Matthew Cain

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

Put it in the net, then let’s talk

Weeknote 2.2022

I basically had a really good week, with lots to feel energised about. My tasklist, optimistically titled ‘tomorrow’ isn’t complete, but there are 19 things ticked off. 

But I didn’t clearly define some goals. And so whilst I know I had a good week, it doesn’t have the same objectivity that it would have if I could prove it. I spent ages thinking about my goals but by the end of Monday still hadn’t committed. On Thursday I chatted to some of our security team over lunch and remembered the old Shankly quote: “if you’re not sure what to do, put the ball in the back of the net and then we’ll discuss it”. 

My main achievement was making sure our refreshed governance arrangements started well. We’ve got a weekly recovery board, a new Technical Design Authority and a fortnightly update for senior leaders, which I’ve called ‘Priorities, Progress and Problems’ (because I liked the alliteration). 

We expect recovery board members to arrive having read the outputs from each of our projects and come with some issues for discussion, so that we identify blockers and agree how to move things forward. It’ll quickly become second nature, but understanding how we can contribute will be hard to begin with. But it was a good discussion and I only needed one of my three prompts, because some colleagues were also well prepared. Following the meeting, I also produced a simple project evaluation framework so that next week, the board has a shared way of understanding what we mean by project health. 

The membership of the TDA overlaps with the recovery board, so I needed to find a fresh way of exploring our scope and ways of working. We used the anti-pattern exercise ‘If we did this really badly, how would we do it’. It was fun, but also enabled us to identify the big risks. 

Lastly, I was keen that the senior leaders briefing was more engaging than previously when it was too easy to slip into an informational update rather than a genuine exchange and development of a shared sense of purpose. 

There haven’t been many opportunities since the cyberattack to really invest in how we do things, given the relentless march of delivery. So at the very least it was good to dust-off some of those lingering skills . 

The other important step forward this week was work to help residents who had to call us too often. Our new phone system gives us more data than we’ve ever had before so we can quickly identify people who keep calling us and try to solve the problem. Of the first eight people we spoke to, we were able to make things better for all of them, which was essential to build trust in the service. It’s less efficient than responding to calls but sometimes it’s the right thing to do so next we’ll need to work out how it fits into our overall approach. 

I had also promised myself that I’d do two things to develop our strategy (consulting on our guiding principle, and designing another proactive service). I almost did one of them and because it was important rather than urgent, kept excusing myself for not doing it. Must do better. 

I did finish off reading The Great Circle. By the last 100 pages, I just wanted it to finish, but the twist at the end just about warranted the final mile. The thought of starting another book was too much so for the rest of the week I watched Borgen, the old Danish political drama. It took me back to the first time I watched it – sitting in our basement room in Dalston, with two young children, drinking too much red wine (me, not them, I hope). The plot has aged well, but there isn’t a smartphone in sight. And yet Borgen is still more modern than most of the commonly used local government software. 

I’m going to make next week all about our OKRs. I’ve been starting to extend the approach to customer services and I’ve got some hypotheses for how we can bring it back to our work in IT without it either being a bit false or distorting work that’s in flight. But if I start with how I work, then I’ll be better equipped to help others. 

Hello, fresh

Weeknote 1.2022

I used to start the New Year with bold ambitions which would fail because, despite the changing date, I remained me. I’m older now, and (a bit) better at setting realistic goals. But it hasn’t prevented me from starting afresh in the New Year. 

I’ve also noticed a disconnect, though, between the emotional freshness and the reality of trying to get back into the groove – exacerbated by working from home. 

Those thoughts remained with me for most of the week. 

First, the freshness. 

At the IT strategy show & tell, we explained why 2022 will be the year of outcomes. It can be easy to get lost in the technology so by spending time really understanding how our work enables residents and businesses to get a better service we’ll make sure we’re making the right choices. The reaction suggested it wasn’t quite the inspirational, insightful narrative that I’d dreamt of, but I was able to follow it up by finding a couple of opportunities to show teams what we meant. 

I was involved in a couple of projects before Christmas where something didn’t feel right, but where I’d probably only sounded irritated. The Christmas break helped me filter out the things that were personally irritating and focus on the bits that mattered. By starting the year thinking clearly about what mattered I had more confidence to tackle the things that were eroding our ability to deliver. 

