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Cost vs. Quality

A debate as old as time, and a loop that goes around and around; or so it seems in the Public Sector commercial space.

Every few years, often every couple of spend control cycles, the debate of cost vs. quality rears its head again; with Commercial weighting flip flopping between Quality as the most important factor, to cost (or lowest cost) as the highest priority.

When quality is the most important factor in the commercial space; Government Departments will prioritise the outputs they want to achieve; and weighting their commercial scores to the areas that indicate Quality – things like ‘Value Add’; ‘Delivering Quality’, ‘Culture’, ‘Delivering in Partnership etc’. We will see more output focused contracts coming out on to the market; with organisations clear on the vision they want to achieve and problems they need to solve and looking for the supplier that can best help them achieve that.

When reducing costs becomes the highest priority, the commercial weighting moves to ‘Value for Money’. Contracts are more likely to be fixed price and are often thinly veiled requests for suppliers to act as body shops rather than partners with commercial tenders scoring day rate cards rather than requesting the cost for overall delivery of outcomes.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, when the priority switches to cost over quality; we end up with a lot of projects not being delivered; of outcomes being missed, and user needs not being met. In order to cut more and more costs, offshoring resource can become the only way to deliver the results cheaply; with the departmental project teams working out of sync with their offshore delivery partners; making co-design and delivery much harder to do, and making it almost impossible to achieve the required quality. This goes in a cycle, with Departments toting and grooming between “offshore as much as possible to cut costs” and “the only way to deliver quality is for everyone to be collocated in the office 100% of the time”. Full collocation of the teams inevitably driving up the costs again.

So, does that mean in order to get quality we have to have high costs? Surely there is an obviously a sweet spot we’re all looking for, where cost and quality align; but why does it seem so hard to achieve within the Public Sector and what do we need to be looking at to achieve it?

When the government commercial function (and GDS) shook up the public sector digital world over nearly a decade ago they introduced things like the Digital Marketplace and implemented the Spend Control pipeline; with the aim of moving departments away from the large SI’s that won 90% of government contracts. These suppliers often charged a fortune and rarely seemed to deliver what was actually needed. (This blog gives the details on what they intended, back in 2014).

Lots of SME suppliers began to enter the market and began to win contracts and change up how contracts were delivered, as completion increased, costs decreased; with quality partnerships forming between new suppliers and government departments; and the quality of delivery increased as new options, solutions and was of working were explored.

However, this left Departments managing lots of individual contracts; which grew increasingly complex and time consuming to mange. In order to try and reduce the number of contracts they had to manage; the scale of the contracts began to increase, with more and more multimillion pound contacts emerging.

As the size and value of the contracts increased, SME’s began to struggle to win them, as they couldn’t stand up the teams needed quickly; nor could they demonstrate they had the experience in delivering contracts of that scale; which became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the larger SI’s continued to win the larger contracts as they were the only ones able to provide the evidence they could staff and deliver them; and their costs remained high.

This left the SME’s facing three options:

  • Decide not to try for the larger contracts, reducing the amount of competition; potentially increasing costs and decreasing quality in the long run);
  • Form partnership agreements with a number of other SME’s or a larger supplier (again reducing the amount of completion) in order to be able to stand up the teams needed and enable delivery of larger contracts. However having a consortium of suppliers not used to working together could complicate delivery, which could in turn decrease the quality or speed of delivery if not carefully managed; as such not all contracts allowed consortium or partnership bids due to the perceived complexity they could bring.
  • Or the SME aimed to grow to allow them to be able to win and deliver the larger contracts. As SME’s grew however, they would often have to either increase their costs in order to run a larger organisation that could still deliver the same quality they did as before; or they could keep their costs low, but their quality would likely decrease.

Throughout the pandemic, the focus has been on delivery; and there’s been a healthy mix of both small and large contracts coming out, meaning lots of competition. While costs have always been a factor;  the pandemic allowed both departments and suppliers to remove much of the costly admin and bureaucratic approval processes in favour of lightweight approaches involved to bring on suppliers and manage teams outputs, encouraging innovation in delivery and cost; with lockdowns ensuring co-location was now out of the question many suppliers were able to reduce their rates to support the pandemic response as both departments and suppliers agreeing that the priority had been on delivering quality products and services to meet organisations and users urgent needs.The removal of co-location as a prerequisite also open up the market to more suppliers to bid for work, and more individuals applying for more roles; which increased competition and inevitably improved the quality out the outputs being produced. This in fact led to a lot of innovation being delivered throughout the pandemic which has benefited us all.

As we move out of the pandemic and into the next spending review round; the signs are that the focus is about to swing back to costs as the highest priority. With larger contracts coming out that are looking for cheaper day rates in order to allow departments to balance their own budgets; but as the economy bounces back and departments begin to insist again that teams return to the office, most suppliers will want to increase their costs to pre-pandemic levels. If we’re not careful the focus on cost reduction will mean we could decrease the quality and innovation that has been being delivered throughout the pandemic; and could cost the taxpayers more in the long run. Look at DWP’s first attempt to deliver Universal Credit for how badly things can go wrong when cost is the highest priority and when the Commercial team and runs the procurement process with minimum input from Delivery; driving the commercial and deliver decisions being made more than quality.

To find the sweet spot between Cost and Quality we need to create the best environment for innovation and competition. Allowing flexibility on where teams can be based will support this; supporting and encouraging SME’s and Medium sized suppliers to bid for and win contracts by varying contract sizes and values. Focusing on outputs over body shopping. Looking for what value suppliers can add in terms of knowledge transfer and partnership rather than simply prioritising who is the cheapest.

It’s important we all work together to get the balance between cost and quality right, and ensure we remain focused on delivering the right things in the right way.

Seesaw

Is it time for Flexible Working to actually become flexible?

