×

Category: Agile

What ever happened to “there are no stupid questions?”

This week I had a great conversation with @ClareSudbery of MadeTech and @RachelleHunt of StrangeDigital about the importance of using plain english and creating an inclusive environment where people feel able to speak up and ask questions.

Back when I started working in Digital as a Product Owner in 2011, and I did my agile training course, one of the first ‘principles’ that was discussed was ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question”. Which as a newbie in the agile/digital world was great to hear, because I felt like I knew literally nothing.

A neon sign with a ‘?’

This concept has always been something I’ve repeated to the teams and people I’ve been working with. There will always be something you don’t know, it is impossible to know everything. Therefor we have to be able to ask questions and find out information without fear of being made to feel stupid.

However, as digital transformation and agile begins to roll out and spread, that acceptance of ‘not knowing’ seems to have become less common. I hear a lot from colleagues outside of digital that ‘agile is a cult, or digital is a clique’ with it’s own language that doesn’t welcome in those who don’t know the ‘lingo’.

A friend of mine had a scrum coach in to speak to their team and deliver some training to their organisation (if you don’t know what scrum is, that’s ok, here’s a link), and she said the way that he spoke to them was as if they were all idiots who knew nothing, and that he made scrum sound like a religion for zealots. There was no opportunity to question, only to agree. This isn’t what should be happening. There’s no better way to foster feelings of exclusion and frustration than be treating people who don’t know something as ‘lesser’.

The public sector has always struggled with acronyms, and while we regularly hear about the drive to reduce the use of them with the greatest will in the world, everyone will find themselves slipping up and using them sometimes, because they are everywhere and we assume that everyone knows them. But we have to remember that they don’t.

At a global digital conference last year in The Hague I was happily chatting away to someone working for the Dutch Pensions service and kept referencing several Government Departments by their acronyms without thinking, leaving the poor person I was speaking to rather lost.

Similarly in my interview for my current role, I was too embarrassed to check an acronym (PnL) and just assumed I knew exactly what I was being asked about. It was only after 10 minutes of waffle I was politely corrected that I was not been asked about Procurement frameworks and instead about my experience of managing Profit and Loss. Obvious in retrospective, but never an acronym I’d heard before and who want’s to look ignorant in an interview?

Graffiti asking ‘what do you mean?’

Clare made a point that often we’re not actually saving time by using acronyms, but we are gatekeeping and increasing that siloed attitude, which is counterproductive to the work we’re doing. This is especially important, as Rachelle pointed out, given how inaccessible acronyms often are, and that they are actually not unique. One random set of letters to me may mean something completely different to someone else working in a different organisation or sector or with completely different experiences. We are actually increasing the chance for confession and misunderstandings while not saving time or effort.

There is a lot of great work happening in the Public sector, using the Digital Service Standards (primarily standard 4 – make the service simple to use, and 5 – make sure everyone can use the service) and the principles of the Plain English Campaign, to simply the content we provide to users, to make it clear, concise and easy to comprehend. However when it comes to how we talk to each other, we are forgetting those same standards.

My conversation this week has reminded me how important it is, as a Senior Leader to:

  • firstly try and not use acronyms or digital/agile jargon, or to not make assumptions about other peoples knowledge without checking first their experience and understanding.
  • Secondly, speak up and ask more questions when I don’t know things. To show by doing, that it is ok to not know everything.

After-all, there are no stupid questions, just opportunities to learn and share knowledge.

Image asking what are your questions?” taken from the universe awareness blog

What even is agile anyway?

So you’re a leader in your organisation and Agile is ‘the thing’ that everyone is talking about. Your organisation has possible trialed one or two Agile projects within the Digital or Tech department, but they haven’t really delivered like you thought they would, and you think you can ‘do more’ with it, but honestly, what even is it in the first place?

It’s a question that comes up fairly regularly, and if you are asking it, you are not alone! This blog actually started from such a conversation last week.

Tweet https://twitter.com/NeilTamplin/status/1220608708452999170

First and foremost there is Agile with a capital A, this is the project methodology, predominantly designed for software development, as defined here. It “denotes a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.”

