Matthew Cain

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

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Grappling with outcomes

Weeknote 6.2022

Last week, I mused about the balance between the goals that I need to deliver and the goals for the team. Probably the most effective thing I did this week was to help teams think about how we articulate their work in terms of outcomes for residents. We’ve been using the OKRs approach to strategic planning, so that we can measure progress against the goals regularly, and change our approach when it’s not moving sufficiently towards the objective. 

Given that, I wanted to celebrate some of the ways we’ve been making things better this week:

A better experience for people calling frequently – we’re dedicating time to calling people who have had to phone us frequently in order to make sure we’ve got to the heart of the problem. That requires good preparation – we’d make things worse if we picked up the phone before we understood all the things we already knew – and a skilled advisor who knows how to make our services work for people. Bukkie and the team have done this well so far, and have tangible examples of things we’ve been able to unblock by having a good conversation with a frustrated resident. 

Understanding the planning system – our data platform helps us bring data together, safely and ethically. We can use this to better understand our systems and processes which then enables us to understand what we can do differently. Adam showed the planning service a comprehensive tool that enables the team to start generating hypotheses and plans for how we can improve the customer journeys. 

Staying safe online – there’s lots of maintenance that goes into helping people stay safe online. We’re getting better at how we manage the security certificates that reassure web browsers, and therefore users, that our services are safe. Darren and team essentially brought management of the service in-house and did a good job of this week’s refresh. 

Faster product development – we’re using a tool developed by Spotify (Backstage) to make the process of product development faster. That enables us to speed up learning what our users need, which is one of the metrics I’m obsessed about. It’s been a hope for a while, and lots of different people have contributed, but Stuart was able to show the team where we’ve got to, and people were excited about what next. 

A professional, relaxed welcome – we’re evolving how we welcome residents into our service centre, as COVID restrictions continue to change. We’ve got a new reception desk so that we can welcome people into the building, ensure colleagues are safe but also try and shift the power dynamics so that it’s not an overwhelming experience for people who need our help. Well done to Nicola, Paul and the team for pushing this forward.

In the interests of balance, there are a few things we’re grappling with at the moment:

We’ve been grappling with a difficult data migration challenge for some of our licensing services. The old database was complex, expensive and probably over-engineered so it’s taken painstaking work to understand how to map the information to the new system. We’d swarmed around it in the last few weeks to increase the chance of success. And then at the last minute, a key team member was ill. 

We’ve had some complaints recently about one of the systems we use. Given the number of successful transactions, I think I was slow to notice. But it also appears that we’re not the only Council that’s experiencing problems. A challenging integration means we also had to delay making a new system live. The two things aren’t connected – but both indications that it needs extra attention. 

Our refreshed customer satisfaction survey has now been running for a fortnight and revealed that only half of residents think we’ve clearly told them what will happen next. One of our core principles for a good conversation is to ‘be the guide’. So we need to dig into this and identify some improvements that we can make. 

We’ve also been organising a fortnightly meeting for senior leaders to talk about ‘tech priorities, progress and problems’ (because I liked the alliteration). It takes a few hours to prepare for, but seemed important for openness and collaboration. Attendance hasn’t been great, and is falling off, so we need to think about what needs to change. 

Next week I might actually be away. We’ve got a few days in Cornwall, around my wife’s birthday. I’m not optimistic for the quality of the 4G connectivity so I may literally have to switch off. 

The good and the indifferent

Weeknote 5.2022

I’m fascinated by how other senior leaders align their work and agenda to the needs of their teams. If it’s too different, I’ve found you’re talking a completely separate language to your managers – and you don’t have time for the things that matter for them. If you just focus on what your teams are doing at the moment, you can’t set the pace of change. I’ve been think about that this week because of how different my week was to the delivery of customer services. Our service had a really encouraging week, and mine was ok. 

We delivered the best service to residents that we’ve achieved in months, this week. Waiting times were consistently below ten minutes and we answered around 85% of calls. Best of all, we continued to take more time to work with residents who needed extra help. 

