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Tag: Delivery

How do we make legacy transformation cool again?

Guest blog first published in #TechUk’s Public Sector week here on the 24th of June 2022.

Legacy Transformation is one of those phrases; you hear it and just… sigh. It conjures up images of creaking tech stacks and migration plans that are more complex and lasting longer than your last relationship.  

Within the Public Sector, over 45% of IT spend is on Legacy Tech. Departments have been trying to tackle legacy transformation for over 20+ years; but it remains the number one blocker to digital transformation.  

An image of some servers in black and white covered in wires.
Black and White servers

So why is it so hard and what can we do about it?   

The fundamental problem with Legacy transformation is that as an approach it’s outdated.  

The problem companies are trying to solve is that their technology systems need modernising or replacing; usually (at least in the public sector) these programmes come about because a contract is coming to an end and/or the platform the companies’ technology was built upon is effectively burning and can no longer be maintained.  

The problems with this approach are:  

  • That it so often ends in a big bang transition due to the desire to avoid hybrid running of services because of the complexity of migration 
  • The architecture of the new system is constrained by the need to remain consistent with the technical architecture used across the organisation,   
  • Transformation programmes can easily fall into the trap of delivering a ‘like for like’ solution that misses out on opportunities for innovation; this can be for many reasons, often as they have a cliff edge contract leaving them in a rush to find a replacement quickly,   
  • The programmes are developed in siloes, only considering the technical changes needed; but they don’t consider the wider business change needed to make transformation stick.  
  • The value is only delivered once the new service goes live and replaces the old system when it’s turned off.  This leaves many organisations needing to run both systems at once; but not wishing to due to the large cost implications.  

Due to these issues the big bang delivery often ends up being a lot later than planned; costing significantly more while neither meeting the users or business needs; and quickly becoming outdated.  

Don’t forget, the latest thing you’ve just updated will itself be considered Legacy in 5 years; so do we need to start thinking about legacy transformation differently? Is there an iterative approach to legacy transformation that works, and how should we approach it?  

Within Kainos we’ve worked hard to bring the User Centred design principles we’ve used to successfully deliver Digital Services to accomplish high impact legacy transformation programmes. By understanding user needs and business requirements we can plan early for ‘just enough’ legacy change to support the transformation; prioritising and identifying the value that can be added where and when; building scalable and extensible services that will maximise automation opportunities; carefully evaluating transition options and data migration dependencies so we can ensure we’re meeting user needs and adding value at each stage without risking business disruption.   

A whiteboard covered in post it notes and a user journey to demonstrate user centred design
User Centric Design

This incremental, user centred approach allows us to identify opportunities for innovation and truly enable digital transformation that focuses on the business benefits, reducing overall costs whilst realising value early and often.  

By thinking about business change and taking this iterative approach to realise value early and often we’ve been able to stop assuming that every element of the old legacy service needs throwing out and replacing; and instead, we’re identifying those elements that can be kept with just a bit of love and care to update them and make them work, and which elements we need to deliver something new. By prioritising where we focus our effort and making sure whether it is something old or something new, or a combination of the two, we can meet those critical user and business needs.  

Up-cycling doesn’t just work for vintage furniture and clothes after all, maybe it’s time we take that same mindset when we’re think about technical transformation; reinventing something old and making it into something better and new. After all tech changes faster than ever, so if we don’t change our mindset and approach, we will be left behind and quickly not just become out of fashion, we’ll be outdated.  

By adapting our approach to Legacy Transformation, Kainos are able to build excellent services that are secure and that users want to use; transforming business processes to fully embrace digital channels; microservices architecture that reduces future legacy risk; and costs that are optimised to benefit from public cloud platforms. 

Maximising the Lean Agility approach in the Public Sector

First published on the 26th June 2022 as part of #TechUk’s Public Sector week here ; co-authored by Matt Thomas.

We are living in a time of change, characterised by uncertainty. Adapting quickly has never been more important than today, and for organisations, this often means embracing and fully leveraging the potential of digital tools.

A lot has been said about Lean Agility but for an organisation in the Public Sector facing the prospect of a digital transformation, it is still difficult to understand what to do and how.

In our mind, while lean helps to solve the right problems, agility supports quick adaptability and the ability to change course whenever necessary.

A poster saying 'build, measure, learn" with an image of a pencil eraser removing the "L" or learn
Build, Measure, Learn

At Kainos working in the Digital Advisory team the one problem we hear about repeatedly from clients is the difficulties they face of delivering the right thing at pace, and how they struggle to maximise their efficiency. Some of the typical red flags we see when beginning to understand why clients are struggling to deliver effectively are:

  • evergreen delivery projects that never end; without an end product in sight or a product nobody uses constantly being tweaked; as opposed to teams delivering units of quantifiable value,  
  • lacking prioritisation; everything is a priority and so everything is in-flight at the same time,  
  • development is stalled or slow; with poor delivery confidence and large gaps between releases, 
  • traditional long-term funding cycles requiring a level of detail which doesn’t match near-term agile planning and responsive delivery, 
  • ineffective communication and lack of experienced deliver leadership; so decision making is made on gut feel and who shouts loudest rather than being firmly tied to desired business outcomes, 
  • Siloed pockets of various stages of Agile adoption /maturity and effectiveness making coordinated planning and collaboration difficult. 

