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

Month: September 2021

Leadership in a digital age

I’ve learnt a thing or two about leadership in a digital age, certainly since the days when I encouraged leaders to show their digital credentials by blogging or listening to Twitter. I’ve recently led software and data recovery from a cyberattack during significant pre-planned organisational change. The more I see, the less I’m convinced that efforts at digital capability building are aimed at the right target. 

So what does it take to lead an organisation towards adopting the practices, cultures and technology of the internet-era to respond to people’s ever-increasing expectations? Rarely a training course in technology. 

It does require credible, collaborative and unrelenting technology leadership. You can’t be an organisation fit for the 21st century on premise. If your technology leadership is more into blockchain than user needs, you’re doomed. If your technology leaders can’t connect with staff handing down infosec judgements from on-high, no amount of McKinsey can save you. But that’s fixable. 

Technology leadership and leadership of an organisation powered by technology aren’t the same and pitching the former to the latter won’t appeal. So what are the broader attributes required of organisation and system leadership to foster a truly digital culture?

There are four aspects of public service transformation in a digital era where traditional leadership techniques come up short:

  1. That change is driven by citizen / customer expectations where we don’t get to determine the solution and the consequences of not meeting expectations are much more visible
  2. The speed of change and that it’s continuous and iterative in nature requires much more attention to governing change as a process rather than the result
  3. We’re tackling complex, inter-connected problems which aren’t well suited to traditional analysis and measurement
  4. To succeed in this changed environment, we need to default to working in the open and being genuinely inclusive – both of which can feel threatening

Technology-driven change doesn’t fail because senior leaders don’t understand the technology but because they don’t understand the change. That’s where capability building needs to start. 

Customers over helicopters

Analogue leaders take a helicopter view: have we got the big issues across the operating model? They prefer to stay out of the detail. They’re routinely shielded from messy realities. They’ll happily chair any number of status update meetings talking about the ‘thing’ but not for them witnessing the experience. 

Digital leaders take a customer view: what’s the experience we want to provide and what’s causing the gap with the current experience? They’ll start with customers and work back, translating between their direct experience and the anecdote they hear from customers and staff and the work that they’re leading. Digital leaders understand the value proposition and what capabilities need to work together to achieve it. 

Process and outcomes

Analogue leaders prize results. They want to know if we’ve done what we said we’d do in the time that we allocated. They want to know the number of things: widgets shipped on time, trends over time. 

Digital leaders don’t sacrifice the process to achieve the output*. They understand that change is continuous and want teams working at a sustainable pace. The outcome is more important than the output. They want to achieve scale and systematise where success can be replicated. They’re comfortable with numbers and curious about the outcomes: have we solved the problem for people? They understand that outcomes can be complex and uncertain and not always achieved through replication.

Managing technical and adaptive change differently

Analogue leaders manage all change as if it were the same. They convene people around a problem and instruct them to solve it. They may track progress to a fixed point; manage variation against the initial guess and get cross when the two vary. 

Digital leaders spot the difference between certain change to a fixed point and uncertain change to an ambiguous feature. They know when to make things simpler how to carry uncertainty for others and when to lean in to tensions.  

Demanding openness and inclusive

Analogue leaders default to working in private. They value structure as the mechanism to identify what matters and to know who to call to instruct a change. They trust their team through clearly defined accountabilities. 

Digital leaders are open by default. They recognise that continuous change can only be achieved through small, interoperable capabilities working well together. They know that openness is a prerequisite for innovation. They are comfortable working across and down the hierarchy. They manage teams and actively work to foster an inclusive culture. They don’t, often enough, challenge their own behaviours and assumptions to ask how they are standing in the way of genuine inclusion. 

Meeting in the middle

You can’t make analogue leaders digital through a sheep-dip in Agile, an immersion in micro-services or writing code in a day. It’s about culture and mindset. 

But the digiterati could stop making things worse. ‘I’m young and/or can write software and so know more about running your organisation than you’ is a curious kind of pitch – though it continues to be made. ‘If you don’t understand our lingo or dress like us, you can’t be in our club’ works more than it should. 

