[Still] lots to learn

5 lessons I’m learning from the ONS Beta project


One way or another I have made my living working on something web related since 1997. I’ve done that in libraries, universities, charities, startups, as a one man band and as a civil servant.

I started writing HTML in Notepad, moved to using MS FrontPage and then Dreamweaver before using all manner of content management systems and these days I seem to have gone almost full circle as I write MarkDown in Byword.

I was an early adopter of social media and a relatively slow starter to blogging but it is safe to say once that one caught it stuck.

I’ve been a Prince2 project manager, a MSP Programme Manager and an agile coach.

In all that time I have learned a lot. I’ve had some successes and some failures. I’m proud of a lot of what I have been involved in over the years but there have certainly been some bad decisions, mis-steps and some regrets.

In all that time I’ve never learned more than I have this year. It is a big week coming up with our Service Assessment and a couple of appearances at our Executive Group and Board and before that I just wanted to capture some of the big lessons I’ve been learning this year;

  1. It really is all about the people. GDS are prone to say ‘user research is a team sport’ which I whole heartedly agree with but when you are a small team working on a big project then the whole thing becomes a team sport. My team have been brilliant and worked tirelessly all year but it has been hard at times and I could have done a better job in supporting them. Every sprint team members go above and beyond what I expect but maybe too much and a culture has developed where people are pushing too hard, too often. I need to get better at spotting that and having more options available to me to handle it when I do.
  2. Hiring is hard and not getting any easier. I’ll have done more than 50 interviews this year — for almost all of them I also wrote the job descriptions, did the application sifts, answered the informal questions from interested parties and wrote the feedback for unsuccessful applicants. I’ve learned a huge amount this year about recruitment and reading great posts like this from Code for America makes me think we are going in the right direction but god it is tiring (‘hiring is tiring’) and there are a lot of factors outside of my control. I need to make sure that everything that I can control though is working towards hiring the best people possible.
  3. Working in the open is right but it isn’t enough. I’ve always been a big exponent of working and thinking in public for maximum transparency. The problem though is that is people don’t realise you are working in the open it might as well be behind closed doors. Despite our efforts not enough people have engaged with the Beta or our blogging (let alone Github). There have been a committed audience of influencers who have been following us and sharing with their networks but next time (god I hope there isn’t a next time) I’d coordinate with more traditional communications activities and raise the profile of the work.
  4. Having users that really care is amazing but you need to look after those relationships. We’ve been incredibly privileged to consistently have amazing engagement from users at every stage of this project. They have visited research labs, filled in surveys, completed online research, met us in coffee shops and borrowed meeting rooms. They are not doing this out of the kindness of their hearts though — they have a stake in the project and need to see results. Getting the communication right with these people and making sure they see the impact of their help is vital. As is not taking advantage of their desire to help by going back to the same people again and again.
  5. Agile working needs to be agile. Slavishly following an approach doesn’t work and even something that starts working well with your team at the start can begin to have diminishing results over time. Things need to evolve and iterate as the team does to get the best results and this is a difficult story to explain to people used to a more traditional governance structure who expect a certain consistency from reporting up the ‘chain’. We have made encouraging moves towards breaking the classic reporting model but it feels fragile at the moment and needs nurturing if it is going to last longer term.

As soon as I hit publish I am sure I will think of another five at least but for now, today, these are the lessons that I’m learning.