Within Kainos our belief was that by introducing Lean-Agility Management we could scientifically remove waste & inefficiency whilst Increasing delivery confidence, employee job satisfaction and visibility of the work being undertaken. As such we. introduced a lightweight and straightforward Lean-Agility approach that could be adopted across multiple portfolios. 

Our approach does not just focus on Agile coaching (although that’s part of it) or other isolated elements of a transformation, but on 4 distinct pillars: Lean-Agility Management, Lean-Analytics & Dashboarding, Product & Design Coaching and Agile Coaching & Architecture.  This gives us the opportunity to build sustainability and in-house expertise to continue this journey. 

Recently we’ve been working with an integrated energy super-major to help them improve in several of these key areas.  We were asked to help, whilst contributing to the wider Agility transformation by bringing consistent high standards in delivery culture and ways of working through Lean and Agility. 

The results have delighted the client; we have managed to improve delivery speed by over 70%, delivery confidence by more than 50% and job satisfaction by over 20%.

This approach is one we’re using with several other clients in the commercial sector, all with similar positive effects; but it’s not something we encounter being used within the Public Sector much; either by us or by other consultancies.

How can this approach help the public sector and what is needed to make this a success?

From our experience, we have found the key elements to getting this right are:  

  • Starting with a Proof of Value (POV) – We tend to pick two volunteer squads to test with and prove this approach can work and add value.  
  • Senior Buy in and time – Agility transformation lives and dies by the clarity and direction of its leaders; teams need clear leadership, the support and empowerment to innovate and improve.  
  • Pod structure connects the transformation from exec to squads 
  • Multi-disciplined Agility team with knowledge of Product, Design and DevSecOps as well as Agility 
  • Desire to change culture – We don’t just mean continuous improvement, everybody does that, the difference is evolving to a resolute passion to rigorously improve everything 
  • Data at the core – clear metrics give teams a direction of travel and an idea of where targeted improvements could add real value   
  • Consider the people – We track job satisfaction because it’s important. Improvements come from your people. If you keep losing your people, you’re constantly going to be in a state of hiring and retraining, which is costly in terms of time and money. Happy people innovate and perform better.

Our Lean-Agility approach is very much an Agile approach to an Agile transformation, we start small prove the value, learn your business, customise and adapt. Lean-Agility is something we mould to you rather than a theory we try to plug and play, in that sense Lean-Agility for you will look and feel different to Lean-Agility for a different client and so it should! 

Becoming Product Led

Recently I was asked how I would go about moving an organisation to being Product Led; when agile and user centric design are equally new to the company, or when agile has not delivered in the way that was expected.

Before diving into the how, I think it’s worth first considering the what and they why.

What do we mean by being ‘product led’?

A product led approach is where your product experience is the central focus of your organisation. Within the public sector we incorporate user centric design into our products to ensure that we deliver real value by:š

  • Taking an outside-in perspective (starting with user needs)š;
  • Rapid, early validation of ideas (testing early and often); š
  • Maturing through iteration (based on user feedback)š and
  • Disciplined prioritisation (using quantitative and qualitative data) to deliver value.

Is this not just another name for agile?

This is a question that comes up regularly; and in my opinion, no it’s not. Agile is a delivery methodology; being product led is wider than that. it’s the wrapper that sits above and surrounds the delivery approach you use. It comes ‘before’ you decide on which delivery methodology you will use; and continues long after. It’s your culture and ways of working. The two can often go hand in hand; but if agile is the how, product is the what and the why.

Why is being product led important?

šWell, by moving to a product led approach we allow the organisation to link their outputs to their customer needs and ensuring they align to their organisational capabilities and strategy. šIt also allows organisations to focus on their customers needs and understand their users perspectivesš. By understanding and focusing on user needs it allows organisations to deliver value faster, making it quicker and easier for organisations to learn from what has gone well (and what hasn’t)š which in turn makes cheaper and faster to address any issues or risksš. It also makes it easier for organisations to spot opportunities for innovation and growth.

How do you move your organisation to being product led?

First things first, a culture that empowers the asking of questions and testing of hypothesis is essential for innovation. But to allow that to happen, organisations need senior leaders who understand and support their teams to work in this way. The appropriate ,light weight/ adaptable, governance and funding approvals processes being in place are critical to enable product innovation and empower delivery teams.

The second element that’s key is having the right data. Good product orientation depends on having access to quality data; what are our current metrics? Where are our current pain points? Do we understand our current costs? What products/ services have the highest demand? etc. This data enables us to make quality decisions and measure our progress our successes.

Thirdly, we need to have clearly articulated strategy/vision for the organisation; what is our USP (Unique Selling Proposition)? What do we want to achieve? What are our goals? What value are we looking to add? What do we want to be different in 5/10 years from now?

