Just short of two years ago I accepted the role of Director of Delivery at Difrent, a big move for me as I’d only worked in the Public Sector, but a good opportunity to see how things worked on the other side of the commercial table; and a great opportunity to work with some fantastic people (Honestly, Rach Murphy herself is a powerhouse who can teach the world a thing or two and always worth making time for) outside of the public sector, and learn new skills.
The services we were delivering at Difrent we’re very similar to those I’d been working on before, and I worked with many familiar faces; but still the challenges were new. Working at a start up that was beginning to scale up was a very different environment to working in a large established Government Department. Not just delivering great services that meet user needs, but also building up business processes; scaling up teams; winning new business.
And then there was the pandemic.
Because of it’s strong background in Health, Difrent was on the front line when it came to stepping up and supporting the COVID-19 response working with the NHSBSA; NHSX and DHSC. I always thought that my time on Universal Credit was the most fast pacing and demanding time of my life; which it turns out was nothing compared to being asked to stand up 6 teams of experts within 72 hours at the start of the first wave to support various urgent pandemic related services.
Alongside supporting and delivering high priority COVID-19 related services in unprecedented timescales (we successfully helped delivery of the Home Testing service in under a month) we also had to keep delivering our existing products and services; helping Skills for Care go Live with their Adult Workforce Data Set service, continuing delivery of NHS Jobs, helping the Planning Inspectorate pass their Beta Assessment for their Appeals service and delivering the wholesale business transformation for the British Psychological Society; whilst also picking up and delivering a whole host of other projects and services that we continued to win.
Because of the pandemic, a lot of new teams were beginning to work with Digital Service Standards, and having to go through Service Standard Assessments for the first time; and an increasing amount of my time began being demanded by clients to support them understand and adhere to the service standards. I’ve always joked about my perfect record for passing Assessments (while being clear, that not passing the first time isn’t failure, it just means you have more to learn!) working with one client to turn around their service in under 3 weeks from complete un-adherence to the standards to passing a Beta assessment has got to be a personal best!
The last year has been full on, with long weeks and even longer days. I’m so proud of everything DIfrent has achieved in the last 18 months; but I also recognised the time is right for me to move on and focus more on the bits of my role I am most passionate about.
And what is that? Being hands on and working with clients to solve problems. Having the time to work with teams to understand the issues they’re facing and how to go about fixing them. Seeing the positive changes being made and thinking of ways to keep iterating and improving on what we’ve done. Investing in and building that cultural and organisation change up over time. Whilst at the same time having a proper work life balance again; having time to give attention to my family and friends; rediscovering the things I enjoy doing outside of work and having time and energy to do them. As lockdown begins to end, it’s time for me to have a new start.
And so, from next week I’m moving on to work with Kainos, I’m really excited about this new opportunity. Going into a larger organisation means there will be more peers to share that load; bigger problems to solve for clients, bigger teams to work with, all with the benefit of the organisational processes etc in place already that we will need to deliver large projects; which will allow me to focus on working with clients fully and ensuring I’m delivering real value to them, and getting real value myself from my work.
So, we’re ten days into Difrent being ‘bought’ by The Panoply group; people keeping saying ‘congratulations’, ‘how’s it working for a new boss/ company?’, ‘how do you feel about the buy out?’ So I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on my thoughts about the acquisition.
And the answer is, I’m feeling pretty good actually. Honestly, so far there hasn’t really been much difference, other than the feeling that we’re part of a larger group of likeminded people.
Difrent is still Difrent, my boss is still my boss, my teams are still my teams and my peers are still my peers. What it does mean is that I now have more peers to talk to, share lessons learned with and bounce ideas off of. It means there are potentially more opportunities for our people to get involved in, bigger communities of practice to be part of and more slack channels to share pictures of my dog on.
Chatting to some of my team yesterday, and the best analogy I could think of about the Panoply group and my understanding of how it works is actually the Civil Service.
Within the Civil Service you ‘belong’ to a certain Government Department, I was at DWP for ten years, and even years after leaving there’s still a part of my brain that think of myself as a DWP person, even though I worked in 5 different departments in my tenure in the public sector. But as a Civil Servant, although I was in DWP, I had opportunities within and across the Civil Service that others outside the Civil Service didn’t. If you were at threat of redundancy in the CS, you got first dibs on other job opportunities, not just in your in department but across the Civil Service and secondments and training opportunities across government departments were possible to further your career development etc.