However nowadays, especially in the public sector, agile doesn’t only apply to software. More and more of the conversations happening in communities like #OneTeamGov are about the culture of agility. How you create the environment for Agile to succeed, and this is where many people, especially leaders, are getting lost.

So how do you ‘be agile?’

Being agile is borrowing the concepts used in agile development, to develop that culture. As Tom Loosemore says when talking about Digital, it’s about “applying the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

But it’s more than what you transform, it’s how you do it.

The Agile manifesto says that Agile is about:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

When you consider individuals and interactions over processes and tools, then you remove unnecessary hierarchy and empower people to make decisions. You don’t enforce rigid processes for the sake of it, but iterate your governance based on feedback of users (in this instance your staff!). By being agile you focus on communicating directly with human beings, looking to how you can accommodate more actual conversations, and time together, rather than relaying on emails and papers as your only way to communicate.

By prioritising working software over comprehensive documentation you are constantly testing and iterating what works based on what is meeting your user needs, rather than deciding upfront what the answer is before knowing if it will actually work. You involve user research in your policy and strategy discussions. You analyse and test your new processes before you implement them. You change your funding and governance models to allow more innovation and exploration, and base your decisions on data and evidence, not theory. By being agile you are able to demonstrate working product or tangible services to stakeholders and customers, rather than just talking about what will be done.

Customer collaboration rather than contract negotiation is about bringing people along with you and working in partnership, achieving results together. Embracing and managing change to be innovative and deliver value whilst still being competitive and minimising unproductive churn and waste.

When thinking about responding to change over following a plan, it’s about being able to innovate and iterate. Prioritising and working on the most important work first. Building in short feedback loops and taking on board feedback.

Post it notes on a wall

Why is ‘being agile’ important?

Because as the market changes, and users expectations change, companies that can not take onboard feedback and iterate their products and services loose out. This is also true when it comes to companies themselves in terms of what they offer their staff, less people now go to work just for the money, people want more job satisfaction, empowering staff to make decisions and cutting bureaucracy are not only ways to cut costs, but also increase the value to both your users, your stakeholders and your staff.

Resources to help:

  • Scrum.org have a decent blog on Agile Leaders which can be found here
  • For Leaders in the Public Sector, the Digital Academy has an Agile for Leaders course, details of which can be found here
  • The Centre for Agile Leadership has a blog on business agility here (and for those in the US they run courses)
  • And the Agile Business Consortium have a white-paper describing the role of culture and leadership within Agile which can be found here

#OneGreenGov

One of the key reasons I joined @Difrent was their commitment to #TechForGood. In my experience #TechForGood is one of those phrases that gets batted around, as such I was very keen when I started to understand what that phrase meant to Difrent and if it really meant anything at all!

Much to my delight, I found that it was not just a meaningless motto for the company, but a value we as a company use every day. Be that the hoodies all staff are given (made from sustainably used cotton) to the work we do and the clients we will work with.

As such, when the opportunity to volunteer and or attend the #OneTeamGov #OneGreenGov appeared, it was obvious that at least one person from Difrent would be headed there. 

OneGreenGov was a one-day event held in multiple locations around the world for those working in and with the public sector to discuss ways to combat climate change. With events happening in London, Wolverhampton, Helsinki in Finland and Canada. 

Icebergs

On the day itself, there were a lot of fascinating conversations, ranging from some more scientific presentations on the effects of climate change on both geography and people’s health to sessions on how people can make a personal difference to climate change and even how Wikipedia can help the climate change battle. 

You can see some of the conversations that happened on the day here. Throughout the day there was chat about the Trees for Life page set up at #UKGovCamp a week earlier and a discussion of what other initiatives could be set up to help the climate. 

Placard with a climate change slogan

One of the things I learned from the event was the importance of reviewing your data regularly and removing out of date data, this is because the transmission of data via the internet can be very polluting, contributing to between 2-4% of our greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a Defra blog here about ways to try and reduce your digital carbon footprint. 

Climate change and heat stress slide from OneGreenGov

Some of the conversations were happening in the room, some happened with the help of technology to cut down on the carbon footprint! As well as there being great conversations happening in the physical (and virtual) room, the sharing of ideas didn’t stop once the event was over. 

