The frustration of job descriptions and their lack of clarity.
One of the biggest and most regularly occurring complaints about the Civil Service (and public sector as a whole) is their miss-management of commercial contracts.
There are regularly headlines in the papers accusing Government Departments & the Civil Servants working in them of wasting public money, and there has been a drive over the last few years especially to improve commercial experience especially within the Senior Civil Service.
When a few years ago my mentor at the time suggested leaving the public sector for a short while to gain some more commercial experience before going for any Director level roles, this seemed like a very smart idea. I would obviously need to provide evidence of my commercial experience to get any further promotions, and surely managing a couple of 500K, 1M contracts would not be enough, right?
Recently I’ve been working with my new mentor, focusing specially on gaining more commercial knowledge etc. and last month he set me an exercise to look at some Director and above roles within the Digital and Transformation arena to see what level of commercial experience they were asking for, so that I can measure my current levels of experience against what is being asked for.
You can therefor imagine my surprise when this month we got together to compare 4 senior level roles (2 at Director level and 2 Director General) and found that the amount of commercial experience requested in the job descriptions was decidedly woolly.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised, the Civil Service is famous for its woolly language, policy and strategy documents are rarely written in simple English after all.
But rather than job specifications with specific language asking for “experience of managing multiple multi million pound contracts successfully etc”. What is instead called for (if mentioned specially at all) is “commercial acumen” or “a commercial mindset” but no real definition of what level of acumen or experience is needed.
The Digital Infrastructure Director role at DCMS does mention commercial knowledge as part of the person specification, which it defines as “a commercial mindset, with experience in complex programmes and market facing delivery.“
Finally we have the recently published Government CDO role, which clearly mentions commercial responsibilities in the role description, but doesn’t actually demand any commercial experience in the person specification.
At which point, my question is, what level of Commercial acumen or experience do you actually want? What is a commercial mindset and how do you know if you have it? Why are we being so woolly at defining what is a fundamentally critical part of these roles?
Recent DoS framework opportunities we have bid for or considered at Difrent have required suppliers to have have experience of things like “a minimum of 2 two million pound plus level contracts” (as an example) to be able to bid for them.
That’s helpful, as Delivery Director I know exactly how many multimillion pound contracts we’ve delivered successfully and can immediately decide whether as a company it’s worth us putting time or effort into the bid submissions. But as a person, I don’t have the same level of information needed to make a similar decision on a personal level.
The flip side of the argument is that data suggests that women especially won’t apply for roles that are “too specific” or have a long shopping list of demands, because women feel like they need to meet 75% of the person specification to apply. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but there’s a big difference between being far too specific and listing 12+ essential criteria for a role, and being soo unspecific you’ve become decidedly generic.
Especially when, as multiple studies have shown, in the public digital sector Job titles are often meaningless. Very rarely in the public sector does a job actually do what it says on the tin. What a Service Manager is in one Department can be very different in another one.
If I’m applying for an Infrastructure role I would expect the person specification to ask for Infrastructure experience. If I’m applying for a comms role, I expect to be asked for some level of comms experience; and I would expect some hint as too how much experience is enough.
So why when we are looking at Senior/ Director level roles in the Civil Service are we not helping candidates understand what level of commercial experience is ‘enough’? The private sector job adverts for similar level roles tend to be much more specific in terms of the amount of contract level experience/ knowledge needed, so why is the public sector being so woolly in our language?
*If you don’t get the blog title, I’m sorry, it is very geeky. and a terrible Philip K. Dick reference. But it amused me.
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!
Before I discuss what (in my view) a Service Owner is, a brief history lesson into the role might be useful.
The role of the ‘Service Manager‘ was seen as critically important to the success of a product, and they were defined as a G6 (Manager) who had responsibility for the end to end service AND the person who led the team through their Service Standard assessments.
Now let’s think about this a bit; Back when the GDS Service Standard and the Service Manual first came into creation, they were specifically created for/with GOV.UK in mind. As such, this definition of the role makes some sense. GOV.UK was (relatively) small and simple; and one person could ‘own’ the end to end service.
The problem came about when the Service Standards were rolled out wider than in GDS itself. DWP is a good example of where this role didn’t work.
