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Author: Zoe Gould

The managers guide to understanding ADHD

(and why it’s often misunderstood for CIS women in particular)

Let’s talk about ADHD

We’ve all seen characters with ADHD on TV and in books etc, try and think of a few examples and I bet they all fit in one stereotypical box; “the naughty young white boy acting out in class”. But not only is this stereotype wrong, it’s actually really harmful!

Calvin and Hobbs
Calvin and Hobbs (Calvin is a ‘typical’ boy with ADHD

Historically ADHD was seen as only (or as least predominantly) affecting boys (often white boys, but that’s a whole other subject I’m not qualified to talk about), but evidence shows that many girls do have ADHD, however it is often the inattentive presentation of ADHD which tends to be under-recognised or under-diagnosed, because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical (hyperactive) trope and kids with it aren’t causing problems in the classroom etc; instead they’re just being labelled as ‘day dreamers’ and are left to slowly fall behind or put under pressure to sort themselves out with no support.

Ironically, whilst the Hyperactive/impulsive symptoms are more well-known, due to being more visible, they are in-fact less common than inattentive ones, both for women and adults in general. These symptoms often become more “internal” when they persist; as adults learn to manage their hyperactivity; which historically led medical practitioners to believe that ADHD symptoms decreased after childhood, which is now known to be incorrect. Currently 2.8% of adults in the UK have ADHD, but many are undiagnosed and the number of adult diagnosis’s is increasing every year; it is believed that as many as 1 in 20 adults in the UK are likely to have ADHD.   

So, what is ADHD?

ADHD as a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s executive functions. Executive functions are the cognitive processes that organises thoughts and activities, prioritises tasks, manages time efficiently, and makes decisions. They’re basically the little office manager that lives in our heads.

Research suggests that many people with ADHD tend to be perfectionists who fear getting things wrong; they struggle to cope with failure or letting others down. Most people with ADHD are seen to be extremely empathetic to others’ emotions and suffer from Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (an extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by a sense of falling short—failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations; being rejected or criticized by important people in their life.)

Many people with ADHD struggle with procrastination issues; at one time this was seen as people with ADHD being ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ however, research has shown that due to issues with executive functioning, people with ADHD struggle with ‘knowing where to begin’. When the size or scale of the work needed to complete things is ‘too big’, or ‘there is too much to do’ they are unable to start for fear they won’t be able to finish and will only fail or disappoint. 

This often leads to people with ADHD leaving everything to the end when a deadline looms or the amount of work becomes overwhelming, and the work cannot be delayed any longer. From the outside it can be viewing as everything being ‘rushed’ at the end rather than logically planned and spaced out to give enough time. 

However, this ‘scramble’ to complete work before a deadline, will produce a larger dopamine release as the brain views it as a bigger win vs. a scheduled timely plan, which will produce less dopamine, and therefor offer less ‘reward’. Studies suggest that ADHD brains have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (a chemical released by nerve cells into the brain that allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve specific rewards. It’s responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward.)

Due to this inability to regulate dopamine properly, ADHD brains are constantly seeking more; leaving people with ADHD with the constant desire to move from task to task, focusing on ‘the most interesting’ or ‘most urgent’ work which will offer the greatest feeling of reward; and struggling to start or complete ‘boring’ or ‘mundane’ tasks that aren’t interesting and don’t offer the ‘dopamine hit’. 

Many people with ADHD also have Sensory Processing Disorder, which means they could be ‘over-stimulated’ by sounds, sights or smells, with unexpected noises or changes in light levels etc. causing sensory overload and breaking their concentration or making it harder to focus.

How to best support employees with ADHD

Because ADHD is so misunderstood, many employers worry about disclosing their ADHD status; and many employers struggle to understand how to best support their staff. Studies suggest that adults with ADHD are change jobs frequently and are more likely to be fired, to miss work, and to have troubled relationships with co-workers; but employees with ADHD can thrive in the right environments and with the right support. There are many useful places out there offering advice on how to best tailor workplace environments so as to take the best advantage of people with ADHD’s strong points (such as their creativity or people skills), whilst also minimising any negative impacts of their ADHD; and I’ve captured many of the commonly agreed useful strategies below.

But as an employee or manager, there here are a couple of important things to note:

  • Many people (between 25-50%) with ADHD also suffer from sleep issues; and many ADHD medications can make these issues worse.
  • While ADHD medication can be beneficial in helping combat the symptoms of ADHD, medical titration can be a long process which can cause some symptoms to get worse before they get better and have many side effects.

The Scottish ADHD coalition wrote this guide for employers which offers helpful advice and guidance.