Apolitical are asking people to share their ideas on how to combat climate change here; WholeGrain Digital shared their Sustainable Web Manifesto and #designandclimate shared their draft Master Remote Workshop (to cut carbon) guide.

In terms of the event itself, all the plates and cups used were biodegradable and all the food leftover was donated, so that nothing went to waste, which was lovely to see. 

The whole day was full of energy and passion and it was fantastic to see so many people committed to making a difference and let’s just hope that we will see that difference continue in the days and weeks going forward.

Thoughts from the other side

No, don’t worry, I’ve not passed on and started speaking from beyond the grave; but given I’m now 3 months into my role at Difrent I thought it might be worth reflecting on how I’ve found things on the other side of the commercial table so to speak.

In the first 3 months I’ve worked with our teams, been in multiple contract meetings, client meetings, negotiations, done my first ever bid presentation and helped win my first piece of work for the organisation.

@Rachel0404 and I looking at a rich pic for NHS Jobs

In the 15 years I spent in the public sector I have done my fair share of time working alongside procurement, drafting Pre-Qualification Questionnaires and Invitation to Tenders as part of a commercial team, or assessing bid responses and pitch’s as a programme lead. But if I’m honest in all that time I never considered the work that suppliers put into their Tender responses; the effort different commercial frameworks might require nor how companies pick and choose which work to bid for.

It’s been fascinating within the Difrent SLT talking about the kind of work we want to be bidding for, assessing what work aligned with our #TechForGood goals and values. It’s also really been reassuring to be involved in conversations where we have decided not to bid on work that doesn’t align with the company values.

‘Do something great’

One of the things I’ve quickly had to get my head around is the complexities of the Digital Marketplace and the ins and outs of the different commercial frameworks, be that G-Cloud, DoS or PSR. If I’m honest I’d never really got my head around the pros and cons of the different frameworks before taking this role, it was always one of those things I simply had to approve before.

While I have previously managed projects and programmes, and managed the suppliers working with us to deliver the work; it was equally never a thing I massively had to dwell on, beyond the question of ‘are they delivering what we need or not?’

In the last three months I’ve really gotten to understand the amount of work that has to be put in to make sure they answer to that question is ‘yes’.

Graphiti saying ‘yes’!

One of the trickiest aspects to that relationship is making sure as a partner we are providing the right amount of rigour, challenge and reassurance so that our clients feel assured that we are doing the right things in the right way to deliver the outcomes they are looking for. Balancing the need to challenge and ask why to ensure the work we are doing is right, with the need to keep the client happy, engaged and onside. Not the easiest thing to do, but definitely vitally important in order to ensure value is actually delivered.

As a supplier I now realise how tricky it is to walk the tightrope of helping the client deliver the right thing, when this might mean a scope change that means more time or people (ie. more money) vs. wanting to ensure you deliver on time and within budget.

As a Product Person, I have always spoken about the importance of prioritisation and focusing on the problem the organisation was trying to solve. I used to find it incredibly frustration trying to get suppliers to understand and deliver what we needed, not just doing the work, but helping us do the work right. I was involved in multiple conversations across government about good suppliers vs. bad. Those that actually challenged us to do the right thing, and those that just delivered ‘what it said on the tin’ without helping check the label on the tin was right.

Now working on the other side of the table, I am doubly as determined to make sure we are delivering both the challenge and the outcomes our clients are looking for, to help deliver truly meaningful products and services and add real value to our clients and their users.

A mug bearing the message ‘What good shall I do this day?’

One month in…

Last month I started with Difrent, my first job in the Private sector after 15 years in the public sector, which felt very much like a change of scenery and a new start, whilst also being a familiar continuation of what I know.

Road with graffiti saying ‘start here’

So at the end of my first month I thought it would be worth reflecting on what I’ve learnt and done so far.

First things first, still lots of meetings! In the last month I’ve been in lots of conversations and meetings about our contracts (which is one of the reasons I took this job, to get that experience, so I’m not complaining!) but what I hadn’t realised, from the public sector client side point of view, is the amount of effort and time that is put into contract bids etc. It’s been fascinating to see and experience the hustle and bustle of getting a bid together, ensuring you have the team you’ll need, getting your evidence together, to then just wait and hear whether you have got the work. It’s like constantly doing job applications!