Within the Group we have the opportunity for our people to go on loan to another company in the group, to further their career development, or because the project they have been working on has ended and we don’t have something else for them to immediately move onto, but someone else in the group does. This is a massive bonus for our people. It gives them so many more opportunities, and takes aware some of the fear you get in agencies about ‘what happens when this contact ends?’ We’re already sorting out access to the communities of practice within the group and discussing opportunities for our people to do secondments in the future/ and vice versa for others in the group to come work with us.
These options to be part of something bigger, to open up and share more opportunities for our people, to work together with likeminded folks was one of the reasons I voted for joining the group when I was asked my opinion. And it certainly doesn’t hurt on a selfish level that so many people I know, have worked with before and respect are also in the group; Within the first 10 days I’ve already had fantastic welcome meetings with so many folks across the whole of the group.
My first ‘catch up/welcome to the party’ call with Ben Holliday was like we were picking up where we were last time we worked together, and Carolyn Manuel-Barkin and I have already put the world to rights and discussed all things Health related; all definitely good signs for me. And being part of the group is already paying off for us, with some joint opportunities with Not Binary and the fantastic folks there already looking very positive (honestly David Carboni has not only the most relaxing voice, but is also really interesting and if you get the chance to hear him talk tech and good team dynamics you should definitely take it). [EDIT: since posting this blog this morning, we have now won our first piece of work with Not Binary!]
Difrent is all about delivering outcomes that matter about adding value and making a difference; and we’ve always been vocal about working better in partnership, both with or clients and other suppliers. Panoply will help us do that.
The Beta Assessment is probably the one I get the most questions about; Primarily, “when do we actually go for our Beta Assessment and what does it involve?”
Firstly what is an Assessment? Why do we assess products and services?
If you’ve never been to a Digital Service Standard Assessment it can be daunting; so I thought it might be useful to pull together some notes from a group of assessors, to show what we are looking for when we assess a service.
Claire Harrison (Chief Architect at Homes England and leading Tech Assessor) and Gavin Elliot (Head of Design at DWP and a leading Design Assessor, you can find his blog here) helped me pull together some thoughts about what a good assessment looks like, and what we are specifically looking for when it comes to a Beta Assessment.
I always describe a good assessment as the team telling the assessment panel a story. So, what we want to hear is:
What was the problem you were trying to solve?
Who are you solving this problem for? (who are your users?)
Why do you think this is a problem that needs solving? (What research have you done? Tell us about the users journey)
How did you decide to solve it and what options did you consider? (What analysis have you done?)
How did you prove the option you chose was the right one? (How did you test this?)
One of the great things about the Service Manual is that it explains what each delivery phase should look like, and what the assessment team are considering at each assessment.
So what are we looking for at a Beta Assessment?
By the time it comes to your Beta Assessment, you should have been running your service for a little while now with a restricted number of users in a Private Beta. You should have real data you’ve gathered from real users who were invited to use your service, and your service should have iterated several times by now given all the things you have learnt.
Before you are ready to move into Public Beta and roll your service out Nationally there are several things we want to check during an assessment.
We don’t want to just hear about the ‘digital’ experience; we want to understand how you have/will provide a consistent and joined up experience across all channels.
Are there any paper or telephony elements to your service? How have you ensured that those users have received a consistent experience?
What changes have you made to the back end processes and how has this changed the user experience for any staff using the service?
Were there any policy or legislative constraints you had to deal with to ensure a joined up experience?
Has the scope of your MVP changed at all so far in Beta given the feedback you have received from users?
Are there any changes you plan to implement in Public Beta?
As a Lead Assessor this is where I always find that teams who have suffered with empowerment or organisational silos may struggle.
If the team are only empowered to look at the Digital service, and have struggled to make any changes to the paper/ telephony or face to face channels due to siloed working in their Department between Digital and Ops (as an example) the Digital product will offer a very different experience to the rest of the service.
As part of that discussion we will also want to understand how you have supported users who need help getting online; and what assisted digital support you are providing.