Some helpful strategies people with ADHD use: 

  • Having clear priorities, reviewed daily; with no more that 5 items on to complete at any one time. 
  • Making colour-coded lists and notes, to make it easy to find information easily. 
  • Breaking tasks down into smaller chunks that can be tackled independently rather than all at once. ADHD brains tend to work best in 15 minute intervals; many people with ADHD find setting a timer for 10 to 15 minutes to focus on one task; then when the timer chimes, deciding if they have the energy to continue on that task or, if completed, start a new timer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. If they still feel motivated, resetting the timer and continue working in short intervals for as long as they can.
  • Avoiding multi-tasking. This is more likely to lead to distraction; only work on one thing at any time (working in 15 min chunks where possible). 
  • Setting time-limits for decision making. 
  • Setting a ‘WIP limit’ to avoid over-committing to work, For each new commitment made, giving up an old one.
  • Associating ‘rewards’ with mundane task completion, “if I complete X then I can spend 5 minutes doing Y before I move onto Z”
  • Clustering similar tasks together under the same time umbrella, i.e. Answering emails and returning phone calls once in the morning and once in the afternoon, instead of throughout the day, to avoid getting side tracked from priority work; 
  • Replaying instructions, repeating back verbal instructions, or confirming in writing to ensure they have been understood correctly. 
  • Setting electronic alarms and reminders, to remind them to move onto the next task or meeting. 
  • Setting aside time each day to deal with ‘additional thoughts and ideas that have popped up’ to avoid getting side tracked when completing tasks. 
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones or listening to music when focusing on a task. Research shows that music structure helps the ADHD brain stay on a linear path and address timing deficits.
  • Overestimating how long it will take to complete something, adding at least 10 minutes to how long it will take to finish a task.
  • Building in a 5 minute break between tasks to allow the brain time to reset before focusing on the next thing. 
  • Using a “body double.” Many people with ADHD find when tackling mundane or boring tasks, sitting with someone else who is quietly doing another ‘mundane’ task creates a productive atmosphere.

So, to sum up; Not all folks with ADHD are hyperactive boys. If you have a member of staff who has (or you suspect has) ADHD; great! Research shows employees with ADHD can be more curious, creative, imaginative, innovative, and inventive. They tend to be out-of-the-box thinkers, with an approach that can be highly prized in the workplace.

Any potential weaknesses can be overcome with just a little bit of effort and some open, honest conversations; talk to them, focus on their strengths (there are lots of them) and what they do well; and put some plans in place to help them succeed and you’ll all be happy!

5 positive traits of ADHD.

Neurodiverse parenting

One thing I’ve noticed, since I started blogging and talking more openly about being Neurodiverse myself, is how many people have reached out to me virtually or in real life to chat about how they as parents support their children who are (or might be) neurodiverse.

I’ve spoken publicly many times (especially on twitter) about the journey we’ve been on as a family to get my son’s diagnosis; and to get him the support he needs at school etc. The process to get an EHCP in and of itself was a minefield; and finding a secondary school that could not just ‘cope’ with his ASD and ADHD, but actually allow him to thrive; far harder than it should have been!

Interestingly, since joining Kainos and the Neurodiversity working group, I’ve had a number of colleagues approach me to get advice from someone, or just have someone to talk too; who has a neurodiverse child themselves and is perhaps ‘further along in the process’. Far more people in fact than have contacted me to chat about having ADHD myself.

The official services that exist to support neurodiverse children and their families are massively over subscribed and underfunded so trying to get accurate advice and support isn’t that easy. This leaves many parents and carers relying on the internet for help. If you google “does my child have ADHD or Autism” you’ll get a bazillion results back, and it can be quite overwhelming knowing where to start. They’re a millions of Facebook groups and online forums out there for parents and carers looking for help or advice on how to best support their neurodiverse children. The problem is different countries and regions do things in different ways; so what worked for one family in the US, won’t necessarily work for another family in the UK; heck the process a family in London followed won’t even necessarily be the same process that a family in Manchester has to follow.

Many organisations ask staff to disclose if they are the parent to a child with caring needs; but many parents won’t think about ticking that box unless their child has complex physical healthcare conditions, which can leave them in a tricky position (unless they have an understanding manager) when they start needing time off in order to navigate the confusing waters of getting their child a diagnosis or support for neurodiversity.

When I first started down the diagnosis pathway for my son (over 6 years ago) I was still working in the public sector, and was very lucky to have a line manager who herself was in the process of trying to get a diagnosis for her son; we were able to swap tips and advice; and she was very understanding of the multiple appointments I had to attend to try and get my son help. But I know from talking to other parents, not everyone is that lucky. Many have had to either go part time, or give up work altogether, in order to be able to support their children, let down by the systems that are meant to support them.

As we move into ‘the new world’ post pandemic, so many organisations are recognising the importance of focusing on their culture and their staff’s wellbeing; which is great to see. Within Kainos we’ve been having a number of really good conversations about how we better support our neurodiverse staff to thrive; and how we can create an inclusive culture that ensures ‘our staff who choose to remain working from home for what ever reason are fully supported.

Twitter post announcing the Kainos Neurodiversity Employee Network launch

More companies now a days are prioritising private healthcare as part of their staff offer; however, as ADHD and Autism etc. are not acute disorders; most healthcare insurers don’t cover them, nor will they cover any treatment for conditions relating too or arising from them. The ones slight exception to this seems to be Bupa. Recently, Bupa has removed ADHD from its general restrictions list which means they will now cover mental health conditions (such as anxiety, stress, and depression) even if they relate to or arise from ADHD; and they will also fund diagnostic tests to rule out ADHD when a mental health condition is suspected. 

With waiting lists for adult diagnosis averaging at 2 years+ for the NHS, and 6 months+ for private diagnosis; the picture for children isn’t much better; with the average NHS waiting list being around 18 months; but some trusts have been reporting waiting lists of up to 7 years for diagnosis and titration (where appropriate). Should you choose to go private, the costs for children’s assessments are higher than for adults; with the costs for a child ADHD assessment ranging from £700 to £1,500 for the diagnosis alone; and for ASD the costs range from £1700 to over £3,500; and while the waiting times may be shorter; not all local authorities will accept a private assessment as proof of a diagnosis or eligibility for support.