Secondly, the people, lots of the folks at Difrent I had come across (generally on Twitter) before, so I knew of them but hadn’t had the chance to work with them. Part of my role at Difrent is to ensure that we have the agreed standards and principles for our ways of working to ensure we can deliver the right things in the right way for our clients. I’ve spent the last few weeks getting to know the people within Difrent, and the clients we are working with.

What’s been interesting for me has been the culture that comes with a company moving from start up to scale up. Within the Public Sector I’ve only ever worked in organisations that are 4.5K plus. Working somewhere with under 100 people is very different. The infrastructure and organisational governance that comes with working for a huge well established organisation isn’t necessarily there, but nor is that necessarily a bad thing!

In the old work, conversations like office locations, or what our Target Operating model should be would take months if not years; with unions consulted, multiple consultations with staff forums and people groups etc. Within Difrent it’s much easier to have conversations with all our staff, be that in TownHalls or just on our Slack channel. The conversations themselves are similar, but how we have them, who gets to be involved, and how quickly we can get things done is definitely different.

The work, so far most of the team’s I’ve been working with have been working on projects within the Public sector, so the environment for me has been very familiar. The other thing that’s familiar is the conversations we are having, about KPI’s and measures. The need to understand what we are trying to deliver and ensure that we can measure our success in delivering it, not just be ticking off story points, but ensuring we are delivering value for both our customers and their users is key.

For the next few months my focus will be on working with our clients helping them shape and deliver the vision’s they have set. Measuring the value we are adding to them, and the value the products and services we are delivering are adding value to their users. Ensuring we have the right resources for our teams based on what the needs of our clients are, and that we as an organisation are supporting our people the best way we can.

These things have always been important to me, and always been key parts of my roles. So it seems whether it’s the public sector or private sector, French Critic Alphonse Karr was right in some ways….

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And you know what, I am glad about that. If everything were radically different I might be worried that either the public or private sector was doing it wrong. But the fact is the common problems are very similar, it’s just how we approach solving them that might be different; and having a different perspective to how you solve problems is important, as it means you’re considering all the options there are and hopefully avoiding making the same mistakes over and over.

Lots of different people holding umbrellas crossing a main road.

Welcome to the Dark Side.

Last week I started working for @BeDifrent, a business transformation agency working with both Public and Private sector clients to help them deliver #TechForGood.

This is a massive change for me, I spent almost 15 years in the Public Sector, I always said I was a public servant for life, and in my heart I am, when people have asked me this week what I do it’s been very odd to not reply “I work in the public sector”.

But the thing is, I still am, Difrent’s clients are predominantly public sector at the moment (at least the ones I’ve been dealing with in my first two weeks). The challenges our clients are facing are so similar to those I’m used to facing, but the opportunities are so much bigger.

At my interview I got asked why I was interested in this role, and my answer was very honest and in two parts.

One, for my career development. I’ve spent three years working at Deputy Director level as a Head of Product in the Public Sector, and I loved my role. Product and Service design are things that I am passionate about, and designing and delivering services to users that really matter, that improve things for them, is the thing that drives me.

But I’d also realised what I did was wider than the label “Head of Product” really allowed for. So much of my effort and time was on the cultural and organisational changes organisations needed to make to enable them to deliver and change into a Product and User led organisation.

Which is what led me to consider Difrent. When I saw the job advertised I did my homework on the company and the people. Who were they? What made Difrent different? Why did they care?

My mentor for years had been recommending I consider doing a stint outside of the public sector to gain experience from the other-side of the table, but the thought had always made me twitch, but what I saw from Difrent’s information, from reading up on the amazing Rachel Murphy and from talking to colleagues who had made the jump into the dark side to both Difrent and other like minded agencies recently made me feel that maybe this was the time to take that leap into the dark.

My focus will be on working with our clients to ensure we can deliver. Supporting our teams and building our capability to ensure we keep doing the right things in the right ways.

So yes, not only will this give me experience on the other side of the contracting table, and the opportunity to see how the other side live. But the public sector still need us suppliers, there will always be short term projects and pieces of work that it makes sense to use suppliers to help with rather than massively increase their headcount’s, and more importantly (for me) we have more flexibility sometimes, the chance to quickly bring in different perspectives and points of view.

