More pondering and reflecting – this time about different types of collaboration

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I’m the a place at the moment where I am purposefully reflecting on stuff – I get times like this which basically means I need to start creating greater clarity for myself as i’m approaching a critical point in my thinking.  These posts tend to be longer and less structured as they are literally me talking to myself…

This post is more of a personal post but I do value comments and challenge from others in this process which is why I blog openly and honestly here.

A key area which has taken a lot of my time in my professional work, here in Devon and through LocalGovDigital and in my voluntary work situation (being a School Governor) is collaboration and what this truly looks and feels like.

Let me first start with my non professional situation and share some learning and reflections from my role as a school governor.

So I’m the Chair of Governors at Countess Wear Community School, Exeter. Our last OFSTED (2015) was a solid Good and highlighted some key areas for development as you would expect. I became Chair in September last year. I’m very proud to be the chair and am very proud of the school, its staff and importantly the children who are fantastic learners. As a school community we are very proud to have achieved Good, Outstanding would naturally be better but it is such a big step in all areas and we simply aren’t there yet, but that is the journey we are committed to.

Now if you don’t know, the landscape for schools is an interesting and challenging one and one which does not get the same level of attention as say the challenges around the NHS but fundamentally schools are facing similar pressures and similar challenges. In practical terms this means the Governments intention to see all schools become academies.

Now personally speaking I have opposing views and beliefs to the direction of travel outlined by the Government but as a Governor I have a responsibility, no wait, I have a duty to ensure the very best outcomes for all children. It is simply not acceptable to allow children to go through a school that isn’t performing well. Every day matters, these children only get one chance and outstanding teaching does transform lives. This needs and must be supported by outstanding leadership and governance. I can’t limit the choices of the school simply because i don’t feel comfortable with them – I have to take a strategic view on what is right for the school, this means challenging my beliefs, assumptions and preconceptions. This is hard to do, but as a non professional leader in a school I need to ensure that I can provide effective leadership and governance. If it were easy then wouldn’t all school governors be outstanding all the time?

Now as a school we have been through a process recently looking at collaboration and what it means to us, we are an active part of the Exeter Consortium and Teaching Schools Alliance (I’m also on the management board as well). But the challenge of this type of option form of collaboration means that not everyone benefits and importantly not all children benefit as schools can choose to engage or not. There are no formal structures or accountability wrapped around this collaboration (it’s membership driven) So you can’t hold people to account for their involvement and engagement and subsequently their school improvement and therefore the outcomes for children. Now local governance should be doing that in each school, but this is where the challenge of voluntary governors. I’m not suggesting governors should be paid, but I do think we need to rethink what strategic school governance means and how that needs to happen in a system which is rapidly changing around us.

During our process of understanding what collaboration means a number of things started to emerge for me. Firstly once you start asking people (staff, children etc) what matters to them you have a duty to do something with it. What I reflected on was that our school has a unique character, its values and ethos are a critical part of what contributes to the success and we need to protect that. Given the current landscape schools face real dangers of being forced to convert to academy, which then leaves it to that academy to determine how the school is run. Not all academies are the same but some have a view that a universal and consistent offer is the best approach. We know and understand our school and how it meets the needs of our community and we want to ensure we protect that into the future.

As we move forward what also emerged is that it is equally important to ensure that when we collaborate we think very carefully about the partners we collaborate with and find those who fundamentally share the same core values. We believe we have done that and to help us we are centering that around the Cooperative values which we feel aligns with the core values and ethos of our school.

But what we also know and recognize is that we will have to convert to an Academy at some stage – we just don’t want to be forced to do it. So we will do this on our terms and shape it around what we believe and know is important to us. We are lucky to have found partners who share that ambition and direction. In doing this we will create a structure which will fundamentally hold each school to account in a robust framework and will start to professionalize aspects of school governance and school improvement in to the operational aspects of school to school support – this is where the Cooperative values strengthen that approach.

