our circumstances that mean this is inevitable. 

We spent some time preparing more content to help people applying for our new customer services posts: Head of Customer Experience and Head of Customer Operations. I made a video explaining more about the roles, and some team members shared what they wanted from their new boss. Whilst we’re hoping to fill these internally, the content is designed to help encourage applications, support people to make good applications and show the team how important these appointments are.

A bit of flex in my diary meant I had time to help support the Repairs Hub team prepare for the next release. From Monday the software will be used to support repairs conducted by our direct labour organisation (DLO) coinciding with the return to a full service as part of easing COVID restrictions. There are risks involved but most of exist already. The hardest thing in the last fortnight has been wrangling with a piece of software we’ve bought which needed some extra work to conform with security best practice. 

I feel responsible both for the success of Repairs Hub, and the performance of the contact centre which will be most immediately affected if something goes wrong. That uncomfortable balance is probably exactly what they had in mind when joining customer services and digital!

I had a couple of powerful learning points this week. Partly that was a consequence of how meetings fell in the diary. But I’ve observed before that there have been occasions where I’ve thought I must be learning – but that’s different from actually having the space to learn. I got some invaluable feedback from some team members and in a very different context, got to spend some time with our registrars in one of their team quizzes.) I gained a lot from both sessions because I had the space to listen and reflect properly. Occasionally I felt myself about to get too drawn into wallowing in praise or defending myself on a point – but I think / hope I was just about aware enough to pull back. I also benefited from people emphasising something that was obvious (and recognise that I’m typically bad at this) so made sure that when another team did something obviously well this week, I took a moment to point out the obvious. 

Next week

I’ve had just enough space in my diary to make time to think about the career development offer we could design for customer services. So next week I’ll have something ready to share with the team and learn about what we could do which would be most attractive and helpful. It’s really important, so I need to create enough of a self-imposed constraint to make it urgent, too. 

We’ve also got a new phone system coming – and our first 400 users will be using it in a couple of weeks time. The timing is a response to the contract cycle and my sense is that we need to manage the transition well enough but with little fuss and disruption for staff. So I’ve also freed up a bit of time to make sure we’re on top of all the detail and – if my assumption is wrong – that we can respond accordingly. 

But mostly next week my diary is bizarrely empty. I feel quite socially awkward about this so will have to be disciplined to make sure I use the time productively.

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