Helping people think differently needs to start in a safe place: with problems they recognise and solutions they’re yearning for. Taking the digital out of leadership might be a start. 

* I re-worded this after advice from @Pentri

Weeknote v10.38

Week beginning 20 September 

A week where by the end it was hard to remember the start. I remember now that I was intimidated by quite how many meetings I had which didn’t align with the things that were most important. But it didn’t end up like that. I was able to find just enough time to actually work through most of the goals I set. 

More and more of my work is focused on the start of things and the end of things. I spend quite a bit of time setting things up – defining what needs to be done, business cases, procurement and the like. There were three this week – around document migration, cloud engineering and income management. I’d like to be more involved in setting up the ways of working and the culture of the team but I reckon that’s often better done by others. I spend time setting things up because it’s otherwise hard to resource and I reckon it tends to take me less time than it would take someone else. 

Finishing things off is vital to ensure we deliver on our commitments and so that we can move onto the next thing. Even our most Agile projects still work towards releases that carry particular significance. We’ve resolved most of the systemic blockers to launch that we faced previously (deploying software into production, capacity for security testing, creating subdomains). So I suspect that much of what I do doesn’t add a significant amount of value. But the importance of our work on the housing register, arrears management and building control software meant that I felt a need to be close enough to the detail to understand what had to be done and our likelihood of meeting expectations. 

I’ve slipped back in my commitment to be a more active participant in show & tells. I still follow about five a week (more by video this week). But when I don’t actively think about it I slip back into listening ‘for information’ rather than actively wondering how I can best help the team. I’m partly blaming video. It’s easier to zone out than it would be when physically present not least because there are fewer clues to how other people are responding and engaging. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Next week feels significant. We’re recruiting for a secondment to run the registrars service for a brief period whilst the current, excellent manager, takes a short break. We’re agreeing the objectives for our customer success managers for the next 3-6 months. We’ve got an important session to explain what’s happening in the customer service for housing repairs and there are two meetings where we need to unblock service delivery issues. If I do those five things well, the week will have been successful. But I also need not to drop the ball on the issues that I’ve been tracking this week. It’ll take real discipline to do all that well. 

Weeknote v10.37

Week beginning 20 September

I’m cross with myself this week. When you’re senior the expectations on you are generally less clear, in my experience. But there are some things that you obviously have to do well. And this week I did one of those things badly. I failed to prepare for a meeting about service performance. And rather there being one obvious reason, there are a few not-particularly-satisfactory reasons. It’s hard to know what to draw from the experience when you know exactly what you needed to do but you’re not clear why you didn’t do it. Needless to say, I don’t expect to repeat the mistake. 

There were positives too, but they were different. I had two in-person collaboration sessions. One was to draft a business case which is exactly the sort of task that I normally find too dull to concentrate on to the point of completion, instead finding it too easy to get it mostly done and then let the final bits drag. Sitting with Lisa meant that I was too embarrassed to quit early and so we pushed it to the finish line. Kelly and I then drafted a Playbook for customer services, covering all the different things we do, why and how we do them, in preparation for the new managers joining the service. We won’t truly understand its value in the next 3-6 weeks but over the next 12-18 months if it gets used and iterated. So it was good to create something good enough to find out whether it will persist. 

The highlight of my week was facilitating a workshop to explore how we match people and skills with projects. We’re currently structured in professional groupings and for our more hard-to-recruit professions making sure the right people and working on the right thing is non-trivial. But it’s also a task that can lead to friction for project teams. The people I asked to take part did so bravely and in the right way, which made my task easier. But if I’m honest, what I enjoyed most was dusting off my ‘design and deliver a workshop’ skillset and remembering how to do it. It’s been I-don’t-know-how-long since the last time and it always takes more care and attention than I anticipated. 

At the end of the week we got together the customer success managers to discuss our focus for the next quarter (or so). I’ve an idea around prioritisation which works theoretically but needs some care if we’re to make it work on a daily basis so I wanted to float it before the week was out. It was one of those sessions that would have taken three weeks to organise if we were meeting in person and booking a room. But I remain unsure about whether dropping that sort of idea late on a Friday is a good idea or not. 