One of our link workers helped ‘Maria’ – an older woman who hadn’t asked for a repair to her council home in two years. After speaking to us, we helped fix the carbon monoxide alarm and introduced her to a lunch club so that she could meet new people. Doing things efficiently is important because sometimes that’s all you need. Taking time to do make things better for people who need that extra help makes Hackney better for everyone. The improved outcomes have also had a noticeable effect on everyone’s morale. 

Now, we’ve got a short period that we need to use so that some of the enablers are in place to sustain the improvement. The work we’re doing to support residents who have to call frequently needs to become bread and butter. This week, our single view work has an early prototype which will enable us to test what impact it could have on call lengths. We’ve got a really simple target: for the tool to help us save 189,000 minutes a year. We’re also investing in a rota-ing tool so that we’re matching colleagues with the right skills to support the levels of demand at the right time of the day. 

On Thursday my diary resembled my hair: things came out at a remarkable rate. Previously I’ve found it too easy to waste unexpected time (to the point where I’ve actually got cross that things were cancelled). But this week I had enough energy to make good use of the time and focus on cracking through some stuff that would be far too easy to defer.

The key thing on Friday was our housing IT steering group. We’re at one of those difficult stages in a change project. Having been through a few I’ve now got enough experience to not over-dramatise them in advance. But the conversation also enabled me to reflect on how change needs momentum to succeed. The allure of ‘pragmatism today, change tomorrow’ is as effective as when my parents painted over mould in my bedroom as a child. 

All of this is a long way of saying that I didn’t quite meet my three goals for the week, but didn’t get far off. We do have a clear roadmap for the temporary accommodation work. It landed well with the leadership of the service and we’re going to use it to structure our show & tells. The Technical Design Authority meeting did help support our principles and remained action-oriented. I’m keen that we evolve the way we’re working now that we’re four weeks in, so that we don’t establish a pattern too soon and that habit reduces our creativity. I didn’t start the re-use conversation I wanted, but that was a matter of diaries and availability rather than a lack of focus on my part. 

There were also two things where we made progress this week after letting them drift for too long. In both examples, I would have been unforgiving on discovering the length of time it had taken to get it done, at the point at which I started working in Councils. Now, I can also see completely valid reasons why they’ve dragged. But I’m not comfortable with entirely abandoning the me of 2015. Part of the answer is to get more comfortable with saying ‘I can’t’, particularly when under pressure. But another part is just being a bit more candid when I’m letting things drift so that colleagues can make a more active choice about how to proceed. 

Next week is an opportunity to return to the work I’ve been doing to help teams articulate the outcomes we’re seeking to achieve. So my stretch goal is that three teams can confidently express the outcomes they’re seeking from work that’s currently underway. But I’ve also got three significant bits of paperwork to attend to – two of which have been festering on my to-do list for a fortnight. So I’d better formalise that as my second goal for the week. I’ve also got my eye on a trip to Anfield on Thursday – so two goals will be sufficient (no jokes about whether 2 goals is enough with a high line). 

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.

Finding Fizz


That’s two positive weeks in a row. How do I know? Because this week (in contrast to last) I also committed to a clear area of focus, and three goals and delivered. That felt good, and the week felt good. I wanted to spend time carefully working through the process of reintroducing the OKRs structure to how we commit to clear outcomes, and deliver measurable results rather than just complete projects. This is so important to me because we need to be able to talk clearly and confidently about how our work is improving services for residents, we’ve got a good team who need the motivation that comes from a clear sense of purpose, and the freedom that comes from being able to organise around measurable outcomes. 

I’m also looking to extend the approach to customer services as well. By the end of this week we had a clear set of desired outcomes for our Document Products team and our Single View work. We’ve also talked through what success looks like for our data & insight service, and Lisa’s developing that further over the next week or so. 

For all that positivity, I know that we still need to do better by our residents in accessing some services. Last week our repairs service was contacted 5,500 times, which is 42% more than normal for this time of year. We’ve got some new starters, recruited from our Hackney Works employment scheme beginning on Monday which will bring short term relief. But we’ll only deliver a consistently good service if people need to call us less often and the conversations we have with people are typically shorter. 