At previous assessments you should have had a plan for the support you intended to provide, you should now be able to talk though how you are putting that into action. This could be telephony support or a web chat function; but we want to ensure the service being offered is/will be consistent to the wider service experience, and meeting your users needs. We also want to understand how it’s being funded and how you plan to publish your accessibility info on your service.
We also expect by this point that you have run an accessibility audit and have carried out regular accessibility testing. It’s worth noting, if you don’t have anyone in house who is trained in running Accessibility audits (We’re lucky in Difrent as we have a DAC assessor in house), then you will need to have factored in the time it takes to get an audit booked in and run well before you think about your Beta Assessment).
Similarly, by the time you go for your Beta Assessment we would generally expect a Welsh language version of your service available; again, this needs to be planned well in advance as this can take time to get, and is not (or shouldn’t be) a last minute job! Something in my experience a lot of teams forget to prioritise and plan for.
And finally assuming you are planning to put your service on GOV.UK, you’ll need to have agreed the following things with the GOV.UK team at GDS before going into public beta:
Again, while it shouldn’t take long to get these things sorted with the GOV.UK team, they can sometimes have backlogs and as such it’s worth making sure you’ve planned in enough time to get this sorted.
The other things we will want to hear about are how you’ve ensured your service is scalable and secure. How have you dealt with any technical constraints?
The architecture and technology – Claire
From an architecture perspective, at the Beta phases I’m still interested in the design of the service but I also have a focus on it’s implementation, and the provisions in place to support sustainability of the service. My mantra is ‘end-to-end, top-to-bottom service architecture’!
An obvious consideration in both the design and deployment of a service is that of security – how the solution conforms to industry, Government and legal standards, and how security is baked into a good technical design. With data, I want to understand the characteristics and lifecycle of data, are data identifiable, how is it collected, where is it stored, hosted, who has access to it, is it encrypted, if so when, where and how? I find it encouraging that in recent years there has been a shift in thinking not only about how to prevent security breaches but also how to recover from them.
Security is sometimes cited as a reason not to code in the open but in actual fact this is hardly ever the case. As services are assessed on this there needs to be a very good reason why code can’t be open. After all a key principle of GDS is reuse – in both directions – for example making use of common government platforms, and also publishing code for it to be used by others.
Government services such as Pay and Notify can help with some of a Technologist’s decisions and should be used as the default, as should open standards and open source technologies. When this isn’t the case I’m really interested in the selection and evaluation of the tools, systems, products and technologies that form part of the service design. This might include integration and interoperability, constraints in the technology space, vendor lock-in, route to procurement, total cost of ownership, alignment with internal and external skills etc etc.
Some useful advice would be to think about the technology choices as a collective – rather than piecemeal, as and when a particular tool or technology is needed. Yesterday I gave a peer review of a solution under development where one tool had been deployed but in isolation, and not as part of an evaluation of the full technology stack. This meant that there were integration problems as new technologies were added to the stack.
The way that a service evolves is really important too along with the measures in place to support its growth. Cloud based solutions help take care of some of the more traditional scalability and capacity issues and I’m interested in understanding the designs around these, as well as any other mitigations in place to help assure availability of a service. As part of the Beta assessment, the team will need to show the plan to deal with the event of the service being taken temporarily offline – detail such as strategies for dealing with incidents that impact availability, and the strategy to recover from downtime and how these have been tested.
Although a GDS Beta assessment focuses on a specific service, it goes without saying that a good Technologist will be mindful of how the service they’ve architected impacts the enterprise architecture and vice-versa. For example if a new service built with microservices and also introduces an increased volume and velocity of data, does the network need to be strengthened to meet the increase in communications traversing the network?
Legacy technology (as well as legacy ‘Commercials’ and ways of working) is always on my mind. Obviously during an assessment a team can show how they address legacy in the scope of that particular service, be it some form of integration with legacy or applying the strangler pattern, but organisations really need to put the effort into dealing with legacy as much as they focus on new digital services. Furthermore they need to think about how to avoid creating ‘legacy systems of the future’ by ensuring sustainability of their service – be it from a technical, financial and resource perspective. I appreciate this isn’t always easy! However I do believe that GDS should and will put much more scrutiny on organisations’ plans to address legacy issues.