Leaving aside the process of getting diagnosed; for parents and careers there’s also the stress of trying to get your child the help they’ll need at school. The process of getting an EHCP is a logistical nightmare; and there are whole forums and sites out there dedicated to helping parents figure out how to apply for an EHCP. Even once you’ve managed to figure out how to get the ball rolling, getting the EHCP finalised and put in place as no easy task. While the law states EHCP’s should be finalised within 20 weeks; some local authorities had such large backlogs, even before the pandemic, that the process was reported to be taking over two years to get in multiple areas.

On top of that, a 2012 survey of teachers found that over 70% of mainstream teachers didn’t feel that their training adequately prepared them to teach pupils with special educational needs. It’s possibly no surprise in that case that almost 30% of neurodiverse children in 2019 were being homeschooled; and that number is believed to have gone up during the pandemic.

The pandemic has had another impact on children and young people; with the number of children suffering with mental health issues rising dramatically. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that spike has been especially high for neurodiverse children; and that in turn has been impacting their families. One study in particular noted the negative impact the pandemic has had on parents and families of neurodiverse children.

As such, as employers, we need to be considering not only how we best support our neurodiverse staff, but we also need to acknowledge the extra responsibilities and pressures our staff with neurodiverse children might be facing. We need to create a culture that supports them, so that they can balance their work and parental responsibilities successfully without having to worry; enabling them to thrive at home, and at work.

Looking for the positives

We’re all skilled in many different ways; when it comes to our careers; why do we apologies for our weaknesses, rather than celebrate our strengths?

Another slightly introspective blog from me today, but one I think worth writing, as I know I’m not the only one guilty of this.

As we move through our careers, there are always opportunities to grow and learn new skills and take on new challenges; sometimes those opportunities can open us up to new strengths we never knew we had; sometimes those opportunities can help us realise something is definitely not for us. Both of those are valid outcomes, but we often fail to acknowledge that it’s as important to recognise what skills you don’t have, and what doesn’t spark joy for you; as much as it it’s important to recognise what skills you do have.

As managers and leaders we should be encouraging our staff and teams to be transparent about both. By helping our staff recognise their own strengths, and their weaknesses, we can then help them to have fluffing careers that focus on those strengths, rather than constantly highlight the things they’re not as strong on.

None of us like being ‘bad’ at things; and there’s nothing more demoralising that slogging away at a role and always feeling like you’re the weakest link; so why do so many of us stick at jobs or roles where we’re doing just that? Sometimes all it takes is one meeting to make you recognise what your skills are and where you can add real value; and as organisations we should be making space for people to pursue those skills, or we risk losing them, and the value they can add to our business.

Orange coloured rocket rising on the top between the hot air balloons.
Everyone deserves to soar high.

I’ve been lucky throughout my career to have had some great line managers who have supported me in having those conversations and enabling me to focus on my skills and choosing roles where I can utilise my strengths best; and I similarly now try to be that person for those I manage.

One of the things I always advise my mentee’s and staff to do, is spend some time thinking about what their skills are, what are their strengths, what do they bring to the party (as it were) that others might not? I then try to work with them to think about how their skills and strengths can benefit their role; the organisation and how they could build a career based on those skills. Sometimes this just means a small change to their role, sometimes it means supporting them in moving to a new role where they can better utilise their skills, and sometimes it means a change in their career path.

Wooden singpost with "help, support, advice, guidance" arrows against blue sky.
Signposting

When I have had this conversations with staff or mentee’s in the past, one fear many voice is the fear that they will come across as ‘ungrateful’, or ‘self-important’ and like they think ‘they’re better than they are’ or that by acknowledging the areas that are not their strengths they would be jeopardise their career. Obviously, I can’t speak for every organisation, or every manager; as a senior leader I have always believed we get the best out of people when we support them to be their best. We can only do that by recognising not everyone is the same, nor do they have the same skills or strengths. Jobs descriptions are a generic label that covers what we expect the person doing that role to be doing; but three people doing the same job will all have slightly different strengths and skills, and as long as we do so in a fair and transparent way, recognising peoples strengths and how those can impact how they do their role, means they’re more likely to add real value to the team.

One thing I’ve really appreciated since joining Kainos is that we differentiate between individuals goals, and role responsibilities/targets. Staff are given opportunities to set individial goals that they feel best match their skills and strengths, as well as having targets for their roles. We have people managers who we work with to understand how we can be supported to meet our personal goals as well as project/line managers with whom we work to meet our role targets etc. People managers and line managers work together when staff members feel their roles/skills/strengths don’t quite align to identify to understand how we can support them either into new roles or to suggest wider opportunities they could get involved in (or lead) where those skills could be best utilised. The benefit of this can be seen when looking at Kainos’ staff retention, and the number of staff who joined the company as a graduate developer (as an example) and are still here over 10 years later having moved into Product or Business Growth as they have developed their skills and identified areas their personal strengths align too where they can add more value.

I think as we come round to End of Year Appraisal time again, it’s important for all us to reflect on what our own skills are, what are strengths are, and are we getting the opportunity to add real value to our organisations using those skills; or is there something else we could be doing that would better utilise those skills and add more value? And as managers we need to be enabling that self reflection and supporting those conversations to happen.

