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

Month: December 2020

What I’ve learnt this year

Which 2020 should I reflect on? The first 3 months which was about adopting the OKR framework in HackIT and preparing for new responsibilities with customer services? The next five months which was about creating Here to Help to support our vulnerable residents through COVID? Or the last three months, leading the business continuity and applications recovery from our cyberattack? The problem with the cliches about 2020 is that they’re worn out. 

But these three, disparate segments of my year have some enduring commonalities even if I haven’t been able to link them together (as you’ll see if you work through this monologue) . 

People can achieve more than they know

“I don’t know if we can meet the expectations of the new manager” someone said in a feedback exercise. Yes, you can. Most people are capable of achieving more than they assume, given the right circumstances. 

We gave the team the five missions that guide our OKRs framework but expected them to develop the objectives for the year and key results for the quarter. In my second week responsible for customer services, the team started working remotely for the first time, taking a strengths-based approach to vulnerable customers at some point between April and May. In October we came together in new ways to put in place over 50 work-arounds to help deliver Council services. 

These things, and the hundreds of things that sit behind them show how much more we achieved this year than ever before. I don’t look back on those objectives for 2020 and think about what could have been. And they’re all a result of people committing to the purpose, being open to doing what’s needed and finding ways to apply their talents to a scenario. 

Committing to outcomes is hard

I had to dedicate time to making sure that I was content with our objectives for the year. That I wouldn’t be tempted to start new things that were outside the framework or regret what we hadn’t achieved. Then COVID came along and central government put new obligations on local authorities. Typically the ‘what’ was over-specified and the ‘why’ was either un-articulated or sufficiently tangential to be immaterial to the design of the intervention (for example, of course it was about reducing the spread of the virus; but at what opportunity cost?) It put into perspective my experience of the discussions I’d seen at BAE Systems about the bonus scheme but I could also see that committing to one course of action makes it harder to contemplate the existence of an alternative.

Operations is mostly undervalued, and operations undervalues strategy

I’ve been part of setting up three new operations this year – food for vulnerable people, local contact tracing and the payment of the self isolation grant. At every occasion I was faced with questions about detail which I simultaneously found frustrating but also knew mattered. A recurring theme this year was that designing something that works for people is hard and undervalued. 

But by the same measure, I struggled to get traction with developing a vision and strategy for an operational service. I was acutely aware that what I was talking about just didn’t seem particularly relevant to the people involved. One recurring theme about change in the public sector is a lack of capacity – a prioritisation of operations over strategy. 

I’d like to learn next year more about how to break through this stand-off using the next year – finding a way of using operations to test strategy and ensure that strategy shapes operations.   

‘Innovation’ isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

I’ve always wanted to achieve something unique, of lasting value – radical innovation. Last year I was frustrated that I’d fallen short of creating something new of value to residents but was optimistic about the prospects of succeeding this year. We did that with Here to Help, even if it was copied in various forms across the country. 

But what was most interesting about our journey was less the new things we created and more how we re-purposed the old. Whether it was the previous relationships that got us through sticky weeks, the data or code that enabled us to create intuitive services quickly or taking the Make Every Contact Count approach and applying it to customer services. I was also particularly pleased of some small projects in planning and parking to take insights from other councils and apply them to improve the customer experience in Hackney. All of those are examples of incremental innovation that isn’t exciting, but is infinitely more sticky. 

Controlling the temperature

My favourite book on leadership talks of the need to control the temperature – knowing when to make something certain (cooler, or more technical) or uncertain (hotter, more adaptive). Actually I think both can coexist – certainty in an uncertain situation. For example, giving a team a structure to work in even when the outcomes or the context may be uncertain. 

I remember the occasions when I got this wrong more than the occasions I got it right this year – the teams that were given too much uncertainty or felt they had too little space. The hard thing is spotting when it’s happening, and being able to do something about it. It requires trust, time and honesty. It can be easy to trade these factors off against each other – ‘because I trust that person, I can let them get on with it’ or ‘because I’m trusted it’s better not to shatter that illusion’. 

Fighting for perspective

This is the first year I haven’t mostly read The Economist most weeks. Something about the loss of the commute has removed the routine. My world is smaller as a result. 

I always try and assess a situation using two perspectives – the critical outsider and the proud team member, knowing that neither are fully fair but the truth will be somewhere in between. It’s been harder this year to judge where the balance lies. There’s not one dominant reason. It feels like remote working denudes you of some of your senses; the working day fades rather than ends removing some of the natural closure. I reckon my work network has shrunk too, as I see fewer people. I’ve also a growing sense that in more senior positions, the air gets thinner – you have to take in a lot more information to get the same amount of feedback.