One final point from me is that teams should embrace an assessment. Clearly the focus is on passing an assessment but regardless of the outcome there’s lots of value in gaining that feedback. It’s far better to get constructive feedback during the assessment stages rather than having to deal with disappointed stakeholders further down the line, and probably having to spend more time and money to strengthen or redesign the technical architecture.
How do you decide when to go for your Beta Assessment?
Many services (for both good and bad reasons) have struggled with the MVP concept; and as such the journey to get their MVP rolled out nationally has taken a long time, and contained more features and functionality then teams might have initially imagined.
This can make it very hard to decide when you should go for an Assessment to move from Private to Public Beta. If your service is going to be rolled out to millions of people; or has a large number of user groups with very different needs; it can be hard to decide what functionality is needed in Private Beta vs. Public Beta or what can be saved until Live and rolled out as additional functionality.
The other things to consider is, what does your rollout plan actually look like? Are you able to go national with the service once you’ve tested with a few hundred people from each user group? Or, as is more common with large services like NHS Jobs, where you are replacing an older service, does the service need to be rolled out in a very set way? If so, you might need to keep inviting users in until full rollout is almost complete; making it hard to judge when the right time for your Beta assessment is.
There is no right or wrong answer here, the main thing to consider is that you will need to understand all of the above before you can roll your service out nationally, and be able to tell that story to the panel successfully.
This is because theoretically most of the heavy lifting is done in Private Beta, and once you have rolled out your service into Public Beta, the main things left to test are whether your service scaled and worked as you anticipated. Admittedly this (combined with a confusion about the scope of an MVP) is why most Services never actually bother with their Live Assessment. For most Services, once you’re in Public Beta the hard work has been done; there’s nothing more to do, so why bother with a Live Assessment? But that’s an entirely different blog!
Changing how we work, to ensure we can still deliver.
One of the big tenants of agile working has always been about the importance of colocation, and there are a million blogs out there on why colocation makes a big difference.
The first value of the Agile Manifesto states: Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools; and one of the 12 principles is to Enable face-to-face interactions; this is because it is generally understood that colocation allows a better ‘osmosis’ of knowledge between the team, allowing better and faster sharing of information and discussions.
But colocation has always had its downsides, the main ones being that constant colocation doesn’t’ allow people time to process information and work without interruption/ distraction. There’s also a large time and cost implication; with team members and especially Subject Matter Experts often having to travel a lot to remain engaged. The most common excuse I have heard from Senior Leaders in organisations on why they can’t attend user research sessions or show and tells etc. is the time and effort it takes not only to attend the event, but to travel to it as well.
As we get better at recognising that not everyone works in the same way; recognising the limits of colocation is also important.
For the last few years, most of the teams I’ve worked on or managed have used a mix of colocation and remote working; usually a minimum of 3 days (ideally 4) in the office working together and only one or two days working from home.
This allows the colocated days to be utilised best for design workshops, user research, sprint ceremonies etc. Days where we can make the most out of being face to face.
That means the ‘remote working’ days could be used to reflect, to review notes, ‘do work’. They were also the days that could be best used for meetings etc.
Obviously COVID-19 threw all of those ways of working on their head; with everything that could be done remotely, moving to be fully remote. Within Difrent in that time we have on-boarded new staff, stood up brand new teams, completed Discoveries, delivered critical services to help with the nations response to the pandemic etc. Now as we consider how we move to a world post pandemic is the time to pause and consider whether we need to (or even want to) return to old ways of working.
A conversation at the virtual #OneTeamGov breakfast meet last week highlighted that Lockdown has meant we have all had to find more inclusive ways of working. It used to be the case that people ‘in the office’ would often make most of the decisions, and then replay those decisions to us few remote workers. Nowadays, with no one in the office, it forces us all to think about who needs to be involved in conversations and decisions. It might take a bit more planning, but it allows us to be more considerate of people’s time and involvement.
Within Difrent we have recognised that a return back to full colocation is actually not necessary in order for us to keep delivering services that matter. Working remotely has not impacted our ability to deliver at all. Rather than having remote working be the exception, we are now planning how we can make that the norm.