A hand holding a growing seedling
The best things grow when we nurture them.

Reflecting on Career Pathways

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about careers; what does a good career look like? What are my next steps? How do organisations retain their staff and over them career growth? Are career’s even a big thing anymore?

Growing up it was always drummed into me how important it was to have a career. Conversations at home and at school all focused on “what did I want in terms of my career?” Picking a university course was all about picking the best one to help my career aspirations. The problem in when we’re young, for most of us at least; our career aspirations change almost as much as our favourite TV show.

Given my family have a strong public sector background; when I was younger those were the career options I automatically gravitated towards. When I was younger I wanted to be an anthropologist, but once I realised there were very limited career options for anthropologists I decided I wanted to be a teacher; I stumbled into the Civil Service as a summer job while I was considering my PGCE options; and then realised the Civil Service could give me a good career and why not stay?

My focus was then on having the best career I could within the Civil Service, I joined the Fast Stream, I got my promotions, I did the Crossing Thresholds programme and reaching the Senior Civil Service by the time I was 35; everyone kept congratulating me on how well I was doing within my career given my age. But then I struggled to know what to do next; keep progressing within the Civil Service, try and become a Director by the time I’m 40? My mentor recommended taking time outside of the Civil Service, to work supplier side for a year or two; before going for a Director role within the Civil Service, just to balance my career. This seemed like a good idea, and so I did it (and enjoying it!) But it was all with a view with progressing my career.

Last year as I sat considering my next career steps, and whether I should move back into the Public Sector; I became aware that there was all these other areas I’ve never really explored fully as I’d been focussing on my upwards trajectory. There have always been roles and opportunities I’ve been interested in that I’ve never explored because, while they wouldn’t have hampered my career, they’ve come at the same time as opportunities to progress, and surely the best thing for my career is to keep progressing right? But that constant feeling that you should be progressing upwards brings with it a constant feeling of pressure. It’s no wonder so many career folks burn out, as they try to keep meeting that societal expectation of success. As such I made the decision to take a role that wasn’t ‘a promotion’, in fact it could be seen as a downwards move in terms of my responsibilities; but what it was, was a role that I’d enjoy in a company where I could explore my options and take the time to decide what it was I wanted to do next without that constant weight of expectations and demand.

One of the things I’m enjoying most about working in Kainos is all the conversations I’m having about what do I ‘want to do?’ Yes of course there are the conversations about progression etc; but there’s much more consideration of the fact that you might want to move sideways, or that you could want to get involved in something new. What you bring to the table is more than the narrow ‘career pathway’ you might have travelled on so far; and much more about your skills and what you’re passionate about. There’s the view that what excites you and drives you, could be things that could help the company grow; and as such there’s the time and opportunity for you to explore those opportunities, as long as they benefit the wider business.

This opportunity to focus on the bits of my career I enjoy most, whilst also growing my skills in other areas has reminded me why I do what I do in the first place; and why I’m good at what I do. But it’s also made me recognise how close to burn out I was getting; and made me realise that sometimes we need to take a step back and reconfirm what we is that we enjoy doing, find our passion for our careers and what drove us towards that career in the first place, before we can continue on.

For some people, because of societal pressure and how we were taught as children to ‘get a career’ (any career) they never have had that sense of joy in their career. For others, whom sadly burn out, they realise they don’t know what other skills they have; or what other careers or roles they could pursue; as we were never taught as children to consider those options. We need to change our approach and teach students to identify their strengths and their skills, give them a wider foundation to build their careers off of.

All of this has made me reflect on how we view our careers; and the constant focus on promotions and progression. Now that I’m involved more in educational outreach activities and mentoring; I try to focus less on specific career aspirations; and more on what matters to people, what skills they have, what are they passionate about; I recommend courses and job moves that play into their strengths and can help them grow; helping them have a fulfilling career, rather than necessarily being the next stepping stone on their set career path.

Becoming Product Led

Recently I was asked how I would go about moving an organisation to being Product Led; when agile and user centric design are equally new to the company, or when agile has not delivered in the way that was expected.

Before diving into the how, I think it’s worth first considering the what and they why.

What do we mean by being ‘product led’?

A product led approach is where your product experience is the central focus of your organisation. Within the public sector we incorporate user centric design into our products to ensure that we deliver real value by:š

  • Taking an outside-in perspective (starting with user needs)š;
  • Rapid, early validation of ideas (testing early and often); š
  • Maturing through iteration (based on user feedback)š and
  • Disciplined prioritisation (using quantitative and qualitative data) to deliver value.

Is this not just another name for agile?

This is a question that comes up regularly; and in my opinion, no it’s not. Agile is a delivery methodology; being product led is wider than that. it’s the wrapper that sits above and surrounds the delivery approach you use. It comes ‘before’ you decide on which delivery methodology you will use; and continues long after. It’s your culture and ways of working. The two can often go hand in hand; but if agile is the how, product is the what and the why.

Why is being product led important?

šWell, by moving to a product led approach we allow the organisation to link their outputs to their customer needs and ensuring they align to their organisational capabilities and strategy. šIt also allows organisations to focus on their customers needs and understand their users perspectivesš. By understanding and focusing on user needs it allows organisations to deliver value faster, making it quicker and easier for organisations to learn from what has gone well (and what hasn’t)š which in turn makes cheaper and faster to address any issues or risksš. It also makes it easier for organisations to spot opportunities for innovation and growth.

