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

Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 2)

Possibilities

Weeknote 20.22

My first weeknote for a while. Purdah is a handy excuse, but there were a couple of weeks where I just couldn’t face it – and then I fell out of the habit. Tonight it’s just a desperate attempt to spend some time not thinking about Sunday; its possibilities. 

Cost of living has been high profile for a number of months. Zoe’s team has been working across the council to scope the opportunities and challenges associated with providing an income maximisation service. We administer a number of small grants for people in crisis, and there are wider support opportunities available in the voluntary sector. The team’s building on its effective work to increase the efficacy of the DHP service and it’s an exciting project. 

Agile isn’t hard. But it’s easy (possibly easier, even) to make the simple things harder than they need to be and neglect entirely the bits that are deceptively difficult. Our convention has been to work in sprints because of the benefits the fortnightly rythms provide for stakeholder engagement. But we don’t consistently set sprint goals that express the value delivered for users and they’re rarely quantitative. I’m pleased with the tracker idea that Alex has developed and David is picking up through the Modern Tools programme.

Making good documentation so often becomes like New Years Resolutions. But we’ve got a couple of exciting opportunities to pitch our products to other councils so Marian has been doing the hard work to explain the value of what we’ve done and how it works, at a high level, so that colleagues in other places can consider our open source solutions alongside some of the more high profile alteratives. 

Personally I’m never more tedious than when I discover something which I should have known earlier. It makes me an evangelist out of a sense of guilt and desperation. My latest revelation has been the importance of looking beyond delivering something towards how we support it. We’ve got a couple of things at the moment where we’re picking up work that’s got a clear vision for getting to live but nothing beyond that point. I’m also currently responsible for applications support, which is part of it. But I need to work a bit harder on how I pitch it because I know that my former self wouldn’t have listened carefully to my current self. 

In the work of the TDA (ie outside the meeting) we realised the value of good governance and our leadership principles. We’ve twice visited a thorny data sharing issue with a software supplier. We needed to check back to the notes to make sure we’d correctly interpreted the decisions that we’d made and were committing to the right actions once we’d disagreed well.

One of the tensions In grappling with at the moment is expediency versus strategy. We’ve got a huge strategic potential to develop a high quality people record, using a Person API across our built products. This leans into Hackney’s heritage in master data management and the valuable Citizen Index. But we also need to deliver value to users now and there’s alway a legitimate reason why the Person API isn’t quite right for now. Vision without execution is an hallucination.

Networks are important. I found the value of the senior managers network through COVID and the cyberattack. But the opposite also applied: with that pressure we didn’t have time to invest in personal relationships, and with a lot of change at senior level, that became harder. The Senior Managers’ Network this week wasn’t always easy but nevertheless represented an important opportunity to try and move beyond those conversations and rebuild some personal relationships. 

Each week I’ve been setting personal goals, until my recent weeknote hiatus. Mostly their absence has been negative. In spare pockets of time I’ve lacked the focal point that they’ve provided. But there’s been one obvious advantage: my diary has been a bit freer to respond to stuff that needs attention immediately. 

So on to next week – the purgatory between Wolves and Madrid. But with a conference about public sector data, a couple of projects that need focused attention as well as some financial planning I’m sure to be busy enough to stay distracted. 

Looking long and acting short

Weeknote 8.2022

Just last week I was on holiday. It did actually feel like one. Little did I know that when I started reading Dresden by Sinclair McKay, there would be war again in Europe. Two years ago I heard the Army CGS say that global terrorism would look like a pimple on the nose compared to interstate conflict. The ability to look long yet deliver now, was a key theme of my week.

One of the big things I did this week was convene structured chats with team members to explore how we’re responding to the staff survey. The survey is a crucial annual temperature check of whether we’re working together well enough to respond to what residents need. There are changes we’ve already made and some more things starting so I needed feedback on whether these were right. 

We changed a lot, quickly in customer services as I started at the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve achieved some really big things which I assumed would take years, when I first got the job. But there are a number of things we’ve done which we need to keep reinforcing to make sure they stick (I talked earlier about how transformation remains dynamic not just an achievement). We need to work harder to discuss performance by taking a complete view. The unique ability to manage performance in real-time can lure us into actions that improve one thing only to create a problem elsewhere.

The second cohort of Link Workers completed their academy this week. This group has achieved some impressive outcomes for residents by listening to their problems and finding creative ways of brokering the support they need. It was particularly rewarding to spend time in my regular meeting with the Mayor – as our political lead – discussing the problems we tackled. Now we need to create the environment so that they can take the experience into the fundamental way they work so that the impetus doesn’t fade after the first experience. 

The recovery board had a retrospective this week (which I blogged about separately). One of the themes in this work is how we make the right decisions for now, whilst also looking at the longer term. Some of the biggest complexity associated with our work is navigating around things that were initially planned as tactical fixes or ‘quick wins’ which have become embedded through years of custom and practice. 