Thinking about how we put people before processes; we are ensuring we use the days where we will all get together face to face to their best advantage, making sure we get value from peoples time and the effort they have put in to travel and that we are adding value to them (and the project) in return.
When delivering digital or business transformation, one of the things that often gets overlooked is the cultural changes that are needed to embed the transformation succesfully.
There can be many reasons why this happens, either because it’s not been considered, because it’s not been considered a priority, or simply because the people leading the transformation work don’t know how to do this.
In my experience the culture of an organisation can be the thing that makes or breaks a successful transformation programme or change initiative; if the culture doesn’t match or support the changes you are trying to make, then it’s unlikely that those changes will stick.
Below are some common causes of failure in my experience:
The scope of transformation programmes have been considered and set in silos without considering how they fit within the wider strategy.
Decisions have been made at ‘the top’ and time hasn’t been spent getting staff engagement, feelings and feedback to ensure they understand why changes are being made.
Decisions have been made to change processes without validating why the existing processes exist or how the changes will impact people or processes.
Changes have been introduced without ensuring the organisation has the capability or capacity to cope.
Lack of empowerment to the transformation teams to make decisions.
When introducing agile or digital ways of working, corresponding changes to finance/ governance/ commercials haven’t been considered; increasing siloed working and inconsistencies.
Walk the talk:
Within Difrent we use tools like the Rich Picture and Wardley mapping to help Senior Leaders to understand their strategic priorities and clearly define the vision and strategy in a transparent and visual way. These help them be able to agree the strategy and be able to ‘sell it’ to the wider organisation and teams in order to get engagement and understanding from everyone.
In my experience this works especially well when the assumptions made by the SLT in the strategy and vision are tested with staff and teams before final version are agreed; helping people understand why changes are being made and how they and their role fit into the picture.
This is especially important when it comes to the next step, which is developing things like your transformation roadmap and target operating model. These things can not be developed in isolation if you want your transformation to succeed.
People always have different views when it comes to priorities, and ways to solve problems. It is vitally important to engage people when setting priorities for work, so they understand why changes to a data warehouse or telephony service are being prioritised before the new email service or website they feel they have been waiting months for. Feedback is key to getting buy in.
Equally assumptions are often made at the top level about something being a priority based on process issues etc. Without understanding why those processes existed in the first place, which can miss the complexity or impact of any potential changes. This then means that after changes have been delivered, people find the transformation hasn’t delivered what they needed, and workarounds and old ways of working return.
One thing I hear often within organisations is they want ‘an open and transparent culture’ but they don’t embody those principles when setting strategic or transformation priorities; as such people struggle to buy into the new culture as they don’t understand or agree with how decisions have been made.
While people are the most important thing when thinking about transformation and business change, and changing a culture; they are not the only thing we have to consider. The next step is processes.
Whatever has inspired an organisation to transform, transformation can not be delivered within a silo; it is important to consider what changes may need to be made to things like finances; commercials and governance.
While these aren’t always obvious things to consider when delivered digital transformation as an example, they are vitally important in ensuring its success. One thing many organisations have found when changing their culture and introducing things like agile ways of working, is that traditional governance and funding processes don’t easily support empowered teams or iterative working.
As such, it’s vitally important if you want transformation to succeed to not get trapped in siloed thinking, but instead take a holistic service approach to change; ensuring you understand the end to end implications to the changes you are looking to make.
Taking a leap:
Equally, when making changes to governance or culture, one thing I have found in my experience is that senior leaders; while they want to empower teams and bring in new ways of working, they then struggle with how to ‘trust’ teams. Often as Senior Responsible Owners etc. they don’t want to be seen to be wasting money. As such they can enter a loop of needing changes ‘proving’ before they can fully embrace them, but by not being able to fully embrace the changes they aren’t demonstrating the culture they want and teams then struggle themselves to embrace the changes, meaning the real value of the transformation is never realised.
There is no easy answer to this, sometimes you just have to take that leap and trust your teams. If you have invested in building capability (be that through training or recruitment of external experts) then you have to trust them to know what they are doing. Not easy when talking about multi-million pound delivery programmes, but this is where having an iterative approach really can help. By introducing small changes to begin with, this can help build the ‘proof’ needed to be able to invest in bigger changes.