One of the big steps forward this week and last was that, for the first time, we can identity who is calling most often. We’re experimenting with identifying when people are calling too often and following up to make sure that we’ve understood the whole problem, done everything we can to fix it efficiently and also set clear expectations for what will happen, when. This is a key part of our vision for customer services and ultimately it will help us provide a better service. But we need to be really careful to strike a fair balance between that work and the needs of people who are calling us ‘at the moment’. 

Our Technical Design Authority had the first meeting to review specific proposals for the design of services. We considered how we manage permissions for accessing Manage My Home, where it’s important that everyone has access to the right data and that users can be managed without having to change the software code each time. We reviewed how we’ll make sure that attachments to the social care software remain secure – because the system works by downloading a copy of the attachment onto the PC. And we explored how an open source ‘rules engine’ might enable us to develop and then continue to change, rules determining how we take action against people who owe us money. The conversation was valuable, and I was particularly pleased that everyone took part in a constructive spirit but not fudging the real challenges presented by each proposal.

One of my other small pleasures from this week was to hear of the work we’re doing to increase the number of people who register the birth of their child within 42 days. Most people can get an appointment now within a few days of asking for one, which is a fantastic level of service. Our behavioural insights expert has worked with the registrars team to help them identify different ways we can encourage people to register an appointment sooner. We’ll be tracking the impact of this through February. 

But ultimately I knew I had my fizz this week because I was also coming up with ideas. I like finding new ways of doing things – not least because it actually feels helpful rather than getting stuck in the management trap of being just a conduit of information. 

My goals for next week are for three more teams to have clear objectives and key results for their work, to know how we’re going to develop our predictive and proactive approach for housing repairs and to design a workshop to help our teams articulate their outcomes. Hopefully within that there’s enough room for creativity and focus to keep the fizz. 

Put it in the net, then let’s talk

Weeknote 2.2022

I basically had a really good week, with lots to feel energised about. My tasklist, optimistically titled ‘tomorrow’ isn’t complete, but there are 19 things ticked off. 

But I didn’t clearly define some goals. And so whilst I know I had a good week, it doesn’t have the same objectivity that it would have if I could prove it. I spent ages thinking about my goals but by the end of Monday still hadn’t committed. On Thursday I chatted to some of our security team over lunch and remembered the old Shankly quote: “if you’re not sure what to do, put the ball in the back of the net and then we’ll discuss it”. 

My main achievement was making sure our refreshed governance arrangements started well. We’ve got a weekly recovery board, a new Technical Design Authority and a fortnightly update for senior leaders, which I’ve called ‘Priorities, Progress and Problems’ (because I liked the alliteration). 

We expect recovery board members to arrive having read the outputs from each of our projects and come with some issues for discussion, so that we identify blockers and agree how to move things forward. It’ll quickly become second nature, but understanding how we can contribute will be hard to begin with. But it was a good discussion and I only needed one of my three prompts, because some colleagues were also well prepared. Following the meeting, I also produced a simple project evaluation framework so that next week, the board has a shared way of understanding what we mean by project health. 

The membership of the TDA overlaps with the recovery board, so I needed to find a fresh way of exploring our scope and ways of working. We used the anti-pattern exercise ‘If we did this really badly, how would we do it’. It was fun, but also enabled us to identify the big risks. 

Lastly, I was keen that the senior leaders briefing was more engaging than previously when it was too easy to slip into an informational update rather than a genuine exchange and development of a shared sense of purpose. 

There haven’t been many opportunities since the cyberattack to really invest in how we do things, given the relentless march of delivery. So at the very least it was good to dust-off some of those lingering skills . 

The other important step forward this week was work to help residents who had to call us too often. Our new phone system gives us more data than we’ve ever had before so we can quickly identify people who keep calling us and try to solve the problem. Of the first eight people we spoke to, we were able to make things better for all of them, which was essential to build trust in the service. It’s less efficient than responding to calls but sometimes it’s the right thing to do so next we’ll need to work out how it fits into our overall approach. 

I had also promised myself that I’d do two things to develop our strategy (consulting on our guiding principle, and designing another proactive service). I almost did one of them and because it was important rather than urgent, kept excusing myself for not doing it. Must do better. 