Does the Public Sector need to embrace Hybrid working or risk loosing its workforce?

The majority of job adverts within the Public Sector (and beyond) feature the phrase – “We offer flexible working” as a benefit. However, this flexible working is limited on how flexible it can be; generally its telling you they don’t mind what hours you work, as long as you work the core hours and get your work done. What they don’t mean is, we don’t mind where you work as long as you can attend core meetings face to face and get your work done.

Home working, hell geographically diverse (not London) working has always been a bone of contention within the Public Sector; in the couple of years before the pandemic there was a push to get more staff our of London and establish offices ‘in the regions etc’ but this has always met with some resistance, as Ministers themselves are firmly London based, and if your work required any kind of interaction with a Minister then you’d need to be in London at least part time.

Street sign – Downing St

There has long been the view with managers in the Public Sector that staff (especially Operational ones from my experience) couldn’t be trusted to work at home full time, that it would be impossible to monitor their work and ensure things got done on time etc. Obviously given the Public Sector is there to spend public money – keeping staff within your eyesight so you could ensure they were not wasting money was the most important thing. That was never the vocalised reason though, instead it was concerns about staff accessing or taking home users personal data or commercial sensitive information; a fear that staff would not (or could not) keep data secure if it left the office. This attitude slowly dispersed as you moved up the ranks, proving this was more about hierarchy and a command and control culture based on a pervasive lack of trust of staff.

The pandemic has meant for the first time all (or most at least) office staff have been not only allowed, but required, to work from home. It finally stopped the traditional slog to the office and forced managers to trust their staff could in fact get the work done perfectly well when not in the office; and those same staff proved they could deliver from home just as well as the office.

But now as the pandemic ebbs, the question has come around – do staff really need to return to the office? Most Departments so far seem to be taking the sensible approach and talking about phased returns to the office and the use of hybrid working. But one Minster has already stated that as “People who have been working from home aren’t paying their commuting costs… they have had a de facto pay rise… if people aren’t going into work, they don’t deserve the terms and conditions they get if they are going into work.”

Not only is this ridiculous at a time that public sector pay has been effectively frozen for years, as the Retail price index has continued to increase higher than public sector pay; but it also ignores the needs of both those people who can’t go into the office for a health reason and the issues departments themselves have faced for years when it comes to their offices.

Departments have long struggled with over crowding; with at least two (often more) staff members to every desk. Due to this over subscription, most offices moved to hot-desking; but that comes with its own problems as team leaders and office managers try to keep track of who is sitting where on what day. Desk allocation has long been the thorn in every office manager and team leaders side. Not only do you have more people than desks, but a number of staff have health constraints the limit where they can sit. For ever person who needs a window desk due to migraine etc, you’ve got a person who needs the thermostat at a specific setting (often sat next to someone who needs a completely different setting for their own health condition); or needs a desk nearer the bathrooms etc. Office planning is a complex nightmare of logistics and expense.

Crowds

The other problem teams face when organisations insist that everyone comes into the office; is that your automatically excluding those who can’t. For those people who have a disability that means they are unable to travel into an office daily they are at worst either excluded from jobs that insist on it, or at best they are the one home worker in a team of office workers; generally leaving them feeling excluded from decisions and conversations; creating feelings of isolation and exclusion.

Disabled people have for years been crying out for more home working, only to be told it wasn’t feasible; but now that the pandemic has proved it is indeed workable, if employers don’t use this as a time to examine properly how to enable and support home workers; they face at best the exodus of staff who want (or need) to have home working as a proper option; and at worst the start seeing more and more legal challenges from staff who feel they are being treated unfairly and excluded from work the pandemic has proved they can do just as well from home.

We need to properly consider what the future ways of working look like, and how we can proactively be inclusive to everyone, whether they choose to work from an office, from home or a mix thereof (which seems to be the preferred method of most people according to the million LinkedIn surveys I’ve seen floating around). A recent study by YouGov has found that over 75% of people want the option of Hybrid working; with most people wanting the flexibility to spend 2-3 days working from home and 2-3 days working in the office.

As Sammy Rubin, CEO and founder of YuLife has stated “Workplaces now need to give employees more tools to help them benefit from the new expectations they now have from their employers following the pandemic. Perks and benefits have to be made more accessible and tailored to individual employees’ needs, while also benefiting both remote staff as well as those coming into the office in an era increasingly characterised by a hybrid working model.” Allowing people to work from home isn’t enough, we need to proactively be thinking how we can best support and include those working from home in meetings in the same way we include those working in the office.

A virtual meeting

While the public sector has always struggled with loosing staff to the private sector for money; the public sector has always prided itself on offering better ways of working and a better work life balance etc. However, many private sector companies are using this opportunity to look at their own ways of working; either moving away from offices entirely to save costs and investing properly in home working, or engaging and consulting with their staff to support a move to hybrid working, some are even using this as an opportunity to consider moving to 4 day weeks etc. They’ve recognised that this not only benefits, them, their staff, but also the environment at a time when Climate Change is becoming one of the hottest topics (pun intended) by reducing the number of commuters etc.

If the public sector insists on a full return to the office, then they risk loosing even more staff to the private sector; as people begin to prioritise their quality of life, and realise the private sector doesn’t just offer more money, but it can also offer better ways of working. The Public Sector has much bigger issues to deal with (like climate change!) rather than focusing who is working where; and Ministers need to be looking at the bigger picture. As Dave Penman from the FDA union has said “What should matter to ministers is whether public services are being delivered effectively, not where individual civil servants are sitting on a particular day.”

All it takes is a little trust, and a degree of flexibility.

My User Manual 2021

As we leave lockdown and hopefully begin to put the pandemic behind us; I’ve realised that my job isn’t the only thing that’s changed; my working preferences have too. As we move forward into a more hybrid working world updating my user manual seems like a smart idea.