To develop that strategy/vision, we need to have a clear understanding about our users and stakeholders. Who are we developing these products for? Who are our stakeholders? How are we engaging with them? What do they need from us?

Finally, once we’ve got the strategy, the vision, an understanding of our user needs and a set of hypothesis we want to test; we need a healthy delivery approach, with skilled teams in place to enable us to test our ideas and deliver that value. As we’ve said previously, to be product centric we need to be able to design services that are based on user needs, so that we can test regularly with our users to ensure we understand, and are meeting, those needs.

What are the sign of a good product led culture?

  • You are regularly engaging with the users; working to understand their needs and iterating your approach and services based on their feedback.
  • Your culture empowers and encourages people to ask questions. “Why are we doing this?”; “Who are we doing this for”, “Is anyone else already doing this?”, “What will happen if we don’t do this {now)?”, “What have we learnt from our previous failures/successes?”
  • Your teams are working collaboratively, policy and operations teams working hand in hand with tech/digital teams; to ensure you’re delivering value.
  • You’re considering and testing multiple options at each stage; looking for innovative solutions, and working to understand which options will best meet your users needs and add the most value.
  • Linked to the above; You’re testing regularly, being willing to ‘throw away’ what doesn’t work and refine your ideas based on what does work.
  • You’re delivering value early and often.
Prioritising the backlog

Which comes first, the Product Manager, or the product culture?

If you don’t have any trained product people, can you begin to move to a product led culture, or must you hire the product people first? This is the chicken and the egg question. For many organisations, especially those already using agile delivery methodologies or engaged in digital transformation; they may have already sunk a lot of time and money into delivery, and pausing their work whilst they change their culture and hire a load of skilled product folk just isn’t going to work; but, you can begin to move towards a product led approach without hiring a load of Product Managers. Whilst having experience product folk can definitely help, you probably have lots of folks in the organisation who are already over half way there and just need some help on that road.

One stumbling block many organisations fall over on their move to a product led approach is the difference between focusing on outcomes, rather than outputs or features.

An output is a product or service that you create; an outcome is the problem that you solve with that product. A feature is something a product or service does, whereas a benefit is what customers actually need. If we go straight to developing features, we could be making decisions based on untested assumptions. 

There are 5 steps to ensure you’re delivering outcomes that add value and deliver benefits vs. focusing on features that simply deliver an output:š

  • State the Problemš – what are we trying to solve/change?
  • Gather User Data – have we understood the problem correctly?
  • Set Concrete Goals and Define Success Criteria – what would success look like? š
  • Develop Hypothesis – how could we best solve this problem? š
  • Test Multiple Ideas – does this actually solve the problem?

When you’re trying to identify the right problem to fix, look at existing data from previous field studiescompetitive analysisanalytics, and feedback from customer support. Use a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to ensure you have understood your user needs, and their behaviours.  Then analyse the information, spot any gaps, and perform any additional research required to help you verify the hypothesis you have developed when trying to decide how you could solve the problem your users are facing.

They key element to being product led is understanding the problem you are trying to fix and focusing on the value you will deliver for your users by fixing it. It’s about not making assumptions you know what your users want, but by engaging with your users to understand what they need. It’s about spotting gaps and opportunities to innovate and add value, rather than simply building from or replacing what already exists. It’s about focusing on delivering that value early and often.

Assessing Innovation

(co-written with Matt Knight)

Some background, for context

Just over a month ago I got approached to ask if I could provide some advice on assessments to support phase two of the GovTech Catalyst (GTC) scheme. For those who aren’t aware of the GovTech Catalyst Scheme, there’s a blog here that explains how the scheme was designed to connect private sector innovators with the public sector sponsors, using Innovate UK’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to help find promising solutions to some of the hardest public sector challenges.

Person in a lab coat with a stethoscope around their neck looking through a Virtual Reality head set.
Looking for innovation

The Sponsor we were working with (who were one of the public sector sponsors of the scheme) had put two suppliers through to the next phase and allocated funding to see how and where tech innovation could help drive societal improvements in Wales. As part of their spend approval for the next phase, the teams had to pass the equivalent of a Digital Service Standard assessment at the 6 month point in order to get funding to proceed. 

For those who aren’t aware, there used to be a lovely team in GDS who would work with the GTC teams to provide advice and run the Digital Service Standard assessments for the projects; unfortunately this team got stood down last year; after the recent GTC initiatives started, leaving them with no one to talk to about assessments, nor anyone in place to assess them. 

The sponsor had reached out to both GDS and NHS Digital to see if they would be willing to run the assessments or provide advice to the teams, but had no luck; which left them a bit stuck; which is where I came in. I’ve blogged before about the Digital Service Standards; which led to the Sponsor reaching out to me to ask whether I’d be willing and able to help them out; or whether I knew any other assessors who might be willing to help. 

Preparing for the Assessments

As there were two services to assess; one of the first things I did was talk to the wonderful Matt Knight to see if he’d be willing and able to lead one of the assessments. Matt’s done even more assessments than me; and I knew he would be able to give some really good advice to the product teams to get the best out of them and their work. 