I would highly recommend people consider becoming a school governor, it is highly rewarding and at times demanding but I’ve personally found the experience similar to a professional action learning course. It certainly has helped me understand what leadership and governance is when you are out of your specialist area.

Key lessons and learning:

  1. Meaningful collaboration takes time, you need to find the right partners and most importantly you need to know what you value so you can anchor yourself to it in negotiation and discussion.
  2. I’ve said this before but trust is a currency and requires time to develop
  3. Being purposeful and values driven focuses you on what really matters
  4. Forced and standardised collaboration removes purpose and disempowers people within a system. But this does not always mean you will fail.
  5. Not all standardised approaches are always bad, its about understanding context.
  6. Diversity of opportunity needs to exist but needs to be supported by more hardwired collaborations for real accountability.

Moving onto the professional world, more specifically LocalGovDigital. Although professional, its still voluntary.

It actually feels a long time when Sarah Lay and I kicked this off and supported by the LGA brought a collective group of people together and out of that collective frustration we started LocalGovDigital.

An aspiration we have always had about LocalGovDigital is that the outputs should support and encourage meaningful collaboration and grow networks and relationships. Whether it’s Unmentoring the Local Government Digital Service Standard, or organising events like Not Westminster or LocalGovCamp (in Birmingham on 3/4 June).

We have always said that we will support things which push the sector forward and we don’t want to see that restrict our ability to promote what maybe perceived as conflicting “offers”. We want a diverse system and we want to see choice and opportunity. This is why we are involved as a partner in the Public Sector Transformation Academy. The Public Service Transformation Academy is a social enterprise, led by public service consultants RedQuadrant, the Whitehall and Industry Group, and partner organisations who are thought leaders in commissioning.

All of this and we are still only a voluntary group of people who share the same values and passion.

What we hope and believe we do is foster a cross-sector approach to delivering better public services locally. Others are welcome to disagree but we have tried to stay focused on delivering things, yes we have individually all been happy to talk and contribute to online discussions and debates which have not always gone down well. But do I believe what we do helps to improve the sector, you better believe I do…it is why i am passionate about being part of such a fantastic group of fellow practitioners, the visible and invisible ones.

The one thing we have always lacked is that all of this is optional and therefore we can’t really say this is meaningful collaboration. The successes have primarily been in bringing people together, acting as a connector and amplifier of people and stories.

We have tried to develop more meaningful collaborations across councils, agencies and wider and have had some success in this such as the Service Standard work. But these collaborations don’t YET have the accountability to hold people to account for their outputs and actions.

Some people would propose that a single centralised body –  the LocalGDS debate, where I believe there is no right or wrong answer, there is just opinion –  is the single answer and I disagree with that being the only solution and that is ok too.

What i’ve learnt from my school experience is that different places and people assign value on different things and that is ok. So what is needed is a collection of collaborations and structures which are value driven and purposeful. I believe LocalGovDigital is one of those collaborations, we came together as a group because we believe in the same things, we believe that we didn’t want to have things done to us and we believe we could make a positive contribution.

Where we need to go next is how we can start to develop deeper and more meaningful collaborations to really transform services. Without the formal structures of some organisations we are lucky to be able to explore what this means without thinking we will lose something, we are actively speaking to people about how different collaborations can be formed which might start to generate those collaborations. What we know is that these won’t be for everyone, but they will be for some, and that’s ok.

Finally and more specifically the paid work, collaboration in this context is different, it naturally feels like it has to be more structured…not sure why really?

One of the things which has been key to me is about how we build relationships and connections with a variety of other organisations/local authorities – I mentioned this in my previous post about Leadership. So to save you having to read all of that here is the relevant bit:

As well as sharing our learning and seeking learning from others. Examples of this include, Nottinghamshire County Council, Buckinghamshire County Council, Suffolk County Council, West Berkshire Council, Cornwall Council, Bristol City Council to name just a few. This sharing of learning has taken many forms and most recently the learning between us and West Berkshire was a shared conversation between myself, my Chief Executive, Phil Rumens and his Chief Executive via skype, the main purpose of that was to connect the chief Executives and we have already set up a regular catch up. What this has not achieved is any real hard wired collaborative action between any of the councils. There are also more opportunities we have engaged with over the last couple of days which will enable us to share our learning even further, more on this in good time.