Here’s a link to the one I wrote back in 2019; if you’re curious about user manuals in general and want some tips on how to write one yourself, Christina Lai has a really good talk she does on this with accompanying slides she’s always happy to share.

This is 2021 me, with my new grey hair post lockdown.

Contacting me:

  • My hours: I predominantly work from home; as such my core hours are generally between 9 – 5:30pm; but I’m generally available and responding to messages between 8am to 7pm (GMT).
  • Best three means for contacting me: Text/WhatsApp; Teams/Slack; Email.
  • My response times: I respond best too quick and easy requests that I can deal with straight away. If it needs proper consideration it will probably have to wait until I have time set aside to be at my desk where I’m not in meetings. I try to set aside some time each day to respond to anything that needs more consideration. If I haven’t got back to you within a day, and you need a response; please send me a message to remind me.
  • If I don’t respond it’s best to: Text me or ring me.

My Preferred work approach:

  • Preferred type of work: I love coming up with ideas and solving problems; I love working with a team or one or two others to bounce ideas around; I love making a difference, and improving things for people; I love getting to know people, what their interests are, what makes them tick. I LOVE a good workshop!
  • Things that might affect my work: Constant interruptions or inability to approach tasks in a way the suits me. I don’t do well when I’m feeling stifled.
  • Open to colleagues approaching me with work questions: Always!
  • Preferred learning style: Interactive. I learn best by doing.
  • Specific skills: Problem solving. Delivering Products and Services that meet users needs, designing for vulnerable users and ensuring Products are accessible. Using data to drive improvements in performance deliverables to deliver the right outcomes. Developing innovative strategies and visions based on user needs. Mentoring, coaching, working in the open to show good leadership, sharing best practices and developing capability.
  • Work habits that assist me: Flexibility and collaboration. I work best when working with others.
  • People can assist me by: Helping me understand priorities so I can balance my work in order to get the right things done at the right time.
  • Preferred work environment: I have a high tolerance for background noise, but I don’t like harsh or unexpected noise; similarly with lighting, harsh lighting can give me migraines.
  • Travel: I’m happy to travel, and do over nights for work; but I prefer not to travel on Mondays and Fridays as my son goes to boarding school and I want to be able to do school drop offs and pick ups.

How to give me feedback:

  • Public praise: I admit this still makes me feel awkward, but I’m getting better at accepting it.
  • Timing for critical feedback: Ideally at the end of the day so I can reflect on it.
  • Delivery of critical feedback: Privately.
  • Framing of critical feedback: Constructive; help me understand what I can do better.

My Strengths:

  • Problem solving. Spotting gaps and reviewing processes to identify opportunities. I want to make things better.
  • I am adaptable and resilient, I will always try to keep going and be flexible in my approach in order to deliver the right thing. I’m good in challenging situations. I get things done. I’m best when I have a problem to fix.
  • I enjoy working in fast paced environments, I’m best when I’m busy and getting things done.
  • Developing relationships with teams, stakeholders and internal/external users; I’m a people person and I’m at my best when working with others.
  • Mentoring, coaching and up-skilling others; I actively enjoy helping others too succeed.
  • I am incredibly loyal, if we are friends/colleagues I will always have your back, if you need help I will always do my best for you.

My Weaknesses:

  • I’ve worked hard to improve my written and organisational skills, but I know they are not my greatest strengths. When asked for written briefs etc I do better when I’ve got the chance to run it past someone else before submitting. When it comes to organising things, I tend to surround myself with those who are better at it than me. I write EVERYTHING down to help me remember.
  • Linked to above; my memory isn’t great, and I’m usually balancing a lot of things, so if I forget something, do remind me; I won’t mind, it’ll help me.
  • I’m not always great with connecting names to faces, even of people I know, so please don’t be offended if I need a reminder.
  • Eye contact, it’s not you, it’s me. I am listening and I do care. The same with fiddling or doodling. It’s how my brain works, please don’t take it as a sign I’m not paying attention because I am.

Other things to know about me:

  • I am neurodiverse, I have ADHD, Dyspraxia and Sensory Processing Disorder; things like eye contact, doodling, memory etc are all part of this. But I’m good at thinking outside of the box and approaching things from a fresh angle.
  • I’m a mum to a neurodiverse child, I work hard to balance my work and home life, and talk openly about the challenges of that in order to support and encourage others to do the same.
  • I’m a ridiculous extravert and a massive geek, I recharge by spending time with my tribe.
  • People don’t always think I’m taking things seriously, but I’m very committed and passionate about what I do, I will take on the toughest situations, but I’ll do it with a smile.
  • I’m queer and I live in Manchester with my fiancée, my child and our two dogs.

Interesting fact:

In my down time I LARP; Live Action Role Play; it helps me unwind by going and being someone else for a day or a weekend; and solving fantastical problems in a fantasy world for a while.

Me at Empire LARP, with thanks to Oliver Facey for the photo.

‘The question is who… are you?’

Why being a Leader doesn’t mean not being yourself.

A sign in the woods baring the words, be yourself, everyone else is taken.
Be yourself, everyone else is taken

Chatting to a friend over the weekend, she mentioned her work had been encouraging her to go for more leadership type roles in the last year; but she hadn’t done it so far as she was worried she could never ‘fit in’ or be seen as a leader while she was being herself.

This made me reflect on my career, and when I had those same concerns; and how I over came them.

Back at the start of 2015 I had been working as a Grade 7 for a few years and I was now considering applying for my Grade 6. It’d had taken me a lot of effort and rejection to get my promotion to Grade 7 (I went through seven interviews before I finally got promoted) and I and was worried it would be the same all over again. When I’d first been going for my Grade 7, my manager at the time had tried to tell me I wasn’t leadership material and I’d really struggled to put myself into the professional box I thought leaders in the Civil Service had to fit within; and I was concerned I’d never be able to reach Grade 6 or higher because I just didn’t fit well enough.