I spent quite a bit of time this week thinking about the objectives and key results for the Single View project which is starting shortly. It’s a project bursting with opportunities – and therefore has the potential to under-deliver – so if we can set some really clear outcomes then we’ll empower the team to make good choices. There’s something about fewer contacts and faster calls – but we also need to be mindful about the unintended consequences. So we’re not there yet. 

I was also able to crank through two business cases for forthcoming projects. Part of me hoped 2021 marked the end of seemingly endless business case and procurement documentation. But at least I’m now reasonably quick at it. 

There were a few areas where it was harder to get back into the groove. 

I’ve been thinking carefully about how we might frame a service promise for residents which also enables colleagues to solve problems. I’ve got a nascent idea and I know how I want to test it. But I completely ran out of time / failed to work sufficiently efficiently to do anything about it. 

There were a couple of administrative tasks that I’d meant to do over Christmas and were never became more compelling than The Great Circle. I got some of them done, but too many still remain. (I also read a book about the emerging field of quantum biology. That was bafflingly complex.)

And on Thursday I was asked to share my goal for the week at the DMT huddle. I didn’t have one. That’s the kind of sloppiness that I’d be unforgiving of in others. 

As I was finishing off my weeknote, I learnt that Jack Dromey had died, briefly a former boss. I have vivid memories from the experience of working for him, during the summer of my finals. I learnt a substantial amount about patience, consistency and sheer indefatigability from Jack who, in the 1970s, learnt some Gujurati to help represent the women in the Grunwick dispute (if I remember rightly). Late on a Sunday, whilst I’d be watching the end of the 4pm Premier League game, Jack would be leaving me voicemail lists of things to do the next day (one voicemail didn’t last long enough for Jack). But looking back, what I remember, and probably learnt from the most, was the extraordinary relationship he had with Harriet. Thank you, Jack. 

What I’ve learnt in 2021

I don’t have the same zest to reflect on the year that I have usually. I’m spending much more time looking forward to next year. Nevertheless, it’d be a shame to break the annual routine for a year which offered so very many learning opportunities. 

Doing, practicing and learning are all different

It’s easy to assume “I must be learning so much from this period” which you’re doing something novel. You might even be stepping back sufficiently to observe things that are happening. All of those are important enablers of learning. But adding them together doesn’t produce learning any more than practicing something badly, or practising the wrong thing helps you learn. It took real effort this year to step back from the week to week, or the fortnightly rhythms we moved to in summer to actually learn. 

I accepted only a few speaking opportunities this year but prioritised those which forced me to think carefully about what I was learning. The 3,000 or so people who watched the ‘cloud, unless’ presentation remains a highlight of the year. 

Re-reading some of my notes from previous years has been slightly sobering: to see how much easier it is to spot challenges than to work actively to overcome them!

We’re losing the argument for simplicity

Digital, service design and good user experiences all depend on simplicity. But there’s no consensus that simple is good. Everywhere I see people making things complicated. Because some people have complex needs, we make design solutions that are complex for everyone so that no one is excluded. By adding validation steps to a process we provide staff and managers a fake comfort blanket that no one can be entirely at fault.  The argument shouldn’t be about more or less regulation. It should be about the costs of making things complicated and the disempowering affects of a ‘one size fits all’ design.  

Setting good goals is hard

I’ve set somewhere between 150 and 200 goals this year. Most of them weren’t good goals. Some worked; I wanted to set new personal bests for running over each distance up to half marathon. Some did the job eventually (establish a connection to the Public Services Network). The odd one barely made sense a fortnight after it’d been set. Far too many just weren’t thoughtful enough. 

A good goal has, I think, three attributes (assuming that a prerequisite is that the goal is robust enough to withstand most organisational winds). It defines done, it can be achieved within the time available, and it should corral people who want to achieve it (ideally because ‘done’ is a self-evident benefit). Good goals take more time to set than I allowed and probably more communication than I invested in. 

Owning a strategy is harder than conceiving it

I used to be paid for writing strategies. If you understand a market or sector well enough, there are economies of scale involved in doing it lots of times. Writing good strategies is hard, which is why it so often gets outsourced. But owning a strategy is harder. 

In customer services as well as in IT, there were moments when we had conversations along the lines of ‘yes, we agree with all the above, but’. 

Owning a strategy means sticking to it when others question it. It means confronting the inevitability that it draws opponents, not being surprised. It means working through the opposition, not just ignoring it. That’s hard because it’s about people and relationships – and because so much of it is unspoken. You couldn’t outsource _that_ however much it might appeal. 