How do you move your organisation to being product led?

First things first, a culture that empowers the asking of questions and testing of hypothesis is essential for innovation. But to allow that to happen, organisations need senior leaders who understand and support their teams to work in this way. The appropriate ,light weight/ adaptable, governance and funding approvals processes being in place are critical to enable product innovation and empower delivery teams.

The second element that’s key is having the right data. Good product orientation depends on having access to quality data; what are our current metrics? Where are our current pain points? Do we understand our current costs? What products/ services have the highest demand? etc. This data enables us to make quality decisions and measure our progress our successes.

Thirdly, we need to have clearly articulated strategy/vision for the organisation; what is our USP (Unique Selling Proposition)? What do we want to achieve? What are our goals? What value are we looking to add? What do we want to be different in 5/10 years from now?

To develop that strategy/vision, we need to have a clear understanding about our users and stakeholders. Who are we developing these products for? Who are our stakeholders? How are we engaging with them? What do they need from us?

Finally, once we’ve got the strategy, the vision, an understanding of our user needs and a set of hypothesis we want to test; we need a healthy delivery approach, with skilled teams in place to enable us to test our ideas and deliver that value. As we’ve said previously, to be product centric we need to be able to design services that are based on user needs, so that we can test regularly with our users to ensure we understand, and are meeting, those needs.

What are the sign of a good product led culture?

  • You are regularly engaging with the users; working to understand their needs and iterating your approach and services based on their feedback.
  • Your culture empowers and encourages people to ask questions. “Why are we doing this?”; “Who are we doing this for”, “Is anyone else already doing this?”, “What will happen if we don’t do this {now)?”, “What have we learnt from our previous failures/successes?”
  • Your teams are working collaboratively, policy and operations teams working hand in hand with tech/digital teams; to ensure you’re delivering value.
  • You’re considering and testing multiple options at each stage; looking for innovative solutions, and working to understand which options will best meet your users needs and add the most value.
  • Linked to the above; You’re testing regularly, being willing to ‘throw away’ what doesn’t work and refine your ideas based on what does work.
  • You’re delivering value early and often.
Prioritising the backlog

Which comes first, the Product Manager, or the product culture?

If you don’t have any trained product people, can you begin to move to a product led culture, or must you hire the product people first? This is the chicken and the egg question. For many organisations, especially those already using agile delivery methodologies or engaged in digital transformation; they may have already sunk a lot of time and money into delivery, and pausing their work whilst they change their culture and hire a load of skilled product folk just isn’t going to work; but, you can begin to move towards a product led approach without hiring a load of Product Managers. Whilst having experience product folk can definitely help, you probably have lots of folks in the organisation who are already over half way there and just need some help on that road.

One stumbling block many organisations fall over on their move to a product led approach is the difference between focusing on outcomes, rather than outputs or features.

An output is a product or service that you create; an outcome is the problem that you solve with that product. A feature is something a product or service does, whereas a benefit is what customers actually need. If we go straight to developing features, we could be making decisions based on untested assumptions. 

There are 5 steps to ensure you’re delivering outcomes that add value and deliver benefits vs. focusing on features that simply deliver an output:š

  • State the Problemš – what are we trying to solve/change?
  • Gather User Data – have we understood the problem correctly?
  • Set Concrete Goals and Define Success Criteria – what would success look like? š
  • Develop Hypothesis – how could we best solve this problem? š
  • Test Multiple Ideas – does this actually solve the problem?

When you’re trying to identify the right problem to fix, look at existing data from previous field studiescompetitive analysisanalytics, and feedback from customer support. Use a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to ensure you have understood your user needs, and their behaviours.  Then analyse the information, spot any gaps, and perform any additional research required to help you verify the hypothesis you have developed when trying to decide how you could solve the problem your users are facing.

They key element to being product led is understanding the problem you are trying to fix and focusing on the value you will deliver for your users by fixing it. It’s about not making assumptions you know what your users want, but by engaging with your users to understand what they need. It’s about spotting gaps and opportunities to innovate and add value, rather than simply building from or replacing what already exists. It’s about focusing on delivering that value early and often.

Making User Centred Design more inclusive

How do we support people from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds to get a career in User Centred Design?

If you look around for ways to get a careers in Digital/Tech, you would probably trip over half a dozen Apprenticeships, Academies or Earn as you Learn Schemes; not to mention Graduate Schemes; without even trying. However, all those opportunities would probably be within Software Engineering.

If you want to move into a career in Research, Product or Design; opportunities to do that without a Degree, or years of experience, are sparse.

Paper Prototypes/ Wireframes

When trying to find Design Apprenticeship or Entry Level schemes ahead of a talk I was giving to some sixth formers last month; I really struggled to find any opportunities that didn’t requite a Degree. In 2019 Kainos ran it’s first Design Academy, but for placements and Entry Level roles there was still the expectation you’d have a degree in Design; and its Earn as You Learn programme is for people looking for a career as a developer. Hippo are about to run their first Academy for Digital Change Consultants; which will then facilitate graduates moving into Product or Design careers etc, but it’s only for those with existing work experience looking to change careers; not young adults looking for their first career. FutureGov have previously run Design Academies but again these have been focused at Graduates. MadeTech’s Academy accepts people without a Degree, but is only for those interested in Software Engineering. Even the Civil Service Apprenticeships Scheme is focused on Software Engineering roles; with no opportunities within Product or Design. The National Apprenticeship Service does have a section for Design apprenticeships; but all the roles are focused on Content Marketing etc. rather than User Centric Design; and within the Digital Section, all the opportunities are for Technical Apprenticeships. Google have many Apprenticeship options, but their UX Design one only runs in the US.

