×

Category: Leadership

The managers guide to understanding ADHD

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

Let’s talk about ADHD

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

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

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

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

So, what is ADHD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to best support employees with ADHD

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

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

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

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

Some helpful strategies people with ADHD use: 

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

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

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

5 positive traits of ADHD.

Neurodiverse parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter post announcing the Kainos Neurodiversity Employee Network launch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for the positives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making User Centred Design more inclusive

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

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

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

Paper Prototypes/ Wireframes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

person in red sweater holding babys hand

Product vs Service vs Programme?

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

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

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

There you go, question answered!

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

So, let’s talk about going on holiday!

Sunglasses on a beach
Dreaming of a sunny holiday

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

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

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

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

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

white airplane on mid air
Come Fly Away

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

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

So there you have it:

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

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

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

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

Is it time for Flexible Working to actually become flexible?

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

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

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

Street sign – Downing St

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

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

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

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

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

Crowds

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

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

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

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

A virtual meeting

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

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

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

‘The question is who… are you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rafiki (image from Disney’s the Lion King)

Service Owner vs. Programme Manager vs. Product Lead

What’s the difference? Does the name matter?

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So can we get some clarity?

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

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

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

Let’s be clear, say what do you mean

How to be a Product Advocate

Why you need a Product Person in your team.

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

‘Products at the heart of delivery’ image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need more Product advocates.

Partnership

The good and the bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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