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

Author: Matthew Cain (Page 1 of 2)

Weeknote v10.8

Week beginning 21 February

Focus for this week

There were five things I wanted to get right this week. The first was a piece of management theatre I’m doing so that we can keep track of annual billing for council tax – each morning I meet Chris who’s actually leading the work and write-up a mini stand-up. The project is exactly where we said it would be, which is gratifying. I also wanted to make sure we released new functionality for our social care case recording tool. I’m chalking that up as a win even though the release is on Monday, because I helped find a compromise on the issue that was blocking us. Thirdly, we geared-up to start the work to develop a data platform team. 

There were two other goals where I failed. The first was because I hadn’t thought far enough ahead and that’s a mistake Imake rarely. The second was a qualified failure – I spent some time helping a team define a piece of work but managed to find the opportunity to do it by accident rather than design. 

I had lots of gaps in my diary this week, and didn’t use them as well as I could have done. Partly that’s coincidence – the things I needed to do didn’t need long chunks of time. But I did spend a bit of time calling residents who had left us negative feedback in response to our customer satisfaction survey. One of the things we learnt in the research we did to validate our performance framework was that people are reluctant to give feedback out of a belief that it doesn’t matter. So I wanted to lead by example and understand for myself where we fall short of providing the service we aspire to.  

Ones to watch

The one that releases too soon – we prefer Agile approaches but we often encounter waterfall releases – for example, when a release will change how people work. In the business continuity phase of recovery we were introducing a greenfield solution so anything was an improvement. But now we’re delivering software that changes an established way of working. And sometimes the closer we get, the more we identify versions of Columbo syndrome. That can mean the release becomes more significant and harder, which becomes a vicious flywheel.  So this is a challenge to the team that can get the prize for releasing too soon. 

Out of hours – we’re working to improve the quality of service that residents get from our customer services outside normal office hours. Whilst lots of people would prefer to do this online, there are some problems where you just need to talk to someone. And without the resources of a large corporation we sometimes struggle to provide the service people need. We’re talking to a range of people to better understand what we can do to support them whilst recognising the cost constraints. 

Document upload – I love learning the apparently small insights from user research that make the difference between a service that’s intuitive and one that confuses users. The team developing our document upload and evidence store component are doing the hard yards to make it reusable but also learning about the subtleties of what users expect vs the service we provide. One of the hardest challenges is presented by the tension between ‘you’re just the council, why do I have to choose for my document to be re-used’ and building for privacy first.

What I’m learning

This is the second week in a row where I’ve reached the end and really struggled to think about what I’m learning. It might not be a coincidence and I’m toying with taking a bit of leave despite it only being 8 weeks since Christmas. I also noticed that I’m spending too much time thinking about things that really only ought to be briefly irritating. 

But the big theme of the year so far is about the conditions for transformation: what they are, where they exist and the extent to which they can be created. The conditions aren’t static and if there are moments when they converge, they are also transitory. Moreover, where is it responsible to persist despite the barriers and where is it better to accept that you may be right but you can’t succeed. 

Linked to this, I’ve also been spotting just how flawed the Aaron Sorkin world-view is. In the Sorkin view, you build an argument towards a denouement where one approach prevails and that sets the course for subsequent events. I increasingly see a world in which a set of smaller things happen and the inevitability of the course becomes visible only in the rear view mirror. 

Next week

I’m working with James to develop our software and data recovery into a more stable programme. I’m nervous about over-complicating this and creating avoidable levels of governance. But we’ve got a number of emerging challenges which require the involvement of more than one team. And we find those challenges particularly difficult to deal with efficiently. So if we can strike the right balance between simplicity and coordination then we can establish a way of working that will add value beyond the scope of the programme.  

Weeknote v10.7

Week beginning 15 February

Focus this week

What’s the only thing that’s harder than managing the software and data recovery from a major cyberattack during a global pandemic in half term week? I was about to find out; mostly on Tuesday, which was also my wife’s birthday.

One of our recovery projects is necessarily ‘waterfall’. There’s a tight plan where the odd technical issue has eaten away at the contingency. And on Tuesday, it went down to the wire. But it was only resolved after lots of senior folk had started to get anxious (and rightly so). 