My (then) current manager had put my forward for the Crossing Thresholds programme and as I sat with the group of amazing women who were like myself seeking promotion to Grade 6, all I could see was how much more professional they were; how comfortable they seemed to be in their own skin; how obviously they were what Civil Servants should be, and how much I obviously didn’t fit that mould. This wasn’t helped by the fact my previous line manager (who told me I’d never be a leader) was on the same programme as me.

Over the course of the programme we got to work together and get to know each other; and in one of the sessions we had to do some peer feedback 1:1 with each other. One of the other women on the course I’d been utterly enamoured by; she just came across as so cool and calm and together. She exemplified for me what a Civil Servant should be; and what I thought I needed to be in order to pass as a leader. During our 1:1 session as I told her all this, she astounded me by explaining that of everyone on the programme, she was most impressed with me; as I was the most ‘myself’; that I came across as real and approachable and authentic; and how she wished she’d had managers like me as she came up through her career. She was constantly exhausted from trying to pretend to be this perfect person she wasn’t; she was in fact debating leaving the civil service as she no longer felt able to pretend anymore and that I gave her hope that maybe things could change. Dear reader I was floored.

This message was repeated in different flavours throughout the day; even by my previous manager. She apologised and told me how impressed she was to see how I’d progressed, how I’d obviously flourished while remaining myself, and that she encouraged me to keep being myself and wished me luck for my future.

I reflected on that I’d heard from these amazing women, and what I’d observed; and decided that I didn’t want to spend my career pretending to be anyone other than myself, as it was exhausting. As such I attended my first Grade 6 interview sure it would be a car crash as I was determined to be myself; I spoke honestly about my neurodiversity; my strengths and weaknesses. my drives and passions; and made no effort to fit into the box I thought a Grade 6 Civil Servant needed to fit within. To my astonishment I was offered the role the very next day; and in just over a year I was then offered a role at Deputy Director level.

I’ve made a very concerted effort over the last few years to be authentic and myself; including speaking openly and transparently about things like my sexuality, my neurodiversity and my background growing up in a council estate. Because these are all the things that have helped me be me; and as such they are the things that have helped me succeed.

Now that’s not to say I could succeed anywhere and everywhere; some-places I fit, some I don’t. But part of owning who you are, and being true to it; is recognising that to be the best and most honest version of yourself, you need to recognise which environments work for you; and which ones don’t. It’s not a failing to not fit everyone. No one, if they’re being honest, does. The right organisation for you is the one that not only supports you to be yourself, but actively wants it. Because as leaders we know that people who feel able to bring their whole-self to work, are the people who generally work at their best.

Within the Kainos Neurodiveristy community group this week we were discussing personal user manuals and how they can help everyone within a team or organisation feel able to be their best and empower diverse teams to work together in the best possible way for everyone in them. This has reminded me I need to revisit my own user manual from a few years ago and share that with my new teams.

As a wise old monkey once explained to a confused young lion; you have to be true to yourself; so ask yourself, “who are you?”

Rafiki (image from Disney’s the Lion King)

Service Owner vs. Programme Manager vs. Product Lead

What’s the difference? Does the name matter?

Over a year ago, following an interesting chat with David Roberts at NHSBSA, I got to thinking about the role of the Service Owner; and why the role wasn’t working in the way we intended back in the dawn of the Service Manual. This in turn (as most things do for me) led to a blog in order to try and capture my thoughts in the vague hope they might be useful/interesting for anyone reading them.

Ironically, for what was a random think-piece, it has consistently been my most popular blog; getting a least a dozen reads everyday since I wrote it. Which got me thinking again; what is it about that blog that resonates with people? And the fact is, the role of the Service Owner is no better or consistently understood today than it was then. The confusion over the role of the Service Owner; their role and responsibilities, is still one of the most common things I get asked about. What’s the difference between a Service Owner or Manager (is there one)? How/why is the role different to that of the Product Lead? What is the difference between a Service Manager and a Programme Manager? Is the Service Owner different to the SRO? What do all these different role titles mean?

What's In a Name? A lot. – AE2S Communications
What’s in a name?

Every department/Agency within the Public Sector seems to have implemented the role of the Service Owner differently; which makes it very hard for those in the role (or considering applying for the role) to understand what they should be doing or what their responsibilities are etc. This is probably why, as a community of practice within DDaT, it certainly used to be the one hardest communities to bring together, as everyone in it was doing such different roles to each other.

Some clients I’ve been working with use the role of Service Owner and Lead Product Manager interchangeably; some have Service Owners who sit in Ops and Service Managers who sit in Digital (or vice versa); some have Service Managers sitting alongside Programme Managers; or Service Owners alongside Programme Directors, all desperately trying to not stand on each others toes.

So what is the difference?

The obvious place to look for clarity surely is the Service Manual, or the DDaT capability framework. The Service manual specifies it is the responsibility of the Service Owner is to be: “the decision-making authority to deliver on all aspects of a project. Who also:

  • has overall responsibility for developing, operating and continually improving your service
  • represents the service during service assessments
  • makes sure the necessary project and approval processes are followed
  • identifies and mitigates risks to your project
  • encourages the maximum possible take-up of your digital service
  • has responsibility for your service’s assisted digital support”

When the DDaT capability framework was first written, the Service Manager was more akin to a Product person; and originally sat as a senior role within that capability framework; yet they were also responsibility for the end to end service (which was a very big ask for anyone below the SCS working as an SRO). But the role often got confused with that of the IT Service manager, and (as perviously discussed in last years blog) the responsibilities and titles got changed to create the role of Service Owner instead.