The limits of a crisis

It’s a cliche that crises shouldn’t go to waste. We weren’t going to spend 18 months to recover from the cyberattack onto solutions that weren’t even right for the internet-era, let alone for 2022. But many people were craving certainty which that didn’t provide. They wanted less ambiguity when more helped actually reduce uncertainty.  And some wanted to see technology a separate workstream just at the moment that it needed to be considered holistically. 

And that’s where most of the effort went this year. 

There are some easy answers: Invest more time in taking people with you, exhaust all the alternative options publicly, get alignment at the top. My experience was that it’s not so easy in a crisis. 

In a different context, I tried to manufacture a sense of crisis in order to accelerate some internal decision making. It helped to galvanise some activity over a short term but wasn’t enough to keep people aligned for long enough to get the thing achieved more quickly. 

Culture is also dynamic 

I’d like to think that I’ve now helped change the culture of three services in the last five years . But I’d previously believed that once established, culture is deep-rooted. Clearly much of it is. But I’d under-estimated how dynamic it can also be. Over the last year the Council has replaced three quarters of its most senior leadership tier and our IT service has faced an existential crisis. 

Some of the changes that this has brought about are more visible to me than others. But one of the things that made me particularly proud was to read the results of an anonymous survey of our software engineers which found that there had been significant change in the last year – and almost all of it in the right direction. 

There are aspects of our culture I’m keen to influence further (our contact centres still feel too separately, and customer services still identifies separately to IT) but it feels like less heavy lifting might be required – and I think the firmly-rooted values play a key part in this. The link work pilot explored the skills and capabilities we needed as a service, not whether or not it was the right thing to do or whether we were the right people to do it. 

Going again will be my biggest challenge

We described this year to be one that defines the decade in IT. And in terms of the big decisions about technology, that was about right. Next year we’ll have to finish the job whilst also showing what’s now possible for our residents and businesses as a result of the choices we’ve made. Some of that won’t be obvious (the time not spent in trying to patch-up old technology) and we’ll need to help set people’s expectations. 

We will be doing that with a new structure and some new ways of working as we step down from the daily rhythms of our Silver command. And to do that we’ll be making some important appointments, once we’ve finalised the posts and jobs in our new structure. 

Our proactive outreach to people who might be at risk is starting to yield really positive outcomes. I’m really keen to extend this to other types of service delivery as part of a broader redefinition of what user-centred services means in the Council. 

To make a success of all of that we’ll need to develop a refreshed sense of purpose, excitement for what’s possible and impatience for what we can achieve. And I know that if I’m to play my part in that, I’ll need to really feel it in a way that I’ve lacked of late. It’s what sports teams do each year. But I learnt from my experience of coming back from holiday in June that you can’t force it.

It’s not a year I’d want to repeat (although my 40th birthday celebrations were exactly how I’d wanted them to be). But I think it’s also given us many of the building blocks necessary to ensure that next year enables us to achieve things that simply wouldn’t be possible at most other places. 

Weeknote v10.50

Week beginning 13 December

After the excitement of the last few weeks this was largely a pedestrian experience. Which, as first sentences go, isn’t the best selling point. But there were helpful five conversations that marked my week. 

Rob, Cate and I met the Chief Executive to discuss transformation. One of the big questions that I let with was how we make sure we’re mindful of the opportunity cost. As we get into the long tail of cyberattack recovery we’ll need to make sure that we’re focusing on the things that will matter most to our residents and businesses. But it’s also about balance, to an extent we get permission to be bold from delivering the basics: good WiFi, reliable technology and delivering our commitments. 

We had an important conversation between two product teams (Manage My Home and the Document Evidence Store) about document management. There’s often a tension between doing the right thing and delivering value for users quickly. The relentless pursuit of one will typically lead to problems later. It’s where the one way and two way door concept is so helpful. We were able to agree an imperfect way for Manage My Home to manage documents now, which doesn’t prevent a more sophisticated solution being developed early next year – and may teach us more about what matters most about the better solution. 

On Thursday we met the finance systems team to talk about their hopes and fears for our future shape. One of the big themes was how we recognise specialist expertise (in this case, understanding of financial regulations) with more general expertise which enables people to have a clearer career path. And where we need to move from one to another, we need to do so in a way that’s respectful of people’s work to date. 

