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.