But by then, I was already too distracted from the birthday. The day began with an irritating email – something which was done with the best of intentions but with incomplete information that made something else harder. Then the news that 5,000 or so more residents would be asked to shield, so we needed to be ready to support them in customer services. And then plans to start making phone calls to support the vaccination programme.  

Oh – and it was the first day in years when I missed a Liverpool match. And they won for the first time in seemingly months. Not sure what to do about the Derby later.

Yet by the end of the week, as I compiled my weekly update to Silver command about the recovery actions, it became clear that we’d moved some pretty important steps forward. And, pleasingly, smaller things had moved forward too. I also added two ‘brave’ slides: one acknowledging some key blockers we were facing and another with a short forward plan (see weeknote v10.6).

Somewhere in there I had set myself a focus for the week. But I couldn’t claim any great relationship between defining my focus on Monday and what had been done by Friday. And right now, I can’t quite find what the goals were either.  

Ones to watch

Here to Help – we received a grant from LOTI this week to develop our Here to Help service. Our investment was, I think, vindicated by the extension of the service to encourage take-up of the vaccine. We knew something else would happen and wanted the flexibility to remodel our tools to support the unexpected. More excitingly, we’ve also got some money to do an independent evaluation of the service. I’m really keen to learn about the impact it’s having and how we can further improve the quality of what we do. 

Closing the feedback loop – I was thrilled to hear of a ‘better everyday’ initiative in customer services this week. We’re using the feedback from our satisfaction survey to call residents who’ve not had a good experience; to acknowledge it; and fix it where we still can. We learnt in user research in the autumn that without visible signs we’re acting on feedback, we lose the trust of residents. So I’m really pleased we’re making this simple effort. 

Cloud deployment – the cloud deployment team gave our strategy show & tell this week to talk about the roles and skills that we’ll need in cloud engineering. It’s important to me that we’re open with the team about how the cyberattack will change how we work. Yes, it’s probably unsettling for some people but better to be open than to add to the worries by being silent. And by being up-front I hope we’re giving more people a chance to develop the skills we need. 

What I’m learning

From desiring something to making it happen – I experienced a mildly painful case study this week in the difference between management that desires something to happen and leadership that makes it happen. There was a problem which I had anticipated emerging in November which came to pass this week. I had willed it not to, and vaguely told some people to avoid it, but I’d not actually committed to seeing that through. So it’s on me that it came to pass. 

In contrast, I had a positive reflection in the same week. We were sharing our customer services framework with another team. And I reached back to the complex customer journeys work that we did a year ago this month. And what we’re doing today on Here to Help is entirely consistent with those intentions – just much better and it’s actually happening. 

The first thing was relatively small and the second is big. But the accumulation of small things often causes more pain than fewer, big successes. So I need to find a way of being more consistent and insistent in tackling smaller things. 

Next week

I’m expecting a more stable week, next week. And miraculously, my diary has some big time slots without meetings. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the week will be to use this to do some big things well. So I need to set some clear goals but also ensure they’re the right ‘size’. I think I’ll start by joining in with the team calling back residents to learn from their feedback. 

Three metrics to understand your capability to change

I’ve been thinking hard about how you know if you’re getting better at making change. In sport you can play well and lose. But modern coaching is about increasing the likelihood that you do the right thing often enough to reduce the elements of chance. I’d like to see a similarly methodical approach to how public services assess their capacity to deliver complex change. 

Local government hasn’t recovered from New Public Management. We still obsess over output measures. How fast the phones are answered; How many repairs; How many registrations within 42 days. We’re relieved, apparently, that there are fewer than ‘the old days’. Though, inevitably, they haven’t quite died. Some still appear greyed out on the reporting dashboard. COVID hasn’t changed everything – yet. But it could. 

We are all very proud of how quickly we pivoted – from booking repairs to dispatching food. From asking for your postcode to helping you access befriending services. But we’re still counting the outputs, not evaluating the outcomes. 

The challenges of next year won’t be test & trace support grants or lateral flow tests. They’ll be something else. We worry whether we’ll all be too knackered, or finally taking that foreign holding. And soon enough there will be new political agendas. 

