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

Month: May 2021

Weeknote v10.21

Week beginning 24 May

This week was mostly about people. Perhaps most weeks in most jobs are. This week was about how to manage people’s unexpected reactions. To ensure that things that could have been perceived to be climactic were still thoughtfully considered. And to try and build areas of agreement where it might appear that there was more that separated us. 

One of the consequences of the cyberattack was that there were certain options that, to my mind, blatantly weren’t available and others that were distinctly undesirable. But we didn’t have time or space to construct an argument around that or develop a consensus. We simply had to deliver value. And for a while that was enough. But it’s inevitable that people ask why alternative routes weren’t available and, perhaps, wish that they might have been. And we need to ensure there’s enough space for that and sufficient opportunity to listen whilst remaining focused on delivering value. 

This week was also about teams. I was immensely fortunate that my first experience of working in a multidisciplinary digital team was made to look effortless by its participants. And having been through that experience I can sometimes rely on the processes of user centred design and Agile being enough to make a team work well. But as I was removing some dated artefacts from the office wall I stumbled across a team charter where people had committed to ways of working that I had taken for granted. And it provided me a fresh perspective on our work and helped me value more, the investment that colleagues make in building truly diverse and inclusive multidisciplinary teams.

Based on that, I’ve also been reflecting on how we evolve as a customer, digital and data team.  We’ve talked about transitioning ‘from start-up to scale-up’ and much of that is about putting more structure, processes and routine than we had four years ago. It’s often easy to see the limitations of what you have. But in the last few days I’ve also had a chance to reflect on some of the intentional benefits which, honestly, I’d forgotten about. There was more method than might have been apparent at first glance. And so as we respond to the need to run Agile at greater scale and ever greater pace, and coordinate more complex work, we still need to hold the ambiguities inherent in the pursuit of a multi-faceted goal over an unknown timeframe through a period of flux. 

This is the period that will do most to shape the year to define the decade. Can we deliver sufficient value between now and summer? Can we come to a resolution on the major pieces of recovery work that we’ve been pursuing for the last six months or so? Will we have the focus and energy to begin well the new activities that come our way? And can we embed the changes we’ve made to how we support our residents following COVID to ensure they become ’just how we work’?

So with all those questions and all that learning, I bugger off to Portugal for a few days. Having had some time off over Easter it feels too soon to have another break. But I know I’ve been short of that extra energy needed to make things happen. And so weeknote v10.22, if it ever sees the light of day, might simply be a reading list. 

Weeknote v10.20

Week beginning 17 May 2021

You might have noticed that I’m struggling a bit to be enthusiastic about my weeknotes at the moment. We’ve had a period where the most obvious things haven’t been quite going to plan and at lot of effort has been going into things that are less obvious. And this is the longest running format I’ve used for weeknotes ever. And the more the world changes around us, the more my world seems to stay the same. I’m also aware that some things that would ordinarily dominate my week have had to be dealt with in a more contained way.

In our weekly updates to the Council’s Silver group of Directors and Heads of Service I’ve worked hard to stick to the discipline of sharing only what we’ve delivered rather than things where we’re making steps along the way, which has felt important given that often we don’t know how many steps are needed to complete a task. But that constraint has also made some weeks harder to account for than others. 

But there were plenty of reasons to feel optimistic this week. We’re now testing a recovered document store which will support the recovery of the revenues and benefits service. Our regeneration team has access to two recovered applications that enable us to plan our programmes. The Repairs Hub tool has an authorisation workflow for higher cost repairs, enabling us to extend it to our larger contractors. 

And there’s even more to look forward to next week. All being well, our document evidence store will be ready for use to support our housing repairs service. Our social care case recording tool will show relationships between people. And we may be testing the Modern Gov application which enables us to manage the publication of Council papers (we’ve been doing this in a less efficient way, but used effective work-arounds hitherto). 