I had three conversations this week that helped me think differently about roadmaps. I’ve always been sceptical, frankly. Yes to a set of clear, mid-term outcomes. Yes to an immediate set of tasks. But articulating the route between those two points can be fraught with difficulty. But firstly, one of my peers said “you underestimate the value of roadmaps in showing staff that their area isn’t going to be forgotten”. And in a different conversation one of my team said “when you don’t have agency, a roadmap can help you look forward to when you’ll see improvements”.

I’m excited about next week. I’ve got three full days where I can focus on a single thing each day: we’re doing strategic planning on Monday, I’m at a conference on Thursday and Friday currently looks like a miracle. So there’s an opportunity to put some of this into practice.  Obviously it’s more likely that by midday on Monday I’ll be faced with so many different issues flying into the inbox that I’ll have forgotten all about it. But it’s nice to pretend. 

Squinting through the fog

Weeknote 4.2022

This week was harder. It felt like all the things that I haven’t done or (worse) where I had presided over things deteriorating, came together. By Wednesday evening I was asking existential questions about what value I really brought. 

But I did have three goals for the week. They may have taken up around five per cent of my time but probably account for 95% of the value. And it was motivational enough that I felt ok by Friday evening. Three teams now have a set of draft OKRs and two more have a process for getting there. I’ve designed a workshop to help us explore opportunities and blockers to articulate the outcomes expected from projects. And we’re starting to understand what’s needed to operationalise a regular response to frequent callers in customer services.  

Our recovery board is starting to show its value. We identify a handful of projects each week from the register where the weeknotes, show & tell or colleague feedback suggests they might need help. And then we agree how we’re going to find that help. The danger is that sort of meeting just becomes an information gathering exercise without creating any new value. But we’ve helped make progress on three projects over the last two weeks.

We had a challenge with our Technical Design Authority, though. I’ve written an internal weeknote on that. But the big thing is how we create a safe space where we can examine technical risks and communicate that to colleagues in a way that remains situationally aware and user centric without seeming aloof or high-handed. 

One of the big things I’m learning about running a high profile operational service (IT is both those things, but somehow still different) is the things you need to continue to care for because they’re dynamic. There are some things which, once achieved, don’t get un-done. But there are practises and behaviours that you need to continue to work at because otherwise they fall backwards. The challenges with those things are making time to continue to pursue them, alongside all the new things you want to do. They can also be hard to spot because you’ve mentally ticked them off the list. 

We’d made some really good progress to improve customer journeys with our planning service last year, but over the last three months some of those benefits have been lost. We made some changes to how we prioritise questions mid last week which led to an immediate improvement, but more work will be necessary to get back to where we were. 

Over the last year I’ve not been able to invest nearly enough time in relationships with colleagues across the Council. Some of that is about remote working – I used to make sure I bumped into lots of folks around the campus. Complacency probably played a part, too: lots of new senior leaders have arrived and I haven’t caught up. It was good to spend some time this week with a new colleagues in our adult social care team and it reminded me how much more of that I should do. 

Next week really does feature all the things – ranging from elections planning to cybersecurity; temporary accommodation to business licensing. So my goals are going to be important to give me a sense of purpose and focus. I’m going to stick with three: a clear roadmap for our temporary accommodation work; a Technical Design Authority meeting that helps embed our principles and starting the next conversation about how we can re-use our work to help other Councils.

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. 

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 v10.45

Week beginning 8 November

A lot of this week was about Thursday evening. It actually started on Wednesday evening. Zoe messaged me following a show & tell about Link Work. This is a new team that is using our Better Conversations approach, developed through COVID, to call residents who we haven’t heard from in a while where who might need our help. The show & tell, held out of hours, had excited the team so much that it ran late. And Zoe thought I should join the next one. So I got into Hackney early on Thursday morning so I could listen to the team share their experiences and promote the work ahead of the next round of secondments we’ll be offering to join the team. I asked about the conversations when people weren’t so pleased that we’d called and was really impressed by the thoughtful, calm response that Maria gave. 

At Thursday lunch, Jasmeen led the IT strategy show & tell to share her experiences of Lauren Currie’s Upfront course. Her presentation was so good that everyone was still buzzing from it that evening when we gathered to say goodbye to Rich Smith. More of the team were together than at any point since last March and it reminded me about all the best things about our team. 

But Thursday also saw the news break about the appalling conditions of a tenant’s home. There’s little about that which benefits from my commentary. But the recent work that we’ve been doing, in close collaboration with the housing leadership team is the most important thing in my job right now and my ability to make a positive difference will be an important part of how I’m judged in the role. 