Matt and I sat and had a discussion on how to ensure we were approaching our assessments consistently; how to ensure we were honouring and adhering to the core tenants of the Digital Standards whilst also trying to assess the teams innovation and the value for money their services could deliver in line with the criteria for the GovTech scheme.

What became quickly apparent was; because this was to support the GTC scheme; the teams doing the work were fully private sector with little experience of the Digital Service Standards. A normal assessment, with the standard ‘bar’ we’d expect teams to be able to meet, wouldn’t necessarily work well; we’d need to be a little flexible in our approach. 

Obvious, no matter what type of Assessment you’re doing the basic framework of an assessment stays the same (start with user needs, then think about the End-to-End service, then you can talk about the team and design and tech, and along the way you need to ask about the awkward stuff like sustainability and open source and accessibility and metrics) can be applied to almost anything and come up with a useful result, regardless of sector/background/approach. 

As the services were tasked with trying to improve public services in Wales, we also wanted to take account of the newly agreed Welsh Digital Standards; using them alongside the original Digital Standards; obviously the main difference was the bits of the Welsh Standards that covered ensuring the well-being of people in Wales and promoting the Welsh Language (standards 8 & 9), you can read more about the Well being of future generations Act here

The assessments themselves 

An image of a team mapping out a user journey
User Journey Mapping

The assessments themselves ran well, (with thanks to Sam Hall, Coca Rivas and Claire Harrison my co-assessors) while the service teams were new to the process they were both fully open and willing to talk about their work, what went well and not so well and what they had learnt along the way. There was some great work done by both the teams we assessed, and it’s clearly a process that everyone involved learned a lot from, both in terms of the service teams, and the sponsor team, and it was great to hear about how they’d collaborated to support user research activities etc. Both panels went away to write up their notes; at which point Matt and I exchanged notes to see if there were any common themes or issues; and interestingly both assessments had flagged the need for a Service Owner from the sponsor to be more involved in order to help the team identify the success measures etc. 

When we played the recommendations and findings back to the Sponsor, this led to an interesting discussion; although the sponsor had nominated someone to act as the link for the teams in order to answer their questions etc. and to try and provide the teams some guidance and steer where they could. Because of the terms of the GTC scheme, the rules on what steers they could and couldn’t give were quite strict to avoid violating the terms of the competition. Originally the GTC team within GDS would have helped the sponsors navigate these slightly confusing waters in terms of competition rules and processes. However, without an experienced team to turn to for advice it leaves sponsors in a somewhat uncomfortable and unfamiliar position; although they had clearly done their best (and the recommendations in this blog are general comments on how we can improve how we assess innovation across the board and not specifically aimed at them)”

Frustratingly this meant that even when teams were potentially heading into known dead-ends etc; while the sponsor could try to provide some guidance and steer them in a different direction; they couldn’t force the teams pivot or change; instead the only option would be to pull the funding. While this makes sense from a competition point of view; it makes little to no sense from a public purse point of view; or from a Digital Standards point of view. It leaves sponsors stuck (when things might have gone a little off track) rather than being able to get teams to pivot; they are left choosing between potentially throwing away or losing some great work; or investing money in projects that may not be able to deliver. 

Which then raises the question; how should we be assessing and supporting innovation initiatives? How do we ensure they’re delivering value for the public purse whilst also remaining fair and competitive? How do we ensure we’re not missing out on innovative opportunities because of government bureaucracy and processes? 

In this process, what is the point of a Digital Service Standard assessment? 

If it’s like most other assessment protocols (do not start Matt on his gateway rant), then it’s only to assess work that has already happened. If so, then it’s not much good here, when teams are so new to the standards and need flexible advice and support on what they could do next etc.   

If it’s to assess whether a service should be released to end users, then it’s useful in central government when looking to roll out and test a larger service; but not so much use when it’s a small service, mainly internal users or a service that’s earlier on in the process aiming to test a proof of concept etc. 

If it’s to look at all of the constituent areas of a service, and provide help and guidance to a multidisciplinary team in how to make it better and what gaps there are (and a bit of clarity from people who haven’t got too close to see clearly), then it’s a lot of use here, and in other places; but we need to ensure the panel has the right mix of experts to be able to assess this. 

While my panel was all fantastic; and we were able to assess the levels of user research the team had done, their understanding of the problems they were seeing to solve, their ability to integrate with legacy tech solutions and how their team was working together etc. none of us had any experience in assessing innovation business cases or understanding if teams had done the right due diligence on their financial funding models. The standards specify that teams should have their budget sorted for the next phase and a roadmap for future development; in my experience this has generally been a fairly easy yes or no; I certainly wouldn’t know a good business accelerator if it came and bopped me on the nose. So while we could take a very high level call on whether we thought a service could deliver some value to users; and whether a roadmap or budget looked reasonable; a complex discussion on funding models and investment options was a little outside our wheelhouse; so was not an area we could offer any useful advice or recommendations on.  

How can we deliver and assess innovation better going forward? 

