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

Month: July 2021

Weeknote v10.28

Week beginning 19 July

A week where we achieved every goal that I set. But we also grappled with a couple of significant things that blew us off course and were generally a bit demoralising. There are two things that I find challenging about these scenarios. As a leader I want to be consistent and proportionate. So when bad things happen I need to work hard to channel how I feel in the right way. And it’s also important not to carry feelings from one meeting into the next. That’s particularly hard when the only thing separating two meetings is the ‘hang up’ and ‘join’ buttons on the screen. 

We had a productive session when Rob’s management team on Tuesday. We spent a healthy amount of time in the park, and everyone else was too grown-up for me to suggest taking the logical next step to Pub on the Park. We made a useful contribution to the thinking about how we can meet the savings challenge (but gosh that’s hard to do well) and thought about how we can set clearer expectations for our teams. Potentially the most powerful thing we did was to make some personal commitments for the next six weeks or so, and found a way that we can hold each other to account for whether or not we succeed.  

A couple of times I sensed a kind of tiredness/grumpiness in a couple of the issues that I dealt with. And we had to deal with some tricky (though not unusual) situations in our service centre. I feel awkward about looking forward to a break, because it’s only 7 weeks since my last one. But I suspect the heat has made the last week harder. 

I used the goals for the week (and my endless lists) as a device to bring myself back on course on Thursday morning. It was a way of checking whether I was finding enough focus on the things that mattered. But I’d also like to think more actively about what things I need to make sure are done really well, as opposed to just finished. I’m having to make lots of trade-offs at the moment and would benefit from having just enough opportunities to retain a clear sense of what ‘excellence’ looks like. 

I learnt most this week in a session with our development team. We were hoping to meet face to face but that didn’t feel responsible given the infection rates and, frankly, how central they all are to the delivery of so many important pieces of work. I facilitated a session to find out their ambitions for the next 18 months and what needed to change for them to achieve them. There were a few themes that I was expecting, but three things I wasn’t. There’s a real desire to play a more dominant role alongside our agency partners, to have a clearer strategy for our approach to front-end development and an ongoing challenge to balance delivery, learning and wellbeing. I’ve got partial answers for some of this but frustratingly I had to leave the session before we’d really finished. So a challenge to return to. 

We’re shifting to fortnightly goal settings from next week. That will help us fit into the rhythms of the teams more neatly and introduce a less frenetic cadence to our work. But it will also place more emphasis on ensuring that we look long as well as short so that we know we’re on the right track. We’ll also need to keep a close eye on blockers so that they are identified and resolved quickly. I’m also expecting to spend a significant amount of time on recruitment over the next few weeks, so it’ll be important to plan my diary appropriately.

Weeknote v10.27

Week beginning 11 July

Strange week. I actually did some useful things, I think and twice managed to avoid doing things that would have been disruptive. But it felt unsatisfactory to be part of. There isn’t a single cause. And sat in the sun this morning, it could be worse!

The five main things that I took responsibility for . . . 

Developing a business case for the next phase of work with social care. I was lucky enough to have two decent-length train journeys which was enough to take a deep breath and tell the whole story in a way that (hopefully) is simple enough to make sense without being so simple that it could be misleading. 

How we’re going to tackle voids management in our housing programme. Voids (the process which manages a home from the point at which it’s becoming vacant to the point at which it’s occupied), is, I’m learning, a meta process. It draws together processes which work on their own and need to be joined-up to keep to a minimum the period where the home is empty. Thankfully there’s some good public literature we can draw from and we could orchestrate a good conversation with the product teams in repairs and tenancy management. 

How we’re managing asset data in housing The Building Safety Act requires a golden thread of safety information for landlords managing a building. There are lots of asset management databases that do these tasks. But we also need to manage adjacent activities – like repairs, rent accounts and supporting vulnerable tenants. So making sure we have a single source of truth, whilst ensuring that tools support those workflows isn’t trivial. So I wanted to make sure that we were approaching this in the right way. 