As much as I’ve tried, I just haven’t done enough to do the small things that help build openness throughout a team. The small notes, thank yous and well dones are typically the bit to fall off my list of weekend tasks. That needs to change.

Multiple modes

We’ve mostly stressed the importance of doing change with people over the last four years. We’ve used Agile approaches to guide our work. But not all tasks are well suited to this. We’ve introduced new printers, for example, and this has been unpopular in some of my teams (there are fewer). We launched the Here to Help service with the sort of bang and deadline that Agile avoids. 

Largely, it’s been a relief not to be discussing how to do something and to focus instead on achieving the outcome. But sometimes method matters. When you’ve got a dominant way of doing things, the opposite can be discordant. So I wonder whether we could have been more nuanced and how we might further develop how we work so that we can apply different approaches to different problems. 

Digital change is also about the technology

It’s become common to say that digitally-enabled change is all about the people. That important insight can mask the fact that it’s also about the technology. Good people with bad technology (or even without technology at all) can achieve much less. Who could have guessed that managing the delivery of regular food parcels to 500 people via spreadsheets could have been so visceral?  

Technology, done well, can provide the support people need to do their best. Over the next year we’ll need to constantly work through what the right technology choices are which enable us to do the right thing.  

Deliberate practice

I tried to deliberately practice responsible leadership this year. Being responsible was  significantly easier than deliberate practice. I suffered from a lack of concentrated and sustained effort. Too often I wasn’t deliberate enough. And I didn’t get a sufficient response to know if anything was getting any better. 

Meanwhile, I set out to run 450 miles this year. I think I did 390 in 2019. Thanks to running most mornings during lockdown, I hit that target in July and by October I could see the prospect of clocking up 1,000 miles for the year. I did it, and shaved about 20 seconds a mile off my average pace. Funnily enough running often and quicker means you travel further, faster.  

Sometimes I fear I’m clever enough to make things complicated and not clever enough to make them simple. 

Returning to useful weeknotes

The small but committed group of public sector weeknoters are right that it can force an important transparency and display of leadership. But they do actually have to be useful for someone to read.

I’m still developing my resolutions for 2021. But I’ve realised that I can write reflective, if self-indulgent notes each week which occasionally help me to account for what I’ve done. Or I can write notes that communicate to the team. I’ve achieved both fewer than ten times this year. So I’m going to commit to writing weeknotes my team wants to read. 

Being truly grateful – and privilege

There have been times this year when it’s been hard to be truly grateful. My desktop picture of the town hall, taken on my first morning in the job, hasn’t always triggered a sense of wonder, privilege and opportunity. It should. 

I learnt more about white privilege this year, thanks in particular to a couple of members of my team. And whilst there’s been a humanising impact of seeing people working at home there’s also the reminder of how fortunate I am to only have to share a WiFi connection with my wife, for example. 

And I should do more to remember the opportunities I’ve been given and work harder to make the most of them.

Weeknote special – 9

Week beginning 7 December

I found it a hard week to judge. People often ask how I am and it’s usually more than a nicety. It still depends on the moment. At the moment it’s the small and unexpected things that are causing disproportionate pain. That might be deflection on my part and/or it might be that I can manage the stuff that I know will be difficult but am less ready to tackle the unexpected.

But on Friday, I noticed a new dimension. Because on Friday, dear reader, I put on a suit, got on the train, and went to work. It was exhilarating. There were about 80 of us in the Hackney Service Centre (there would normally be over 1,000).  I had a meeting room for most of the day, all on my own. And I didn’t have a hot meal for lunch (didn’t have to stack the dishwasher either, mind). Probably got less work done, too. And the whole experience cost more than a week at home. But I was bouncing all day. 

Some good things

There’s a bit of me that always worries about calling out the good things for fear of missing others. But I also trust the team knows the process is sufficiently random to not take offence. 

I enjoyed the Here to Help show & tell. The project has built a broad, multidisciplinary team and understands exactly how to deliver value to users. The challenge is in designing something that supports an intricate workflow (and all the recording that’s needed) whilst ensuring it’s sufficiently adaptable to the changing needs of our COVID support.

Recovery plans – we’re doing a couple of bits of work with AWS so that we’ve got more than one way of recovering council services. It’s asking a lot of the teams to be able to incorporate more people and be ready for different eventualities on top of all the other things. But in the two strands of work that are now starting to take shape as a result of the openness and adaptability of the people involved. 