Interesting in the Service Manual the reference to the Service Owner being the person who has responsibility for the end to end service; has now been removed; instead focusing on them being the person responsible for being the person responsible for delivering the project. While I imagine this is because it’s very hard for any one person (below SCS level) to have responsibility for an end to end service in the Public Sector due to the size of the Products and Services the Public Sector delivers; it does however mean the new role as description in the Service Manual seems to bring the role of Service Owner closer to that of the Programme Manager.

However, in contrast to the description in the Service manual, the DDaT capability framework does still specify that the role of the Service Owner is “accountable for the quality of their service, and you will be expected to adopt a portfolio view, managing end-to-end services that include multiple products and channels.” Obviously the onus here has changed from being responsible for the end to end service to managing the end to end service. But even that is a clear difference to being responsible for delivering a project as the manual describes it.

Some elements of the new Service Owner role description in the Manual do still align to the traditional responsibilities of Product people (mainly considering things like assisted digital support and ensuring you can maximise take up of your service); but the Service Manual has now removed those responsibilities within a team from the Product Manager. Now the Product Manager seems too intended to be much more focused solely on user needs and user stories; rather than the longer term uptake and running of the service. But again, confusingly, in the Capability framework for Product Management there is still the expectation that Product people will be responsible for ensuring maximum take-up of the service etc.

It seems in trying to clarify the role of the Service Owner, the Service Manual and the Capability framework disagree on exactly what the responsibilities of the role are; and rather than clarify the difference between the Product people and the Service Owners, the waters have instead been muddied even more. Nor have they made it any clearer if/what the difference is between the role of the Service Owner or Programme manager is.

The Project Delivery Capability framework states that “there are many other roles that are needed to successfully deliver projects. These roles are not included in our framework but you will find information on them within the frameworks of other professions, such as, Digital, Data & Technology framework” frustratingly it doesn’t give any clarity on how and when roles like SRO or Programme Manager might overlap with roles within the DDaT framework; nor how these roles could work best with the roles within the DDaT framework. Both the Service Owner role and the Programme manager role state responsibility for things like stakeholder management; business case development/alignment; risk management and governance adherence. Admittedly the language is slightly different; but the core themes are the same.

So is the assumption that you don’t need both a Programme Manager and a Service Owner? Is it an either or that has never been clearly specified? If you’re using PRINCE2 you get a Programme Manager, if Agile its a Service Owner? I would hope not, mainly because we all know that in reality, most Public Sector digital programmes are a blend of methodologies and never that clear cut. So are we not being clear enough about what the role of the Service Owner is? Does it really matter if we don’t have that clarity?

Evidence has shown that when teams aren’t clear on the roles and responsibilities of there team mates, and especially those people responsible for making key decisions; then bottlenecks being to occur. Teams struggle to know who should be signing of what. Hierarchy and governance become essential to achieving any progress; but inevitabley delays occur while approvals are sought, which simply slows down delivery.

So can we get some clarity?

At the start of the year DEFRA advertised a role for a Service Owner which (I thought) clearly articulated the responsibilities of the role, and made it clear how that role would sit alongside and support Product team and work with Programme professionals to ensure effective delivery of services that met user needs. Sadly this clarity of role seems few and far between.

I would love, when travel etc. allows, to see a workshop happen mapping out the roles of Service Owner; SRO; Programme manager; Product Lead etc. Looking at what their responsibilities are; providing clarity on where there is any overlap and how this could be managed better so that we can get to the point where we have consistency in these roles; and better understanding of how they can work together without duplication or confusion over the value they all add.

For now, at least, it’s each organisations responsibility to ensure that they are being clear on what the responsibilities for the roles and those people working in them are. We need to stop pretending the confusion doesn’t exist and do are best to provide clarity to our teams and our people; otherwise we’re only muddying the waters and it’s that kind of confusion that inevitably impacts teams and their ability to deliver.

Let’s be clear, say what do you mean

How to be a Product Advocate

Why you need a Product Person in your team.

Since joining Kainos a few weeks ago, I’ve had a number of conversations internally and with clients about the relationship between Delivery and Product; and why I as a Product Person moved over to Delivery.

‘Products at the heart of delivery’ image

My answer to that question was that, having spent over 10 years as a Product Person, and seeing the growth of Product as a ‘thing’ within the Public Sector; helping Product grow and mature, developing the community, ways of working, career pathway etc; I realised that what was missing was Product thinking at a senior level. Most Senior leaders within the Programme delivery or Transformation space come from a traditional delivery background (if not an operational one) and while many of them do now understand the value of user centric design and user needs etc; they don’t understand the benefit of a product centric approach or what value Product thinking brings.

The expansion of Product people in the Public sector has predominantly been driven by GDS and the Digital Service standards; with most organisations now knowing they need a ‘Product Manger‘ in order to pass their Service Standard Assessment. However, almost 10 years later, most organisations are still not prioritising the hiring and capability development of their Product people. In May I worked with four different teams each working to the Digital Standards and needing to pass an assessment; and in none of those teams was the role of the Product manger working in the way we intended when we creating the DDaT Product Management capability framework.

Most organisations (understandably) feel the role of the Product Manager should be an internal one, rather than one provided by a Supplier; but 9 times out of 10 the person they have allocated to the role has no experience in the role, have never worked on a product or service that was developed to the digital standards never mind having been through an assessment; and they are regularly not budgeted or allocated the project full time; often being split across too many teams or split between the Product Manager role whilst still working in Ops or Policy or whoever they have come from previously; more often than not their actually a Subject Matter Expert, not a Product Manager (which I’ve blogged about before).

As a supplier; this makes delivery so much harder. When the right Product person isn’t allocated to a project, we can quickly see a whole crop of issues emerge.