After hours of searching I did find several opportunities; the first I found was with Amazon; who are now running their own User Experience Design and Research Apprenticeship, sadly however the criteria for candidates specifies that they must be working towards their Bachelors degree, or be an existing Amazon employee. The Second was a previous apprentice discussing their UX Apprenticeship with Barclays Bank, however when I searched for the Apprenticeship with Barclays itself, I could only find Technical ones, and none for Design, so if it does still exist, it’s not easy to find! While I could find plenty of Design Internships; they were all like the Amazon one; designed for students currently studying for the Bachelors degree.

I finally, FINALLY, found one actual opportunity I could share with the students I was speaking to, so well Done AstraZeneca, who seem to have the only real Research and Design Apprenticeship Programme available in the UK. But that was the only opportunity I found at the time of looking.

(EDITED TO ADD: The NHS Business Service Authority have just recruited their very first UCD Apprentices; all being well this programme will continue!)

group of fresh graduates students throwing their academic hat in the air

So, if you’re a budding 17 year old passionate about User Centred Design (UCD), is graduating from University your only real option? And if so, how many of our potential rising star researchers and designers are we losing because they can’t afford to attend University (or don’t want to)? Why are we (unintentionally or not) making Design so elitist?

There is a lot of data to suggest that Design as a career is predominantly white; there are many articles about the intrinsic racism within Graphic Design (as an example), and how racism has manifested itself in UX Design throughout the years. Given most Design roles insist on candidates having a Bachelors Degree or equivalent, the fact is that 72.6% of people starting undergraduate study in the 2019 to 2020 academic year were White. This, by default, suggests that most graduates will be white; and therefor White people will be the most likely to be able to apply for Entry Level roles in Design.

However, we also know that as a group, white students are the least likely to progress to University, and this is in part due to the wide gap in university participation between students who were on Free School Meals and those that weren’t, which is currently at 19.1% and growing. So, not only are most graduates going to be white, they’re also more likely to be from middle/high class backgrounds. Which could help explain (at least in part) why as a career, Design has struggled to diversify.

Given the massive demand for Designers within the Public Sector (and elsewhere) surely we need to once and for all sit down and crack the topic of Design Apprenticeships and Entry Level roles that don’t require a degree? Surely there’s a way we can give helping hand to those people out there who are interested in user centred design and desperately looking for their way in; but can’t or won’t attend university?

The only way we can make UCD as a career actually representative of the communities we’re meant to be designing for is if we can stop prioritising a Degree over passion and skill. So let’s aim to be more inclusive when we’re thinking about how we recruit the Design Leaders of tomorrow.

After all, inclusive design is the whole central principle of User Centred Design!

person in red sweater holding babys hand

Product vs Service vs Programme?

How we define a product vs a service is a debate that comes up regularly; as proved by Randal Whitmore (Deputy Director of New Propositions at the UKHSA) today on Twitter:

In fact, it comes up so regularly, I could have sworn I’d blogged about it before; but if I have, it isn’t on here! So, what is the difference and does it matter?

If you search online for ‘Product vs. Service’ you’ll get a very dry (an in my opinion not that helpful) answer that “A product is a tangible item that is put on the market for acquisition, attention, or consumption, while a service is an intangible item, which arises from the output of one or more individuals. … In most cases services are intangible, but products are not always tangible.”

There you go, question answered!

Ok, so lets say you actually went a useful response; that is understandable; what’s the answer? The best analogy I have ever found to help describe this is one I heard Ben Holliday use once, and I’ve since stolen and reused any time anyone ever asks me this question (which is pretty regularly)!

So, let’s talk about going on holiday!

Sunglasses on a beach
Dreaming of a sunny holiday

A service is all about someone delivering the outcome you want to achieve.; its the holistic wrapper that contains all the end to end steps needed to enable you to achieve that desired outcome.

Let’s say you want to go on holiday; you can choose to use a travel agency like Tui who offer holidays as a service. Should you decide you want a package holiday, you can book and pay for your entire holiday through Tui and they will organise everything for you. Or you may decide you want to do all the organisation yourself and as such just need to book some flights, and go directly to KLM or EasyJet to book your flights. The services these companies offer are all similar (Tui will let you just book flights for example) but they will all differ in some ways; which is generally where the products that make up the service come in.

Products are the individual components that are part of that holistic service wrapper.

For our example of a package holiday; you can choose your flights; how much luggage you want to take with you, what hotel you want to stay at, whether you want to go on any excursions etc. These are all products a travel agency offer as part of their wider service; and you can choose which products you wish to use; But it’s not only that, you can also choose how you book your holiday. You can book via the app; via their website; you could call them and book over the phone; or you could book in one of their shops (well, ok not so much nowadays, but for our hypothetical example lets say you still can).