How we’re embedding an engineering mindset in development. Rashmi has been leading some really impressive work to codify more of the work we’re doing in solution architecture, security and reusable components. None of that’s mine, but I wanted to make sure we had oversight of it at Cyber Silver so we could ensure we’re having the right conversations and scrutiny throughout the development lifecycle. 

We’re at a different stage of development with our cloud platform but similarly, we need to take stock and capture what we’ve achieved, where we’re making progress and also reflect the things we haven’t yet done. I gave some thought to the areas we needed to cover and hoped that I’d left enough space for James and Darren to figure out how best to convert that into something useful. 

I looked at these in a different light thanks to my Steve Gerrard revelation last week. It was probably too late (or I was too slow) to work appreciably differently. But it did help me think more deliberately about the holes I was leaving elsewhere on the pitch.  

I was fortunate that there were so many things that I could just glance at. A full list would be too long. Marian is leading the next stage of the rollout of our new phone system and has taken forward the useful things we learnt from the initial release into a set of further phased releases. Zoe has led the new stage of work on Here to Help which has involved an evaluation by UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and collaborating with Newham Council to create a toolkit for services looking to adopt preventative approaches. The housing finance products team has brought our arrears management tools back into use to support the income collection team.  

But I also started making a list of the things I wasn’t doing. In theory, it should give me a reference point either for times when I’ve got spare capacity and/or when those things move from being important to urgent. That’s three lists now: the things I actually need to do; the things I need to watch and the things I’m not doing. 

There’s a possibility that next week is my last full week at work for a couple of weeks. I’ve got a vague plan for a holiday. I’m often reluctant to really commit to a break – and COVID provides cover for legitimising that. But as we think about the shape of recovery, it feels as though we’re coming towards the end of a phase where some really big ticket items are coming to a conclusion. Some of the next wave of projects have taken longer to get going than we’d have liked (typically for reasons beyond our control). But they’re no less important. So we need to be careful to ensure they have the same energy, commitment and focus whilst being realistic that it’s going to be hard to muster that over the 6 weeks around August particularly if parts of a team are unavailable at different times. 

In the meantime, I have a list of three to attend to . . . 

Weeknote v10.26

Week beginning 5 July

PSN: we did it. There was, inevitably, another unexpected step required. But some three months after I thought it could be done, it was. Clive Woodward talks about conducting post-mortems after success and letting go after failure. But on an occasion like this, you reach the finish line and it’s hard to muster the energy for very much. 

I’m not a fan of programmes, mostly. Too often they design a heavy governance structure that removes senior decision makers from the messy reality of project delivery; suck up time in unnecessary levels of coordination and work within artificial boundaries. But our work in housing is benefitting from some of the positive aspects of programmes: an emerging sense of community and common purpose, a forum to talk about dependencies where they’re identified, and just enough independence that each team can deliver on its own merits. That’s particularly important now we’re working through cross-cutting processes like managing housing ‘voids’, citizen sign-on and cautionary alerts.  

Emma’s done a cracking job in supporting the teams developing modern tools for social care, which I’ve also learnt from. I’ve a constant fear with Agile that it’s too interested in itself – the process. But the social care technology teams were in crisis mode for a long time – always scrambling towards the next big milestone. Eventually that came at the cost of our ability to deliver value continuously. By prioritising how the team was working she’s helped unblock what they’re doing. 

Most of my week wasn’t about the efforts to convert the Hackney Service Centre into a vaccinations site. That was the work of the public health, facilities team with the support of customer services managers and user research. But there I wager that these sorts of efforts have done more to integrate councils and local health services than a year worth of health integration boards.  