So there’s enough to take comfort from, even if I have made more work for myself, and others, through my mistake. 

Next week, I’m back on the meetings treadmill for much of the week and it feels like very few are ‘mine’. But on Friday we’re coming together as a management teamwork work through the next level of detail about our future shape – and that’s worth looking forward to. 

Weeknote v10.36

Week beginning 6 September 

The more I think about this week the less clear I am on what to say about it. That may not bode well for you, dear reader. I began by thinking that I’d achieved most of the things that I intended. But on closer inspection I’m not sure I used the goals for the fortnight as actively which meant that whilst I did some stuff, I’m not sure how much I achieved.

Tuesday gave the best feeling. It had been a hot day and by the time I dropped my daughter at swimming I felt like I had no energy. Then I ran for an hour (there’s literally nothing else to do thanks to some non-existent spatial planning) and came back full of energy, which helped me smash through a number of tasks that I’d been delaying.

I also got some valuable feedback on how I was planning to set out our recovery status. In essence it was ‘don’t start from there’. I’d done enough to do justice to what I was intending and the feedback was clear enough to be able to change course without that leading to duplicate effort. 

From time to time I struggle to manage the back-and-forth involved in some tasks. There’s just enough time to do the first thing but then not the follow-up. I feel particularly bad about that when I’ve asked someone to do something and they do it efficiently, and then it sits back with me for some time. There were a couple of particularly good examples in facilities management this week. In the back of my mind there must be a better way of managing these things which aren’t quite tasks and definitely aren’t projects. But I haven’t found it yet. 

I was out of the office, as it were, for two days this week at the LGC pensions conference. It’s interesting to be immersed in someone else’s world, and I had also been asked to speak about cyber security. Being an expert in neither wasn’t going to deter me. And helpfully the Pensions Regulator makes cyber resilience a specific obligation on fund administrators and trustees.

Next week I’m expecting two genuinely collaborative days – working with a colleague on the business case for the next phase of develop of our data platform and building out the customer services playbook with Kelly. We’ve also got an important workshop about how we plan the always-too-contended allocation of software engineering skills across our products.

Weeknote v10.35

Week beginning 30 August 

It’s properly the end of summer now. The weather helped reinforce that it’s time to return fully to work. And last week was a fun enough holiday that I neither resented that nor had a broken night’s sleep in anticipation. But I did go through my diary and identify something each week to look forward to.

I spent the first day back in the office. It wasn’t much of an occasion- just video calls and hopping between screens – but it felt a useful way to re-establish a working mentality.

I was particularly excited by the customer services leadership team away day. The very words contain enough to make others shudder. But with the new structure starting to take shape I wanted to get the team together so that it felt like a new start. For those who were promoted there was a danger not enough changes – particularly with other roles still subject to recruitment. I also wanted to share with the team some of the techniques that I’d learnt to practice through responsible leadership.

The agenda was overly ambitious – and I was nearly thwarted by the trains being cancelled. But I got there and we got there, covering the meat of the day and still avoiding the 5.30pm close that I’d threatened.

We had a different style of session with the IT management team to establish the next level of detail on our future shape (more PostITs, more jargon). We’ve done a significant amount of activity since we published our first ideas and now need enough time to do that justice and enough urgency to keep folk with us.

I had a bit of a scramble in what spare time I had, to move forward the goals for the fortnight but the discipline remains positive. Unfortunately, there are a number of tasks that went on my list in early August and are still glaring at me. Most are important rather than urgent but two knotty things in particular need more care than I’ve been able to give.

Two in-person workshops and three trips to the office left me sitting in front of the TV on Friday night wondering when my family last felt this mysterious. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Next week promises less glamour – although a trip to a pensions conference is more exciting than it may sound, even if it does focus on cyber security. We also need to progress our proactive outreach pilot – one of the initiatives I’m most invested – before it gets too close to the great boiler switch-on in housing repairs. But more prosaically, I returned from holiday determined to get out of bed when my alarm goes off – and failed each morning. Must do better next week.

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