Lets say it’s the day before your holiday; A few years ago Tui released a new product; which was their App, which included lots of new features that customers could choose from. Now a days you can check in online; you can download your boarding pass to your phone; you can choose your seats; request special assistance and choose to check your bags in all before you get to the airport via the app.

white airplane on mid air
Come Fly Away

We’ve talked about the customer facing products and features that make up the holiday service a travel agency offers; but there is obviously a lot more to it than that. As part of developing each of these products the travel agencies had to think about how they would all fit together to form the holistic service. Theres also all the back end integration to think about, to offer their holiday Service Tui need to work with other suppliers (like the Airports and hotels; which partner with Tui, but are not owned or controlled by them). Should your flight get cancelled or delayed because of bad weather or congestion at the airport; the travel agency will first need to be notified, and then to notify you as their customer and give you options on what to do next etc.

When they decided to launch the App; or to open up holiday options into a new country; a programme could have been set up to manage this. A programme is one way an organisation may choose to manage multiple work streams or teams that are working to deliver something. They are entirely internal, and make no difference to the end users experience.

So there you have it:

A service is about the desired (intangible) outcome; it’s holistic and made up of many products etc.

A product is a succint (tangible) element that delivers value, it is made up of many features. A product can stand alone or alongside other products as part of a holistic service.

A feature is a componant of a product that adds value as part of the wider product but offers little value when utilised alone.

A programme is an organisational governance mechanism that can be used to organise and manage teams to deliver an outcome.

Getting work in the Digital Industry

Why working in the public sector might be of interest to you!

One of my favourite things about my role, well my career to be honest; is the opportunity to do Educational Outreach type activities. In the last few years especially I’ve been asked a few times to speak to Students (both Sixth form or University students) about why working in Digital might be of interest to them.

As we’re just coming out of a pandemic, and lots of students have missed out on opportunities to do work experience, or listen to guest speakers due to social distancing etc. I thought it might be useful if I made my most recent talk available. This talk was for Sixth form students at Salfords Future Skills Hub

In the slides below, I discuss things like:

  • Pathways into working in Digital
  • Why the public sector might be interesting for you to work in and why you should consider it
  • Thing to consider when thinking about your career
  • Salaries when you are starting out and what your earning potential could be
  • Hot to connect with people and speaking confidently
  • How to interview well

Assessing Innovation

(co-written with Matt Knight)

Some background, for context

Just over a month ago I got approached to ask if I could provide some advice on assessments to support phase two of the GovTech Catalyst (GTC) scheme. For those who aren’t aware of the GovTech Catalyst Scheme, there’s a blog here that explains how the scheme was designed to connect private sector innovators with the public sector sponsors, using Innovate UK’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to help find promising solutions to some of the hardest public sector challenges.

Person in a lab coat with a stethoscope around their neck looking through a Virtual Reality head set.
Looking for innovation

The Sponsor we were working with (who were one of the public sector sponsors of the scheme) had put two suppliers through to the next phase and allocated funding to see how and where tech innovation could help drive societal improvements in Wales. As part of their spend approval for the next phase, the teams had to pass the equivalent of a Digital Service Standard assessment at the 6 month point in order to get funding to proceed. 

For those who aren’t aware, there used to be a lovely team in GDS who would work with the GTC teams to provide advice and run the Digital Service Standard assessments for the projects; unfortunately this team got stood down last year; after the recent GTC initiatives started, leaving them with no one to talk to about assessments, nor anyone in place to assess them. 

The sponsor had reached out to both GDS and NHS Digital to see if they would be willing to run the assessments or provide advice to the teams, but had no luck; which left them a bit stuck; which is where I came in. I’ve blogged before about the Digital Service Standards; which led to the Sponsor reaching out to me to ask whether I’d be willing and able to help them out; or whether I knew any other assessors who might be willing to help. 

Preparing for the Assessments

As there were two services to assess; one of the first things I did was talk to the wonderful Matt Knight to see if he’d be willing and able to lead one of the assessments. Matt’s done even more assessments than me; and I knew he would be able to give some really good advice to the product teams to get the best out of them and their work. 

Matt and I sat and had a discussion on how to ensure we were approaching our assessments consistently; how to ensure we were honouring and adhering to the core tenants of the Digital Standards whilst also trying to assess the teams innovation and the value for money their services could deliver in line with the criteria for the GovTech scheme.

What became quickly apparent was; because this was to support the GTC scheme; the teams doing the work were fully private sector with little experience of the Digital Service Standards. A normal assessment, with the standard ‘bar’ we’d expect teams to be able to meet, wouldn’t necessarily work well; we’d need to be a little flexible in our approach. 

Obvious, no matter what type of Assessment you’re doing the basic framework of an assessment stays the same (start with user needs, then think about the End-to-End service, then you can talk about the team and design and tech, and along the way you need to ask about the awkward stuff like sustainability and open source and accessibility and metrics) can be applied to almost anything and come up with a useful result, regardless of sector/background/approach. 

