Which 2020 should I reflect on? The first 3 months which was about adopting the OKR framework in HackIT and preparing for new responsibilities with customer services? The next five months which was about creating Here to Help to support our vulnerable residents through COVID? Or the last three months, leading the business continuity and applications recovery from our cyberattack? The problem with the cliches about 2020 is that they’re worn out. 

But these three, disparate segments of my year have some enduring commonalities even if I haven’t been able to link them together (as you’ll see if you work through this monologue) . 

People can achieve more than they know

“I don’t know if we can meet the expectations of the new manager” someone said in a feedback exercise. Yes, you can. Most people are capable of achieving more than they assume, given the right circumstances. 

We gave the team the five missions that guide our OKRs framework but expected them to develop the objectives for the year and key results for the quarter. In my second week responsible for customer services, the team started working remotely for the first time, taking a strengths-based approach to vulnerable customers at some point between April and May. In October we came together in new ways to put in place over 50 work-arounds to help deliver Council services. 

These things, and the hundreds of things that sit behind them show how much more we achieved this year than ever before. I don’t look back on those objectives for 2020 and think about what could have been. And they’re all a result of people committing to the purpose, being open to doing what’s needed and finding ways to apply their talents to a scenario. 

Committing to outcomes is hard

I had to dedicate time to making sure that I was content with our objectives for the year. That I wouldn’t be tempted to start new things that were outside the framework or regret what we hadn’t achieved. Then COVID came along and central government put new obligations on local authorities. Typically the ‘what’ was over-specified and the ‘why’ was either un-articulated or sufficiently tangential to be immaterial to the design of the intervention (for example, of course it was about reducing the spread of the virus; but at what opportunity cost?) It put into perspective my experience of the discussions I’d seen at BAE Systems about the bonus scheme but I could also see that committing to one course of action makes it harder to contemplate the existence of an alternative.

Operations is mostly undervalued, and operations undervalues strategy

I’ve been part of setting up three new operations this year – food for vulnerable people, local contact tracing and the payment of the self isolation grant. At every occasion I was faced with questions about detail which I simultaneously found frustrating but also knew mattered. A recurring theme this year was that designing something that works for people is hard and undervalued. 

But by the same measure, I struggled to get traction with developing a vision and strategy for an operational service. I was acutely aware that what I was talking about just didn’t seem particularly relevant to the people involved. One recurring theme about change in the public sector is a lack of capacity – a prioritisation of operations over strategy. 

I’d like to learn next year more about how to break through this stand-off using the next year – finding a way of using operations to test strategy and ensure that strategy shapes operations.   

‘Innovation’ isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

I’ve always wanted to achieve something unique, of lasting value – radical innovation. Last year I was frustrated that I’d fallen short of creating something new of value to residents but was optimistic about the prospects of succeeding this year. We did that with Here to Help, even if it was copied in various forms across the country. 

But what was most interesting about our journey was less the new things we created and more how we re-purposed the old. Whether it was the previous relationships that got us through sticky weeks, the data or code that enabled us to create intuitive services quickly or taking the Make Every Contact Count approach and applying it to customer services. I was also particularly pleased of some small projects in planning and parking to take insights from other councils and apply them to improve the customer experience in Hackney. All of those are examples of incremental innovation that isn’t exciting, but is infinitely more sticky. 

Controlling the temperature

My favourite book on leadership talks of the need to control the temperature – knowing when to make something certain (cooler, or more technical) or uncertain (hotter, more adaptive). Actually I think both can coexist – certainty in an uncertain situation. For example, giving a team a structure to work in even when the outcomes or the context may be uncertain. 

I remember the occasions when I got this wrong more than the occasions I got it right this year – the teams that were given too much uncertainty or felt they had too little space. The hard thing is spotting when it’s happening, and being able to do something about it. It requires trust, time and honesty. It can be easy to trade these factors off against each other – ‘because I trust that person, I can let them get on with it’ or ‘because I’m trusted it’s better not to shatter that illusion’. 

Fighting for perspective

This is the first year I haven’t mostly read The Economist most weeks. Something about the loss of the commute has removed the routine. My world is smaller as a result. 

I always try and assess a situation using two perspectives – the critical outsider and the proud team member, knowing that neither are fully fair but the truth will be somewhere in between. It’s been harder this year to judge where the balance lies. There’s not one dominant reason. It feels like remote working denudes you of some of your senses; the working day fades rather than ends removing some of the natural closure. I reckon my work network has shrunk too, as I see fewer people. I’ve also a growing sense that in more senior positions, the air gets thinner – you have to take in a lot more information to get the same amount of feedback.

As much as I’ve tried, I just haven’t done enough to do the small things that help build openness throughout a team. The small notes, thank yous and well dones are typically the bit to fall off my list of weekend tasks. That needs to change.

Multiple modes

We’ve mostly stressed the importance of doing change with people over the last four years. We’ve used Agile approaches to guide our work. But not all tasks are well suited to this. We’ve introduced new printers, for example, and this has been unpopular in some of my teams (there are fewer). We launched the Here to Help service with the sort of bang and deadline that Agile avoids. 

Largely, it’s been a relief not to be discussing how to do something and to focus instead on achieving the outcome. But sometimes method matters. When you’ve got a dominant way of doing things, the opposite can be discordant. So I wonder whether we could have been more nuanced and how we might further develop how we work so that we can apply different approaches to different problems. 

Digital change is also about the technology

It’s become common to say that digitally-enabled change is all about the people. That important insight can mask the fact that it’s also about the technology. Good people with bad technology (or even without technology at all) can achieve much less. Who could have guessed that managing the delivery of regular food parcels to 500 people via spreadsheets could have been so visceral?  

Technology, done well, can provide the support people need to do their best. Over the next year we’ll need to constantly work through what the right technology choices are which enable us to do the right thing.  

Deliberate practice

I tried to deliberately practice responsible leadership this year. Being responsible was  significantly easier than deliberate practice. I suffered from a lack of concentrated and sustained effort. Too often I wasn’t deliberate enough. And I didn’t get a sufficient response to know if anything was getting any better. 

Meanwhile, I set out to run 450 miles this year. I think I did 390 in 2019. Thanks to running most mornings during lockdown, I hit that target in July and by October I could see the prospect of clocking up 1,000 miles for the year. I did it, and shaved about 20 seconds a mile off my average pace. Funnily enough running often and quicker means you travel further, faster.  

Sometimes I fear I’m clever enough to make things complicated and not clever enough to make them simple. 

Returning to useful weeknotes

The small but committed group of public sector weeknoters are right that it can force an important transparency and display of leadership. But they do actually have to be useful for someone to read.

I’m still developing my resolutions for 2021. But I’ve realised that I can write reflective, if self-indulgent notes each week which occasionally help me to account for what I’ve done. Or I can write notes that communicate to the team. I’ve achieved both fewer than ten times this year. So I’m going to commit to writing weeknotes my team wants to read. 

Being truly grateful – and privilege

There have been times this year when it’s been hard to be truly grateful. My desktop picture of the town hall, taken on my first morning in the job, hasn’t always triggered a sense of wonder, privilege and opportunity. It should. 

I learnt more about white privilege this year, thanks in particular to a couple of members of my team. And whilst there’s been a humanising impact of seeing people working at home there’s also the reminder of how fortunate I am to only have to share a WiFi connection with my wife, for example. 

And I should do more to remember the opportunities I’ve been given and work harder to make the most of them.