So what are the signs that Product isn’t being properly represented within a team:

  • Overall vision and strategy are unclear or not shared widely; teams aren’t clear on what they’re trying to achieve or why; this can be because the Product person is not able to clearly articulate the problem the team are there to solve or the outcomes that team are their to deliver aren’t clearly defined.
  • Roadmap doesn’t exist, is unstable or does not go beyond immediate future/ or the Scope of the project keeps expanding; often a sign that prioritisation isn’t being looked at regularly or is happening behind closed doors making planning hard to do.
  • Success measures are unclear or undefined; because the team doesn’t understand what they’re trying to achieve and often leads to the wrong work getting prioritised or outcomes not getting delivered or user needs not met.
  • Work regularly comes in over budget or doesn’t meet the business case; or the team keeps completing Discoveries and then going back to the start or struggling to get funding to progress. This can be a sign the team aren’t clear what problem they are trying to solve or that the value that the work delivers cannot be/ isn’t clearly articulated by the Product person.
  • Delivery is late/ velocity is slow. This can be a sign the team aren’t getting access to their Product person in a timely manner causing bottlenecks in stories being agreed or signed off; or that the Product person is not empowered to make decisions and is constantly waiting for sign off from more senior stakeholders.
  • Role out is delayed or messy, with operational teams frustrated or unclear on project progress; a sign that the team doesn’t have someone owning the roadmap who understands what functionality will be available when and ensuring any dependancies are clearly understand and being monitored, or a sign that there isn’t someone engaging with or communicating progress to wider stakeholders.

More often than not as a Supplier I’ve had to argue that we need to provide a Product person to work alongside/ with teams to coach/support their internal Product people in the skills and responsibilities a Product person needs to have to enable successful delivery. Where clients have been adamant they don’t want Product people from a Supplier (often for budgetary reasons), we’ve then had to look at how we sneak someone in the door; usually by adding a Business Analyst or delivery manager to the team who also has Product skills, because otherwise are ability to deliver will be negatively impacted.

When budgets are tight, the role of Product person is often the first thing project managers try to cut or reduce; prioritising the technical or project delivery skills over Product ones. As such, teams (and organisations) need to understand the skills a good product person brings; and the cost of not having someone within a team who has those skills.

  • Their role is to focus on and clarify to the team (and business) the problem the team are trying to fix.
  • Ensure a balance between user needs; business requirements and technical constraints/options.
  • Quantifying and understanding the ROI/ value a project will deliver; and ensuring that can be tracked and measured through clear success measures and metrics.
  • Being able to translate complex problems into roadmaps for delivery. Prioritising work and controlling the scope of a product or service to ensure it can be delivered in a timely and cost effective manner, with a proper role out plan that can be clearly communicated to the wider organisation.

As an assessor, I have seen more projects fail their assessments at Alpha (or even occasionally Beta) because they lack that clear understanding of the problem there trying to solve or their success measures etc; than I have because they’ve used the wrong technical stack etc. This can be very costly; and often means undress of thousands (if not millions) of pounds being written off or wasted due to delays and rework. Much more costly than investing in having a properly qualified or experienced Product people working within teams.

While Product and Delivery are often seen as very different skill sets; I recognised a few years ago the value in having more people who understand and can advocate for both the value Product thinking brings to delivery; but also how delivery can work better with Product. People who can not only understand but also champion both in order to ensure we’re delivering the right things in the right ways to meet our clients and their users needs.

Which is why I made the active decision to hop the fence and try and bring the professions closer together and build understanding in both teams and senior leaders in the need for Product and Delivery skills to be invested in and present within teams in order to support and enable good delivery, and I as really glad to see when I joined Kainos that we’re already talking about how to bring our Product and Delivery communities closer together and act for advocates to support each other; and it was in fact a chat with the Kainos Head of Product Charlene McDonald that inspired this blog.

Having someone with the title of Product Manager or Owner isn’t enough; we need people who are experienced in Product thinking and skilled in Product Management; but that isn’t all we need. We need to stop seeing the role of Product person as an important label needed you can give to anyone in the team in order to pass an assessment and understand why the role and the skills it brings are important. We need senior leaders, project managers and delivery teams who understand what value Product brings; who understand why product is important and what it could cost the team and their organisation if those product skills are not included and budgeted for properly right from the start. We need Senior Leaders to understand why it’s important to invest in their product people; giving them the time and support they need to do their job properly; rather than spreading them thin across teams with minimal training or empowerment.

We need more Product advocates.

Touchdown

So this week is my first week in Kainos. I’ve landed. Hurrah!

I’m never generally one for week notes, as I can never manage to remember to write a blog a week, or even remember everything I’ve done in a week to blog about it; but I thought given it’s my first week in a new role it’d be good to write down my first impressions, observations and experiences within my new role.

To be fair before I even started the role, Kainos were giving a good first impression; I’d been sent logins to their onboarding site, where I could see all the tasks I’d need to complete; with welcome intros from relevant senior folks and links to information about the company; as well as a message from Helen, the Head of Planning and Strategy initiatives and Delivery Management in Kainos letting me know she was looking forward to me joining. She also gave me the names of some other key folks in the Delivery community she recommended I talk to once I landed, and sharing details on some of the communities within Kainos I might like to join; which was really lovely.

On top of that, I also had emails getting me set up on their wider systems, and calls from the IT support team to ensure my laptop had arrived and everything was working ok before I started. All of which just made my first day that must smoother. On my first day itself I then got another call from the IT support team before 9:30 to check I’d gotten logged in ok and didn’t have any questions. Honestly, Bravo Kainos. Way to make an excellent first impression. A+

Then we move into the induction; this was really well organised and spread over two days to ensure it covered everything any new starters would need to know Getting everyone who’s starting in the same time period to join on the same day and do the induction together is a really good idea; it meant we could form a little group of newbies all asking the same questions and feeling a bit less lost together. We got a lovely intro chat from Brendan Mooney, the CEO of the company, on the first morning; which was given plenty of time so we could ask questions etc; and made him seem human and personable, which is always a good start. We also had sessions with people from IT support, the people team etc. All talking us through things we’d need to know (like how to do timesheets etc.) and pointing us to the relevant sections on the intranet so we could find the relevant areas and helpful guides should we need them.