Difrent describe themselves as being activists for change and doing the right thing. They are passionate about delivering things that matter, and only working with clients who meet their #TechForGood ethos.

And for me that is Difrent’s main attraction, they want to help bring about that change, to ensure we are delivering the right things in the right way for the right reasons. Advocating and agitating for that change and real transformation.

As someone who talks a lot about finding their tribe, I look around the company and see a lot of great people passionate about delivering real change. It was especially great to see and hear the diversity and inclusion stats for the company being proudly discussed at events. One of the things that attracted me to Difrent is how much they talk about their people, and how important their people are to them, it feels like a real community of people who care. As stated by Dan Leakey, what ever our makeup, Difrent are 100% awesome.

With credit to @RachelleMoose for the inforgraphic

And while it’s only midway through week two, what I’ve seen so far has already made me feel like the dark side is full of bright lights. I’ve spent time in both Newcastle and Blackpool with some of our delivery teams, getting to understand the outcomes we are trying to deliver and why, and how we can best support our clients to meet their user’s needs.

Darth Vader with wings and a halo

So while I do intend to return to the public sector in the future with lots of new great experience under my belt, for now I feel like the message is “welcome to the dark side, we’re not all bad.”

Having a vision

I regularly talk to organisations about why having vision and mission statements are important. Over the years I’ve seen many good examples and some bad ones too, both inside and outside the public sector.

They often seems to be overlooked when deciding to transform an organisation, instead companies tend to focus on their Target Operating Model or individual delivery of products. While delivery of the Products is important, because as Tom Loosemore says the ‘Strategy is delivery’ after all; and a Target Operating Model ads value; without a clear Vision and Mission statement the teams involved in delivery can find it hard to focus on what they are aiming for (the vision), and how they are aiming to achieve that goal (the mission statement).

There’s been a few good blogs written about Mission statements, these blogs by Mel Cannon, Ben Holliday and Rachel Woods highlight how a good mission statement can help a company deliver, by helping them focus on ‘how’ they will achieve their aims. But there is little value in understanding ‘how’ you will seek to deliver a goal, without understanding ‘what’ you want to deliver. As such, today I want to focus on Vision’s, what makes a good one and why they are important.

So why is having a Vision important?

As Ben Holliday said in his blog a good Vision sets out “What we want to achieve. Setting out an ideal future state eg. what will the council of the future and local services look like?” It is the future state we are striving for. It is what our staff know to aim for, the thing that gives us focus; especially in the public sector it is where we will end up if we’ve managed to deliver our strategy. The reason a Vision is important s that it helps us plan our future. It sets the agenda, the goal.

As good summary from lifehack.com states the question you should be asking when developing your vision is “If you were to take a photo of your future business now, what would it look like? What do you want your business to be recognized for one day?” This could be as simple as being the best, fastest, most well known or trusted provider of your product and service.

A view finder looking at the horizon

What makes a good Vision?

There are different theories on this, this blog from Projectmanager.com states that the best vision statements are concise, clear and future orientated (amongst other things).

Whilst changefactor.com states here that a good vision statement should be unique and evoke emotion, it should say “something about us, our organisation, our operating environment, our dream. When we read it, it should tell us where we are going. We should not be able to substitute our vision statement for other organisations inside and outside our industry.

I agree with all of that, but the thing missing for me is that they need to be based on your user’s needs, to evoke emotion, you are making assumptions about the needs of your customers and how your organisations will be meeting those needs.

If you look at some of the big name vision statement’s out there you can see how they have tried to follow the above guidelines.

Disney: “to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.”

Oxfam: “Our vision is a just world without poverty. We want a world where people are valued and treated equally, enjoy their rights as full citizens, and can influence decisions affecting their lives.”

Ikea: to create a better everyday life for the many people – for customers, but also for our co-workers and the people who work at our suppliers.

Personally, Disney’s vision seems to lack emotion to me, but it is definitely clear and concise. Both Oxfam and Ikea’s vision’s evoke more emotion, but I think it could be argued that Ikea’s vision is not unique to them. It would be easy to mistake Ikea’s vision for that of other companies. Of the three Vision’s above, I personally find Oxfam’s the best in that it is unique to them, evokes emotion and sets out their clear intent.