There were three conversations that really stood out through the rest of the week. I was given some feedback by one of my peers about a project we led together. It was kind, constructive and direct. For me, it makes the difference between being motivated to tackle the issues rather than spending energy getting cross about how the message was communicated. I hijacked the (software) development team meeting to review the progress we’d made following a session in July on their ambitions and goals. We’d made tentative progress towards tackling some of the issues we’d discussed but it also reminded me how much more we could do. I’ll need to work smarter if I’m going to have more impact there. And finally, I took part in a feedback session about another project which has been going well on the surface, but been more challenging for the folk involved. I was pleased I had done it, but also a bit frustrated with myself for not having looked more closely sooner. I’d heard bits about some issues bubbling away but not worked hard enough to understand their importance. 

So my agenda for the last six weeks of the year is looking increasingly clear… and I’m partly committing this to paper to hold myself to account:

  1. We’ve got some clear goals around improving the tenant experience of accessing our repairs service; 
  2. We need to embed the Link Work model so that it can grow int of central part of how we do ‘customer services in Hackney
  3. There are three new projects we need to set-up well, ready for a fast start in 2022 (single view, temporary accommodation and data platform)
  4. Putting the detail on our plans for the future shape in IT
  5. Supporting the new customer operations and customer experience teams settle-in and accomplish their short term goals
  6. There are three thorny internal things that I’ve committed to tackling where progress needs to be tangible before Christmas

Good thing I’ve only got the one week off!

Weeknote v10.44

Week beginning 1 November

A lot of this week was about how much you need to really want something to make it happen. I realised that this week’s note is much easier to write than last week’s poor effort. I’d always prefer to have weeks that are good or bad – never those that just ‘happen’

We managed to haul over the line two things that were complicated and important (a contract issue and an organisational change proposal), and had now become urgent. Rob’s taught me something about diligent unpicking of issues and I’d like to think that I bring the impatience necessary to force an issue. 

I also had an exit interview with Rich where we reflected on how we’d both changed, and how the team has changed, over the three years or so that he’s been in Hackney. The focus that we’ve had over the last 18 months has been necessary and beneficial in many ways but has come at the cost of the audacity of the previous period. I did once wake up on a Saturday morning, design a project and publish a tender for an idea that I had. Now I dream of document migration projects.

We’ve talked about transitioning from start-up to scale-up to try and capture the journey we need to make. But it’s now blindingly obvious to me that, even though most of the team won’t have worked in a start-up, the concept is obvious and the idea exciting. But what on earth is a scale-up, and where’s the benefit of that? It makes more sense as ‘manager needs’ rather than ‘user needs’. There are benefits; in terms of making simple tasks easier, needing fewer conversations and providing more tools to enable teams to focus energies on higher value tasks. But we’ve not explained that or spelt out examples of where we’ve achieved it. (I can be rude about this because the concept was my idea). 

I used the energy from being in the office this week to come up with ideas of how to improve the customer experience. I’ve been wondering what the Hackney version of the Timpson promise might look like. It’s so simple that it would be easy to do ineffectively. But done well it could be a powerful contract between residents, customer services and the wider organisation.

We also did a retrospective on a complex case in order to understand how we could design a more systematic way of identifying emerging problems, earlier. Here to Help is teaching us that there’s a category of problems which aren’t severe enough to justify intervention from any one one service but when we look at all the contact that someone has had with the council we can see a clear case to work together, across our services, to provide early support. 

I was also surprised and delighted by a couple of things the team had done. The facilities team have produced a realtime dashboard showing availability in the service centre, our main building. It’s a tool to help staff feel confident in planning their week. And there was a brilliant post from one of our customer services advisors on their experience of paying council tax to another local authority, with some practical tips for the team on how to ‘be the guide’ and ‘make things simple’ – two of our key behaviours. 

Next week, in fact the next two weeks, are finally feeling ‘lighter’ in terms of diary obligations. I’m hoping to use the extra time to give some real focus to some things that could do with a bit of a push – mostly projects at an early stage that need to get going, and those at a later stage that need to finish well. 

Weeknote v10.43

Week beginning 25 October

Well, I wasn’t anticipating that. There were various scenarios that I thought would have a material impact on my concentration levels this week. The one that I hadn’t considered was the impact of wanting to read every word of every article on the fall-out from the match. A diary full of meetings was helpful in avoiding too many distractions.

The biggest challenge at the moment is the experience for tenants calling for a housing repair. I said to a colleague that on becoming responsible for repairs customer services, I haven’t been able to look at a rainy day in the same way. For all the smart things we can do, fundamentally the team isn’t currently large enough to meet the demand. We’re fixing this – and need to address the underlying challenges. But until it’s better, it’ll continue to bother me (and rightly so). 