If we’re continuing to use schemes like the GTC scheme to sponsor and encourage private sector innovators to work with the public sector to solve important problems affecting our society, then we obviously need a clear way to assess their success. But we also need to ensure we’re setting up these schemes in such a way that the private sector is working with the public sector; and that means we need to be working in partnership; able to advise and guide them where appropriate in order to ensure we’re spending public money wisely. 

There is a lot of great potential out there to use innovative tech to help solve societal issues; but we can’t just throw those problems at the private sector and expect them to do all the hard work. While the private sector can bring innovative and different approaches and expertise, we shouldn’t ignore the wealth of experience and knowledge within the public sector either. We need people within the public sector with the right digital skills, who are able to  prioritise and understand the services that are being developed inorder to ensure that the public purse doesn’t pay for stuff that already exists to be endlessly remade. 

Assessment can have a role in supporting innovation; as long as we take a generous rather than nitpicking (or macro rather than micro) approach to the service standard. Assessments (and the Standards themselves) are a useful format for structuring conversations about services that involve users (hint: that’s most of them) just the act of starting with user needs – pt 1 – rather than tech – changes the whole conversation. 

However,  to make this work and add real value, solve a whole problem for users (point 2 of the new uk govt standard) – is critical, and that involves having someone who can see the entire end to end process for any new service and devise and own success measures for it. The best answer to both delivering innovation, and assessing it, is bringing the private and public sector together to deliver real value; creating a process that builds capacity, maturity and genuine collaboration within the wider public sector. A space to innovate and grow solutions. True multidisciplinary collaboration, working together to deliver real value.

“Together, We Create”

Big thanks to Matt for helping collaborate on this, if you want to find his blog (well worth a read) you can do so here:

Cost vs. Quality

A debate as old as time, and a loop that goes around and around; or so it seems in the Public Sector commercial space.

Every few years, often every couple of spend control cycles, the debate of cost vs. quality rears its head again; with Commercial weighting flip flopping between Quality as the most important factor, to cost (or lowest cost) as the highest priority.

When quality is the most important factor in the commercial space; Government Departments will prioritise the outputs they want to achieve; and weighting their commercial scores to the areas that indicate Quality – things like ‘Value Add’; ‘Delivering Quality’, ‘Culture’, ‘Delivering in Partnership etc’. We will see more output focused contracts coming out on to the market; with organisations clear on the vision they want to achieve and problems they need to solve and looking for the supplier that can best help them achieve that.

When reducing costs becomes the highest priority, the commercial weighting moves to ‘Value for Money’. Contracts are more likely to be fixed price and are often thinly veiled requests for suppliers to act as body shops rather than partners with commercial tenders scoring day rate cards rather than requesting the cost for overall delivery of outcomes.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, when the priority switches to cost over quality; we end up with a lot of projects not being delivered; of outcomes being missed, and user needs not being met. In order to cut more and more costs, offshoring resource can become the only way to deliver the results cheaply; with the departmental project teams working out of sync with their offshore delivery partners; making co-design and delivery much harder to do, and making it almost impossible to achieve the required quality. This goes in a cycle, with Departments toting and grooming between “offshore as much as possible to cut costs” and “the only way to deliver quality is for everyone to be collocated in the office 100% of the time”. Full collocation of the teams inevitably driving up the costs again.

So, does that mean in order to get quality we have to have high costs? Surely there is an obviously a sweet spot we’re all looking for, where cost and quality align; but why does it seem so hard to achieve within the Public Sector and what do we need to be looking at to achieve it?

When the government commercial function (and GDS) shook up the public sector digital world over nearly a decade ago they introduced things like the Digital Marketplace and implemented the Spend Control pipeline; with the aim of moving departments away from the large SI’s that won 90% of government contracts. These suppliers often charged a fortune and rarely seemed to deliver what was actually needed. (This blog gives the details on what they intended, back in 2014).

Lots of SME suppliers began to enter the market and began to win contracts and change up how contracts were delivered, as completion increased, costs decreased; with quality partnerships forming between new suppliers and government departments; and the quality of delivery increased as new options, solutions and was of working were explored.

However, this left Departments managing lots of individual contracts; which grew increasingly complex and time consuming to mange. In order to try and reduce the number of contracts they had to manage; the scale of the contracts began to increase, with more and more multimillion pound contacts emerging.

As the size and value of the contracts increased, SME’s began to struggle to win them, as they couldn’t stand up the teams needed quickly; nor could they demonstrate they had the experience in delivering contracts of that scale; which became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the larger SI’s continued to win the larger contracts as they were the only ones able to provide the evidence they could staff and deliver them; and their costs remained high.