But it also highlights some of the challenge around prioritisation, planning and context switching. Much of the team would prefer to be working on a single activity at any one point with a goal and set of clear outcomes. If that were the case, it would also be significantly easier to manage. But the majority of our work involves hand-offs which are often unpredictable. Often these are important partnerships with software vendors where our contribution comes in bursts and the level of technical input we need to provide is often less predictable than perhaps it should be. Prioritising and planning this is difficult – particularly when trying to deliver at pace across the whole Council. My preferred approach is to have more plates spinning than we can handle on the assumption that they won’t all need equal care at the same time. But I’m also doing some work to look ahead three months and consider the balance between capacity, delivery and resilience.  

Personally, I got involved in the design of our first use case for our data platform – how we might re-use data about our residents to prioritise housing repairs. I wanted to support the team to make sure that the use-case would enable other services to see how it could apply to their circumstances and that the experiment could leave us with some clear outcomes and business benefits so that we could show its value. 

I also played an active role in helping design the next stage of the recovery of our social care application. We’ve got lots of knowledge about how the application worked previously and we need to harness this, with just enough governance to make sure that we’re making the right decisions for now and the medium term. 

I wasn’t courageous enough to seek feedback as actively as I’d hoped. I didn’t feel up to it on Tuesday – and on Wednesday I was acutely aware of what I needed to do differently! However, I used the public commitment I made last week to force myself to do something – and asked one of the team to facilitate a retrospective so that I could learn more. And the habit I’d been working on over the last few weeks now feels less of a conscious choice, which feels positive and so I’m now ready to share it. I’ve been trying to give more active feedback around our show & tells so that I’m not just a supporter or an observer. 

Oh and this week I got my vaccine – my prize for actually getting around to registering with a GP – and ran a half marathon at the weekend. One left me feeling worse than the other!

Weeknote v10.19

Week beginning 10 May

The good

The Council’s annual staff awards took place on Thursday. I had skin in the game – our team had four nominations: Tim, as manager of the year, Annalivia as Star, registrars, who won team of the year, and the food distribution and Here to Help service for project of the year. Each were well deserving in a year that’s thrown so much at us – both opportunities and challenges. It was a cracking way to bring the week to a close (although I could have been more productive on Friday, in truth). 

And the less good

I reckon over the years I’ve read every piece of good advice there is to read about leadership. And for some random reason I was thinking earlier this week about what I’d say to my younger self and stumbled across: “stop looking for the secret. It’s simpler than you think. It’s just hard to do”. That brings us to Tuesday. I was in a bad mood. I’ve noted before how ‘leadership is how you respond when you’re having a bad day’. But I couldn’t. It’s curious how intense things can become when it’s you, a screen and your living room. 

Focus for the week

I set five goals for the week across the three recovery workstreams I’m leading. I can reasonably say that I met three, with one in progress. Setting weekly goals distorts things – where the work wasn’t expecting to hit the goal, what it means for things that aren’t goals, how to make space for all the other things. But it still feels like a healthy dose of accountability. Without getting too meta, I’m interested in what we could learn by looking at the evolution of the goals over time – which are achieved and which aren’t – and what this means for how we work. 

What I’m learning 

Building a routine – I’ve been working to build some new routines around giving feedback. I’ve been doing it consciously for four weeks now – not quite long enough that it comes naturally. I suspect the next couple of weeks are critical to see if I can turn it from being something I have to remind myself to do, into something that feels strange when it’s absent. 

Balancing the short and longer term – A crisis demands a short term focus. But a sustained recovery also needs a longer term view. I can see the mission and I can see next week. But I’m starting to find it harder to judge the pace. Is what we’re doing next week sufficient to get us towards the goal? So I’m spending some time next week to find out. 

Even better if – I’m actively making time to think about how the things that are going well could be even better. General busy-ness and pace can pull you towards asking ‘what’s next?’ at the expense of giving things the chance to really sing. 

Ones to watch

Noise reporting – we had a good show & tell from our project with Society Works about how we can improve the experience of reporting and actioning noise complaints. It’s taken time to win the confidence of the teams involved so it was gratifying to receive positive feedback from the head of service. 

