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

Month: November 2020

Weeknote special – 7

Week beginning 23 November

I suspect there are lots of valid interpretations of this week. Through one lens, we’ve made good progress in understanding better and enabling the path to data recovery of key systems. Through another, we keep hitting unique obstacles that mean that almost everything is taking longer than expected. On one hand, colleagues across the Council continue to show incredible patience and understanding at the end of a tough year. On the other, the complexity of an organisation with as many different service lines as a local Council means that if you were to arrive afresh and look at our portfolio activities the easiest observation would be ‘no wonder things hit blockers – you’re spread too thinly!’

For my part, I tried to ‘do no harm’ for most of this week. I tried to help team members focus on successfully completing our goals for the fortnight and left alone things that I couldn’t make any better. By that low bar, I think I succeeded. We met four of our goals and partially met four more. The two that weren’t met were for reasons that we now understand but couldn’t have identified beforehand. I promptly dealt with most things that came my way.

But at times I also felt lost. The freneticism of the early days wasn’t required. Some of our most important projects have either settled into rhythms or don’t yet require them. I’d promised myself not to focus on new things. And so I had a bit of space in my diary – but wasn’t sure how best to use it. It’s one of the side-effects, I think, of setting team goals rather than personal goals. 

I also realised how extraordinarily fortunate I’ve been during lockdown. For two days this week the dining table, where I’ve been working, was out of action. And it coincided with a flaky internet connection. So my wife and I were switching between the couch and the bedroom, and I was constantly trying to find a stable signal. For most colleagues, that will have been the norm every day for eight months now. It’s tough.

There lots of positive things that caught my eye, including:

  • I’d asked a team to look at some business continuity options around council tax processes and the initial analysis was really impressive
  • The data and insight weeknote is turning into a ‘must read’ and Beth has really captured Daro’s voice in this week’s
  • Soraya has done a nice job pulling together the next phase of the project plan for recovering land charges data
  • I was lucky to catch the ‘Here to Help’ service show & tell and particularly enjoyed hearing from so many different people in that multidisciplinary team
  • Cyber Silver reviewed detailed but really clear explanations of some of the networking and infrastructure options for how we support connectivity for our print room and ID card systems
  • The GIS team has worked hard and with typically little fanfare to recover a version of Earthlight which colleagues use to view our physical assets around the Borough

Next week

I’m really keen to start the week well. The last couple have felt like I’ve eased into them rather than confronting them. The challenge, I think, is how to take the goals for the fortnight and then convert those into a set of specific things I need to do, ensuring that those things are in support of the team, adds value and fits into their way of working. 

Weeknote special – 6

Week beginning 16 November

I managed to find a sense of purpose and direction this week, which is so often hard during a period FIFA-imposed purgatory. And I managed to think about topics other than who might play centre-back tomorrow. And despite exercising twice a day still wasn’t able to beat Rob in our Apple Activity competition. 

Setting goals

I set ten goals to the end of the month. Unusually (for me), none of these were mine alone. I worked on them over the weekend so that when we committed to them on Monday I was sure I didn’t want to add any others. And then I made sure I was keeping track of where we needed to unblock progress to these goals. I haven’t felt such a clear sense of direction in several weeks. 

Staying calm

It’s felt like a week to stay calm. We’re past the point at which we’ve delivered a lot of important but quick wins to help services with their business continuity plans. And we’re not yet at a point where we can show demonstrable progress towards recovery. So for the last couple of weeks we’ve had to explain where we are without being able to show. It’ll be different in a fortnight, probably. So for now we have to stay calm and focus on the horizon. 

New ideas

I introduced two new ideas to the team this week. One was received well and the other, well, wasn’t. I introduced both differently and with care, on reflection (my initial assumption was that I hadn’t). But what I got wrong in both cases was that I was thinking about only how some stakeholders would hear the news. I was helped to recognise this by the feedback I received from the team. But it was also a reminder that it’s so much harder to understand how people are hearing things when you can’t really see how they’re reacting. 

Stating the obvious

In last week’s note I was reflecting on how I was bad at stating the obvious. That fault manifested itself differently this week. The team explained that they didn’t know what the recovery position was with software that we weren’t talking about (which was totally fair enough). I was initially frustrated, thinking that the answer was obvious. But that wasn’t fair. So we got together and talked about how to handle questions where we didn’t know the answer. And I understood why there was a gap between the things that were obvious in my head but why they might not be obvious to others.  

Learning a new space

I felt myself slipping back into old assumptions this week by trying to make the roles of teams more distinct than was helpful. In this case, the distinction between cloud infrastructure, and application development. We’re on a journey to understanding what DevOps really means and how it works in our technology context. I spotted the mistake I was (am?) making but am still struggling to figure out how to avoid making it. My gut instinct is that in a crisis leadership needs to offer as much clarity as possible to create safer spaces for people to work. But we also know that the way out of our crisis looks like accelerating our strategy rather than reverting to what’s familiar. 

A different sense of satisfaction

I used to get most satisfaction at work from being able to point at things and know that ‘I did that’. There’s much less I can credibly claim as my own in this job than I’ve ever experienced previously – not least because it’s the first time that I’ve been responsible for things that I know I can’t do. But I encountered a different sense of satisfaction this week when I saw Claire and Glyn present the service redesign of benefits and housing needs to a group of Councillors on Thursday night. Their work, and that of their colleagues and the FutureGov team is entirely their own. I’m not sure I could point to much that I’ve actually done. Yet I still got a huge sense of satisfaction from the work. 