Key lessons and learning:

  1. Voluntary grassroots action won’t create system change alone, but it can highlight and demonstrate that change is possible
  2. Values and purpose are essential in collaborations, are we clear what the people/organisations in this space value and what there purpose is?
  3. We have to stop believing our own world view is the only one that matters and start connecting and enriching the picture around us. Give things up and let go of things and see what happens in return.
  4. There is no single model of support, people and places are different, lets create better systems of support which recognise and value that. NB: this is not a statement about technology!

So my reflections have come to a natural conclusion and I can now personally find greater clarity and that helps me…however if you have any observations, comments or reflections please feel free to share or challenge me.

 

Networks, shared purpose and systemic change

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I didn’t attend UKGovCamp 16 this year and haven’t for a while now, which is fine as I still get to consume the many, many posts and reflections from the people who attended…you can’t replace physically being there, but the quality of the outputs certainly helps the wider community develop its thinking and practice.

I read this post last week by Catherine Howe about Networks as a driver for system change and was reminded why I always enjoyed being in Catherine’s company as it resonated with so many things that I’m facing right now.

I was also struck by one of the comments left on the post and wanted to let that sit with me for a few days before I could work out why it didn’t feel comfortable or why it stuck in my head…

The specific comment is available on Catherine’s blog post here. Firstly let me just say that I’m not writing to specifically argue with the comment but wanted to explore the comment further as it is something I’m wanting to understand more.

The comment was this:
I tend to feel like I’m trying to influence and shape the culture of the group, rather than curate it. And the ways I do that are through my actions as a member of the group (the “be the change you want to see” approach); trying to consciously champion/ignore/call-out the good/undesirable/toxic behaviour in others; and thinking up actions/experiments/initiatives which nudge the culture in the direction I want it to head. 

The actual bit of this comment i struggled with is the very last bit – the bit that reads – “nudge the culture in the direction I want it to head” Now I can understand the motives behind this and the sentiment but I am personally wrestling with the implied statement of someones individual direction being a preferred route over someone else.

So the question I asked myself was: Is it ok for someone to push their own agenda through a system or is this just manipulation?

Now I’m not going to hide the fact that, this has been an approach I’ve previously adopted but it hasn’t worked that well in terms of really affecting the whole system, what it did was connect me to people who had a similar view and a similar mindset which has been great. But what all of this lacked was a real sense of system wide change over and above simply connecting people across a system. That is however an important part of how systems change…networks and relationships are critical, but they must have the trust underpinning them to be really effective.

The issue I see in pushing an agenda through a system is that you inevitably marginalise people who don’t initially align with the direction. This then reinforces the echo chambers which end up sitting isolated within a system.

The learning I am going through now is challenging me to think about my role and my contributions within a wider system and what a duration role really means in terms of improving and transforming the outcomes for people and places and how we can see a system change itself informed by a new shared sense of purpose…after all the purpose of the system is what it does!

One chain of thought led me to look at the various styles of leadership and the relative merits of each in particular circumstances and situations but all that did was validate that diversity of thought and diversity of ideas and approaches is at the heart of shifting thinking and shifting to a shared purpose. But the key aspects here are that whatever style, the pre-requisite is that all styles of leaders need to think about a new mode of operating which is open, transparent and authentic. Clearly some leadership styles will struggle with this but that is the challenge we face.

 

Another chain of thought led me to consider the context for LocalGov Digital and how as a group of individuals who essentially have come together around a shared purpose. So i asked myself what is missing to see systemic change…what is the role of a core group of people to curate and create conditions for people to define the shared purpose in such a way that as individuals we all make appropriate changes which affects the wider system.

To a point i think the network is doing some of this, but it comes to scale and the reach of the network and the perceived lack of “signing up to something”. This has always been an issue for me, I’ve often thought that if people have the same shared purpose then we simply need to connect and help mobilise and enable them to create change…however some people have said that they feel the need to sign up to something…but can’t really articulate what that needs to be.

