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

Month: December 2021

What I’ve learnt in 2021

I don’t have the same zest to reflect on the year that I have usually. I’m spending much more time looking forward to next year. Nevertheless, it’d be a shame to break the annual routine for a year which offered so very many learning opportunities. 

Doing, practicing and learning are all different

It’s easy to assume “I must be learning so much from this period” which you’re doing something novel. You might even be stepping back sufficiently to observe things that are happening. All of those are important enablers of learning. But adding them together doesn’t produce learning any more than practicing something badly, or practising the wrong thing helps you learn. It took real effort this year to step back from the week to week, or the fortnightly rhythms we moved to in summer to actually learn. 

I accepted only a few speaking opportunities this year but prioritised those which forced me to think carefully about what I was learning. The 3,000 or so people who watched the ‘cloud, unless’ presentation remains a highlight of the year. 

Re-reading some of my notes from previous years has been slightly sobering: to see how much easier it is to spot challenges than to work actively to overcome them!

We’re losing the argument for simplicity

Digital, service design and good user experiences all depend on simplicity. But there’s no consensus that simple is good. Everywhere I see people making things complicated. Because some people have complex needs, we make design solutions that are complex for everyone so that no one is excluded. By adding validation steps to a process we provide staff and managers a fake comfort blanket that no one can be entirely at fault.  The argument shouldn’t be about more or less regulation. It should be about the costs of making things complicated and the disempowering affects of a ‘one size fits all’ design.  

Setting good goals is hard

I’ve set somewhere between 150 and 200 goals this year. Most of them weren’t good goals. Some worked; I wanted to set new personal bests for running over each distance up to half marathon. Some did the job eventually (establish a connection to the Public Services Network). The odd one barely made sense a fortnight after it’d been set. Far too many just weren’t thoughtful enough. 

A good goal has, I think, three attributes (assuming that a prerequisite is that the goal is robust enough to withstand most organisational winds). It defines done, it can be achieved within the time available, and it should corral people who want to achieve it (ideally because ‘done’ is a self-evident benefit). Good goals take more time to set than I allowed and probably more communication than I invested in. 

Owning a strategy is harder than conceiving it

I used to be paid for writing strategies. If you understand a market or sector well enough, there are economies of scale involved in doing it lots of times. Writing good strategies is hard, which is why it so often gets outsourced. But owning a strategy is harder. 

In customer services as well as in IT, there were moments when we had conversations along the lines of ‘yes, we agree with all the above, but’. 

Owning a strategy means sticking to it when others question it. It means confronting the inevitability that it draws opponents, not being surprised. It means working through the opposition, not just ignoring it. That’s hard because it’s about people and relationships – and because so much of it is unspoken. You couldn’t outsource _that_ however much it might appeal. 

The limits of a crisis

It’s a cliche that crises shouldn’t go to waste. We weren’t going to spend 18 months to recover from the cyberattack onto solutions that weren’t even right for the internet-era, let alone for 2022. But many people were craving certainty which that didn’t provide. They wanted less ambiguity when more helped actually reduce uncertainty.  And some wanted to see technology a separate workstream just at the moment that it needed to be considered holistically. 

And that’s where most of the effort went this year. 

There are some easy answers: Invest more time in taking people with you, exhaust all the alternative options publicly, get alignment at the top. My experience was that it’s not so easy in a crisis. 

In a different context, I tried to manufacture a sense of crisis in order to accelerate some internal decision making. It helped to galvanise some activity over a short term but wasn’t enough to keep people aligned for long enough to get the thing achieved more quickly. 

Culture is also dynamic 

I’d like to think that I’ve now helped change the culture of three services in the last five years . But I’d previously believed that once established, culture is deep-rooted. Clearly much of it is. But I’d under-estimated how dynamic it can also be. Over the last year the Council has replaced three quarters of its most senior leadership tier and our IT service has faced an existential crisis. 