There is no one ‘thing’
When delivering transformation, and especially when trying to change culture, there is no quick answer, or no one single thing you can do to guarantee success. But by considering the changes you will be making holistically, getting input and feedback from staff and stakeholders, engaging them in the process and challenging yourselves to demonstrate the cultural changes you want to see, it is much more likely the transformation you are trying to deliver will succeed.
One of the key personal aims I had when I joined Difrent, just over six months ago, was to work somewhere that would let me deliver stuff that matters. Because I am passionate about people, and about Delivery;
After 15 years, right in the thick of some pioneering public sector work, combining high profile product delivery with developing digital capability working for organisations like the Government Digital Services (GDS), Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), The Care Quality Commission (CQC), and the Ministry of Defence (MoD); I was chaffing at the speed (or lack thereof) of delivery in the Public sector.
I hoped going agency side would remove some of that red tape, and let me get on and actually deliver; my aim when I started was to get a project delivered (to public beta at the very least) within my first year. Might seem like a simple ask, but in the 10 years I spent working in Digital, I’d only seen half a dozen services get into Live.
This is not because the projects failed, they are all still out there being used by people; but because once projects got into Beta, and real people could start using them, the impetus to go-live got lost somewhat.
Six months into the job and things looked to be on track, with one service in Private beta, another we are working on in Public Beta; plus a few Discoveries etc. underway; things were definitely moving quickly and I my decision to move agency side felt justified. Delivery was happening.
And then Covid-19 hit.
With COVID-19, the old normal, and ways of working have had to change rapidly. If for no other reason than we couldn’t all be co-located anymore. We all had to turn too fully remote working quickly, not just as a company but as an industry.
Thankfully within Difrent we’ve always had the ability to work remotely, so things like laptops and collaborative software were already in place internally; but the move to being fully remote has still been a big challenge. Things like setting up regular online collaboration and communication sessions throughout our week, our twice-daily coffee catchups and weekly Difrent Talks are something created for people to drop in on with no pressure attached and has helped people stay connected.
The main challenge has been how we work with out clients to ensure we are still delivering. Reviewing our ways of working to ensure we are still working inclusively; or aren’t accidentally excluding someone from a conversation when everyone is working from their own home. Maintaining velocity and ensuring everyone is engaged and able to contribute.
This is trickier to navigate when you’re all working virtually, and needs a bit more planning and forethought, but it’s not impossible. One of the positives (for me at least) about the current crisis is how well people have come together to get things delivered.
Some of the work that we have been involved in, which would generally have taken months to develop; has been done in weeks. User research, analysis and development happening in a fraction of the time it took before.
So how are we now able to move at such a fast pace? Are standards being dropped or ignored? Are corners being cut? Or have we iterated and adapted our approach?
Once this is all over I think those will be the questions a lot pf people are asking; but my observation is that, if nothing else, this current crisis has made us really embrace what agility means.
We seem to have the right people ‘in the room’ signing off decisions when they are needed; with proper multidisciplinary teams, made up of people from both digital but also policy and operations etc, that are empowered to get on and do things. Research is still happening; but possibly at a much smaller scale, as and when it is needed; We’re truly embracing the Minimum Viable Product, getting things out there that aren’t perfect, but that real people can use; testing and improving the service as we go.
Once this is all over I certainly don’t want to have to continue the trend of on-boarding and embedding teams with 24 hours notice; and while getting things live in under 2 weeks is an amazing accomplishment; to achieve it comes at a high price – Not just in terms of resources but in terms of people, because that is where burnout will occur for all involved. But I believe a happy medium can be found.
My hope, once this is all over, is that we can find the time to consider what we in digital have learnt, and focus on what elements we can iterate and take forward to help us keep delivering faster and better, but in the right way, with less delays; so we can get services out there for people to use; because really, that is what we are all here to do.
In a previous blog I discussed the importance of understanding the value you are trying to add, and how you measure cost vs vale. How we measure value and ensure we are delivering a valuable return on investment is one of the ‘big’ questions at the moment, that never seems to go away.