I had two interviews on Friday – both very different in character – but from which I learnt more about managing change. 

A proportion of the week was also spent responding to the Log4J security breach, in common with most of the world. There were a number of things where we needed to be careful and diligent. But, as far as I could tell, our risk profile was lower than many of our peers, as a result of the way that we’ve been able to recover from the cyberattack. And our security model means that weaknesses are much more contained. Despite that, there is no good reason to be complacent and the line-by-line analysis will rightly continue into next week.

I was pretty tired throughout the week (it took two sittings to finish off season three of Succession) and one of the things I noticed in particularly was that I found it harder to be careful in how I participated in conversations. I think that’s unusual but I also know that I find it harder to invest the effort in a video chat than in real life. Somehow there (wrongly) seems less consequence. 

So next week is my last working week of the year to define a decade. I’ve started to think about the retrospective of the year but with our Silver response group having an actual retro on Tuesday, will hold those ideas loosely until we’ve learnt together. 

Weeknote v10.49

Week beginning 6 December

It’s not when I don’t want to hear that it’s a problem. It’s when I don’t know that I need to listen that I run into trouble. Over the last fortnight I’ve been trying to arrange something with the team. I thought it was a straightforward request which fitted into people’s expectations and which would have been widely anticipated anyway. Other people felt differently. And so by having completely different starting points the request landed badly. It wasn’t immediately obvious because remote working makes reactions and side-bar conversations less visible. Not everything we do can be popular, but I’m disappointed with myself for walking into controversy inadvertently. I stepped into an issue with imperfect information and I suspect there’s a bit of all of us that’s just a bit too tired to be patient for that little bit longer.

There were four other significant features to my week. Our Repairs Improvement Board met again this week to review the progress against short term actions that we’ve agreed. Since we last met demand in the contact centre has increased by 44% and so the actions felt necessary but insufficient. Meeting fortnightly is important so we can continue to adapt our approach to meet our residents’ expectations. 

My boiler broke on Monday evening. I found that out after getting up ridiculously early and going for a run on a freezing Tuesday morning. So I was particularly sorry for everyone who encountered me on Tuesday. That boiler that I ordered from Eon 7 weeks ago was looking particularly visionary. That I had to cancel it after no update vs the pre-sales SLA of an installation within 5 days, particularly ironic. Another one might arrive next week. Maybe. 

Secondly, we spent two days as an IT management team, planning our future shape. We began with purpose and goals for 2022 and then worked forward into roles, structure, skills, training, governance – with an important discussion about funding next week. We’re in that difficult phase where we want to retain our commitment to co-creating the right things whilst being able to give people enough certainty that it supports the co-creation.

We’re now at the end of the onboarding phase for Ron and Angharad in their customer services leadership roles. So we got together to review the priorities for the next 6 weeks or so and make sure that these were aligned to where our management team was investing its time and effort . Later I got a pang of regret that I hadn’t also given a bit more room for creativity and self-invitation. But then remembered the importance of providing clarity on what matters most. 

And finally, Kelly left this week. She’s been here for 80 weeknotes and she’s achieved an extraordinary amount. I was asked to merge four contact centres overnight and temporarily had 19 direct reports so I needed someone I could trust totally with the operational aspects of running the service. I didn’t expect her to have such a significant influence on managing change, or to be quite so adaptable in enabling us to take every single opportunity that was available. Her key legacy is the recruitment of Angharad and Ron.

And so, there’s just two weeks until Christmas and three left in the year to define the decade. If we’re able to push over the line a couple of the things that are tantalisingly close then we’ll be able to start next year with a really positive energy.

Digital transformation beyond exemplars

Digital strategies start with exemplars in the public sector. There are good reasons to do this. Deliver value to users quickly. Start small, fail fast. Learn through doing and build advocates. 

But the more the tactic is used, the less effective it becomes (as with any tactic). Some exemplars manage around rather than confront legacy technology. Starting with users and working backwards can produce duplicate technology rather than reusable components. Working around leadership and cultural barriers doesn’t defeat them. Creating shadow IT (Slack, GitHub) isn’t sustainable. These things not only need to be done but become bigger risks if they remain. 

So how to understand what to do next? In Hackney, our API strategy and then our DevOps programmes helped us tackle more aspects of legacy IT. Now our work on common components is helping us build better technology quicker. But it’d be generous to suggest that was part of a coherent strategy. We evolved to tackle the next challenge we identified. 