Some of the changes that this has brought about are more visible to me than others. But one of the things that made me particularly proud was to read the results of an anonymous survey of our software engineers which found that there had been significant change in the last year – and almost all of it in the right direction. 

There are aspects of our culture I’m keen to influence further (our contact centres still feel too separately, and customer services still identifies separately to IT) but it feels like less heavy lifting might be required – and I think the firmly-rooted values play a key part in this. The link work pilot explored the skills and capabilities we needed as a service, not whether or not it was the right thing to do or whether we were the right people to do it. 

Going again will be my biggest challenge

We described this year to be one that defines the decade in IT. And in terms of the big decisions about technology, that was about right. Next year we’ll have to finish the job whilst also showing what’s now possible for our residents and businesses as a result of the choices we’ve made. Some of that won’t be obvious (the time not spent in trying to patch-up old technology) and we’ll need to help set people’s expectations. 

We will be doing that with a new structure and some new ways of working as we step down from the daily rhythms of our Silver command. And to do that we’ll be making some important appointments, once we’ve finalised the posts and jobs in our new structure. 

Our proactive outreach to people who might be at risk is starting to yield really positive outcomes. I’m really keen to extend this to other types of service delivery as part of a broader redefinition of what user-centred services means in the Council. 

To make a success of all of that we’ll need to develop a refreshed sense of purpose, excitement for what’s possible and impatience for what we can achieve. And I know that if I’m to play my part in that, I’ll need to really feel it in a way that I’ve lacked of late. It’s what sports teams do each year. But I learnt from my experience of coming back from holiday in June that you can’t force it.

It’s not a year I’d want to repeat (although my 40th birthday celebrations were exactly how I’d wanted them to be). But I think it’s also given us many of the building blocks necessary to ensure that next year enables us to achieve things that simply wouldn’t be possible at most other places. 

Weeknote v10.50

Week beginning 13 December

After the excitement of the last few weeks this was largely a pedestrian experience. Which, as first sentences go, isn’t the best selling point. But there were helpful five conversations that marked my week. 

Rob, Cate and I met the Chief Executive to discuss transformation. One of the big questions that I let with was how we make sure we’re mindful of the opportunity cost. As we get into the long tail of cyberattack recovery we’ll need to make sure that we’re focusing on the things that will matter most to our residents and businesses. But it’s also about balance, to an extent we get permission to be bold from delivering the basics: good WiFi, reliable technology and delivering our commitments. 

We had an important conversation between two product teams (Manage My Home and the Document Evidence Store) about document management. There’s often a tension between doing the right thing and delivering value for users quickly. The relentless pursuit of one will typically lead to problems later. It’s where the one way and two way door concept is so helpful. We were able to agree an imperfect way for Manage My Home to manage documents now, which doesn’t prevent a more sophisticated solution being developed early next year – and may teach us more about what matters most about the better solution. 

On Thursday we met the finance systems team to talk about their hopes and fears for our future shape. One of the big themes was how we recognise specialist expertise (in this case, understanding of financial regulations) with more general expertise which enables people to have a clearer career path. And where we need to move from one to another, we need to do so in a way that’s respectful of people’s work to date. 

I had two interviews on Friday – both very different in character – but from which I learnt more about managing change. 

A proportion of the week was also spent responding to the Log4J security breach, in common with most of the world. There were a number of things where we needed to be careful and diligent. But, as far as I could tell, our risk profile was lower than many of our peers, as a result of the way that we’ve been able to recover from the cyberattack. And our security model means that weaknesses are much more contained. Despite that, there is no good reason to be complacent and the line-by-line analysis will rightly continue into next week.

I was pretty tired throughout the week (it took two sittings to finish off season three of Succession) and one of the things I noticed in particularly was that I found it harder to be careful in how I participated in conversations. I think that’s unusual but I also know that I find it harder to invest the effort in a video chat than in real life. Somehow there (wrongly) seems less consequence. 