Scott Colfer has equally blogged before on the complexity of measuring value when there is no profit to measure against. When working in the public sector it’s not an easy problem to solve. There is a lot of conversations about making sure we don’t waste public money, but how do we actually make sure public money is being spent in a valuable way?
The first principle of the Agile Manifesto is “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” But what is valuable?
At a kick off session this week, for a new project we’re shortly going to begin, a client said one of their hopes was that all code deployed would work first time; and someone else stated that they ‘didn’t want rework’. When we broke these thoughts down to understand where these fears were coming from, it was the need to add value and not waste money; which itself was coming from previous issues caused by a long time to deploy, and the cost to make changes.
There was equally the fear that by swapping out suppliers mid project we (as the new supplier) would want to redesign and rework everything to make it our own; which would slow down delivery and drive up cost even more.
There is obviously no value for anyone in doing that. The value comes by having a short feedback loop, co-designing and constantly testing, learning and iterating, working together in short weekly or fortnightly sprints, to get things delivered. Making sure there is little time as possible between designing something, to getting it tested and used by real users; ensuring it meets their needs as quickly as possible.
Through examining what has been delivered already against the user needs and the outcomes the organisation is looking to achieve; by identifying gaps and pain-points we reduce waste; and by prioritising the areas where improvements can be made we ensure that reworking only happens when there is actual value in doing so.
At a talk this week I was asked how we prioritise the work that needs doing and ensure that we do deliver. The important thing is to deliver something, but ideally not just any old thing, we want to ideally be delivering the right thing. Sometimes we won’t know what that is, and it’s only by doing something that we can establish whether that was the right thing or not. But that’s why short feedback loops are important. Checking back regularly, iterating and testing frequently, allows you too recognise when there is value in carrying on vs. value in stoping and doing something different.
When I’m trying to decide where the value is, and where is the best place to start, I consider things like:
Why are we doing this?
Why are we doing it now?
What happens if we don’t do this now?
Who will this affect?
How many people will it impact?
How long could this take?
Any indicative costs?
Any key milestones/ deadlines?
Any critical dependancies that could affect our ability to deliver?
Will this help us deliver our strategy? Or is it a tactical fix?
Once we have started work, it’s important to agree measure of success (be they financial, reducing time, staffing numbers; or things like improved uptake or a better customer experience) and keep measuring what is being delivered against those targets.
At Difrent a key part of the value we add is about the people, not just the technology or processes; there is value in us working in the open, by being transparent; running lunch and learn sessions or talks; blogging or speaking at events etc. we can add wider value outside of a specific project or service.
When we are considering what adds value, the other thing it’s important to consider is the culture we are delivering in. Are there communities of practice in place already, any design patterns we should be adhering too? There is value in building in consistency, as this helps us ensure we are delivering quality.
There are many different ways to determine what adds value, and many different kinds of value, but the importance is by focusing on making positive improvements, and by constantly learning from mistakes and ensuring they don’t get repeated so no time is wasted and real value can be delivered.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
This year has been a year of big change for me; I started a new job, left the public sector, moved cities, moved in with my partner, bought a new house, and most importantly, we got a dog.
As a Pagan, I celebrate Yule and the Winter Solstice; At the Winter Solstice we reach the longest night of the year. Darkness has reached its peak; and with the end of the longest night we celebrate the return of the Sun, the return of light, hope and promise.
As the year comes to an end I thought it would be worth reflecting on the year that is coming to a close, what I have learnt from it, things I’m still working on and taking forward into the year to come.
This year has been an interesting one, full of frustration and challenge; but also opportunities and excitement. I’ve always talked about the importance of finding your tribe, of being true to be yourself and being able to bring your whole self to work. For most of this year , if I’m honest, I was in a role that was not a good fit for me and I had never felt more cut off from my tribe. It taught me a lot.
What I have learnt:
What good leadership looks like
Reflecting on my time at the CQC, the fantastic opportunities that made me want to join the organisation when I was first offered the role, and the disappointment and frustration I felt in the last 6 months of the role after a change of line management left me being excluded and ignored. While CQC was a good fit for me at the start, a OneTeamGov event earlier this year on Leadership made me realise the impact a good (or bad) leader can have on an organisations culture.
