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Why SME’s are important, but shouldn’t be the Product Manager

Along time ago in a land far away; well four years ago and sat in a very cold office in trafalgar square; Ross Ferguson , Alex Kean , Scot Colfer and I plus a few others sat discussing the DDaT capability framework for Product Management.

The discussions we had at the time focused on “how do we actually define the role? And what makes a good product manager?” And there have been plenty of blogs written on those questions over the years. It definitely feels like the role has matured and progressed over the last few years, and now is generally pretty well recognised.

However yesterday chatting to Si Wilson about SME’s and Product Managers, and why they were different roles, I realised this may be one area not touched on much, and actually a pretty key difference it’s important to understand.

In the private sector, the Product Manager is often “the voice of the business”, they are equally seen as the “voice of the customer” but when developing products to take to market and make a profit, it’s less about what the users need, and what the business can sell to them.

In the Public Sector, the role of the Product Manager is a bit different. The Product Manager is NOT the voice of the business, instead they are the voice of the vision. The Product Manager is responsible for ‘what could be’ they ensure the team are delivering quality and value, weighing up the evidence from everyone else in the team and making the decisions on where to focus next in order to meet the desired outcomes.

This slight change in focus is where the role of the Subject Matter Expert (SME) comes in. The Scrum Dictionary states the SME is the person with specialised knowledge; in my experience the SME provide’s the voice of the business; and what ‘is’ rather than what will be. They understand the in’s and out’s of an existing product, service or any sacred cows that need to be avoided (or understood) within an organisation. They usually work closely with the Business Analyst to map out business processes and User Researchers to understand staff experiences.

Back when we merry band of Head’s of Product were trying to understand the role, the decision to not have Product Managers ‘be the voice of the business’ was a very deliberate move as we felt it hampered the move to User Centred design, as it felt it was hard to step back and be agnostic about the solution if you’ve had years in the business and know every pain point and workaround going etc.

Some of the dangers of having a Product Manager who is also an SME are:

  • They feel they know everything already because of their experience, so feel that user research or testing is a waste of time.
  • They become a single point of failure for both knowledge and decision making, with too many people needing their attention at the same time
  • They can get lost in the weeds of details, which can lead to micromanaging or a lack of pace

That is not at all to say that Product Managers can’t ‘come from the business’ because obviously having some knowledge about the organisation and the service is helpful. But equally, having a clear delineation between the roles of the Product Manager and the SME is important; so if you do have someone covering both roles, it’s important to understand which hat is being worn when decisions are made; and for that individual to be able to draw a line between when they are acting as the PM and when they are the SME.

A person presenting at a whitewall to a team

As a Product person, a good SME is worth their weight in gold. good ones bring loads of speed and stretching thinking — and even packaging thinking. They can help identify pain points, and help user researchers and business analysts find the right people to talk to when asking questions about processes’ etc. They give the Product Manager room to manoeuvre, and make sure things are moving on. Equally the best SME’s can be pragmatic, they understand that what the business wants doesn’t always match what users want, and work with the team to find the best way forward.

Where the role of the SME hasn’t worked well, in my experience, it tends to be because the individual hasn’t been properly empowered to make decisions by their organisation or line manager; or don’t actually have the knowledge required, and are instead their to capture questions or decisions and feed them back to their team/manager. Another common issues is that the SME can’t be pragmatic or understand the difference between user needs and business needs; and won’t get involved in user research or understand its importance. Rather than helping the team move work forward, they slow things down; wanting every decision justified to their satisfaction; wanting to make decisions themselves rather than working with the Product Manager.

Rarely have I found SME”s that could be dedicated full time to one project, they tend to be Policy or Ops experts etc. and so there are a lot of demands on their time. I suspect this is one of the reasons the role of the SME and Product Manager if sometimes blended together. However, while they ‘can’ be filled by the same person, in my experience having those roles filled by separate people does work much better, and allow the team to deliver value quicker.