As LocalGov Digital we often get stuck in a place which tries to define an offer as if the network was a membership as opposed to clearly articulating the shared purpose and playing a role in curating and enabling people to come together around that.  I feel that we are getting better at this, I feel that we need to actively shift the focus on to things which bring people together for a shared purpose to emerge and evolve. Events like UKGovCamp and LocalGovCamp are examples of this, however taking time out and prioritising these types of things isn’t easy when you are essentially locked away in a sub system which has its own priorities which are not aligned to a new emerging shared purpose…

I have no answers but I am actively thinking and practicing new ways of working so I can help others around me – one thought occurred to me is that the greatest contribution I could make is by getting out-of-the-way of others so they can contribute more effectively – realising I might be blocking someone is hard to take as it is so opposed to how I want to work but being open to that means I’m becoming more mindful of my actions within a wider system and letting go of more things all the time to ensure others can grow themselves.

So coming back to the comment…
I tend to feel like I’m trying to influence and shape the culture of the group, rather than curate it. And the ways I do that are through my actions as a member of the group (the “be the change you want to see” approach); trying to consciously champion/ignore/call-out the good/undesirable/toxic behaviour in others; and thinking up actions/experiments/initiatives which nudge the culture in the direction I want it to head. 

Most of the comment above is fine, but the last bit needs to be challenged as people need to learn and identify the positive and negatives themselves…one approach in my view is that there is only a shared purpose and if you have a purpose you are trying to see, share it, allow others to challenge and develop it, make it better, deeper, more meaningful. Accepting that we can only ever have part of a picture means we need to share more, open up more and that makes us all vulnerable…which is ok…as I trust those around me and where trust doesn’t exist, i am actively working on how to develop it.

So my final reflection is this: Trust is the only currency worth focusing on…everything else comes from that…

End to End redesign starts with really understanding the problem

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Problem solving is great fun and is also a fantastic life skill to have, however it can be a frustrating exercise when you are trying to solve the wrong problem or decide to jump straight to solution mode without understanding the problem properly.

After some reflection this was probably the biggest insight that hit home during the whole of the Design in the Public Sector programme which we concluded late last Autumn.

Not content with the learning we gained, Kevin, Jo and I wanted to extend some of our learning by taking the opportunity to visit the Design Council in London as well as visiting Becky Rowe and her colleagues at Revealing Reality (formerly ESRO). We also extended the invite to 3 additional colleagues as we wanted to allow others to experience a small bit of what we gained.

 

I’m not going to share the details of the day as that might sound a bit boring, instead I’m going to focus on the key aspects of learning and reflections from the day.

Design as Strategy
This is something you don’t really see in public services, but it is starting to emerge as an enabler of transformation. But we must ensure that we are clear what this really means. This isn’t just about a sounding good or trendy, it is about adopting a robust methodology and approach to fundamentally and deeply understand the problems we face and the systematically address those using a variety of service design techniques which are currently rare in local government but are on the increase.

Design at the Top Table
As we all know culture eats strategy for breakfast so we can’t simply think that having a strategy will make everything OK and that we can sit back and it will fix itself. This stuff is really hard, when you deeply understand complex problems through powerful stories and data you have a duty to do something with it. The decision makers in organisations need influencing, support, advice and most of all emotional ownership of the change to drive through the bureaucracy and challenges to truly transform how we deliver or enable services. Having someone at the top table who understands the opportunity is essential.

Understand Place and Understand People
You need a breadth of understanding and that is built from exploring the places people live as systems and the interconnections that exist – this gives you a context. You also need to create depth by truly understanding people and their stories.
There is a skill and art to this that needs to be understood but we all do this to a lesser or greater degree already.

Challenge Assumptions
Everyone assumes something all the time and that is fine, but we also need to surface and challenge assumptions so that we can better understand problems, help people explore opportunity and solve problems creatively. In this context not knowing a system or place can be helpful as you can start to explore and ask the obvious questions which many people take for granted.