This left the SME’s facing three options:

  • Decide not to try for the larger contracts, reducing the amount of competition; potentially increasing costs and decreasing quality in the long run);
  • Form partnership agreements with a number of other SME’s or a larger supplier (again reducing the amount of completion) in order to be able to stand up the teams needed and enable delivery of larger contracts. However having a consortium of suppliers not used to working together could complicate delivery, which could in turn decrease the quality or speed of delivery if not carefully managed; as such not all contracts allowed consortium or partnership bids due to the perceived complexity they could bring.
  • Or the SME aimed to grow to allow them to be able to win and deliver the larger contracts. As SME’s grew however, they would often have to either increase their costs in order to run a larger organisation that could still deliver the same quality they did as before; or they could keep their costs low, but their quality would likely decrease.

Throughout the pandemic, the focus has been on delivery; and there’s been a healthy mix of both small and large contracts coming out, meaning lots of competition. While costs have always been a factor;  the pandemic allowed both departments and suppliers to remove much of the costly admin and bureaucratic approval processes in favour of lightweight approaches involved to bring on suppliers and manage teams outputs, encouraging innovation in delivery and cost; with lockdowns ensuring co-location was now out of the question many suppliers were able to reduce their rates to support the pandemic response as both departments and suppliers agreeing that the priority had been on delivering quality products and services to meet organisations and users urgent needs.The removal of co-location as a prerequisite also open up the market to more suppliers to bid for work, and more individuals applying for more roles; which increased competition and inevitably improved the quality out the outputs being produced. This in fact led to a lot of innovation being delivered throughout the pandemic which has benefited us all.

As we move out of the pandemic and into the next spending review round; the signs are that the focus is about to swing back to costs as the highest priority. With larger contracts coming out that are looking for cheaper day rates in order to allow departments to balance their own budgets; but as the economy bounces back and departments begin to insist again that teams return to the office, most suppliers will want to increase their costs to pre-pandemic levels. If we’re not careful the focus on cost reduction will mean we could decrease the quality and innovation that has been being delivered throughout the pandemic; and could cost the taxpayers more in the long run. Look at DWP’s first attempt to deliver Universal Credit for how badly things can go wrong when cost is the highest priority and when the Commercial team and runs the procurement process with minimum input from Delivery; driving the commercial and deliver decisions being made more than quality.

To find the sweet spot between Cost and Quality we need to create the best environment for innovation and competition. Allowing flexibility on where teams can be based will support this; supporting and encouraging SME’s and Medium sized suppliers to bid for and win contracts by varying contract sizes and values. Focusing on outputs over body shopping. Looking for what value suppliers can add in terms of knowledge transfer and partnership rather than simply prioritising who is the cheapest.

It’s important we all work together to get the balance between cost and quality right, and ensure we remain focused on delivering the right things in the right way.

Seesaw

How to be a Product Advocate

Why you need a Product Person in your team.

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

‘Products at the heart of delivery’ image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need more Product advocates.

Delivering Value for yourself and others

Just short of two years ago I accepted the role of Director of Delivery at Difrent, a big move for me as I’d only worked in the Public Sector, but a good opportunity to see how things worked on the other side of the commercial table; and a great opportunity to work with some fantastic people (Honestly, Rach Murphy herself is a powerhouse who can teach the world a thing or two and always worth making time for) outside of the public sector, and learn new skills.

The services we were delivering at Difrent we’re very similar to those I’d been working on before, and I worked with many familiar faces; but still the challenges were new. Working at a start up that was beginning to scale up was a very different environment to working in a large established Government Department. Not just delivering great services that meet user needs, but also building up business processes; scaling up teams; winning new business.

And then there was the pandemic.

Because of it’s strong background in Health, Difrent was on the front line when it came to stepping up and supporting the COVID-19 response working with the NHSBSA; NHSX and DHSC. I always thought that my time on Universal Credit was the most fast pacing and demanding time of my life; which it turns out was nothing compared to being asked to stand up 6 teams of experts within 72 hours at the start of the first wave to support various urgent pandemic related services.

Alongside supporting and delivering high priority COVID-19 related services in unprecedented timescales (we successfully helped delivery of the Home Testing service in under a month) we also had to keep delivering our existing products and services; helping Skills for Care go Live with their Adult Workforce Data Set service, continuing delivery of NHS Jobs, helping the Planning Inspectorate pass their Beta Assessment for their Appeals service and delivering the wholesale business transformation for the British Psychological Society; whilst also picking up and delivering a whole host of other projects and services that we continued to win.

Because of the pandemic, a lot of new teams were beginning to work with Digital Service Standards, and having to go through Service Standard Assessments for the first time; and an increasing amount of my time began being demanded by clients to support them understand and adhere to the service standards. I’ve always joked about my perfect record for passing Assessments (while being clear, that not passing the first time isn’t failure, it just means you have more to learn!) working with one client to turn around their service in under 3 weeks from complete un-adherence to the standards to passing a Beta assessment has got to be a personal best!

The last year has been full on, with long weeks and even longer days. I’m so proud of everything DIfrent has achieved in the last 18 months; but I also recognised the time is right for me to move on and focus more on the bits of my role I am most passionate about.