The thing that interests me is that for many companies, their vision is words. But I actually really like visual vision’s, I’ve always found them easier to get people to buy into, and for organisations staff to understand their place and the value they are adding.

@DWPDigital’s 2020 vision

The above vision developed by @DWPDigtial showed how the Department would be organised in the future, with their guiding principles clearly stated. It was developed back in 2017 and showed how the different elements of the organisation would work together to deliver it’s services. While the vision was definitely unique to DWP; it was not concise, or even very clear and easy to understand. You could argue that this was actually their Target Operating Model rather than a Vision, given it doesn’t meet the criteria above of being clear and concise, but it does show clearly where the Department was going.

Emilia Cedeno showing off @CCS’s vision

Another great example is this one by @CCS, which is both clear and simple in it’s statement, and in how it is visualised. 

As the Crown Commercial Service is responsible for:

  • managing the procurement of common goods and services, so public sector organisations with similar needs achieve value by buying as a single customer; 
  • increasing savings for the taxpayer by centralising buying requirements for common goods and services and bringing together smaller projects;  
  • leading on procurement policy on behalf of the UK government increasing savings for the taxpayer by centralising buying requirements for common goods and services and bringing together smaller projects;

It’s Vision to be the “Go – To provider form Common Goods and services” makes sense. It is concise and clear, and specific to their organisation.

The benefit of both of these vision’s is that they help the viewer to ‘see’ how the organisations intend to transform and develop themselves.

Knowing where you are going is important:

No matter what format you go for, when developing a Vision it’s important to remember that it should be unique to your organisation, clear, concise and easy to understand, and that it helps your users, staff and stakeholders understand what the organisations aims are, where the organisation is heading and why.

A compass

But the most important thing to remember is that your Vison is not a static thing. You should constantly be revisiting it and checking that it is still valid and innovative. That it still drives your organisation forward and represents your users needs and where you want your company to be in the future.

Measuring cost vs. measuring value?

Discussing the differences between Product Management in the Private and Public sector.

There has always been a perceived difference in how Product Managers in the public and private sector work, what their priorities are and their key focuses.

Historically at its most simplistic the view has been that within the Public sector the Product Manager focuses on what user’s need. Whereas Product Managers in the private sector focus on what users want.

Interestingly as more organisations in the Private Sector adopt the user centric design principles championed by Government Digital services and public sector organisations the difference in the role between the Private and public sectors decreases. Within the public sector we do indeed focus on user’s needs, however we do have to consider their wants as well if we want to create services our users will enjoy using.

Equally while Product Managers in the Private Sector will focus more on want’s, as that is where their revenue is likely to be, and what will give them the edge in the market. But they will also consider need’s, because when developing a service for users, it’s important to understand whether users wants and needs are polar opposites to ensure your not setting your scope too small or your costs too high. As such, while this difference between need and want is possibly still the best way to separate the roles, they are not as different as they once were.

A simple task backlog

No matter what sector they work in, be that private sector or Public, Product Managers are still there to ‘represent’ the end user and their needs/wants, within the Public sector the Product Manager is more likely to work with a user researcher who will help them understand those needs, and there will be more of a focus on user research to ensure the users are properly understood and represented, but at their core the Product Manager is still there to ensure those needs are met in the best possible way.

They are also responsible for understanding the opportunities and gaps within the market place, looking for opportunities to fill a need that is missing; for developing their Product strategy and roadmap and setting the scope for their Product to meet the needs or target the gaps they have identified.

So, perhaps the other key difference between the Private and Public sector Product Managers, is cost revenue. Within the Private Sector, the Product Manager is responsible for ensuring the Product or Service they are developing will fit within the Business Model, they manage the profit and loss for their Products, and the development of the business development strategy. They will quantify the return on investment predominantly through revenue return. They will be examining the market place to understand what similar products are out there, and their costs to users to use; Once they have a rough idea on how much they can make they can determine their ROI is based on how much it will cost to develop vs. how much profit are they likely to make from users once the Product or service is live.