The legitimacy of public services comes not from our ability to do yesterday more efficiently but to adapt to tomorrow’s agenda. Yet we’re still using yesterday’s techniques to manage complex change. What if leaders could actively work to increase the capability of their organisations to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur?

In Hackney, I set a target that a new developer code deploy code on day one of a project. Most projects don’t. But the ability to do so meant that before day 1 we had contracts signed, ID badges issued, email accounts created, GitHub access permitted, cloud infrastructure available. 

That was an ok measure of our readiness to start. But it was built around a project-based paradigm that’s inherently limiting. Now we’re dealing with more complex change, I’d like to experiment with three new metrics.

Time to define

Peter Drucker said: “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”. When working in a complex system it’s too easy to lurch from stasis to action without adequate understanding of the problem to be solved. The time it takes for an organisation can define a problem is a key measure of its capacity to change. Some are too good at leaping to action before the problem is defined. Others to slow to agree what should be done.

Decreasing your time to define means that the organisation is using data to understand ‘why’ not just ‘what’. It means that qualitative and quantitative data are being used actively. A multidisciplinary team has probably explored the issue so your internal comms is working horizontally. Your facilities frees up space for teams work together. There’s a culture of active challenge. And the governance is coordinating and enabling discovery rather than delaying or blocking it.

Time to deliver value

One of the biggest cultural shocks I experienced on joining local government was how many things took two years to achieve (plus or minus side months) regardless of their size or complexity. COVID showed we could deliver significant change in weeks. It should be the new normal. Whether Agile or just agile, the time to deliver value is my second key metric: how many teams go from problem statement to value. 

If you’re able to reduce your time from definition to delivering value then your business case process is efficient and you can marshall financial resources to solve problems. Procurement is enabling the creation of value. HR helps you recruit and retain talent. Your information governance is designed-in from the start. The IT just works and security is determined efficiently. 

Then you’ve got a team that prizes working solutions over documentation. Your governance is open and enabling – risk aware, not averse. You’ve got the tools to ensure branding and communication is consistent. And you’re working with service users to understand how to land the solution. 

Time to decide

The biggest illusion of NPM is that you know when it’s working. Initiatives where success is equated with completion. Projects that save money by pushing cost elsewhere. Effort that ceases at outputs. But a truly system-oriented, entrepreneurial organisation will be good at failing and iterating. The time from delivering value to deciding how to proceed will be the third critical measure. 

Reducing your time to decide means you’ve started at the end and worked backwards. You’ve got a clear evaluation framework. It means you’re sufficiently user-centric to know if it’s working. You’ve got governance ready and able to challenge and decide. Business operations comes together to end things quickly and elegantly. A way of working that’s open by default. A culture that prizes learning. 

Actively working to reduce the time to decide in turn will decrease the time to define. It will systematically make the identification of challenges faster and more accurate. And it will ease the process of moving from problem definition to delivering value. It’s the fly-wheel of an organisation that can think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. 

These aren’t the only metrics that matter, of course. Each administration is judged on its outcomes. But to continue refining the engine room, the art and science of achieving change must be continuously optimised.  

Weeknote v10.6

Week beginning 7 February

Focus for the week

I think I lost my way a bit this week. On Sunday morning I ran a half marathon distance in 90 minutes – an ambition I’ve held for five years. On Sunday afternoon Liverpool were taken apart by Man City and it didn’t get much better from there. 

On writing this week’s note I had to check back and work out what I’d thought I was going to focus on. It was a bit esoteric. And then on Monday morning, a meeting I was well-prepared for didn’t actually happen; the discussion was about totally different things and it was followed up by some interviews that took me away from the regular goal-setting session we do at Council Silver. So this week happened, I did some things and then it ended. And when it ended all I had to show for it was that I had completed the tasks I’d set myself last weekend (my to do list is typically titled either ‘weekend tasks’ or ‘Monday morning’).  

Ones to watch 

Document upload and evidence store – One of the common capabilities we knew we needed was when residents need to provide documents. It was one of the big reasons for people visiting the Service Centre. Successfully scanning and uploading a document is hard if you’re not confident online and/or unless it’s really easy to do. Services like AirBnB have set a new standard in making this easier. We’d built an alpha, but knew more work was needed. The team is starting to deliver tangible benefits to residents whilst learning the sort of subtle but crucial details that make the difference between a service that works for people sufficiently motivated and something so good, people prefer to use it. 