Whilst wondering this, I was watching a game of American Football. I don’t really understand it but the central part of the game is simple enough. Two teams line up opposite each other. The team in control of the ball has four attempts to get the ball 10 yards up the pitch. They begin by passing the ball backwards. If they make progress, they then line-up again for the next play. 

All this drew me naturally to digital transformation. You have a set of players on your team, trying to make progress against the ‘opponents’ (things, mostly) by either getting in behind or just blocking them (and your opponents have similar intent). If you don’t make sufficient progress you lose distance and then, ultimately, control of the ball. And to stretch the analogy too far, the ball always moves backwards first, as you step back to understand user needs. 

Imagining strategy as a map has worked well for Simon Wardley. And for some time, I’ve wanted to be able to re-create the dynamism of a Wardley Map, whilst also considering the multiple dimensions that exist in transforming an organisation. 

So, how can that help you visualise a digital strategy?

Start with seeing the whole field, and measuring progress towards the goal.  Transformation can only be achieved by working across the different attributes of an organisation. The image below also divides the field up into five channels – a simple Target Operating Model.

We then look at the ‘players’ for the offense (those advancing transformation) and those for the defense (those forces trying to prevent transformation). Your model might contain different versions of these – perhaps names of various teams or organisational units. 

Then picture a play: this one is the ‘exemplars tactic’, It demonstrates that exemplars can be designed to tackle elements of technology and data, culture and mindset, skills and capabilities and products and services but by no means all. 

Three head-to-head battles created by an exemplar tactic

In this play we’re assuming that:

  1.  We’re redesigning a service but still accepting the starting-point – eg. A better school admissions service within the constraints of the 40-page DfE guidance
  2. We build a small team with some exposure to digital skills, developing a handful of advocates in one department
  3. The team is empowered, with psychological safety but is working in temporary project-based structures
  4. The business case and procurement has accepted the waterfall paradigm
  5. We’re adopting cloud infrastructure for the service, but it works on top of legacy tech

And the combination of all these factors would still represent a pretty good exemplar, by most standards. But it’s important to see what gaps it leaves. A second, tenth or 50th exemplar will make greater distance in these battles, but also leave them more exposed. In an organisational context that might mean a change of leadership leaves then more vulnerable to re-organisation or that they’re dragged back by a failure to make more progress on the other parts of the operating model. 

Three head-to-head battles advance but are left isolated up the pitch

You might not like American football. But hopefully the idea of taking a strategic, dynamic, three dimensional look at how to transform helps you think beyond exemplars.  I’d love to learn more about your experience of playing with these tools and the insights it gives you when developing a strategy.

Weeknote v10.48

Week beginning 29 November 

I was on holiday this week – on my own. It gave me the opportunity to step back from (almost all of) the day to day and think about where we are and what needs to happen next. I’m lucky enough to have been on holiday before now (twice this year) but there’s something about being in a different timezone that particularly helps you disconnect. 

There’s almost never a good time to be away. We had a problem with how our new phone system works on Chromium devices which, whilst resolved towards the end of the week and with fantastic efforts from the core team, didn’t get the leadership I needed to give it. So whilst there was something faintly ridiculous about giving the Silver command briefing from my journey back from the airport, I was pleased not to have missed it. 

The position in repairs customer services remained better than previously, though demand was 25% higher this week than last. We’re continuing to grow the team, with a particular focus on providing jobs to people living in Hackney to make sure that we’ve got a more responsive service as we head into the colder months. 

But mostly I thought about the next year – the new opportunities which are available as a result of how we’re recovering from the cyberattack, the future shape of the IT service and the proactive services we’re starting to develop for residents. Being away from the day-to-day helps me think big, unencumbered by some of the things (realities) that make ambitious goals feel less achievable. Talking to people from other organisations also gave me a different perspective on some of the challenges we’re facing and where we are and aren’t doing as well as it appears from the inside.

I also read an absolute gem of a book: Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik. Each chapter acts as a biography of a material (sand, concrete, porcelain) and how it, and we, have shaped our world. There have been a handful of books that I’ve read and enjoyed so much whilst learning about something that I previously had no appreciation for. 

A lot of next week will be about the time the management team is spending, working through the next level of detail on our future shape plans; about the further work we need to do as part of the repairs improvement drive and then Kelly’s last week with us in customer services. 

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!

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