On the afternoon of the second day, we moved form the general induction to one for our specific business areas; so we could start getting into the details relevant to our areas, which flowed really nicely. I also found the second day was also spaced out enough that we had enough time to do intro chats with out new managers, and I managed to observe a few meetings for my new teams, which was good.

Day three was then beginning to get stuck in; I had a calendar full of invites to all the relevant meetings I’d need to attend going forward; and an onboarding plan from my people manager suggesting useful people to talk to within my first month or so. I started chatting to a few folks within the various communities and practices that were relevant to me; and everyone was really welcoming and friendly. Already super impressed with the diversity and obvious culture of inclusion within Kainos. Joined a session with Kainos’ women’s network which was really interesting; chatted to some folks from their LGBT+ and Neurodiversity community’s and generally for a really good feeling from the various people I chatted to about how hard Kainos is working to make people feel welcome and at home.

New team seems great, just a lot to learn as the scope of what we’re doing is pretty big; but reasuringly I’m apparently getting a slow steady handover and into to everyone and everything; which will be a refreshing change to the last few times I’ve started a new role and basically been thrown in at the deep end and left to get on with things.

Day four was a bit quieter on the meeting front, with a few key meetings in with my new Account Director and a first 1:1 into meet with the client; but still plenty of time to dive into the background reading and trying to get up to speed on the programme we’re delivering so I can hopefully start asking useful questions and lending a hand. There were a few areas that I identified in the meetings on day three that I flagged to look into and pick up some conversations on to see what I could do to help; so day four was about giving myself time to read up before I start wadding in.

Day five was more handover meetings and continuing the 1:1 of my intro meetings to the client; with plenty of time to continue reading up and getting up to speed on everything. Also got to listen into a Business Unit update which covered work happening across Digital Services within Kainos which was fascinating and gave a good picture of the pure amount of projects teams are involved in; and had a first chat with the sales team about some potential new work.

All in all it has felt like a really well planned out introductory week. Lots to take in, but I’ve been given plenty of time to land; with room to read and absorb things between meetings rather than feeling like I’m being rushed around like a bit of a headless chicken; which is nice. Everyone so far has been absolutely lovely and very kind and willing to answer all my questions and talk me through things. I’m certainly looking forward to next week and hopefully starting to pick things up and getting properly dug in.

If only all landings could be this smooth! Next week the real work beings!

Delivering Value for yourself and others

Just short of two years ago I accepted the role of Director of Delivery at Difrent, a big move for me as I’d only worked in the Public Sector, but a good opportunity to see how things worked on the other side of the commercial table; and a great opportunity to work with some fantastic people (Honestly, Rach Murphy herself is a powerhouse who can teach the world a thing or two and always worth making time for) outside of the public sector, and learn new skills.

The services we were delivering at Difrent we’re very similar to those I’d been working on before, and I worked with many familiar faces; but still the challenges were new. Working at a start up that was beginning to scale up was a very different environment to working in a large established Government Department. Not just delivering great services that meet user needs, but also building up business processes; scaling up teams; winning new business.

And then there was the pandemic.

Because of it’s strong background in Health, Difrent was on the front line when it came to stepping up and supporting the COVID-19 response working with the NHSBSA; NHSX and DHSC. I always thought that my time on Universal Credit was the most fast pacing and demanding time of my life; which it turns out was nothing compared to being asked to stand up 6 teams of experts within 72 hours at the start of the first wave to support various urgent pandemic related services.

Alongside supporting and delivering high priority COVID-19 related services in unprecedented timescales (we successfully helped delivery of the Home Testing service in under a month) we also had to keep delivering our existing products and services; helping Skills for Care go Live with their Adult Workforce Data Set service, continuing delivery of NHS Jobs, helping the Planning Inspectorate pass their Beta Assessment for their Appeals service and delivering the wholesale business transformation for the British Psychological Society; whilst also picking up and delivering a whole host of other projects and services that we continued to win.

Because of the pandemic, a lot of new teams were beginning to work with Digital Service Standards, and having to go through Service Standard Assessments for the first time; and an increasing amount of my time began being demanded by clients to support them understand and adhere to the service standards. I’ve always joked about my perfect record for passing Assessments (while being clear, that not passing the first time isn’t failure, it just means you have more to learn!) working with one client to turn around their service in under 3 weeks from complete un-adherence to the standards to passing a Beta assessment has got to be a personal best!

The last year has been full on, with long weeks and even longer days. I’m so proud of everything DIfrent has achieved in the last 18 months; but I also recognised the time is right for me to move on and focus more on the bits of my role I am most passionate about.

And what is that? Being hands on and working with clients to solve problems. Having the time to work with teams to understand the issues they’re facing and how to go about fixing them. Seeing the positive changes being made and thinking of ways to keep iterating and improving on what we’ve done. Investing in and building that cultural and organisation change up over time. Whilst at the same time having a proper work life balance again; having time to give attention to my family and friends; rediscovering the things I enjoy doing outside of work and having time and energy to do them. As lockdown begins to end, it’s time for me to have a new start.

And so, from next week I’m moving on to work with Kainos, I’m really excited about this new opportunity. Going into a larger organisation means there will be more peers to share that load; bigger problems to solve for clients, bigger teams to work with, all with the benefit of the organisational processes etc in place already that we will need to deliver large projects; which will allow me to focus on working with clients fully and ensuring I’m delivering real value to them, and getting real value myself from my work.

Partnership

The good and the bad.