The people getting left behind

Why ‘in the era of remote working we need to stop thinking about ‘digital services’ as a separate thing, and just think about ‘services’.

Last night when chatting to @RachelleMoose about whether digital is a privilege, which she’s blogged about here, it made me remember a conversation from a few weeks ago with @JanetHughes about the work DEFRA were doing, and their remit as part of the response to the current pandemic (which it turns out is not just the obvious things like food and water supplies, but also what do we do about Zoo’s and Aquariums during a lockdown?!)

A giraffe

This in turn got me thinking about the consequences of lockdown that we might never have really have considered before the COVID 19 pandemic hit; and the impact a lack of digital access has on peoples ability to access public services.

There are many critical services we offer everyday that are vital to peoples lives that we never imagined previously as ‘digital’ services which are now being forced to rely on digital as a means of delivery, and not only are those services themselves struggling to adapt but we are also at risk of forgetting those people for whom digital isn’t an easy option.

All ‘digital’ services have to prove they have considered Digital Inclusion, back in 2014 it was found approx. 20% of Britains had basic digital literacy skills, and the Digital Literacy Strategy aimed to have everyone who could be digital literate, digitally able by 2020. However it was believed that 10% of the population would never be able to get online, and the Assisted Digital paper published in 2013 set out how government would enable equal access to users to ensure digital excluded people were still able to access services. A report by the ONS last year backs this assumption up, showing that in 2019 10% of the population were still digital excluded.

However, as the effects of lockdown begin to be considered, we need to think about whether our assisted digital support goes far enough; and whether we are really approaching how we develop public services holistically, how we ensure they are future proof and whether we are truly including everyone.

There have been lots of really interesting articles and blogs about the impact of digital (or the lack of access to digital) on children’s education. With bodies like Ofsted expressing concerns that the lockdown will widen the gap education between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children from more affluent homes; with only 5% of the children classified as ‘in need’ who were expected to still be attending school turning up.

An empty school room

According to the IPPR, around a million children do not have access to a device suitable for online lessons; the DfE came out last month to say there were offering free laptops and routers to families in need; however a recent survey showed that while over a quarter of teachers in private schools were having daily interaction with their pupils online less than 5% of those in state schools were interacting with their pupils daily online. One Academy chain in the North West is still having to print home learning packs and arrange for families to physically pick up and drop off school work.

The Good Things Foundation has shared its concerns similarly about the isolating effects of lockdown, and the digital divide that is being created, not just for families with children, but for people with disabilities, elderly or vulnerable people or households in poverty. Almost 2 million homes have no internet access, and 26 million rely on pay as you go data to get online. There has been a lot of concern raised about people in homes with domestic violence who have no access to phones or the internet to get help. Many companies are doing what they can to try and help vulnerable people stay connected or receive support but it has highlighted that our current approach to designing services is possibly not as fit for the future as we thought.

The current pandemic has highlighted the vital importance for those of us working in or with the public sector to understand users and their needs, but to also ensure everyone can access services. The Digital Service Standards were designed with ‘digital’ services in mind, and it was never considered 6 months ago, that children’s education, or people’s health care needed to be considered and assessed against those same standards.

The standards themselves say that the criteria for assessing products or services is applicable if either of the following apply:

  • getting assessed is a condition of your Cabinet Office spend approval
  • it’s a transactional service that’s new or being rebuilt – your spend approval will say whether what you’re doing counts as a rebuild

The key phrase here for me is ‘transactional service’ ie. the service allows:

  • an exchange of information, money, permission, goods or services
  • submitting of personal information that results in a change to a government record

While we may never have considered education as a transactional service before now, as we consider ‘the new normal’ we as service designers and leaders in the transformation space need to consider which of our key services are transactional, how we are providing a joined up experience across all channels; and what holistic service design really means. We need to move away from thinking about ‘digital and non digital services’ and can no longer ‘wait’ to assess new services, instead we need to step back and consider how we can offer ANY critical service remotely going forward should we need to do so.

