A company ‘of the web’ not just ‘on the web’..?

I know I’m not using the ‘of the web..’ idea correctly here — though I suspect there aren’t that many of us around who remember people at the Guardian espousing that principle that led to me using it a lot at the ONS.

The thing is I find myself in a — for me — pretty rare situation career wise. I have joined a company that is just barely a year old and for a variety of reasons is probably even younger than that as for as the evolution of its culture. So I am in a position to potentially help steer that culture from an unusually early stage — devoid of the usual institutional inertia I’ve faced elsewhere.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of company I want to be a part of.

As a starting point I see my job description as basically making Tom’s definition of digital a reality for organisations:

Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

..and I wonder what a company culture would look like if everything started there.

Things didn’t work out for me at mySociety but I learned an enormous amount — not least it gave me an inkling of what an internet-age organisation could look like.

There is a brilliant culture page on their website that gives some real insight into their ways of working. As I’ve written before I really struggled with being in a totally remote organisation but I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been without the steps mySociety already had in place to ensure the internal communication was as great as it was.

A highlight of my brief stay at Defra was working with Emily as she brought a discipline and structure to remote team working as well — in less than ideal circumstances — and also she really upped my understanding around things like ‘communities of practice’ and true multi-disciplinary teams via her ‘team onion’ work.

All these experiences have helped my thinking but none of them are directly applicable I think. Nor is everything I’ve learned from Mozilla over the years or wonderfully open organisation examples like Gitlab. They all help though.

The model that seems to be emerging for us is more like a ‘distributed’ organisation than a ‘remote’ one. To bring it back to being ‘of the web’ (and to totally brutalise another saying) I see us as ‘small teams, loosely joined’.

Being ‘distributed’ though means you need to work harder and smarter to ensure that you have a shared culture and behaviours. It would be pretty easy for nodes to go rogue.

Not surprisingly I think one of the ways to mitigate against this is to work in the open as much as possible. When you are a mix of permanent staff, ‘associates’ and occasional contractors having your principles and processes out in the open just makes sense. One practical example of this is that James (our CEO) is introducing a ‘code of conduct’ for all NotBinary staff — whatever their status as far as HMRC are concerned. We are light on HR overhead but this ‘code’ — based on examples from open source communities — feels like something native to our industry and a good fit for our ambitions. I want to get this out on the open web as soon as possible and then build out our shared identity from there.

Every individual is different though and I think a distributed model means it takes longer for everyone to get to understand each others nuances, eccentricities and ways of working. While it is true that probably something like Cassie’s ‘User Manual’ might be too much for some people I do think a lighter weight version would be useful for all staff — maybe an extension to the Slack user page? — to accelerate the getting to know each other phase.

For the hundredth time Giles recently inspired me with something he wrote as well. This post about allowing strategy to emerge by doing the thinking in the open as you move forward — and capturing the important themes in stickers to reinforce thing with your people — really clicked with me. Talking about what you are seeking to achieve, why you think it is worthwhile and how you are going to do it — as you actually work it out — is the sort of thing that builds trust and for an organisation built on ‘small teams, loosely joined’ to succeed there will need to be trust.

As I’ve said often the original GDS Design Principles have always been the most important thing for me that came out of Aviation House (as was). Those 10 principles inspired more than anything else and have remained a constant touchstone in my career since. I remain proud of the collective principles we agreed in ONS Digital Publishing as well — having a shared understanding of what you are all signing up to is incredibly powerful for a team.

For all of this I think you need a constant programme of reinforcement to make things habit but given Slack has become our ‘office’ to all intents and purposes and we are a digital company I think pushing the capability of the integrations and bots to support the wider goals is a good idea. A couple of years after the fact and 18F’s Mrs. Landingham bot to help new staff is still one of the best things I’ve come across.

So what does this come down to:

An organisation built on;

  • distributed, self-organising, ‘small teams, loosely joined’
  • being open by default, thinking out loud
  • team members sharing their preferred ways of working
  • communicating often* and with discipline
  • shared principles
  • using the tools of the internet to reinforce all of this

*too much better than not enough

This all seems pretty common sense to me — anything obvious I missed or just got wrong? Let me know!

A reading list for ‘this thing of ours’

I was chatting to Ann and Dai recently and Ann mentioned getting an extra copy of Sarah Richard’s book on content design to leave around the office to see if just leaving the book around inspires people to pick it up and get a better idea of just what it is we are all trying to do with a lot of this stuff.

I’ve done something similar over the years — I even created my own tabloid using Newspaper Club a couple of times containing blogposts I found inspiring as well as a few fun (but smart) infographics which I left in office coffee shops.