As the services were tasked with trying to improve public services in Wales, we also wanted to take account of the newly agreed Welsh Digital Standards; using them alongside the original Digital Standards; obviously the main difference was the bits of the Welsh Standards that covered ensuring the well-being of people in Wales and promoting the Welsh Language (standards 8 & 9), you can read more about the Well being of future generations Act here

The assessments themselves 

An image of a team mapping out a user journey
User Journey Mapping

The assessments themselves ran well, (with thanks to Sam Hall, Coca Rivas and Claire Harrison my co-assessors) while the service teams were new to the process they were both fully open and willing to talk about their work, what went well and not so well and what they had learnt along the way. There was some great work done by both the teams we assessed, and it’s clearly a process that everyone involved learned a lot from, both in terms of the service teams, and the sponsor team, and it was great to hear about how they’d collaborated to support user research activities etc. Both panels went away to write up their notes; at which point Matt and I exchanged notes to see if there were any common themes or issues; and interestingly both assessments had flagged the need for a Service Owner from the sponsor to be more involved in order to help the team identify the success measures etc. 

When we played the recommendations and findings back to the Sponsor, this led to an interesting discussion; although the sponsor had nominated someone to act as the link for the teams in order to answer their questions etc. and to try and provide the teams some guidance and steer where they could. Because of the terms of the GTC scheme, the rules on what steers they could and couldn’t give were quite strict to avoid violating the terms of the competition. Originally the GTC team within GDS would have helped the sponsors navigate these slightly confusing waters in terms of competition rules and processes. However, without an experienced team to turn to for advice it leaves sponsors in a somewhat uncomfortable and unfamiliar position; although they had clearly done their best (and the recommendations in this blog are general comments on how we can improve how we assess innovation across the board and not specifically aimed at them)”

Frustratingly this meant that even when teams were potentially heading into known dead-ends etc; while the sponsor could try to provide some guidance and steer them in a different direction; they couldn’t force the teams pivot or change; instead the only option would be to pull the funding. While this makes sense from a competition point of view; it makes little to no sense from a public purse point of view; or from a Digital Standards point of view. It leaves sponsors stuck (when things might have gone a little off track) rather than being able to get teams to pivot; they are left choosing between potentially throwing away or losing some great work; or investing money in projects that may not be able to deliver. 

Which then raises the question; how should we be assessing and supporting innovation initiatives? How do we ensure they’re delivering value for the public purse whilst also remaining fair and competitive? How do we ensure we’re not missing out on innovative opportunities because of government bureaucracy and processes? 

In this process, what is the point of a Digital Service Standard assessment? 

If it’s like most other assessment protocols (do not start Matt on his gateway rant), then it’s only to assess work that has already happened. If so, then it’s not much good here, when teams are so new to the standards and need flexible advice and support on what they could do next etc.   

If it’s to assess whether a service should be released to end users, then it’s useful in central government when looking to roll out and test a larger service; but not so much use when it’s a small service, mainly internal users or a service that’s earlier on in the process aiming to test a proof of concept etc. 

If it’s to look at all of the constituent areas of a service, and provide help and guidance to a multidisciplinary team in how to make it better and what gaps there are (and a bit of clarity from people who haven’t got too close to see clearly), then it’s a lot of use here, and in other places; but we need to ensure the panel has the right mix of experts to be able to assess this. 

While my panel was all fantastic; and we were able to assess the levels of user research the team had done, their understanding of the problems they were seeing to solve, their ability to integrate with legacy tech solutions and how their team was working together etc. none of us had any experience in assessing innovation business cases or understanding if teams had done the right due diligence on their financial funding models. The standards specify that teams should have their budget sorted for the next phase and a roadmap for future development; in my experience this has generally been a fairly easy yes or no; I certainly wouldn’t know a good business accelerator if it came and bopped me on the nose. So while we could take a very high level call on whether we thought a service could deliver some value to users; and whether a roadmap or budget looked reasonable; a complex discussion on funding models and investment options was a little outside our wheelhouse; so was not an area we could offer any useful advice or recommendations on.  

How can we deliver and assess innovation better going forward? 

If we’re continuing to use schemes like the GTC scheme to sponsor and encourage private sector innovators to work with the public sector to solve important problems affecting our society, then we obviously need a clear way to assess their success. But we also need to ensure we’re setting up these schemes in such a way that the private sector is working with the public sector; and that means we need to be working in partnership; able to advise and guide them where appropriate in order to ensure we’re spending public money wisely. 

There is a lot of great potential out there to use innovative tech to help solve societal issues; but we can’t just throw those problems at the private sector and expect them to do all the hard work. While the private sector can bring innovative and different approaches and expertise, we shouldn’t ignore the wealth of experience and knowledge within the public sector either. We need people within the public sector with the right digital skills, who are able to  prioritise and understand the services that are being developed inorder to ensure that the public purse doesn’t pay for stuff that already exists to be endlessly remade. 

Assessment can have a role in supporting innovation; as long as we take a generous rather than nitpicking (or macro rather than micro) approach to the service standard. Assessments (and the Standards themselves) are a useful format for structuring conversations about services that involve users (hint: that’s most of them) just the act of starting with user needs – pt 1 – rather than tech – changes the whole conversation. 

However,  to make this work and add real value, solve a whole problem for users (point 2 of the new uk govt standard) – is critical, and that involves having someone who can see the entire end to end process for any new service and devise and own success measures for it. The best answer to both delivering innovation, and assessing it, is bringing the private and public sector together to deliver real value; creating a process that builds capacity, maturity and genuine collaboration within the wider public sector. A space to innovate and grow solutions. True multidisciplinary collaboration, working together to deliver real value.

“Together, We Create”

Big thanks to Matt for helping collaborate on this, if you want to find his blog (well worth a read) you can do so here:

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