A child using a tablet

Digital can no longer be the thing that defines those with privilege, COVID 19 has proved that now more than ever it is an everyday essential, and we must adapt our policies and approach to service design to reflect that. As such, I think it’s time that we reassess whether the Digital Service Standards should be applied to more services than they currently are; which services we consider to be ‘digital’ and whether that should even be a differentiator anymore. In a world where all services need to be able to operate remotely, we need to approach how we offer our services differently if we don’t want to keep leaving people behind.

Matt Knight has also recently blogged on the same subject, so linking to his blog here as it is spot on!

How to change a culture

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.

The Rich picture Difrent developed for the NHSBSA
The NHSBSA rich picture

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.

A whiteboard with the word 'feedback' written in the middle with written notes around it
‘Feedback’

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.

Think wider:

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.

A woman standing in front of a project wall
A project board full of post it notes

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.

The word 'change'
Change.

Delivering in a crisis

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.

Parcel delivery

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.

Gov.uk COVID-19 website
A tablet displaying the Gov.uk COVID-19 guidance

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.

Graffiti saying ‘Made in Crisis’

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.

Stay home, stay safe, save lives
Sign saying ‘stay home, stay safe, save lives’



Where is this meeting anyway?

Gone are the days of wandering round a building trying to find the meeting room your next meeting is meant to be in. Now a days, in the new world of working from home and virtual meetings I seem to be wandering round the internet trying to find my next virtual meeting host.

One minute I’m in zoom, the next it’s over to Chime, then it’s Skype, hangouts or Teams.

I’ve had to download a load of new software/ sign up for new accounts etc; and have already (just the once thankfully) gotten lost and sat in the wrong virtual meeting space wondering why no-one else has turned up.

The art of remote working isn’t new to me (in the old world I worked at home 2-3 days a week anyway) but as everyone moves to this new way of working; I’ve gained a lot more meetings and workshops; and skipping between meeting spaces is a new challenge, and one I suspect i’m not alone in facing.

A virtual meeting!

So here are some top tips I’ve learnt so far:

  • Make sure meetings are 45 mins out of an hour; this leaves people 15 mins between meetings to stand up, move around, get a cuppa etc, before they load up their next meeting.
  • Make sure the meeting location is highlighted in the location, and again in the meeting text. I’ve spotted in a few meeting invites (possibly because we use G-suite) that hangouts seems to be in there, even when the meeting is actually on Zoom etc.
  • Check when setting up a meeting that everyone can access that meeting space (I can’t access Skype as we don’t use Microsoft) and ensure you’re highlighting the dial in option for those that need it.
  • As individuals taking ownership of our calendars and blocking out time when we are free for calls, or need to do something else* and aren’t available for meetings, to ensure we are not constantly running from one meeting to another with no time to ‘do stuff’
  • And as meeting organisers we should enable and encourage people to dip out of meetings when they get a phone call they have to take or need to do something else*, and come back when they can!
  • Don’t be afraid to recognise when you aren’t adding value to a meeting, or when you can add more value elsewhere and allow yourself to leave meetings you don’t have to be in; and as meeting organisers we should be calling our and encouraging people to do just that.

*Especially with more people having children at home, or others in the house also working from home.

The main takeaway for me is that it’s much easier when working from home to just sit at your desk all day; as I no longer have the onus on me to walk to my next meeting; or pop over to a colleagues desk for a chat; so I need the time between meetings to move around and stretch if nothing else. Secondly I’m more likely to leave a virtual meeting open even when I have other work to do and I can’t give it my full attention, as it’s just another screen; whereas before I was much better at being careful and prioritising my time when I had to be in the room physically; a bad habit and one I ( and others) need to make sure we’re not falling afoul of.

The world is changing and we need to change our working habits to stay healthy and productive. We can’t just make everything virtual, we need to adapt our working practices to make virtual work for us. Who knows if, or when, we will ever return to our old meeting rooms!

An empty meeting room

How do we determine value?

And how do we make sure we are delivering it?