Land charges – We set a goal in December of being able to provide access to our land charges data by the end of January (it was divided across multiple systems and we’ve currently been able to extract data from just one of those). We’re reluctant to make distant commitments when too much is unknown and that means when we do, it increases the importance of delivering. There were a couple of points during January when the team’s weeknotes showed that they worried whether they would succeed. But they kept going, and it was good to see this week that we’re able to restore a partial service – an important step towards our goal of full recovery of this important service. 

Here to Help – I was pleased to hear this week that we’ve got some funding to evaluate Here to Help, the service to support vulnerable residents which has emerged out of our COVID response. We’ve worked hard and made some important investments and naturally think we’ve done a good job. But if we’re to develop it into a common approach to supporting vulnerable people we need to know that it’s effective. 

What I’m learning

Creating a shared language – for most of the last four years, we’ve preferred to avoid explicit prioritisation in favour of a growth mindset (how can you compare a Comino migration to an M3 upgrade). But first COVID then the cyberattack has made those choices essential. I wager that colleagues have been more understanding of these choices than I ever thought likely. As we get past the first phase of applications recovery, those choices will become trickier. So we’re trying to create a common language, in terms of the capability that recovery will enable for our services ‘we can . . .’ I’m really interested in how this might become a shared language for how we work together beyond the pandemic and cyberattack recovery. 

Declarations – Local government IT requires all sorts of messy compromises. And we’ve been clear that our recovery from the cyberattack will look different depending on the service and context. However, we’ve also identified a number of areas where we need to make clearer declarations of intent to help guide the team. Our ‘cloud, unless (it can’t work)’ policy is a really important foundation of that and I drifted off to sleep one night thinking of soundbites to encapsulate some of the guardrails that will guide our recovery – keeping us clearly focused on our strategic goals while remaining sufficiently flexible to respond to uncertainty. 

Courage – it’s easy to create a story for yourself which you believe to be universally true. I’m courageous. Except, of course just because I can be doesn’t mean I am. There were three occasions this week when I was tipped into being more courageous in a circumstance where I hadn’t been previously. I suspect, in retrospect, it wasn’t a coincidence that they came together. 

Next week

Back to basics next week, I think. My meta-goal is to start filling the orchestration graph in the applications and data recovery workstream I’m leading. But I’ll do this through returning to clear articulated goals, linked to the ‘we can’ language of the roadmap. It’s not new but I need to get back in the habit. 

Of course at the current time of writing Liverpool and England haven’t yet played – so it could all fall apart by 4pm today.

Weeknote v10.5

Week beginning 1 February

Focus for the week

I set 3×3 areas of focus for the week: the big three were council tax, social care and civil enforcement recovery. The mid-tier were things that should be simpler but risk drifting: legal case work, repairs scheduling and regeneration software. The other three were earlier stage projects that we need to start well: noise, public protection and tenants’ services. 

The upside to defining my week like this, was that it made sure I was able to give some attention to a broader range of challenges. The cost was that, without clearly defined goals I don’t know whether we can judge the week as a success. And sometimes it was just ‘management by progress updates’ which is a particularly expensive way of doing reporting, and isn’t really management either. 

The other challenge I need to keep in mind is how to get the right relationship with key projects. The risk with important projects is holding too tightly onto something for too long and then, when it starts to go well – and the detail means the contribution I can make is less obvious, stepping too far away.  

Ones to watch  

Cloud infrastructure – the team is responsible for creating and supporting the infrastructure to recover our data and applications. They’re tasked with delivering value to users whilst creating the patterns, tooling, skills and culture so that we can continue to do this well. So, with that tightly defined brief in mind (!) this week they battled with competing priorities and overcoming a networking issue. And the weeknotes were another good example of working in the open – they were honest about the challenges and how we need to improve orchestration between teams. 