Next week

More of the same, hopefully. We’ve got ten goals. A couple have been met, most others look on track. One has fallen by the wayside due to circumstances beyond our control. And I have to do something that you’ll know isn’t my strength: make what we’re doing the best it can be rather than get distracted by what’s next. 

Weeknote special – 5

Week beginning 9 November

How to make a week that was just bang average interesting enough to even write about let alone read? And on a drizzly Saturday. Here goes . . . 

Our recovery challenge

I’m becoming obsessed by an irresolvable tension at the heart of our recovery. Our challenge is that our work needs to be speedy, secure and sustainable. But it can’t be all of all three. We have rightly had a couple of projects take longer to get into production until we can be satisfied that they have been designed in a way that’s as secure as possible. There are always engineering tensions between doing things quickly and building them in a way that avoids technical debt. And there are tensions between ensuring that we make the right decisions for financial sustainability and the speed of response.  So we need to develop a consistent and shared framework to help guide our decision making. 

Doing what happens

It’s too easy to have weeks where you do what happens to you. I assume these weeks are entirely unsatisfactory and the sign of being an ineffective leader. To me, they mean that you aren’t adding much value, you’re just observing the passage of time. You aren’t leading, you’re just being a reference report for reporting which makes you feel important but doesn’t materially change the work. But in my more optimistic moments I wonder if it’s ok to have periods like that? That it means projects are going to plan and people know what they need to do. And I’ve largely met the expectations of people who’ve emailed me (ie. I’ve tended to reply). It helps me understand why some leaders put so much store by performance measures to judge whether there’s anything they need to worry about. But I’m not convinced that it’s what I’m here for. 

Surprise and delight

One of the features of my week was catching up with people that I hadn’t seen in too long. And it was a real pleasure to hear about some stuff that the teams have been doing. The work Tim is doing to support people using our online services; how Ade is helping improve how we handle registrars enquiries; and the work Barnes has done to improve repairs training were particular highlights. When I worked in consultancy we talked a lot about wanting to surprise and delight our clients so I get a particular thrill from hearing about good things I wasn’t expecting. As part of my catch-up with the Mayor about customer services, it was also particularly nice to be able to move so many of our customer journey improvement projects into ‘done’ – with a month still to go before the end of the quarter!

Positive reinforcement

I ignored all attempts at positive reinforcement when I was growing up and, indeed, for most of my career. My view was ‘I know that’s ok, I want to know what needs to be better’. And that’s partly my excuse for not doing it enough myself. I’d prefer to find something clever and insightful to say. But I’ve been addicted to receiving it for the last few weeks. It’s felt extraordinarily kind. My resolution now is to get better at paying it forward. 

Next week

I’ve really struggled with settings goals for my week. I’ve written about it in my weeknotes, but mostly it hasn’t made the transition from here to reality. I’m not certain that it’s had a meaningful impact on the team (see above) but it’s certainly made me feel more reactive. I probably can’t share these and ‘work aloud’ so you’ll have to take my word for it that they’re now written.

Weeknote special – 4

Week beginning 2 November

A week that got better towards the end. I had a good run on Thursday during the day, enjoyed most of Friday and am now sat in the garden after running my 3rd best 10k since I started using Strava. I love the colours of autumn, the temperature and the extent to which you can really focus on what needs to be done. 

I didn’t do enough to look after myself. I didn’t stay up for the American election that wasn’t but drank wine slightly too consistently and went to bed later than strictly necessary. 

Data at the heart of everything 

We have a team mission: to put data at the heart of everything. It’s easy to understand why this is hard. Users see the software rather than the data. They see their work rather than the activity before and afterwards. And as users, we don’t know what we don’t know. But the cyberattack has shown that the applications can be ephemeral – it’s the data that really matters. Staff have shown incredible ingenuity and resolve but what they most need from us is historic data, 

The energy for now

I know that in some respects, I’m better in a crisis. Or at least, I work more efficiently. When I get emails I respond straight away rather than composing emails in my head but not actually getting round to sending them. I think that’s about having urgency, the knowledge that there’s going to be less time later and enough energy for now. I didn’t do that as well this week. Too many things felt like they just could be done at a later point. 


Whenever I look too far ahead I can only see how much further we have to go. So I try hard not to. I’ve shortened my horizons to the end of the day. Much of that is healthy as well as necessary. But I also realised that it increases the likelihood that you stay on the same path. Whilst this isn’t a time for big strategic thoughts it also demands creativity. My next responsible leadership challenge is to make sure we’re exploring different ways to solve a problem. 

And when my mind does drift forward to think about how much further we have to travel, I remember that in the last three months alone I’ve watched all of Prison Break. And I’ve only got 47 episodes left of This Is Us. And if I can do that, then this summit isn’t insurmountable.

The right tone

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to adapt my style to the circumstances. It’s now too deeply ingrained for me to have much choice in the matter. But as part of my ‘preparing for big meetings’ checklist one of the questions is ‘How do I want to come across?’. I found it particularly useful twice this week. It gave me a bit more control over situations whilst, I think, still enabling me to get the right tone for the audience. 

Clear expectations

I know I sometimes struggle to give people a clear set of expectations. Sometimes I don’t want to limit their chances of doing something in a way that’s better than I would do. Other times I can’t quite describe how to bridge the gap between where something is and where it needs to be. But twice this week, it worked. I had a clear view of how something needed to be and the confidence that I was right. And the results surprised and delighted me. I just haven’t quite spotted the common denominator. 

Next week

I’m leading a recovery workstream about business continuity and applications. I’ve muddled through this week. Next week, I need to put more structure and rhythm around it so that teams can be more confident about what they’re doing and the joins between their work and that of others. Trello beckons. 

© 2022 Matthew Cain

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