In a previous blog I discussed the importance of understanding the value you are trying to add, and how you measure cost vs vale. How we measure value and ensure we are delivering a valuable return on investment is one of the ‘big’ questions at the moment, that never seems to go away.

Scott Colfer has equally blogged before on the complexity of measuring value when there is no profit to measure against. When working in the public sector it’s not an easy problem to solve. There is a lot of conversations about making sure we don’t waste public money, but how do we actually make sure public money is being spent in a valuable way?

A jar of coins
A jar of coins being spilt

The first principle of the Agile Manifesto is “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” But what is valuable?

At a kick off session this week, for a new project we’re shortly going to begin, a client said one of their hopes was that all code deployed would work first time; and someone else stated that they ‘didn’t want rework’. When we broke these thoughts down to understand where these fears were coming from, it was the need to add value and not waste money; which itself was coming from previous issues caused by a long time to deploy, and the cost to make changes.

There was equally the fear that by swapping out suppliers mid project we (as the new supplier) would want to redesign and rework everything to make it our own; which would slow down delivery and drive up cost even more.

There is obviously no value for anyone in doing that. The value comes by having a short feedback loop, co-designing and constantly testing, learning and iterating, working together in short weekly or fortnightly sprints, to get things delivered. Making sure there is little time as possible between designing something, to getting it tested and used by real users; ensuring it meets their needs as quickly as possible.

Through examining what has been delivered already against the user needs and the outcomes the organisation is looking to achieve; by identifying gaps and pain-points we reduce waste; and by prioritising the areas where improvements can be made we ensure that reworking only happens when there is actual value in doing so.

A parcel being delivered
Parcel delivery

At a talk this week I was asked how we prioritise the work that needs doing and ensure that we do deliver. The important thing is to deliver something, but ideally not just any old thing, we want to ideally be delivering the right thing. Sometimes we won’t know what that is, and it’s only by doing something that we can establish whether that was the right thing or not. But that’s why short feedback loops are important. Checking back regularly, iterating and testing frequently, allows you too recognise when there is value in carrying on vs. value in stoping and doing something different.

When I’m trying to decide where the value is, and where is the best place to start, I consider things like:

  1. Why are we doing this?
  2. Why are we doing it now?
  3. What happens if we don’t do this now?
  4. Who will this affect?
  5. How many people will it impact?
  6. How long could this take?
  7. Any indicative costs?
  8. Any key milestones/ deadlines?
  9. Any critical dependancies that could affect our ability to deliver?
  10. Will this help us deliver our strategy? Or is it a tactical fix?

Once we have started work, it’s important to agree measure of success (be they financial, reducing time, staffing numbers; or things like improved uptake or a better customer experience) and keep measuring what is being delivered against those targets.

At Difrent a key part of the value we add is about the people, not just the technology or processes; there is value in us working in the open, by being transparent; running lunch and learn sessions or talks; blogging or speaking at events etc. we can add wider value outside of a specific project or service.

A person presenting at a whitewall to a team
People listening to someone speaking/ sharing

When we are considering what adds value, the other thing it’s important to consider is the culture we are delivering in. Are there communities of practice in place already, any design patterns we should be adhering too? There is value in building in consistency, as this helps us ensure we are delivering quality.

There are many different ways to determine what adds value, and many different kinds of value, but the importance is by focusing on making positive improvements, and by constantly learning from mistakes and ensuring they don’t get repeated so no time is wasted and real value can be delivered.

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

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

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

A neon sign with a ‘?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graffiti asking ‘what do you mean?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

What even is agile anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you ‘be agile?’

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

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

The Agile manifesto says that Agile is about:

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

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

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

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

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

Post it notes on a wall

Why is ‘being agile’ important?

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

Resources to help:

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

#OneGreenGov

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

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

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

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

Icebergs

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

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

Placard with a climate change slogan

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

Climate change and heat stress slide from OneGreenGov

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

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

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

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

Thoughts from the other side

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do something great’

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

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

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

Graphiti saying ‘yes’!

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

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

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

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

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