The Service Manual describes a service as the holistic experience for a user; so it’s not just a Digital Product, it’s the telephony service that sits alongside it, the back end systems that support it, the Operational processes that staff use to deliver the service daily, along with the budget that pays for it all. Universal Credit is a service, State Pension is a service; and both of these services are, to put it bluntly, HUGE.
Neil Couling is a lovely bloke, who works really hard, and has the unenviable task of having overarching responsibility for Universal Credit. He’s also, a Director General. While he knows A LOT about the service, it is very unlikely that he would know the full history of every design iteration and user research session the Service went through, or be able to talk in detail about the tech stack and it’s resilience etc; and even if he did, he certainly would be very unlikely to have the 4 hours spare to sit in the various GDS assessments UC went through.
This led to us (in DWP) phasing out the role; and splitting the responsibilities into two, the (newly created role of ) Product Lead and the Service Owner. The Product Lead did most of the work of the Service Manager (in terms of GDS assessments etc), but they didn’t have the responsibility of the end to end service; this sat with the Service Owner. The Service Owner was generally a Director General (and also the SRO), who we clarified the responsibilities of when it came to Digital Services.
A few years ago, Ross (the then Head of Product and Service Management at GDS) and I, along with a few others, had a lot of conversations about the role of the Service Manager; and why in departments like DWP, the role did not work, and what we were doing instead.
At the time there was the agreement in many of the Departments outside of GDS that the Service Manager role wasn’t working how it had been intended, and was instead causing confusion and in some cases, creating additional unnecessary hierarchy. The main problem was, as it was in DWP, the breadth of the role was too big for anyone below SCS, which mean instead we were ending up with Service Managers who were only responsible for the digital elements of the service (and often reported to a Digital Director), with all non digital elements of the service sitting under a Director outside of Digital, which was creating more division and confusion.
As such, the Service Manual and the newly created DDaT framework were changed to incorporate the role of the Service Owner instead of the Service Manager; with the suggestion this role should be an SCS level role. However, because the SCS was outside of the DDaT framework, the amount the role could be defined/ specified was rather limited, and instead became more of a suggestion rather than a clearly defined requirement.
The latest version of the DDaT framework has interestingly removed the suggestions that the role should be an SCS role and any reference of the cross over with the responsibilities of SRO, and now makes the role sound much more ‘middle management’ again, although it does still specify ownership of the end to end service. Re-adding in the confusion we tried to remove a few years ago.
Ok, so what should a Service Owner be?
When we talked about the role a few years ago, the intention was very much to define how the traditional role of the SRO joined up closer to the agile/digital/user centred design world; in order to create holistic joined up services.
Below is (at least my understanding of) what we intended the role to be:
They should have end to end responsibility for the holistic service.
They should understand and have overall responsibility for the scope of all products within the service.
They should have responsibility for agreeing the overall metrics for their service and ensuring they are met.
They should have responsibility for the overall budget for their service (and the products within it).
They should understand the high level needs of their users, and what teams are doing to meet their needs.
They should have an understanding (and have agreed) the high level priorities within the service. ((Which Product needs to be delivered first? Which has the most urgent resource needs etc.))
They should be working with the Product/Delivery/Design leads within their Products as much as the Operational leads etc. to empower them to make decisions, and understanding the decisions that have been made.
They should be encouraging and supporting cross functional working to ensure all elements of a service work together holistically.
They should be fully aware of any political/strategy decisions or issues that may impact their users and the service, and be working with their teams to ensure those are understand to minimise risks.
They should understand how Agile/Waterfall and any other change methodologies work to deliver change. And how to best support their teams no matter which methodology is being used.
In this way the role of the Service Owner would add clear value to the Product teams, without adding in unnecessary hierarchy. They would support and enable the development of a holistic service, bringing together all the functions a service would need to be able to deliver and meet user needs.
Whether they are an SCS person or not is irrelevant, the important thing is that they have the knowledge and ability to make decisions that affect the whole service, that they have overall responsibility for ensuring users needs are met, that they can ensure that all the products within the service work together, and that their teams are empowered, to deliver the right outcomes.
The Agile Prime Directive states“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
This is a wonderful principle to have during Retrospectives, in order to avoid getting stuck in the blame game, and to instead focus on results.