So next week is my last working week of the year to define a decade. I’ve started to think about the retrospective of the year but with our Silver response group having an actual retro on Tuesday, will hold those ideas loosely until we’ve learnt together. 

Weeknote v10.49

Week beginning 6 December

It’s not when I don’t want to hear that it’s a problem. It’s when I don’t know that I need to listen that I run into trouble. Over the last fortnight I’ve been trying to arrange something with the team. I thought it was a straightforward request which fitted into people’s expectations and which would have been widely anticipated anyway. Other people felt differently. And so by having completely different starting points the request landed badly. It wasn’t immediately obvious because remote working makes reactions and side-bar conversations less visible. Not everything we do can be popular, but I’m disappointed with myself for walking into controversy inadvertently. I stepped into an issue with imperfect information and I suspect there’s a bit of all of us that’s just a bit too tired to be patient for that little bit longer.

There were four other significant features to my week. Our Repairs Improvement Board met again this week to review the progress against short term actions that we’ve agreed. Since we last met demand in the contact centre has increased by 44% and so the actions felt necessary but insufficient. Meeting fortnightly is important so we can continue to adapt our approach to meet our residents’ expectations. 

My boiler broke on Monday evening. I found that out after getting up ridiculously early and going for a run on a freezing Tuesday morning. So I was particularly sorry for everyone who encountered me on Tuesday. That boiler that I ordered from Eon 7 weeks ago was looking particularly visionary. That I had to cancel it after no update vs the pre-sales SLA of an installation within 5 days, particularly ironic. Another one might arrive next week. Maybe. 

Secondly, we spent two days as an IT management team, planning our future shape. We began with purpose and goals for 2022 and then worked forward into roles, structure, skills, training, governance – with an important discussion about funding next week. We’re in that difficult phase where we want to retain our commitment to co-creating the right things whilst being able to give people enough certainty that it supports the co-creation.

We’re now at the end of the onboarding phase for Ron and Angharad in their customer services leadership roles. So we got together to review the priorities for the next 6 weeks or so and make sure that these were aligned to where our management team was investing its time and effort . Later I got a pang of regret that I hadn’t also given a bit more room for creativity and self-invitation. But then remembered the importance of providing clarity on what matters most. 

And finally, Kelly left this week. She’s been here for 80 weeknotes and she’s achieved an extraordinary amount. I was asked to merge four contact centres overnight and temporarily had 19 direct reports so I needed someone I could trust totally with the operational aspects of running the service. I didn’t expect her to have such a significant influence on managing change, or to be quite so adaptable in enabling us to take every single opportunity that was available. Her key legacy is the recruitment of Angharad and Ron.

And so, there’s just two weeks until Christmas and three left in the year to define the decade. If we’re able to push over the line a couple of the things that are tantalisingly close then we’ll be able to start next year with a really positive energy.

Digital transformation beyond exemplars

Digital strategies start with exemplars in the public sector. There are good reasons to do this. Deliver value to users quickly. Start small, fail fast. Learn through doing and build advocates. 

But the more the tactic is used, the less effective it becomes (as with any tactic). Some exemplars manage around rather than confront legacy technology. Starting with users and working backwards can produce duplicate technology rather than reusable components. Working around leadership and cultural barriers doesn’t defeat them. Creating shadow IT (Slack, GitHub) isn’t sustainable. These things not only need to be done but become bigger risks if they remain. 

So how to understand what to do next? In Hackney, our API strategy and then our DevOps programmes helped us tackle more aspects of legacy IT. Now our work on common components is helping us build better technology quicker. But it’d be generous to suggest that was part of a coherent strategy. We evolved to tackle the next challenge we identified. 

Whilst wondering this, I was watching a game of American Football. I don’t really understand it but the central part of the game is simple enough. Two teams line up opposite each other. The team in control of the ball has four attempts to get the ball 10 yards up the pitch. They begin by passing the ball backwards. If they make progress, they then line-up again for the next play. 