I did finish off reading The Great Circle. By the last 100 pages, I just wanted it to finish, but the twist at the end just about warranted the final mile. The thought of starting another book was too much so for the rest of the week I watched Borgen, the old Danish political drama. It took me back to the first time I watched it – sitting in our basement room in Dalston, with two young children, drinking too much red wine (me, not them, I hope). The plot has aged well, but there isn’t a smartphone in sight. And yet Borgen is still more modern than most of the commonly used local government software. 

I’m going to make next week all about our OKRs. I’ve been starting to extend the approach to customer services and I’ve got some hypotheses for how we can bring it back to our work in IT without it either being a bit false or distorting work that’s in flight. But if I start with how I work, then I’ll be better equipped to help others. 

Hello, fresh

Weeknote 1.2022

I used to start the New Year with bold ambitions which would fail because, despite the changing date, I remained me. I’m older now, and (a bit) better at setting realistic goals. But it hasn’t prevented me from starting afresh in the New Year. 

I’ve also noticed a disconnect, though, between the emotional freshness and the reality of trying to get back into the groove – exacerbated by working from home. 

Those thoughts remained with me for most of the week. 

First, the freshness. 

At the IT strategy show & tell, we explained why 2022 will be the year of outcomes. It can be easy to get lost in the technology so by spending time really understanding how our work enables residents and businesses to get a better service we’ll make sure we’re making the right choices. The reaction suggested it wasn’t quite the inspirational, insightful narrative that I’d dreamt of, but I was able to follow it up by finding a couple of opportunities to show teams what we meant. 

I was involved in a couple of projects before Christmas where something didn’t feel right, but where I’d probably only sounded irritated. The Christmas break helped me filter out the things that were personally irritating and focus on the bits that mattered. By starting the year thinking clearly about what mattered I had more confidence to tackle the things that were eroding our ability to deliver. 

I spent quite a bit of time this week thinking about the objectives and key results for the Single View project which is starting shortly. It’s a project bursting with opportunities – and therefore has the potential to under-deliver – so if we can set some really clear outcomes then we’ll empower the team to make good choices. There’s something about fewer contacts and faster calls – but we also need to be mindful about the unintended consequences. So we’re not there yet. 

I was also able to crank through two business cases for forthcoming projects. Part of me hoped 2021 marked the end of seemingly endless business case and procurement documentation. But at least I’m now reasonably quick at it. 

There were a few areas where it was harder to get back into the groove. 

I’ve been thinking carefully about how we might frame a service promise for residents which also enables colleagues to solve problems. I’ve got a nascent idea and I know how I want to test it. But I completely ran out of time / failed to work sufficiently efficiently to do anything about it. 

There were a couple of administrative tasks that I’d meant to do over Christmas and were never became more compelling than The Great Circle. I got some of them done, but too many still remain. (I also read a book about the emerging field of quantum biology. That was bafflingly complex.)

And on Thursday I was asked to share my goal for the week at the DMT huddle. I didn’t have one. That’s the kind of sloppiness that I’d be unforgiving of in others. 

As I was finishing off my weeknote, I learnt that Jack Dromey had died, briefly a former boss. I have vivid memories from the experience of working for him, during the summer of my finals. I learnt a substantial amount about patience, consistency and sheer indefatigability from Jack who, in the 1970s, learnt some Gujurati to help represent the women in the Grunwick dispute (if I remember rightly). Late on a Sunday, whilst I’d be watching the end of the 4pm Premier League game, Jack would be leaving me voicemail lists of things to do the next day (one voicemail didn’t last long enough for Jack). But looking back, what I remember, and probably learnt from the most, was the extraordinary relationship he had with Harriet. Thank you, Jack. 

What I’ve learnt in 2021

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

Doing, practicing and learning are all different

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

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

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

We’re losing the argument for simplicity

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

Setting good goals is hard

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

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

Owning a strategy is harder than conceiving it

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

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

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

The limits of a crisis

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

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

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

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

Culture is also dynamic 

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

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

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

Going again will be my biggest challenge

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

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

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

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

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

Weeknote v10.50

Week beginning 13 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeknote v10.49

Week beginning 6 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital transformation beyond exemplars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this play we’re assuming that:

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

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

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

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

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