However, lets be very clear, the Agile Prime Directive isn’t an excuse for not delivering. If every sprint you miss your sprint goals, or you’re team constantly suffers from scope creep etc. Then you need to look a bit deeper to understand what is going wrong.
Even if you agree every individual did the best job they could, as a team are you working best together? Are you understanding your teams velocity as best you can? Do you all understand and agree the scope of the project or your sprint goals? Have you got the right mix of individuals and roles in the team to deliver? Is your team and the individuals in it empowered to make decisions?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, this could be impacting your ability to deliver.
The Agile Prime Directive is a good mindset to start conversations in, as we want to create safe and supportive environments for our teams in order to help them achieve their full potential, and recognising that everyone has room to improve is an important part of that. Nowhere in the Agile Prime Directive does it state everyone is perfect, just that they did their best given the skills/ ability and knowledge they had at the time.
However, while it is a good mindset to start with, unfortunately we all know it’s not 100% true. the Agile Prime Directive itself has issues, while it’s a lovely philosophy, and its intent is good; as a manager, and as a human I have to admit even to myself I haven’t ‘done my best’ every single day.
While most of the time we do all try our best and do our best; everyone has bad days. Occasionally on a team there will be someone who isn’t (for whatever reason) doing their best, their focus is elsewhere etc. External life will sometimes effect peoples work, the kids are ill, they have money worries, their relationship has just ended; these things happen. There will be people who don’t work well together, they can be cordial to each other, but don’t deliver their best when working together, personality clash happens. We need to be able to spot and call all out these things, but we obviously need to be able to do so in a positive and supportive way as much as possible.
Open and honest communication is the key to delivery; and having a culture of trust and empowerment is a critical part of that. We need to create environments where people feel supported and able to discuss issues and concerns, and we need to acknowledge that sometimes, for whatever reason, those issues do come down to an individual; and while I’m not suggesting we should ever name and shame in a retrospective, we need to be able to deal with that in an appropriate way.
We need to not only know and understand that even if everyone ‘is doing their best’, they can still do better; but that sometimes we need to be able to recognise and support those individuals and those teams who for whatever reason are not doing or achieving their best.
These issues can’t always just be ‘left to the retro’, while the retro is a great space to start to air and uncover issues, and learn from what has gone well, and what needs to improve; part of leading and managing teams is understanding which conversations need to come out from the retro and be dealt with alongside it.
If we are constantly missing sprint goals or suffering scope creep, we can not simple say ‘but we are all doing our best’, that isn’t good enough. In this instance the participant award is not enough. We are here to deliver outcomes, not just do the best we can.
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.
Back when I started working in Digital as a Product Owner in 2011, and I did my agile training course, one of the first ‘principles’ that was discussed was ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question”. Which as a newbie in the agile/digital world was great to hear, because I felt like I knew literally nothing.
This concept has always been something I’ve repeated to the teams and people I’ve been working with. There will always be something you don’t know, it is impossible to know everything. Therefor we have to be able to ask questions and find out information without fear of being made to feel stupid.
However, as digital transformation and agile begins to roll out and spread, that acceptance of ‘not knowing’ seems to have become less common. I hear a lot from colleagues outside of digital that ‘agile is a cult, or digital is a clique’ with it’s own language that doesn’t welcome in those who don’t know the ‘lingo’.
A friend of mine had a scrum coach in to speak to their team and deliver some training to their organisation (if you don’t know what scrum is, that’s ok, here’s a link), and she said the way that he spoke to them was as if they were all idiots who knew nothing, and that he made scrum sound like a religion for zealots. There was no opportunity to question, only to agree. This isn’t what should be happening. There’s no better way to foster feelings of exclusion and frustration than be treating people who don’t know something as ‘lesser’.
The public sector has always struggled with acronyms, and while we regularly hear about the drive to reduce the use of them with the greatest will in the world, everyone will find themselves slipping up and using them sometimes, because they are everywhere and we assume that everyone knows them. But we have to remember that they don’t.
At a global digital conference last year in The Hague I was happily chatting away to someone working for the Dutch Pensions service and kept referencing several Government Departments by their acronyms without thinking, leaving the poor person I was speaking to rather lost.