Blue badges – Another year in local government, another project to improve the blue badge process. It’s no less important or valuable because it’s well-trodden ground. Last year, customer services took responsibility for the first point of contact with adult social care. Within a few weeks we were able to support more residents, whilst referring fewer calls to social care specialists. But nearly half of what remains are related to blue badges – typically progress updates. So Sam and team are building on the work from central government, and colleagues across the country to find out how best to make things easier for customers. And of course we’ll share what we learn in the user research library to make things simpler still for the next council to revisit its processes. 

Find Support Services – We’ve delivered the latest improvement to Find Support Services. The team has invested a significant amount of energy and shown incredible commitment. The new features include the ability to share listings and search for services that are particularly well suited to residents with particular characteristics, whilst the API-based approach remains important for our ambitions to provide a consistent experience for providing early help to vulnerable residents. 

What I’m learning

Using goals, not just setting them – I read back my goals for the year this week to try and assess whether we were on track. One of them has already proved impossible. But I asked ‘do these still make sense, am I still committed to them and what needs to happen now to ensure they can still succeed?’ It was a useful framework to note that whilst no plan survives first contact, without one we’re just prisoners of events.

Small steps – after a few weeks of frustration that I hadn’t done anything to realise some of my bolder ambitions for customer services, I started taking small steps. At my best, I’m good at doing just enough to make something happen. So on three occasions I eeked out just enough time to start thinking about how we can get a fresh perspective on what it means to truly put customers first; about how we can be open about our performance and what we’re learning and what more we can do to provide a consistent experience for residents accessing different services. 

Retaining a habit – It’s taken me 20 years to retain a habitual fitness regime. On at least five occasions between the age of 19 and 35 I joined a gym with a target of going 10 times in four weeks and never made it to the 10th session. Once this week I went for a run that was significantly shorter than normal because I knew that it was better to do something than nothing at all. Similarly, I’ve done a couple of things over the last fortnight which would make a great habit. But I’m yet to retain them.

Next week

We’ve got an emerging challenge: there are three things I’m responsible for that we need to get right before the end of March. None of them will represent ‘job done’ but each will realise significant benefits for residents and staff. But we can’t afford only to do those three things. I want to make sure I get my focus right: providing full support for the most important things and just enough encouragement for other areas of our work that other colleagues and services don’t feel neglected.  

There’s not one way to do that: it’s a combination of setting the right goals, spending my time deliberately and aligning teams. 

Weeknote v10.4

Week beginning 25 January

Focus for the week

We met all but one of our goals for the application recovery workstream. I promised that I’d move some things from ‘nearly done’ to actually done. By that measure, I failed. The two formal reports I had in mind remain unsigned. Despite that, I feel reasonably chipper. Both reports made sufficient progress that they’re now out of my control and a third report got completed by the deadline. We also circulated an important discussion document to colleagues in social care about where we go next with technology and data to ensure it’s an enabler of their vision and strategy for the service. 

I also found a way of getting two new things started: we’re looking to convene a ‘discovery day’ in customer services where we invite people from other organisations to walk in the shoes of our residents and meet our teams to help us think differently about how we put the customer first. 

I also had a couple of important customer services meetings: with colleagues from our trades union and then with Councillor McKenzie and housing services leadership . It reminded me that I need to make time to share the feedback and reflections from these more widely with the team. Knowing what happens at a more senior level is an important way of helping colleagues to develop their careers

Ones to watch

I was really impressed with how the ‘council tax plan B’ team ended the project. The Plan B won’t be needed because Plan A is now the most viable option. But on hearing the news the team didn’t simply move on but worked hard to document their work on GitHub and as a result it will actually help Plan A be more accurate – as well as setting a standard for how we end other projects. 

Out of hours – we’re thinking carefully about how we can provide the best possible service to residents who need to contact us outside of work hours. We want to ensure it’s a consistent experience, that when things go wrong we are as proactive as possible as well as ensuring it’s as resilient as possible so that we meet basic expectations. Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking to groups of residents to understand their experiences and ideas and using that to inform how we work over the next couple of years. 