Within the Public sector there is not the same onus on cost revenue. Departments are funded by the treasury, very few agencies or bodies generate their own revenue, and while there are some, they are not looking to create a profit in the same way the private sector is.

Instead the return on investment we are considering in the Public sector is about value to the public purse. Is there value in spending public money on developing this product or service? We do this by examining how much is currently spent on running any existing services; how much is ‘lost’ through waste or inefficiencies; how much can be saved by introducing service improvements or a new service for users and how much will it likely cost to develop? If the savings out way the spend, then there is likely value in us using public money to develop this.

A dashboard showing user numbers

This approach to determining value is the difference between the public and private sector product managers, but also shows how similar the roles actually are. Product Managers, no matter what sector they are in, care about their users and developing products and services for them. They look to the market to understand opportunities; they work to develop their Product strategy and to quantify the available Return on Investment.

I think we need to put to bed this idea that the Private sector solely puts revenue over users, and that the Public sector doesn’t care about costs.  Both Private sector and Public sector Product Managers have a lot they can learn from each other, and we should be looking for more opportunities to join up and share our experiences and knowledge.

I believe both Private sector and Public sector Product Managers have a lot they can learn from each other, and we should be looking for more opportunities to join up and share our experiences and knowledge. I think we need to put to bed this idea that the Private sector solely puts revenue over users, and that the Public sector doesn’t care about costs.

When is Digital not Digital?

When it’s not about user needs or human centric design, but instead about fixing technological infrastructure.

When it’s not about transforming the service but keeping the lights on systems.

When it’s not about asking “why?”, because you already know the solution you want.

A sign asking “Why?”

As Tom Loosemore said, Digital is applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

There are lots of conversations online about being digital, not doing digital. Digital is not a process, it is a cultural mind-set.

It is a way of asking questions and prioritising needs. It’s about delivering value and designing services that meet user needs and expectations.

A person using a smart phone.

Now and then you can still see organisations that use Digital as a label when they mean technology or IT.

However, those things are not interchangeable. The culture and mindset of of the teams of the teams, and the organisations itself, is very different.

In organisations that use digital as a label but are not embracing what it means to be digital you will still see a separation between change or transformation and digital. They will still have siloed ways of working.

The business will still separate the programme funding, governance and strategy from the digital teams tasked with delivery.

Organisations where digital is a way of working, not just a label, you will see properly empowered teams made up of people from across the business. You will have teams who ‘own’ the holistic service they are delivering from strategy to delivery.

Open plan digital office space

These are organisations where the multidisciplinary team isn’t just something that digital ‘do’ but the whole organisations embraces.

This comparison between Digital and Technology is equally relevant when considering the role of the Chief Digital Officer vs. a Chief Technology Officer or Chief Information Officer. There’s a good discussion of the various roles here. As with the other roles the Chief Digital Officer looks after an organisations data and technology assets. However, they go one step further and have a wider eye, considering the strategy and the possibilities for innovation and wider transformation. Their focus is not on keeping the lights on, but understanding why the lights are needed and are there any other options?

Servers

For me this sums up why digital is wider ands more far reaching than Technology, and why the Digital mind-set and culture is so important to get right for organisations trying to deliver transformation. And why, if you don’t have these things right, if you are digital in name but not culture, you are going to struggle to deliver real transformation.

Building a case based on assumptions

Why you shouldn’t start with the business case.

I’ve been working within Digital transformation for almost ten years now, working on some of the largest projects and programmes within the public sector. From front line services to backend systems, from simple forms to complex benefit processing applications.

One thing that has been a feature of every product or service I’ve been a part of has been the business case. Over the years I’ve worked to challenge and transform the business case itself, making it more agile and less cumbersome, in multiple organisations.

Traditionally business cases have been built on the preconception that you know exactly what solution you want, with the costs and timings estimated accordingly. These behemoth business cases usually clock in over 25 pages long, with very little room of flexibly or change. The millstones in them are clearly laid out and everyone sits around clapping themselves on the back for delivering the business case, and then wondering why the Product itself never gets delivered.