I’ve been thinking about the early-stage career of Steven Gerrard this week. Not just because I’ve been trying to identify the root cause of my Ingerland fatigue. Gerrard was thrilling to watch – tackling, shooting,passing, defending, scoring. All action. But every job he was doing meant that there was another job he wasn’t. There are a few things that I’ve worked hard to really immerse myself in. But I was wondering whether this comes at a price. Do I just vacates a space that I should be occupying: to be able to stand-back and view something more objectively? I know that there are some things I struggle to critique because I feel responsible for it as a co-creator. 

We talk of technology being an enabler of providing value to residents. But in a context where we’ve simply not had enough of the basics, it’s easy for technology to become the end in itself. Sometimes in our recovery that’s the right approach. But the combined impacts of COVID, the cyberattack and the vulnerability of our residents means it won’t necessarily be. I’ve been thinking about our portfolio of activities and working to steer a couple towards an approach which is more holistic. 

Next week

We’re looking to confirm the key goals for the next three months of cyberattack recovery. With so much to do, there’s real merit in forming a shared opinion of how our performance will be judged. But it’s hard to know how far to push this: either in describing how ‘priorities’ will be treated relative to all the other things that should, and will happen and the extent to which it matters that we’ve got common priorities. At some point soon, I also need to look ahead to the end of the year: where do we want to be and have we got sufficient focus and impetus to get there? Doing this before September feels important so that we’ve got time to respond. 

Weeknote v10.25

Week beginning 28 June

I’ve struggled to hit my stride with weeknotes in the last few weeks. My oldest friend asked last weekend why I share them publicly. And when I’m not writing well, I wonder the same. At the moment my weeknotes are particularly conditioned by how I feel on a Friday evening. But I do it because the habit helps for when I really need it. So bear with me. 

The best thing happened right at the end of the week. I ran a session with customer services officers to understand what we could do to support their career development. The Council created a redeployment pool to support service delivery during COVID and I wondered how we could build on that. 

Some of the team were frustrated by the knock-backs and even talked about “giving up”. But there were some cracking ideas for how to change the situation, including establishing a peer support group, and analysing job descriptions to identify particular skills they might be missing. We’re also going to explore how we can showcase the skills in the team so that hiring managers can consider secondments when looking for short-term roles. It was energising and impressive to hear people wanting help, but who were also willing to commit to tackling the problem. 

I had a catch up with the team exploring how we can use technology better to support the administration of elections. They’ve got a clear brief, and their weeknotes have provided enough depth to understand progress. But part of what we’re asking was necessarily about working in ‘splendid isolation; whilst also exploring how many of our existing assets they could re-use to explore this solution. It was impressive to see the clarity of thinking and how well they’ve stuck to the task. 

We also had a productive discussion with social care leaders on our work to support the service.  We’ve got a shared understanding of the roadmap over the next three months and Emma’s been able to work hard on how the team is working so that we’ve a more sustainable approach to delivery.

But the most meaningful achievement was working with the NHS to turn the Hackney Service Centre into a vaccination site for the weekend. I sat back and watched in awe as the facilities and customer services team worked with our user researchers, data protection team and public health colleagues to design the experience and manage everything from the temperature of the building to the way we’d use SMS to manage supply and demand. And I can claim absolutely no credit for any of it.

All those good things notwithstanding, there were some pretty tricky bits this week, too. I set too many goals and failed to meet them. We did as good a job as we could with the launch of the new phone system (given how I’d framed the project) but we learnt late about some of the questions that users had, which I hadn’t anticipated. And there were some people things which I found personally challenging.

I was also frustrated with myself when I failed to be an active participant in a couple of short and tells. There was one in particular that didn’t quite work – but I couldn’t quite work out why. And promptly got distracted by another meeting. I need to do better by actively thinking about what I’m hoping to learn from the event so that one got a clear criteria by which to judge it.

So next week I’ve “rolled over” a few goals and need to magic some time out of thin air to attended to the growing number of things which need my input if they’re to move forward. Success for the week probably looks like getting to the end without dropping anything too pressing. But that dynamic often helps me focus.

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