Document upload – the team is transitioning the product from a working but incomplete alpha to a more stable, reusable component. Some of that transition has taken longer than we anticipated, and picking it up again required some extra effort with stakeholders that I hadn’t anticipated. But having got over that, we’re now able to push it forward for the next phase. Kudos to Tom and David for sticking with it. I also really like the subtle and important insights they’ve identified through user research

What I’m learning

The Here to Help team had a deliberately self-reflective show & tell after a couple of sprints that hadn’t gone to plan. They said it was an intentional response to the strategy show & tell where we said that it was important to be open and honest if show & tells were to be an effective part of governance. It can’t have been easy because their show & tells involve a wide range of stakeholders and have typically had an energetic, positive spirit. I was really pleased they did it, not least because if they hadn’t identified and addressed the issues now, then there would have been much bigger challenges in 4-8 weeks’ time. The openness was well received by the group and were heard in a very measured fashion. 

I noticed a pattern of learning from observation. It felt like I was able to step out from the ‘thing’ and observe what it meant. From the housing steering group, I learnt how more detail on our customer services vision could help guide teams to a common approach to user experience. From an agency that bid for work, I learnt how we need to adapt our ways of working to enable different sorts of partnership. And from a couple of colleagues, about how to listen to the music beneath the words. If only I knew what was different about this week! 

Moving meetings – it’s amazing how uncreative I’ve been whilst working at home. In the office I’d meet in different locations – standing, sitting at a desk, sitting on beanbags, in meeting rooms, in the kitchen. But most of my days aren’t now spent in exactly the same spot. Three times this week I had a different location. The best were on the treadmill and immediately after throwing a ball with my son in the garden. And it’s still nice to occasionally talk on the phone rather than video. Rob says that’s an age thing. 

Next week

At the end of next week, we’ll be 10% through the year that will shape the decade. I’m simultaneously delighted by the progress we’ve made and daunted by the fact that we’ve only got 90% left. I think we’ve developed a good pattern of achievable short term goals. But I wonder what more I could do to make sure that we’re laying the foundations now to make the whole year a success? We need to avoid imaginary deadlines whilst making sure that the incremental steps of each week add up to sufficient progress over the year. 

Weeknote v10.3

Week beginning 18 January

Focus for the week

I tried to use this week to make sure we could complete the applications recovery goals we’d set for the month whilst thinking just far enough ahead that we could move seamlessly into the next phase of work. I made sure I didn’t do any of this alone whilst also trying to avoid distracting teams from the immediate priorities. That meant not setting an artificial timeframe, simply so I could hit a goal but as a result I’m slightly less clear what I’ve achieved. We now know the areas of focus for February but need another week or so to define what the outcome will be by the end of the month.  

But that focus came at the expense of  some important things which are close to being finished, but not actually finished and didn’t get the attention they deserved. “Basically done” (my favourite description for school work) isn’t the same as “actually done” – particularly when it comes to internal governance. I’ve got a couple of business cases and procurement awards which need pushing from basically to actually.  

I’m also brimming with ideas of things we could do in customer services but reach the end of most weeks not having given them another thought since the previous weekend. I have to find a way to get some of the simpler ones initiated. 

Ones to watch

Repairs Hub – it’s great to see this work progressing and it’ll form a key part of recovery. Our partners, Unboxed, have developed significant knowledge not just of our repairs service but we’re also benefiting from their work with other local authorities. There were 60 people at the last show & tell so it’s exciting to see that gather momentum, too. As a result, people are starting to look at the application and see how it could benefit work that we assumed we’d need to do differently. Reuse by popular demand rather than architectural design needs much less governance. 

Developer self-service – we’re working with AWS to explore how we might develop a self-service offering for developers (ok, it’s really a portal). There are lots of little frictions in how we do things currently and by having just enough automation and some clear user journeys we’ll be able to make things more efficient, more scalable and more secure. We need to do that well (or it won’t work) but be careful that we clearly explain the benefits for residents as part of the case for investment’. 

Conversation prompts – we developed a ‘conversation prompts’ tool during COVID to help support strengths-based conversations with vulnerable people. We’ve got an opportunity to develop this into a wider knowledge base, whilst exploring how recommendations can help us keep the content relevant and the tool increasingly useful (to avoid the death spiral of so many of these tools). But it’ll also challenge our product skills: how do we make sure we’re demonstrating the value of maintaining the tool, whilst keeping its scope sufficiently narrow that it supports, rather than competes with self-service and simpler customer journeys?