Social care case recording – we launched a couple of key features for editing records and creating warning notes over the last fortnight which had been harder to achieve than we expected. We’re trying to strike a careful balance between making rapid progress but not at the expense of technical debt, which slows down progress later or taking shortcuts which jeopardise security. 

Reusable components – we’ve been talking about the benefits of reusable components for about 18 months. It started with APIs that exposed data that was needed by multiple applications and consuming common services like GOV.UK Notify. Single sign-on is another important building block. It was good to see the housing register project benefiting from the work of other projects by being able to use this for signing on to the admin interface. 

Next week

Given all of the above, I need to make a concerted effort to seek more feedback, starting next week. Be warned. 

Weeknote v10.18

Week beginning 3 May

Well, it was better than last. At one point, when we had a problem with the phones one evening, I did have a bit of a ‘President Bartlett in Two Cathedrals’ moment. But that was solved by the time we were open for business the next day. And on the things that will matter in the long run, our teams continue to make important progress. 

Focus for the week

One of those weeks where it was helpful to have set some clear goals if only because I’d have forgotten what they were by Wednesday morning if I hadn’t. And as such I did manage to work actively towards them from time to time. The goals are a bit too mundane and internal to share. But they had common themes related to how we manage the bits around project delivery – the relationships between projects, how we land new products so we maximise their impact. 

I’m also experimenting with a ‘watchlist’: things which are bigger than actions and smaller than business outcomes but just need enough attention from time to time to make sure they can still be resolved. 

Ones to watch

Data platform – we’ve been working to develop a data platform to support recovery – a way of securely presenting data from business applications to analysts and decision makers reducing the dependence on any single supplier and the manual engineering so often needed before analysis work can begin. I’m really excited by the opportunity for this to work at scale, but importantly we’ve now got our first application agreed so that we can use a richer understanding of our residents and their circumstances when prioritising housing repairs (in support of our existing policy). 

Find my – Our GIS team has been working hard to develop new skills so that we can provide better maps to our residents. Part of this is about being less dependent on specialist software (which is often better for the expert user) and also about how we can re-use more components. We’ve built a better way for people to find their local councillor, which will be live next week (we’ve four new councillors in Hackney today) and we’re working with public health colleagues to improve further how residents can get more value from our COVID data. 

Documenting Agile – We’ve enhanced our design system recently as we’ve been working through a much broader range of user journeys and used the opportunity to refresh how we present our ways of working. Agile means ‘just enough’ documentation and we’re learning more about where documents add value by making common processes easier. We’re developing a set of playbooks iteratively and also investing in automation particularly where we need a common approach to technology. 

What I’m learning

Designing things around the user – I’ve long believed in the merits of more proportional voting systems. But it was instructive trying to explain the London Mayor ballot paper to people particularly when English was their second language, with a Perspex screen in the way. I don’t think that has to be inherent with proportional voting but will be interested to see how many spoilt ballot papers there were, and what we could learn from making the design easier. 

Listening for the song beneath the words – one of my favourite phrases from my favourite management book. I’m getting better at coaching-style conversations but am still working to hear what’s being meant in addition to what’s being said.  

Next week

I’ve actually got a manageable diary next week: 5 days to work and currently the best part of 7 hours without a meeting already arranged! One of the things that can be harder in a crisis mode is to have enough time to think ahead. We set ourselves 6 targets for the three months to end of June and I’d like to take some time to work out what more we need to do to achieve these. 

Weeknote v10.17

Week beginning 26 April

I always find it hard to say when I’ve had a bad week for fear of the wider impact it could have on other team members. This week I have, and there’s no point in saying otherwise. But here’s why I think it’s interesting. In a way, I got unlucky. A set of things came to pass within the same five days which could have happened over a three weeks and it wouldn’t have felt the same way. Perhaps, with the physical space that travelling to and from work I would have had a bit more perspective on the things. 

But these things (too tedious to mention) all shared three common characteristics. They weren’t quite big enough to be obvious, hadn’t had quite enough attention, and I was too integral to them for there to be either a sufficient safety valve or someone else to sweep up. So, as I was saying last week (ahem), the problem with setting weekly goals is what they don’t cover. The solution isn’t hard – it’s somewhere between a task list and a project plan (a watchlist, if you will). But it requires commitment: to be maintained even when it isn’t useful and to be valued even though its value is what it avoids rather than what it adds. 