The opportunities the organisation were facing were (and still are) real, but some of the recent hires brought in more recently made me realise that perhaps its readiness to embrace change at pace was not as real.
The difference within Difrent has been almost breath taking. From day one I’ve been empowered to get on and do things, with full support from my manager (the wonderful Rach) who has reminded me that there are good leaders out there fully capable of caring about their people.
By the time I left CQC’s culture, and its ways of working, were no longer right for me, it felt more insular and less a part of the Digital movement. I felt more cut off from my tribe than ever before, it was a lonely feeling. I think something I have learned in the last year, you can not change everything on your own; nor will you always fit in everywhere; someplace’s are just not right for you (which doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but bad for you), sometimes you need to make a change. But note, even when you can’t see it, change is happening. You are not alone.
Why the right culture matters
My frustrations with the culture in CQC, along with some advice from my mentor made me make a move outside of the public sector for the first time in my career. It’s something I thought long and hard about, as frustrated as I was at the CQC I didn’t want to just leave for any old role. The CQC made me realise I needed to find the right role, at the right organisation, with the right culture.
The senior leadership within Difrent talk constantly about our values, but it’s not just talk, it’s obvious everyone truly want to improve things together. Two months into the role, the suggestion we run a retro for the leadership team was met with open arms not disdain; everyone bought into the session and it felt very positive.
That’s not to say everything is perfect, it’s obvious that moving from ‘start up’ to ‘scale up’ means the culture has to adapt and change as well. But one thing I have learnt in the last year is good leaders don’t shy away from that challenge, they welcome it and talk about it in the open. That good leaders don’t just see ‘culture’ as a token word or a by product, but as a thing to invest in.
You need to believe in yourself
I am an optimist, which made me ignore the initial doubts and worries I felt at the CQC; made me assume the problems I was facing were unintentional, that things would improve, and my desire to make things better things and to protect my team meant I pushed aside my doubts and tried hard to work things out. It took me a long time to realise the cumulative effect that was having on my own confidence.
Two months into my role at Difrent and I think it was absolutely the right move for me. After months of being disempowered and isolated by a manager who did not welcome challenge and for whom Digital was only about the technology, not the people; my role in Difrent has been a reminder that people matter, that I matter, and I am good at what I do.
Within days of starting at Difrent I dived straight into contract negotiations and client engagement; talked to teams about what support they might need to enable them to deliver and within my first 60 days I lead on delivering my first (successful) pitch for business. I felt like I’ve achieved and delivered more in my last 2 months than the previous six months.
The importance of finding your own voice
My year has been a good one blog wise, many of my blogs were born from the frustrations I was feeling at the CQC, but also it felt like I finally hit my stride and found my tone of voice. While this blog has never been about ‘getting hits’ and more about sharing information, it’s been a very pleasant surprise to see how well they’ve done, the blogs about Thomas Cook and the Parliamentary Petitions site in particular seemed to strike a cord with people.
My goals for the year ahead:
My aim for next year is to keep building on the blog, but too also to try and get back into the swing of speaking at events. A year ago I was speaking at events fairly regularly, but the CQC hit my confidence more than I would like to admit. It’s hard to stand up in front of a crowd and feel like you have things to say when your manager regularly ‘accidentally’ leaves you out of the conversations your male colleagues seem to be invited to.
Since moving to Difrent I’ve already thrown my hat in the ring to speak at two conferences, and my aim is to try and have done 6 speaking events by the end of 2020. We shall see how that goes!
While politics at the moment is worrying, and has led some to question whether there is still empathy in the world, I’m approaching the next year full of hope. News like that of Twitter users recently joined together to develop a free Food Bank app highlight why the #TechForGood movement is so important and why I’m so proud to work for somewhere that is doing what it can to make a difference.
By this time next year I want to be able to stand up and talk about the things I have personally delivered. Up until now, while I’ve worked on amazing projects, very few of them I’ve been able to see through to delivery (either because of funding cuts, reprioritisation of projects, or promotions meaning I’ve move on before I got to see things through) the main reason for me taking the role at Difrent was to change that, to truly be able to deliver things that matter.
Both personally and professionally I’m doing what I can to add value, and learn from mistakes in the past to ensure the future is better.