Matthew Cain

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

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

Weeknote v10.38

Week beginning 20 September 

A week where by the end it was hard to remember the start. I remember now that I was intimidated by quite how many meetings I had which didn’t align with the things that were most important. But it didn’t end up like that. I was able to find just enough time to actually work through most of the goals I set. 

More and more of my work is focused on the start of things and the end of things. I spend quite a bit of time setting things up – defining what needs to be done, business cases, procurement and the like. There were three this week – around document migration, cloud engineering and income management. I’d like to be more involved in setting up the ways of working and the culture of the team but I reckon that’s often better done by others. I spend time setting things up because it’s otherwise hard to resource and I reckon it tends to take me less time than it would take someone else. 

Finishing things off is vital to ensure we deliver on our commitments and so that we can move onto the next thing. Even our most Agile projects still work towards releases that carry particular significance. We’ve resolved most of the systemic blockers to launch that we faced previously (deploying software into production, capacity for security testing, creating subdomains). So I suspect that much of what I do doesn’t add a significant amount of value. But the importance of our work on the housing register, arrears management and building control software meant that I felt a need to be close enough to the detail to understand what had to be done and our likelihood of meeting expectations. 

I’ve slipped back in my commitment to be a more active participant in show & tells. I still follow about five a week (more by video this week). But when I don’t actively think about it I slip back into listening ‘for information’ rather than actively wondering how I can best help the team. I’m partly blaming video. It’s easier to zone out than it would be when physically present not least because there are fewer clues to how other people are responding and engaging. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Next week feels significant. We’re recruiting for a secondment to run the registrars service for a brief period whilst the current, excellent manager, takes a short break. We’re agreeing the objectives for our customer success managers for the next 3-6 months. We’ve got an important session to explain what’s happening in the customer service for housing repairs and there are two meetings where we need to unblock service delivery issues. If I do those five things well, the week will have been successful. But I also need not to drop the ball on the issues that I’ve been tracking this week. It’ll take real discipline to do all that well. 

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.

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