Anyway Ann’s brainwashing plan got me thinking about what books I would leave around if I hoped to encourage change from within again and in no particular order of importance this is a list I came up with.

What would your list be?

  1. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
  2. Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky, Barry O’Reilly
  3. Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock
  4. The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford
  5. Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, Braden Kowitz

6. Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke

7. Turn The Ship Around!: A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules by L. David Marquet

8. Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do: A Manager’s Guide to the Social Web by Euan Semple

The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses Kindle Edition by Eric Ries

10. Scrum: a Breathtakingly Brief and Agile Introduction by Chris Sims, Hillary Louise Johnson

11. Remote: Office Not Required by David Heinemeier Hansson

12. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon Kindle Edition by Brad Stone

13. Smart and Gets Things Done: Joel Spolsky’s Concise Guide to Finding the Best Technical Talent by Joel Spolsky

14. Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience by Jeff Gothelf

15. Read This Before Our Next Meeting: How We Can Get More Done Kindle Edition by Al Pittampalli

16. Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-up Bubble Kindle Edition by Dan Lyons

17. Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord

Coaching the WoW* factor

*(ways of working)

When it comes to ‘this thing of ours’ I have a handful of preoccupations that I find it hard to shake and it seems finding myself on the other side of the client/supplier relationship is just reinforcing that. I’ve already written a bit about my thoughts on ‘squads’ (and I’ll be returning to that soon). Now it is the turn of culture and ways of working.

As Mr Dalgarno wrote — agile is radically different than what came before and agile is just the tip of the iceberg if you really embrace the full ‘Digital Transformation Experience™’ — user-centric, service design, mobile first, devops, coding in the open, cloud. Hell even for somebody who lives and breathes this stuff it can be overwhelming at times.

For agile we regularly see ‘coaches’ brought in (for better or worse) to help teams get up to speed — they embed with the in-house squads and guide them through the journey to agile delivery. Sometimes this leads to a bit of a cargo cult situation where the rituals are undertaken with no deep understanding nor commitment to the underlying principles but this is often a symptom of a broader issue rather than the fault of the coach or the team.

Likewise increasingly there seems to be a trend of providing a ‘Digital Transformation Experience™’ ‘sheep dip’ to senior leadership so they have some concept of the world they are now operating in. Some organisations also have the sense to bring in people like Janet to help out at this level as well — coaching the c-suite if you like.

The Doteveryone work that Janet was involved in triggered a bit of a lightbulb for me last year and I’m only just getting around to exploring it.

For me the gap has always seemed to be around support for people who find themselves doing those roles that I have the most empathy for. Those Product/Service Managers who (in Gov land at least) often find themselves plucked from another business area and find themselves in a new world, with new responsibilities and, often, pressure to deliver.

I have to be honest I was initially uncomfortable with the model of pulling ‘product owners’ out from specialist teams (whether policy or delivery) but I have come to believe that the knowledge they often bring of their users, of the business processes, of the people involved (and the politics to be fair) is invaluable and is hard earned over time. This is the sort of thing that you can’t just pick up — and the reason that I think the kind of ‘product management as a service’ model I guess I assumed I would do on this side of the table is so bloody hard. 100% the ONS project I worked on would have been better for the inclusion of a statistican as a fulltime, embedded part of the team from the start.

Now I don’t think I’d want to work on a project without this kind of role.

Part of the reason for this is I do think though that the kind of knowledge you need to succeed in understanding these modern ways of working that make ‘this thing of ours’ really work can be coached with the right support. It isn’t about getting someone Scrum Certified (bleurrggh) but rather working with them to embed some of the lessons learned elsewhere, introducing them to the broader network, providing them with precedents to take to their leadership when challenged, giving them the confidence to take their own risks and to not slavishly follow any particular approach (as well as steering them around some of the obstacles and charlatans that inhabit this world as well.)

The Digital Academy already has a brilliant course aimed at Service Owners that works hard to develop a network around its ‘graduates’ so perhaps it is more ‘peer mentorship’ than ‘coaching’? In larger organisations where the Communities of Practices are mature and well supported perhaps the framework is already there but I just have this feeling that there is a gap there for some kind of light touch, consultative role could really help accelerate peoples understanding and in doing so move entire organisations forward one high performing team at a time.

For what it is worth I’d like to try 🙂

Anyway — we are on GCloud if anyone has a project where they thinking something like this might work (or anything else interesting really — give me a shout!).