One of the other benefits of doing to the HSC was seeing how the facilities team have adapted again to the challenge of the ventilation work in the building. After designing the one way system and signage, it’s now changing again. And the work needs to be re-done. And the team just get on and deliver. 

Similarly, the team came together to discuss how we could support social care with providing a safe way of retrieving documents from our statutory partners. In less than 48 hours we had explored three options, made a recommendation and put it in place. 

We’ve been able to recover Earthlight, a map-based application that’s important for lots of teams that deal with our local environment. It took a bit longer than expected, but we’ve been able to deploy the system securely via the cloud – which I was impressed with. 

I’m confident in my ability to start new things, and less so of my ability to continue to push them. So I was particularly pleased to see our customer services teams working this week to reinforce the importance of having time for self-reflection; for people to listen to their own calls and identify where they’d been able to exhibit the behaviours we’re looking for: be human, make things simple and be the guide. 

And something I learnt

I had a couple of important presentations this week: an all staff presentation and the weekly update to Council Silver. Neither were new – I’ve done several in the last few weeks but I got better feedback and learnt more from them than before. Somehow I achieved that sweet-spot of being confident of the material and relaxed in the environment. I used to think there was a way of forcing this but am increasingly resigned to the fact that sometimes it just clicks.

Next week

Only nine days left, folks. It’s like that hateful last three miles of a half marathon. Close enough to know you’re going to get there. Not close enough to be there. And the only thing to do is focus on the next step and not think about how much further there is left. The most important thing is that we close the year well so that we can rest properly and return rejuvenated and focused. 

Weeknote special – 8

Week beginning 30 November

In lots of respects this was a much better week for me personally. I started strongly. Before the end of the day we had:

  • a clear set of priorities for our document upload and evidence store; a plan for recovering scheduling software; 
  • a draft evaluation of the potential Communications as a Platform solution that best meets our needs and;
  • a new proposition for our cloud deployment service. 

And by Wednesday (and I bear almost no credit for this) we’d released a new service for residents to check their bin day and order replacement recycling bags etc. We’ve partnered with IEG4 for the resident experience and Yotta for the business process: these solutions represent the usability, accessibility and interoperability that we need from suppliers.  

It was almost as though spending Friday walking round Kew Gardens with my children, taking an enforced break triggered by their day off school was good for me. Possibly as predictable as discovering that the greenhouses were shut.

This was also the week when I ran at least 4 miles a day, in pursuit of my goal to hit 1,000 miles for the year (my New Year’s Resolution was to run 450 miles in the year so: thanks lockdown and Cyber attack) and ran out of episodes to watch of This Is Us. Someone described me as ‘disciplined’ on Wednesday evening which I was about to dispute, but realised it was in vain. 

But like the Liverpool teams of the Benitez years, I couldn’t quite put a string of results together. By Friday morning I had had enough. There wasn’t one cause. But too many little things (all from outside the team) chipped away at my focus and sense of purpose. What frustrates me most is they all represented ‘avoidable harm’. I’m not the most naturally tolerant person. And particularly struggle to manage my emotions when people make avoidable mistakes. But it also makes me particularly grateful for the areas of responsibility which are ticking over smoothly, with very little help from me (it would be unkind for you to draw conclusion from this observation!)

I also suspect this is a particularly tough period for the digital and data parts of the team. We’re working so hard. And so much of what we’re doing is really good. But we don’t have enough to show for it yet for colleagues to appreciate it. There’s no single reason. We’re rightly being more cautious with security and that’s adding friction to the release cycle. We’re struggling to align stakeholders on a couple of projects where we most need to show progress. And some of the progress is slower because we’re learning new skills and using new tools because we’re without our familiar solutions. With a bit of luck, though, we should be able to head to the Christmas break with some big hurdles overcome. 

One of the other things that really helped this week was being able to tap into colleagues in other councils. From the outside the level of repetition and duplication in the sector looks insane. And some of that criticism is justified. But when you’ve got someone you can contact, the willingness of people to help and openness of the conversation is really helpful. 

Next week

We’re mid-sprint in our business continuity response workstream at the moment and currently I’m feeling optimistic about meeting all our sprint goals. But we also need to prepare for the New Year. We’ll have to be able to set-up some more clusters of activity and project teams. And we’ll need to have just enough oversight of these to enable them to work – and so that we understand the solutions – whilst recognising that we’ll be working at a larger scale than ever before. Finally, we’ll also have to end some things well enough that people can have a proper break over Christmas and New Year. Just those things, then, for next week;)

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