The football also made me think about how much of my week was played in my head. On Thursday I went for a run on a course which includes a steady hill between miles 4 and 5. I was so focused on the conversation in my head that I hadn’t noticed reaching the top of the hill.  By the end of Friday I felt like it had been a good end to the week. I’m not sure that there was anything materially different about Friday to, say, Wednesday. The same situation approached with a different mindset just felt different. 

We hosted a visit of colleagues from Brent on Friday to share notes about the customer experience of visiting a Council. It was a chance to try and step outside of what we knew and what we thought and view what we did through a different perspective. I was asking myself, ‘If I leave today, will I be proud of what I’ve contributed?’ The truth is that too many of the gains remain fragile and we haven’t confronted enough of the core challenges. But I’m also fortunate that there are a number of issues on which we’re starting to see a moment to change, which hasn’t been available over the last 18 months. 

I spent more time than I expected thinking about brands – this week about the meaning and mission of what comes next for the IT team. We’ve got some big characters leaving us shortly which is great for their personal growth; we’re proud of what they’ve accomplished and grateful for having their dedication over the last year. We’re evolving out of the cyberattack recovery and need to re-cast the story of who we are, what we do and why we do it. We’ve also got some exciting new joiners who’ve brought a fresh energy and determination and we can harness this to build a new proposition. 

Part of the conversations we’ve been having about facilities management is what we’d do differently if our focus was on colleague experience. To state the obvious, managing the facilities isn’t an end in itself. Part of the challenge with FM is that it’s mostly obvious if something isn’t working. So we’ve been thinking about how we can provide reassurance that we’re there, looking after things behind the scenes. It’s important we do this together to avoid ideas that are good in theory but don’t add value in practice. 

I’m looking at my diary next week and again struggling to spot a theme or direction, beyond ‘busy-ness’. So it’s a perfect opportunity for me to work on my balance. There have been slightly too many occasions recently where I haven’t quite got it right. I’ve tried to be more comfortable in setting clear expectations and providing feedback. But occasionally this has tipped into expressing frustration because it’s the easier option, rather than the more helpful one. So next week I’ll try and take it one meeting at a time. 

Weeknote v10.39

Week beginning 27 September 

Objectively that wasn’t bad. Three of those four important meetings went well. I left having given a good account of the current position and had a mandate to do what was needed. The other was cancelled – which wasn’t a bad sign. I didn’t actively work the goals for the week but for one that I delayed (on which, more later) the others have all made satisfactory progress. I also had time for the other issues I needed to care about immediately meaning the goals didn’t distort. 

Most importantly I felt as though we made progress in developing a shared understanding that we needed to work together to improve the experience for residents in one of our most in-demand services. Previously we’ve been stuck in a bit of a silo and we’ve now got an opportunity to be ambitious and look at addressing the whole problem. The team had gone to considerable effort to help me prepare well. I also remembered the importance of taking a piece of work on the last mile myself. It helps me really question and internalise the argument. 

We spent some time working together to improve how we use our specialist skills following an initial workshop a couple of weeks ago. It’s almost certainly a wicked problem or at least the wrong question to ask. The competing demands and overall too many activities required of some people are a consequence of a myriad of other issues. They need to be tackled too. But as we discussed at the workshop, the causes are also related to our culture and mindset. My hypothesis is that if we were to attempt to fix one of these problems in isolation, we’d find that the problem wasn’t solved. 

I found myself asking people for updates slightly too many times. That’s a criticism of me, not them. I’ve always felt that as a senior manager spending someone’s time to update you on their work is asymmetrical – you’re the only person getting any value and you’re providing an explanation to someone for whom it is more important, which is typically because priorities aren’t aligned. It highlights that you’re not close enough to the work to know what’s happening and that you may not have prioritised the right things. Yes, that’s sometimes necessary but I’m not pleased with myself when I have to do it. 

I’ve also been ineffective at making good time from things cancelled at short notice. I had three or four spare hours this week. But rather than seize them as an opportunity to do one of the longer, more involved tasks on my list I tended to fiddle with lots of things. I’ll pay for that over the weekend!

Subjectively it wasn’t a good week. There were one too many things where I understood the issue but I was just grumpy about how other people positioned themselves on the issue. Perhaps it’s better than being surprised by their positioning. But it’s still not good. Possibly the biggest difference between working in-house for the long haul and consultancy or shorter term missions that I’ve done previously is the importance of sustaining long term relationships through the ups and downs. By Thursday evening I was delighted to be able to sit in a pub on my own. Although the feeling hadn’t gone by Friday. 

There’s lots I’m looking forward to next week. I’m attending an event for digital leaders in a number of European cities. We’re getting better at learning from our peers in England but I know far too little about digital in other cities. We’ve got two important meetings with senior stakeholders about our strategy in customer services. We’re interviewing for a growth opportunity for team members. And generally it’s one of those weeks where most days are sufficiently busy that they will take care of themselves. 

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.  

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