The small things – we often struggle to get small things done well and efficiently. Sometimes it’s because they’re not as small as expected; other times because if they’re no one’s top priority they drift. As part of applications recovery, we’ll have a lot of small things. There are three that I’ve given particular attention to, in order to find out whether, by starting them better, we can get them done better and efficiently. 

What I’m learning

Managing the downs – a couple of things happened this week that I was long-expecting but were no less disappointing for it. Emotionally, I was ready to catastrophise despite recognising that it wasn’t unexpected. But one of the things I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is how buying a bit of time through creating a process can help create a conversation that then opens up the possibility of nuance. So rather than leaping into action, I created a pathway to a meeting and consideration of the options. It’s rather less exciting but it meant that, by the following day, I was more phlegmatic about the outcome.

Embracing failure – when you read about how airlines create safe spaces to report failure it makes you feel safer – and it seems compellingly obvious. But that doesn’t make it any easier “in the moment”. I heard something this week where a team had made a mistake and not just done everything right in response, but thought really carefully about how it could turn it into a teachable moment. Yet still, on hearing the news, I was close to responding emotionally. I think I avoided it – and at one moment stepped back from actually saying the wrong thing. And that was a reminder of how hard it is to do in practice.

Making time for follow-through – I had a meeting this week where I left with three key actions. I was desperate to be useful for the team so I even summarised my actions at the end of the meeting, And still left the meeting straight into another one and got to the end of the day without completing those actions. At the very least, I need to give myself a time to note down things to do. 

Next week

I’d love to achieve three things next week: to develop a clear set of goals for February which we can commit to as a team, having met the 10 goals we set for January; to move things from “basically done” to “actually done” and still find time for actually acting on one of my ideas for customer services. 

Weeknote v10.2

Week beginning 11 January

Focus for the week

I set myself five goals for the week, which were a potted version of the eight outcomes my applications and continuity workstream set for January. To help get these completed, I didn’t take on anything new. Each goal depended on people outside my team so I worked across all five during the week rather than choose different ones on different days.

They were:

  • To agree the proposal for the award of a new telephony provider (we got close, but haven’t completed the approvals)
  • Test the cross-Council recovery roadmap with my peers, which I began to do 
  • Agreed the focus for a proof of concept, which is done
  • Onboard our interim programme manager for social care and health, which was done
  • Ensure I’ve understood and communicated appropriately, the recovery path for two of our applications

Ones to watch

Here to Help – Zoe and team are working to develop the service so that it can meet the changing needs of our vulnerable residents over the longer term. It brings together a number of different components (community partnerships, a multidisciplinary triage, food and emergency supplies) and the governance has iterated from a starting point of being an emergency response. So we’re working on how it can become business as usual in all respects, how we can design evaluation into the operating model and how it should be led without it becoming too resource-hungry. 

Reusable components – we got some feedback from a team on how they’d reused aspects of a tool we’ve built in social care. It was good to hear that the team had found it easy to pick-up and use. The next step is to understand how we can turn the signposting and conversations that led to re-use into something closer to a self-service model. 

Cloud excellence – the cloud deployment team is identifying and prioritising what we need to do not only to deploy applications in AWS but also the processes, skills and tools we need to manage our cloud applications well. This week we agreed the approach to account management and had a good conversation about our initial focus for improving our cloud management. 

Out of hours – we’re finalising our assessment of the bids from prospective suppliers of the service for the next financial year. Councillor McKenzie reminded me we hadn’t worked as openly as we could have done through the formal stages of the procurement, so we need to think about this more carefully over the next few weeks.

What I’m learning

A common thread – I’ve held a general principle that you can have structure and templates or creativity and iteration. But we were already on a transition from ‘’start-up to scale-up’ in the team and the complexity of our recovery demands more clarity than we’ve needed before. My hypothesis is that we need a clearer common thread in the tools we use to communicate. Working out what ‘just enough’ looks like, and how disciplined we need to be, is the next, bigger challenge. 

Show & Tells – I’ve been known to get angry when show & tells lead to one team openly criticising another team before they’ve explored more tactful routes to resolving a problem. But less obviously I also switch off a bit from show & tells where everything appears to be fine. So I’ve been trying a couple of different routes to finding a happier midpoint. 