At Difrent we always talk about our desire to deliver in partnership with out clients. To move beyond the pure supplier and client relationship to enable proper collaboration.

One of my main frustrations when I was ‘client side’ was the amount of suppliers we’d work with who said they would partner with us, but then when the contract started, after the first few weeks had passed and the new relationship glow had faded; the teams and the account managers reverted to type. I can’t recall how many times I had to have conversations at the supplier governance meetings where I was practically begging them to challenge us; to be a critical friend and push for the right thing; to feedback to us about any issues and suggest improvements. It always felt like we were reaching across a gap and never quite making full contact.

As such, that’s one of the areas in Difrent I (and others) are very keen to embody. We try to be true partners; feeding back proactively where there are issues or concerns or where we have suggestions. Trying to foster collaborative ‘one team’ working.

We’ve obviously had more success with this on some contracts vs others. There’s always more we can learn about how to better partner with our clients; however; given we see a lot of complaining about strained partnerships between clients and suppliers; I thought I’d do a bit of a case study/ reflection and praise of one partnership we’ve been working on recently.

Difrent won a contract with the Planning Inspectorate last year, and it was the first completely remote pitch and award we’d been involved with on a multi million pound contract.

From the start of the procurement it became really clear that the Planning Inspectorate wanted a partner; that this wasn’t just lip service, but something they truly believed it. As part of the procurement process they opened up their github so we could see their code; they opened up their Miro so we could see their service roadmap, they proactively shared their assessment reports with suppliers etc.

For us this made not only a good impression, but enabled us to develop a more informed and valuable pitch.

Since we put virtual feet in the virtual door that dedication to partnership has remained as true 6 months later as it was then. Outside of our weekly governance calls we’ve had multiple workshops to discuss collaboration and ways of working. We’ve had multiple discussions on knowledge transfer and reflecting on progress and ways to iterate and improve.

Where there have been challenges we’ve all worked hard to be proactive and open and honest in talking things through. They’ve welcome our suggestions and feedback (and proactively encouraged them) and been equally proactive on giving us feedback and suggestions.

This has helped us adapt and really think about how we do things like knowledge transfer, always challenging (especially remotely), but something we’re passionate about getting right. We’ve all worked so hard on this, so much so that it’s become on of the core bits of our balanced scorecard; ensuring they as a client can measure the value they’re getting from our partnership not just through our outputs on the projects we’re working on, but our contributions to the organisation as a whole; which is also really helpful for us to be able to help us analyse and iterate our ‘value add’ to our partners; and ensure we’re delivering on our promises.

I think there is a lot of learning for other Departments/ ALB’s out there looking to procure digital services or capability on how a good partnership with a supplier needs to start before the contract is signed.

Thanks to Paul Moffat and Stephen Read at the Planning Inspectorate for helping with this blog – demonstrating that partnership in action!

Digital Transformation is still new

We’re punishing those who are less experienced, and we need to stop.

The timeline of Digital Transformation. Courtesy of Rachelle @ https://www.strangedigital.org/

In the last few weeks I’ve had multiple conversations with clients (both existing and new) who are preparing for or have recently not passed their Digital Service standard assessments who are really struggling to understand what is needed from them in order to pass their assessment.

These teams have tried to engage with the service standards teams, but given those teams are extremely busy; most teams cant get any time with their ‘link’ person until 6 weeks before their assessment; by which time most teams are quite far down their track and potentially leaves them a lot of (re)work to try and do before their assessment.

Having sat in on a few of those calls recently I’ve been surprised how little time is set aside to help the teams prep; and to give them advice on guidance on what to expect at an assessment if they haven’t been through one before. Thos no time or support for mock assessments for new teams. There may be the offer of one or two of the team getting to observe someone else’s assessment if the stars align to allow this; but it’s not proactively planned in; and instead viewed as a nice to have. There seems to be an assumption the project teams should know all of this already; and no recognition that a large number of teams don’t; this is still all new to them.

“In the old days” we as assessors and transformation leads used to set aside time regularly to meet with teams; talk through the problems they were trying to fix, understand any issues they may be facing, provide clarity and guidance before the assessment; so that teams could be confident they were ready to move onto the next phase before their assessment. But when I talk to teams now, so few of them are getting this support. Many teams reach out because the rare bits of guidance they have received hasn’t been clear, and in some cases it’s been contradictory and they don’t know who to talk too to get that clarity.

Instead, more and more of my time at the moment, as a supplier, is being set aside to support teams through their assessment. To provide advice and guidance on what to expect, how to prepare and what approach the team needs to take. Actually what an MVP is; how to decide when you need an assessment, and what elements of the service do you need to have ready to ‘show’ at each stage. What the difference is between Alpha/ Beta and Live assessments and why it matters. For so many teams this is still almost like a foreign language and new.

So, how can we better support teams through this journey?

Stop treating it like this is all old hat and that everyone should know everything about it already.

Digital Transformation has been ‘a thing’ for one generation (if you count from the invention of the internet as a tool for the masses in 1995); Within the public sector, GDS, the Digital Service Standards and the Digital Academy have existed for less than one generation; less than 10 years in-fact.

By treating it as a thing everyone should know, we make it exclusionary. We make people feel less than us for the simple act of not having the same experience we do.

We talk about working in the open, and many team do still strive to do that; but digital transformation is still almost seen as a magical art by many; and how to pass what should be a simple thing like a service standard assessment is still almost viewed as Arcane knowledge held by the few. As a community we need to get better at supporting each other, and especially those new to this experience, along this path.

This isn’t just a nice thing to do, its the fiscally responsible thing to do; by assuming teams already have all this knowledge we’re just increasing the likelihood they will fail, and that comes with a cost.

We need to set aside more time to help and guide each other on this journey; so that we can all succeed; that is how we truly add value, and ensure that Digital Transformation delivers and is around to stay for generations to come.