Focus for the week

I actually got pretty close to achieving my goals for the week, although none of them can actually be ticked off. Whilst there were three things that were beyond my control I used the goals to make sure that we had done everything possible to make them likely and I’m reasonably confident that they’ll be done within the next few days. For example, we’ve got one remaining blocker to being able to access a central government system but we’ve removed the other three. We’ve got all the documentation ready for a decision on software for two council services, pending answering two outstanding questions. We’ve got a new contract ready, pending some alignment with another team. 

I was also really pleased to see how two other teams were grappling with different issues. I had a couple of really constructive conversations with colleagues in customer services about the restructure proposals. There were two particular tensions that we were wrestling with: the benefits of a flatter structure vs the benefits of being able to offer a clear pathway to leadership roles; and the benefits of having sufficient capacity for hands-on support for agents in realtime vs the capacity for stepping back to tackle the underlying challenges. Whilst it’s tempting to say ‘more people would fix the problem’ I believe it’s as much about orientation and mindset.

And whilst we’re on customer services, in the last week or so we received nominations in three different categories for the Hackney Stars awards including a first ever for ‘team of the year’. And at the Council’s’ AGM the Mayor specifically referred to the team’s work. When we first met, the team told me that they wanted to be more valued by the organisation. And it’s their hard work which has achieved that. 

I also enjoyed dropping into the facilities team meeting this week. The team’s adaptability and impact in the last year has been particularly impressive. After food hubs, test centres, COVID-safe workspaces and vaccinations, it’s now elections. The administration of elections is a team sport, a cup final if you will, but played every few years. And all of that this year, just without people getting too close to each other. 

Ones to watch

Document upload and evidence store – we’re perilously close to being able to release the next version of the reusable components. We’re just building an audit API so that we can better manage our records and retention responsibilities. If we can get it over the line within the next week or so, there are a number of teams that will be able to get benefit from the tool. It’s hard to build reusable components: to identify sufficient commonality but not so much that the component gets too complicated. To align timescales to deliver against the different drivers for different services. To take a minimum viable approach whilst ensuring that problems don’t happen at scale. But this project has worked really hard to navigate those tensions and I’m looking forward to its delivery. 

Out of hours – the transition of our out of hours service to a new provider has almost gone unnoticed. Which is very much what I hoped – but still significantly better than it could have been. Calls are being answered efficiently and I think the handling of requests made at either end of the day (and therefore involving hand-offs between teams) has got better. More work is needed, but it’s good progress. 

What I’m learning

Energy levels – I’ve talked before about energy levels. Strava says that my fitness is about 20% down on the same period last month, which has its own exhausting impact! But it was most obvious on Friday. I began the day with a list of 14 things to be done by the weekend. By lunchtime I’d completed 10. Four are still there. 

Video – I’m a difficult age: not young enough for the YouTube generation, slightly too young for it to be ok to be bad on video. I spent hours last weekend making a 7 minute video. I get so hung up on not slipping-up that it comes across terribly. I did make it better, just by filming whilst sitting down. For some of our presentations, we need the energy that comes with standing. But we also need to convey the assurance and confidence that is often better when you’re sitting comfortably. 

Starting with what – Mostly, it’s better to start with ‘why’, explaining the reason for things, not just the thing. But I saw a TED Talk which advocated starting what what reduces negativity when reflecting. And it’s good advice. “Why did this happen to me” can provoke a negative spiral whereas ‘What conditions brought about this event” is more constructive. 

Next week

I already fear I’ve over-reached. With the bank holiday and polling day responsibilities, I’ve only got three days available. I’ve tried to get the balance right between finishing enough of the threads from the last week whilst pushing ahead with the next set of challenges. So five goals for the week is probably over ambitious. But managing that tension between the immediate and short term feels like a price worth paying for falling short of the goals. 

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