Working open works (3)

Talk from Service Design in Government 20180307

I gave a talk at (the amazing) Service Design in Government conference yesterday as something of a last minute speaker (I got the call Sunday afternoon for Wednesday) and as such I didn’t create the talk in quite as structure way as I usually do

. This meant that while I had slides and a basic framework of what I wanted to talk about I hadn’t actually written the talk — nor rehearsed it outside of the voices in my head. I think it showed but I hope my passion for the topic got me through. Amazingly I kept to time as well!

Anyway this is basically a preamble to say I am now retrospectively writing the blogpost(s) that would usually provide the detailed notes for the talk. Lets see if it bares any resemblance to what I said on the day!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Part 3 of this talk is basically just a roll call of the people, teams and organisations I find inspiring for their approach to working open. These are the folks I learn from week in, week out.

Will is a senior user researcher recently at GDS and (I think) now at the Home Office. I still remember not long ago him tweeting about wanting to start blogging but getting in his own way. Well now there is no stopping him! He has shared all manner of insights in his writing recently but this post — basically a retrospective of his time at GDS — is incredibly honest, open and full of lessons that go far beyond his own experiences.

Dan Hon is a Brit now living that hipster life in Portland 🙂 Formerly working in ad-land in recent years he has been fighting the good fight in the US public sector with Code for America and then with the Californian State Government. His newsletter isn’t as regular as it once was but is still worth subscribing to for the regular gems and he occasionally drops a mind-blowing blogpost or a crazy Black Mirror-esque short story.

Cassie Robinson works at Doteveryone (amongst other places) and a few month ago shared this amazing blogpost — basically her ‘user manual’ so that colleagues etc could get to know her and how she worked more easily. I think it is an amazing piece of writing and also incredibly useful — I copied the idea as have a number of other people (here is a collection collated by Richard) and I genuinely think it is something I will ask teams to do in future (if only within the group.)

These days Melody Kramer works at Wikipedia (so pretty solid ‘open’ bonafides) but previously she has worked for NPR and 18F — so almost a clean sweep of organisations I’d want to work for if I was American!

She was a big contributor to the amazing openness demonstrated by 18F in its early days (which I talk more about later) and has done an enormous amount of thinking in the open about public service media and basically her approach to her career. She is also very funny.

These days Laura Hilliger is an Open Strategist at Greenpeace (I can only strive for a job title that cool!) but I met her a few years ago when she was also involved with what became the Mozilla Festival. She was already streets ahead then in her thinking about working in the open. Her influence is obvious in the amazingly transparent approach Greenpeace have taken to completely rebuilding their global web presence — there has been an unprecedented level of transparency during its progress — even compared to the early GDS days. As someone who is primarily a digital publishing nerd I have found it endlessly fascinating.

I couldn’t talk about openness without mentioning my old team. I am consistently amazed (and proud) at just how far they moved past the modicum of openness I introduced while I was there. Their use of Githib Pages to share soooooo much of what they are doing and with such a consistent cadence is really inspiring.

Now in the live talk I referred to Dan as a God of Openness — I stand by that but what I was supposed to say is that he is the ROCK God of Openness — hell he even wrote me a theme song. He was a #weeknoter of some repute and is always thinking about ways to operate in the open. The team weeknotes by Michael are always an interesting insight, the meet-ups at Newspeak House (and now further afield) are a wonderful idea and in general I think the whole Parliament Digital Service deserves kudos for its approach in what cannot be an easy environment for openness to flourish! Also shout out to Carrie and team for the open pics of MPs!!

It isn’t just the ‘internet of public service’ where openness is infecting organisations though. While Netflix were not the force they are today when they leaked their famous culture slidedeck onto Slideshare they were still a big player and it was an unprecedented look into a growing, new company with some radical ideas. They didn’t have to share it but doing so changed peoples perceptions and forced people to look at them differently.

When the great diaspora from GDS to Coop took place there was bound to be a surge in blogging and openness around their digital activity but what has been really interesting is how it has infiltrated the wider organisation with a much more authentic style of communication and transparency emerging from every corner of the organisation.

Buffer are a bit of a gimme here. They are famous for their approach to radical transparency — sharing salaries, financial details and basically constantly shining a light on their own business practices. I have to be honest even I sometimes find their approach a bit too radical for my tastes!

18F are the internal digital agency that works within the US Federal Government. They aren’t the US Digital Service. That is different. No I don’t really understand either. What they are though is amazing. From launch they have consistently worked in the open, shared their learnings, owned their mistakes and basically provided a blueprint for anyone trying to work in a modern, open manner in public service — anywhere. I cannot imagine how hard it must be in the current US Federal environment but the fact that they continue to work this way and keep delivering really gives me hope that we can really make a difference working this way.