All this drew me naturally to digital transformation. You have a set of players on your team, trying to make progress against the ‘opponents’ (things, mostly) by either getting in behind or just blocking them (and your opponents have similar intent). If you don’t make sufficient progress you lose distance and then, ultimately, control of the ball. And to stretch the analogy too far, the ball always moves backwards first, as you step back to understand user needs. 

Imagining strategy as a map has worked well for Simon Wardley. And for some time, I’ve wanted to be able to re-create the dynamism of a Wardley Map, whilst also considering the multiple dimensions that exist in transforming an organisation. 

So, how can that help you visualise a digital strategy?

Start with seeing the whole field, and measuring progress towards the goal.  Transformation can only be achieved by working across the different attributes of an organisation. The image below also divides the field up into five channels – a simple Target Operating Model.

We then look at the ‘players’ for the offense (those advancing transformation) and those for the defense (those forces trying to prevent transformation). Your model might contain different versions of these – perhaps names of various teams or organisational units. 

Then picture a play: this one is the ‘exemplars tactic’, It demonstrates that exemplars can be designed to tackle elements of technology and data, culture and mindset, skills and capabilities and products and services but by no means all. 

Three head-to-head battles created by an exemplar tactic

In this play we’re assuming that:

  1.  We’re redesigning a service but still accepting the starting-point – eg. A better school admissions service within the constraints of the 40-page DfE guidance
  2. We build a small team with some exposure to digital skills, developing a handful of advocates in one department
  3. The team is empowered, with psychological safety but is working in temporary project-based structures
  4. The business case and procurement has accepted the waterfall paradigm
  5. We’re adopting cloud infrastructure for the service, but it works on top of legacy tech

And the combination of all these factors would still represent a pretty good exemplar, by most standards. But it’s important to see what gaps it leaves. A second, tenth or 50th exemplar will make greater distance in these battles, but also leave them more exposed. In an organisational context that might mean a change of leadership leaves then more vulnerable to re-organisation or that they’re dragged back by a failure to make more progress on the other parts of the operating model. 

Three head-to-head battles advance but are left isolated up the pitch

You might not like American football. But hopefully the idea of taking a strategic, dynamic, three dimensional look at how to transform helps you think beyond exemplars.  I’d love to learn more about your experience of playing with these tools and the insights it gives you when developing a strategy.

Weeknote v10.48

Week beginning 29 November 

I was on holiday this week – on my own. It gave me the opportunity to step back from (almost all of) the day to day and think about where we are and what needs to happen next. I’m lucky enough to have been on holiday before now (twice this year) but there’s something about being in a different timezone that particularly helps you disconnect. 

There’s almost never a good time to be away. We had a problem with how our new phone system works on Chromium devices which, whilst resolved towards the end of the week and with fantastic efforts from the core team, didn’t get the leadership I needed to give it. So whilst there was something faintly ridiculous about giving the Silver command briefing from my journey back from the airport, I was pleased not to have missed it. 

The position in repairs customer services remained better than previously, though demand was 25% higher this week than last. We’re continuing to grow the team, with a particular focus on providing jobs to people living in Hackney to make sure that we’ve got a more responsive service as we head into the colder months. 

But mostly I thought about the next year – the new opportunities which are available as a result of how we’re recovering from the cyberattack, the future shape of the IT service and the proactive services we’re starting to develop for residents. Being away from the day-to-day helps me think big, unencumbered by some of the things (realities) that make ambitious goals feel less achievable. Talking to people from other organisations also gave me a different perspective on some of the challenges we’re facing and where we are and aren’t doing as well as it appears from the inside.

I also read an absolute gem of a book: Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik. Each chapter acts as a biography of a material (sand, concrete, porcelain) and how it, and we, have shaped our world. There have been a handful of books that I’ve read and enjoyed so much whilst learning about something that I previously had no appreciation for. 

A lot of next week will be about the time the management team is spending, working through the next level of detail on our future shape plans; about the further work we need to do as part of the repairs improvement drive and then Kelly’s last week with us in customer services. 

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