Really understand the problem
When people talk about End to End redesign – it really means doing all of the above and more. When you do that you create a true understanding of the reality that exists for people and not the perceptions people hold, the assumptions people make or the professional opinion of colleagues. To solve the problems of our day we need a deep understanding of them and that is when we open ourselves up to people – create vulnerabilities but also trust and respect.

I don’t have all the skills or knowledge I need ‘yet’ but I am determined to work with people here and further afield to solve problems. When you think about it like that, it is really exciting. As I’ve said before there is no austerity of the mind and imagination, so we have a choice whether we want to invest our own time and energy in helping others.  I know what I’m going to do.

RSA South West Futures – 7th July – Are you going?

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The goodly folk of The South West RSA Fellowship Team have been busy recently pulling together a series of important events for the south west.

Inspired by the recent Northern Futures initiative, the aim is to kick start a new style of conversation about the future of the South West’s economy by asking people to get involved in formulating radical new growth strategies for the region.

Lead partners include University of Exeter and Devon County Council, RSA SW and Knowledge Hub, supported by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly and Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEPs. Other key partners include Made Open, Current Works Ltd, and COSMIC.

The invite is open to anyone from local authorities, businesses, social enterprises, academics and students in identifying key challenges for the region and collaborating to solve them, to drive open policy making, open innovation using creative problem solving tools and design thinking methods.

The South West Futures Open Ideas Day is a pilot project. There is an online call for ideas, seeking to generate topics to explore on July 7th, and develop solutions that can be shared at a follow-up event with key partners in September.

As a pilot prototype, if it is successful then it could lead to an even bigger project in 2016.

On July 7th, parallel events are being held in the following locations:

Exeter (University of Exeter Business School)

Honiton (East Devon Business Centre)

Penryn (Made Open, Jubilee Warehouse)

Places are very limited but FREE, there is space for around 20-30 people at each event.

The events will be good fun and challenging and they are particularly seeking participation from people who are passionate about making positive change and are willing to collaborate across sectors and boundaries.

 

Early experiences – On being Coached / Mentored

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I wrote just before Christmas that I was actively seeking coaches and mentors who can help me develop and improve my productivity and impact.

I’ve previously had informal coaching/mentoring relationships with a range of people and still value those links and I don’t think people should be limited to just one as I believe that we all constantly need support and advice and we are always developing mentoring and coaching relationships without realising and without ever formalising them.

For example the following people have probably had the most significant impact on my career over the last 5 years due to their informal mentoring and coaching relationships over the last few years and in some cases much longer;

Andrea Siodmok – the first time I met Andrea I was inspired, her outlook and her experience in Design disrupted my thinking and broke me out of a world which I felt comfortable in and it is her influence, advice and support which has helped me to find a balance in how I look at the way I work. The approaches I take and the constant opportunity of working with people on the ground. She never stops making me think and inspiring me to consider new perspectives on problems.
Dave Briggs – I’ve always valued my conversations and interactions with Dave and would very much consider Dave a friend. I find every conversation engaging and memorable and not always for their coaching value:). Dave has provided a huge amount of advice, challenge and support whether he knows it or not which has helped me at critical times and he deserves a huge amount of recognition for his work and influence on a wider number of people in the sector.
Martin Howitt – for someone who had to put up with my constant questioning for a two year period when we actually worked in the same team and opposite each other in the same office, Martin provided some of the most valuable support and guidance at a time I felt out of my depth, lost and full of self doubt. Martin should know he is a valued friend and I always look forward to our informal conversations over coffee.
Catherine Howe – one of the most intellectually stimulating people I’ve ever worked for and with and Catherine has always been supportive of me and I am personally grateful for her encouragement, challenge and honesty. She is one of the people I hope I could see more but fear that my brain would explode if I did:)
Sara Cretney – I’ve only really started to get to know Sara over the last 18-24 months and in that time she has provided some of the most timely and fundamentally honest coaching I’ve received. I have to thank her for providing a balanced viewpoint and reflections which stopped me at times resigning from the council. Looking back and looking ahead, I’m hugely grateful to her for that support and she is very much a kindred spirit and some of the best work and progress I’ve made in the last 18 months is also down to her support, advice and influence.