And what is that? Being hands on and working with clients to solve problems. Having the time to work with teams to understand the issues they’re facing and how to go about fixing them. Seeing the positive changes being made and thinking of ways to keep iterating and improving on what we’ve done. Investing in and building that cultural and organisation change up over time. Whilst at the same time having a proper work life balance again; having time to give attention to my family and friends; rediscovering the things I enjoy doing outside of work and having time and energy to do them. As lockdown begins to end, it’s time for me to have a new start.

And so, from next week I’m moving on to work with Kainos, I’m really excited about this new opportunity. Going into a larger organisation means there will be more peers to share that load; bigger problems to solve for clients, bigger teams to work with, all with the benefit of the organisational processes etc in place already that we will need to deliver large projects; which will allow me to focus on working with clients fully and ensuring I’m delivering real value to them, and getting real value myself from my work.

Partnership

The good and the bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Digital Transformation

It’s something that has come up a lot in conversations at the moment, what is Digital Transformation? What does Digital Transformation mean to me? I always joke that it’s my TED talk subject, if I had one; as such I thought why not write a blog about it?

What is Digital Transformation?

According to Wikipedia, Digital Transformation “is the adoption of digital technology to transform services or businesses, through replacing non-digital or manual processes with digital processes or replacing older digital technology with newer digital technology.

The Wikipedia definition focuses on 3 of the main areas of Digital Transformation; technology, data, process; which are the areas most people quote when but doesn’t reference organisational change; which is often recognised as the 4th pillar needed for successful transformation.

If we’re being specific, then I agree with the Wikipedia definition at the project or service level, but when someone says Digital Transformation to me; I automatically start thinking about what that means at the organisational level, before moving onto the other areas.

I’ve done plenty of blogs previously on the importance of considering your organisational culture when trying to implement change; and how likely it is that your transformation will fail if you don’t consider your culture as part of it; but that as we see from the Wikipedia Definition; the people side of Digital Transformation is often forgotten.

There’s a good blog here that defines the 4 main challenges organisations face when looking to implement Digital Transformation, which it defines as:

  • Culture.
  • Digital Strategy and Vision.
  • IT infrastructure and digital expertise.
  • Organisational Structure.

Here, we see Culture is the first/largest challenge mainly organisations face; which is why it’s important is’t not treated as an afterthought. Why is that? Is our methodology wrong?

So how do we go about delivering Digital Transformation?

The Enterprise project has a good article here on what it views as the 3 important approaches leaders should take when implementing Digital Transformation.

  • Solve the biggest problem first.
  • Collaborate to gain influence.
  • Keep up with information flows.

There’s (hopefully) nothing revolutionary here; this is (in my opinion) common sense in terms of approach. But so often, when we start talking about Digital Transformation, we can quickly fall into the trap about talking about frameworks and methodology; rather than the how and why of our approach to solving problems. So, are there any particular frameworks we should be using? Does the right framework guarantee success?

There are lots of different frameworks out there; and I can’t document them all; but below are some examples…

This article sums up what it deems as the top 5 Digital Transformation frameworks, which are the big ones; including MIT; DXC; CapGemini; McKinsey; Gartner; Cognizant and PWC. It’s a good summary and I won’t repeat what it says about each, but it looks at them in the following terms that I think are key for successful Digital transformation:

  • customer-centricity
  • opportunity and constraints
  • company culture
  • simplicity

There are obviously a few others out there; and I thought I’d mention a couple:

The first one is this AIMultiple; this one interestingly has culture as the final step; which for me makes it feel like you are ‘doing transformation to the teams rather than engaging teams and bringing them into the transformation; which doesn’t work well for me.

AIMultiple Digital Transformation Framework
https://research.aimultiple.com/what-is-digital-transformation/#what-is-a-digital-transformation-framework

This second one; from ionology, has Digital Culture and Strategy as its first building block; with user engagement as its second building with equal waiting to Processes, Technology and Data. It recognises that all of these elements together are needed to deliver Digital Transformation successfully. This one feels much more user centric to me.

https://www.ionology.com/wp-new/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Digital-Transformation-Blocks-Equation.jpg

So where do you start?

Each of these frameworks has key elements they consider, in a particular order that they feel works best. But before panicking about which (if any) framework you need to pick; it’s worth remembering that no single framework will work for every business and any business will need to tailor a framework to fit their specific needs. 

How you plan to approach your transformation is more important than the framework you pick. Which is why the Enterprise article above about good leadership for me is spot on. We should always be asking:

  • What is the problem you’re trying to solve within your organisation by transforming it, and why?
  • Who do you need to engage and collaborate with to enable successful transformation?
  • What is the data you need to understand how best to transform your organisation?

Once you know what you’re trying to achieve and why, you can understand the options open to you; you can then start looking at how you can transform your processes, technology, data and organisational structure; at which point you can then define your strategy and roadmap to deliver. All of the above should be developed in conjunction with your teams and stakeholders so that they are engaged with the changes that are/will be happening.

Any framework you pick should be flexible enough to work with you to support you and your organisation; they are a tool to enable successful Digital Transformation; not the answer to what is Digital Transformation.

So, for me; what does Digital Transformation mean?