OK that is it really. If you made it this far thankyou for sticking with it! I hope some of it was interesting 🙂

I’m going to do a Part 4 at some point to address the massive gap in this talk — the HOW.

One Year Later

Friday was exactly a year since I finished at the ONS. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently — partly because I’ve caught up with Laura a bit lately and partly as my recent diabetes diagnosis sheds a bit of light on how I was feeling back then as well.

I remain very proud of the work we did there and I still miss my team (though many have since moved on themselves) but it wasn’t easy towards the end. It led to me making a bit of a rash decision leaving to join Defra but the reality was I had found myself betwixt and between at ONS and increasingly detached from things. My holiday in New Zealand (which I wouldn’t have missed for the world) was poorly timed from a professional point of view and when I returned I really struggled to reconnect. The knowledge that Andy was coming in to be Service Manager meant it felt a bit like 4pm on a Friday when you don’t want to start something new 🙂

In an effort to take less on after taking on too much and pretty much breaking previously I ended up shedding pretty much everything I found interesting in my job and found myself lacking anything to get my teeth into. This was on me — everyone was incredibly supportive and generous in trying to find a new role for me but I just couldn’t engage fully with anything.

There were some reasons for this other than my own ennui*. The digital side of the organisation was going through massive change — a large scale reorganisation was in effect and while I was broadly supportive of the direction of travel there were a number of things I was a little uncomfortable with and a new culture was emerging that was different to the one I had been nurturing.

Some of this is inevitable when big change programmes kick into gear but the need to commoditise approaches — particularly around agile — in search of ‘scale’ is something I just don’t really think is useful. This need to build processes and procedures around everything wasn’t something I was particularly interested in being a part of. Also I think there was a bit of a lack of understanding of the skills and experiences needed for some of the (in my opinion) specialist digital roles. Actually that isn’t fair — the understanding was there but somehow it got lost in some of the decision making as the need to assign roles and write job descriptions became more urgent. I think it created a situation where a lot of smart people found themselves in unfamiliar roles with steep learning curves and not enough experienced peers to mentor them through it. To be fair I see now this is what I should have been more vocal about and more proactive in doing but..

…rightly or wrongly I started to see less and less of a place for my own particular brand of agile and delivery. There were roles I was interested in but (a) they were earmarked for others and so there would have been internal politics to deal with and (b) they would have meant a different line manager and I’d long since decided that I was sticking with Laura or I was going.

I also just couldn’t get excited about the ‘data science’ activity that was fast becoming a priority and outshining the broader transformation piece. I could see why it was important — still do — but there was limited capacity and capability and still huge challenges that needed facing up to without attention shifting to something else. It didn’t massively effect me but it did gnaw at me a bit.

The other big thing was the Census. While it was/is years out it is an all consuming project and like a black hole it sucks in light from everywhere it can. To be honest if the Census team had been in Newport I might have been tempted to dive into that despite all the massive challenges involved but it wasn’t and I wasn’t up for a life in Fareham hotels. If you aren’t in it though you still have to consider it in relation to everything and it is pretty exhausting and at the time I simply didn’t have the patience.

Now I realise I was probably (almost certainly apparently) already suffering from diabetes back then so that clearly played a part. I was tired and irritable much more than seemed reasonable. That now makes more sense.

The silly thing is that the thing that tipped me over the edge was that the Severn Tunnel was closing for six weeks which would have made my never fun commute a total nightmare…but only for six weeks. This was the final straw though at the time and it lead to me jumping in a bit blind to the Defra job. The reality is with hindsight I should have just made other workplace arrangements for a bit but hindsight is 20/20 and all that!

Anyway I left the job I am most proud of in my long and varied career. Why I left was a mistake and where I went was also but it made it easier to make the eventual (pretty rapid) move to mySociety which I in no way regret so alls well.

I also completely believe Andy was/is much better suited to take things forward in the work I started. I have too much baggage when it comes to the detailed data side of publishing and it needed fresh eyes and a different approach.

I don’t miss the commute, the office or the travel to Titchfield. I don’t miss some of the troll-like ‘stakeholders’ out in the wider community (I was going to write more about that but still cannot be suitably detached).

I do miss work though — it was hard but it was worth it.

I miss being a part of that wider team with that bunch of people and I suspect that will stay with me a long time.

*come on I deserve a few claps just for slipping ennui into a blogpost 🙂