Similarly in my interview for my current role, I was too embarrassed to check an acronym (PnL) and just assumed I knew exactly what I was being asked about. It was only after 10 minutes of waffle I was politely corrected that I was not been asked about Procurement frameworks and instead about my experience of managing Profit and Loss. Obvious in retrospective, but never an acronym I’d heard before and who want’s to look ignorant in an interview?
Clare made a point that often we’re not actually saving time by using acronyms, but we are gatekeeping and increasing that siloed attitude, which is counterproductive to the work we’re doing. This is especially important, as Rachelle pointed out, given how inaccessible acronyms often are, and that they are actually not unique. One random set of letters to me may mean something completely different to someone else working in a different organisation or sector or with completely different experiences. We are actually increasing the chance for confession and misunderstandings while not saving time or effort.
There is a lot of great work happening in the Public sector, using the Digital Service Standards (primarily standard 4 – make the service simple to use, and 5 – make sure everyone can use the service) and the principles of the Plain English Campaign, to simply the content we provide to users, to make it clear, concise and easy to comprehend. However when it comes to how we talk to each other, we are forgetting those same standards.
My conversation this week has reminded me how important it is, as a Senior Leader to:
firstly try and not use acronyms or digital/agile jargon, or to not make assumptions about other peoples knowledge without checking first their experience and understanding.
Secondly, speak up and ask more questions when I don’t know things. To show by doing, that it is ok to not know everything.
After-all, there are no stupid questions, just opportunities to learn and share knowledge.
So you’re a leader in your organisation and Agile is ‘the thing’ that everyone is talking about. Your organisation has possible trialed one or two Agile projects within the Digital or Tech department, but they haven’t really delivered like you thought they would, and you think you can ‘do more’ with it, but honestly, what even is it in the first place?
It’s a question that comes up fairly regularly, and if you are asking it, you are not alone! This blog actually started from such a conversation last week.
First and foremost there is Agile with a capital A, this is the project methodology, predominantly designed for software development, as defined here. It “denotes a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.”
However nowadays, especially in the public sector, agile doesn’t only apply to software. More and more of the conversations happening in communities like #OneTeamGov are about the culture of agility. How you create the environment for Agile to succeed, and this is where many people, especially leaders, are getting lost.
So how do you ‘be agile?’
Being agile is borrowing the concepts used in agile development, to develop that culture. As Tom Loosemore says when talking about Digital, it’s about “applying the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”
But it’s more than what you transform, it’s how you do it.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
When you consider individuals and interactions over processes and tools, then you remove unnecessary hierarchy and empower people to make decisions. You don’t enforce rigid processes for the sake of it, but iterate your governance based on feedback of users (in this instance your staff!). By being agile you focus on communicating directly with human beings, looking to how you can accommodate more actual conversations, and time together, rather than relaying on emails and papers as your only way to communicate.
By prioritising working software over comprehensive documentation you are constantly testing and iterating what works based on what is meeting your user needs, rather than deciding upfront what the answer is before knowing if it will actually work. You involve user research in your policy and strategy discussions. You analyse and test your new processes before you implement them. You change your funding and governance models to allow more innovation and exploration, and base your decisions on data and evidence, not theory. By being agile you are able to demonstrate working product or tangible services to stakeholders and customers, rather than just talking about what will be done.
Customer collaboration rather than contract negotiation is about bringing people along with you and working in partnership, achieving results together. Embracing and managing change to be innovative and deliver value whilst still being competitive and minimising unproductive churn and waste.
When thinking about responding to change over following a plan, it’s about being able to innovate and iterate. Prioritising and working on the most important work first. Building in short feedback loops and taking on board feedback.
Why is ‘being agile’ important?
Because as the market changes, and users expectations change, companies that can not take onboard feedback and iterate their products and services loose out. This is also true when it comes to companies themselves in terms of what they offer their staff, less people now go to work just for the money, people want more job satisfaction, empowering staff to make decisions and cutting bureaucracy are not only ways to cut costs, but also increase the value to both your users, your stakeholders and your staff.
Resources to help:
Scrum.org have a decent blog on Agile Leaders which can be found here
For Leaders in the Public Sector, the Digital Academy has an Agile for Leaders course, details of which can be found here
The Centre for Agile Leadership has a blog on business agility here (and for those in the US they run courses)
And the Agile Business Consortium have a white-paper describing the role of culture and leadership within Agile which can be found here
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.