So last week I had one of my first coaching/mentoring sessions with my Chief Executive (Phil Norrey) and found the experience hugely valuable for a variety of reasons which I aim to explore in this post. I’d like to thank Phil here for agreeing to be my coach/mentor and I hope I can offer some value back to him during the process.

Before I continue with reflections from Phil, I have also now set the date with my second coach/mentor for 11th February so will be able to share reflections and details after then. This year is going to be a significant year in many ways.

So reflecting on my first coaching session with Phil. Firstly it was VERY productive and HUGELY helpful to me in thinking differently about my role, my professional development and the opportunities ahead. It was also initially strange having a very personal conversation with someone whom previously I’d only had professional based conversations, but those feelings disappeared pretty quickly once we get stuck into conversations.

One of the reasons I asked the Phil to coach/mentor me was because I believe it will be valuable to me to be challenged by a strategic leader who does not fully grasp the digital agenda and that is ok, I don’t expect him to understand it all, however he is clearly aware of its potential, opportunity and its transformational capabilities. The key aspect for me was to be challenged around relevance, strategic alignment and reframing the story the needs to be told around digital locally…whether we like it or not the county of Devon is not the same as a major city and presents very different challenges around digital and whilst it is fine for me to believe in a digitally enabled future, unless I fully understand the strategic picture in Devon I’ll never be able to exert the right kind of influence to see a digital Devon emerge.

One of the conversations we covered was around my career so far in the council (I started in 1996) and how I have got to where I am today and the very organic nature to the way I’ve moved around the council and how in nearly every single job I’ve had, how I always seek out opportunities and activities outside of any formal Job description I was assigned to do…I realised that I’ve never had a job description in my time at the council which completely satisfied my curiosity and my skills…which is why I’m very grateful to my current line manager who allows me to discover and explore new things whilst also focusing on my core activities.

The question Phil asked me in response to this was simply but yet, no one had ever actually asked me and it really made me think – he asked “are you happy with the organic nature of your career so far?”

That question really made me consider what it is that is important to me and what it is I really want to do…the answer to this was after some reflection simple. It is fundamentally important to me that any job I do or if I were to apply for something, that it allows for and encourages personal and professional discovery, or to put it more simply, that I actually have inbuilt 20% time but with a broad purpose and for me this has since I started working for the council in 1996 about improving public services. The consistent them in my time at the council has been around and how technology, people and democratic participation / accountability can help reshape what this can and could be…

One of the benefits of taking to Phil was that we could simply talk and have a conversation around such a wide variety of things, I shared my thinking and vision for digital in Devon and asked him questions about the internal and external political landscape, we spoke about the future of Devon and pondered some random opportunities looking forward to 2050. One of the most reassuring things about the process was how similar (to a degree) our thinking was….ok my thinking is at a very different level at the moment as I’m working in an operational context and not the high level strategic context Phil and the rest of the corporate leadership consider and deal with all the time.

I always had a lot of time for those people who become chief executives of local authorities and always thought that it would never be a role I would envisage myself doing…I have even more respect for those people who have to deal with huge amounts of complexity on a daily basis and who, at least those I have met, maintain an engaging personality…I appreciate My reference points are those who I meet at conferences, meet online and those are clearly making a different statement because of how they behave, but it demonstrates and reassures me that it is something that perhaps one day I would want to do…but not for a long time yet:)

Phil and I agreed to meet every 6 weeks which I am grateful for and am looking forward to the personal development journey.

Tomorrow, Later today or on Friday 23rd (depending when you read this) I start my first session coaching Sarah Lay from Nottinghamshire County Council. Sarah is a friend, someone who I have a huge amount of respect for, we have been on a journey together and she has provided support and guidance to me over the years and I just hope I can help her through coaching achieve what she sets out to achieve.