Checking in – When I worked in consultancy I could never really fathom why it was so hard to speak to most people. And now there is a virtual list of people who I’m avoiding where a conversation would be both nice and helpful, but I know that it’s not time-sensitive and that I don’t have the capacity to do anything beyond that conversation. I feel morally obliged to find a way to fix this because it’s a poor way of behaving, but of course that requires finding time to dedicate to the problem. 

Next week

I need to get the balance right between giving enough care and attention to the outcomes for January whilst thinking forward to what happens next. I’ve often made mistakes managing those transitions – either doing it too much myself that it’s hard for the team to see what’s happening, or doing it too early so it becomes a distraction.  

Weeknote v10.1

Week beginning 4 January

I’ve returned to a weeknote format that had the best reception from my teams – a response to my reflections from the end of 2020. 

Focus for the week

I’ve only a dim recollection of my focus for the week. I *think* it was something about onboarding the new interim programme director for social care and health recovery. Probably just as well. Midweek we learnt of the publication of data breached during our cyberattack (the proper place for information on that is: I’m not leading that workstream but it still dominated my thoughts.. 

I did, though, set a focus for each day – part of my Agile new year’s resolutions (it’s ok to laugh or groan). That helped – and I met them all. They were:

  • Monday: to firm up my goals for the year, in consultation with members of my teams
  • Tuesday: Deliver a galvanising HackIT All Hands
  • Wednesday: Set-up the first week for the programme director 
  • Thursday: Build out the recovery roadmap with key influencers
  • Friday: Ensure we met the goals we’d set for the week

Ones to watch

I need to refresh the Trello board I was using for projects to watch. In the meantime, the following list is heartfelt but fundamentally a random selection. 

Repairs Hub – I was really pleased to catch up with the Repairs Hub show & tell from this week. The team’s talking openly about how we’re working with the HACT data standard and the directional roadmap and it’s helping me get a clearer picture of 

Cleaning insourcing – the team that cleans our offices joined the Council this week. Paul, who leads our facilities contracts has worked on this with the waste team. Despite disruption to a number of aspects of the plan along the way, as well as some external challenges, this has been achieved on time with lots of care, but no drama. 

Planning customer journey – we’ve been working away to try and improve customer satisfaction by increasing the number of enquiries we can answer first time under Soraya’s direction. This has involved improving website content (collaborating with Croydon) getting better management information and introducing a better phone system for planning duty officers so we get better at managing availability. This week, the planning team were onboarded to the phone system thanks in no small part, to William’s gentle persistence and Natalie’s amazing patience. 

Noise reporting – this has been one of those projects that’s been much harder than it could have been. But next week, we will be able to launch a new way to report noise online, which is important to lots of residents. It won’t solve the whole problem but it will leave us better equipped to do so. There are a whole group of people who’ve helped us through various stages of the project under the persistent leadership of Councillor Selman, supported recently by Councillor Fajana-Thomas. 

What I’m learning

Realism – Breaks are good. But for as long as I can remember, I return from breaks with an unrealistic sense of what I can do differently. This New Year my bubble didn’t last the first working day. I wasn’t able to tick off any of the tasks that I’d set myself to complete before the day began. Indeed, I have only just been able to archive the list.

Ending the day – I’m trying to do a short reflection at the end of each day, as a way of actually finishing work. I don’t know how effective it is: the earliest I’ve done one was 18.11 on Friday. But at the very least, keeping it private might make my weeknotes less self indulgent. 

Operating in two modes – Lots of us are operating in two modes at the moment: crisis and BAU. Crisis is short-term, reactive and decisive whilst BAU looks longer, needs to be proactive and is often deliberative. Both have their own rewards. But switching between the two modes can be hard, and being in the wrong mode in the wrong moment is bad.  

Next week

Tuesday’s HackIT All Hands declared this to be a year to shape the decade. I’ve got 51 weeks left to make that true. I think the fundamental tension this month is in making sure we’ve got the right teams in place, focused on the right things whilst knowing that we haven’t yet found the optimal formula for how we deliver. So we need to be set-up to work at greater scale and at pace whilst making sure we haven’t made things too fixed, too complicated or too rigid to change. 

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.

« Older posts

© 2021 Matthew Cain

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