A laptop with a document on next to a notebook and smartphone

In the last decade as the more agile methodologies and user centric ways of working have spread the traditional business case, and the role of those individuals who are focused on their development, has struggled to keep pace with the changes happening within the projects and programmes themselves.

The traditional method of drafting business cases that map out your road map and spend in full are now antiquated, and holding back teams from delivering. New business cases need to instead focus on agreeing design principles and the problem the business is trying to fix rather than bottoming out the minutiae of the roadmap. On explaining the assumptions that have helped define the scope of the Product or programme, which can be backed up by evidence , this is worth more than a cost estimate hammered down to the pounds and pence.

Before doing Product evaluations it is vitally important to ensure all senior stakeholders agree on the assumptions the team is working too (regarding the scope, business needs, user needs etc.) And these are the things new business cases should be focused on, not jumping straight to a solution based on product comparisons that have been carried out before everyone has agreed what is in scope.

One anecdote in particular has always stuck with me, in terms of why it’s important to agree your scope, before you start comparing products.

A few years ago, back when I was working with the Office of the Public Guardian on their CRM replacement, the team at the time did some research and analysis into the best options for the business and whether they should be looking to build, buy or configure a new system.

As the business wanted to be a digital be default exemplar, there was an early assumption that the new system would only need to ingest data received via digital channels, or call data for the minimal cases that couldn’t be dealt with digitally. This led to some early product comparisons being done, into Products that would meet the business’ requirements.

However, some research and conversations with legal SMEs during the Discover period highlighted that, as the OPG had responsibilities as a safeguarding body, they needed to be able to accept and analyse data received via any source. Which meant they actually needed a system that could ingest and understand faxed data, call data, digital data and handwritten data. The ability to ingest and assign meta data to handwritten data meant some products that had actually been in consideration now had to be ruled out.

Thankfully the business case for the CRM system had been developed with enough flexibility and empowerment and trust within the programme team, that this did not dramatically slow down or derail the team in terms of delivery as they were still working within the agreed scope and cost envelope, but the Product Comparisons had to be reconsidered and the scope and cost estimates changed accordingly.

While this was a relatively small example, it highlights the importance of validating scope assumptions before pinning down your business case.

Many organisations embracing Digital and agile ways of working have struggled with how they can fit the need for traditional governance structures, and especially the business case, into the culture and ways of working that Digital brings with it. My honest opinion is that you can’t.   

Instead, there has been a movement in some areas, led by the likes of GDS and MoJ which I have been apart of and leading conversations along with others on for some years, to change the role and format of the Business case. To encourage the business case itself to be developed and iterated alongside the Product and Programme it supports. This approach to iterate the business case alongside the agile Project lifecycle was first laid out by GDS back in 2014 for digital transformation programmes. The Institute for Government did a report back in October 2018 on how business cases were used, and what could be improved to enable better delivery.

Rather than a business case written almost in isolation by a Programme Manager before going round and round for comments, there is value in treating your business case like any other output from the a multidisciplinary team.  

A blank notebook next to a laptop

Instead of a 25+ page tome that aims to spell everything out upfront, before the project even commences properly, there is much more value in simply having a couple of pages explaining the problem the project is seeking to fix and why, along with estimated timing and costs for some exploratory work to define key assumptions and answer key questions (like what happens if we don’t fix this? How many people will it effect? Are there any legal requirements we need to be aware of?) that will help your project start on the right foot.

Once you can answer those questions, then you can iterate the business case; taking a stab at estimating how you think you might going about fixing the problem(s), how long it will take to fix the important key problem(s) you identified need fixing first, are there any products out there in the market that could do this for you? How much might this roughly cost?

You can then iterate the business case again once you’ve started developing the Product or implementing the identified solution. Once you have validated the assumptions you’ve made previously about the solution to the problem you’re fixing.

This means the business case is a living document, kept up to date with the costs and timetable you’re working to. It means your board are able to much more accurately assuage their accountabilities, ensuring costs are being spent in line with the scope of the programme or project.

Empty chairs around a table

Whatever methodology you are using, the importance of being able to explain why you are doing something, and what the problem you are trying to fix is, before leaping into what software product is the solution to buy and how much it’ll cost you. If it’s done right, the business case helps you evidence you are doing the right thing and spending money in the right way.