As the Enterprise Project states; Digital transformation “is the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business, fundamentally changing how you operate and deliver value to customers. It’s also a cultural change that requires organisations to continually challenge the status quo, experiment, and get comfortable with failure.” Which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Agile Delivery in a Waterfall procurement world

One of the things that has really become apparent when moving ‘supplier side’ is how much the procurement processes used by the public sector to tender work doesn’t facilitate agile delivery.

The process of bidding for work, certainly as an SME is an industry in itself.

This month alone we’ve seen multiple Invitations to Tender’s on the Digital Marketplace for Discoveries etc, as many departments are trying to spend their budget before the end of the financial year.

The ITT’s will mention user research and ask how suppliers will work to understand user needs or hire proper user researchers. But they will then state they only have 4 weeks or £60K to carry out the Discovery. While they will specify the need for user research, no user recruitment has been carried out to let the supplier hit the ground running; it’s not possible for it to be carried out before the project starts (unless as a supplier you’re willing to do that for free; and even if you are, you’ve got less than a week to onboard your team, do any reading you need to do and complete user recruitment, which just isn’t feasible); and we regular see requests for prototypes within that time as well.

This isn’t to say that short Discoveries etc. are impossible, if anything COVID-19 has proved it is possible, however there the outcomes we were trying to deliver were understood by all; the problems we were trying to solve were very clear,; and there was a fairly clear understanding of the user groups we’d need to be working with to carry out any research; all of this enabled the teams to move at pace.

But we all know the normal commercial rules were relaxed to support delivery of the urgent COVID-19 related services. Generally it’s rare for an ITT to clarify the problem the organisation is trying to solve, or the outcomes they are looking to achieve. Instead they tend to solely focus on delivering a Discovery or Alpha etc. The outcome is stated as completing the work in the timeframe in order to move to the next stage; not as a problem to solve with clear goals and scope.

We spend a lot of time submitting questions trying to get clarity on what outcomes the organisations are looking for, and sometimes it certainly feels like organisations are looking for someone to deliver them a Discovery solely because the GDS/Digital Service Standard says they need to do one. This means, if we’re not careful, halfway through the Discovery phase we’re still struggling to get stakeholders to agree the scope of the work and why we really do need to talk to that group of users over there that they’ve never spoken too before.

Image result for gds lifecycle
The GDS lifecycle

The GDS lifecycle and how it currently ties into procurement and funding (badly) means that organisations are reluctant to go back into Discovery or Alpha when they need too, because of how they have procured suppliers. If as a supplier you deliver a Discovery that finds that there is no need to move into Alpha (because there are no user needs etc) or midway through an Alpha you find the option you prioritised for your MVP no longer meets the needs as anticipated, clients still tend to view that money as ‘lost’ or ‘wasted’ rather than accepting the value in failing fast and stopping or changing to do something that can add value. Even when the clients do accept that, sometimes the procurement rules that brought you on to deliver a specific outcome mean your team now can’t pivot onto another piece of work, as that needs to be a new contract; either scenario could mean as a supplier you loose that contract you spent so much time getting, because you did ‘the right thing’.

We regularly pick up work midway through the lifecycle; sometimes that’s because the previous supplier didn’t work out; sometimes its because they were only brought in to complete the Discovery or Alpha etc. and when it comes to re-tender, another supplier is now cheaper etc. That’s part and parcel of being a supplier; but I know from being ‘client side’ for so long how that can make it hard to manage corporate knowledge.

Equally, as a supplier, we rarely see things come out for procurement in Live, because there is the assumption by Live most of the work is done, and yet if you follow the intent of the GDS lifecycle rather than how it’s often interpreted, there should still be plenty of feature development, research etc happening in Live.

This is turn is part of the reason we see so many services stuck in Public Beta. Services have been developed by or with suppliers who were only contracted to provide support until Beta. There is rarely funding available for further development in Live, but the knowledge and experience the suppliers provided has exited stage left so it’s tricky for internal teams to pick up the work to move it into Live and continue development.

Most contracts specify ‘knowledge transfer’ (although sometimes it’s classed as a value add; when it really should be a fundamental requirement) but few are clear on what they are looking for. When we talk to clients about how they would like to manage that, or how we can ensure we can get the balance right between delivery of tangible outcomes and transferring knowledge, knowledge transfer is regularly de-scoped or de-prioritised. It ends up being seen as not as important as getting a product or service ‘out there’; but once the service is out there, the funding for the supplier stops and the time to do any proper knowledge transfer is minimal at best; and if not carefully managed suppliers can end up handing over a load of documentation and code without completing the peer working/ lunch and learns/ co-working workshops we’d wanted to happen.

Some departments and organisations have got much better at getting their commercial teams working hand and hand with their delivery teams; and we can always see those ITT’s a mile off; and it’s a pleasure to see them; as it makes it much easier for us as suppliers to provide a good response.

None of this is insurmountable, but we (both suppliers and commercial/procuring managers and delivery leads) need to get better at working together to look at how we procure/bid for work; ensuring we are clear on what the outcomes we’re trying to achieve are, and properly valuing ‘the value add’.