Reflecting on how I learn and how I help others

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I suspect like so many others – getting frustrated by policy, by process, by all the crap that stops you thinking and believing you can make progress and sometimes by other people/managers and leaders.

I’ve started to think more positively about this and how I can understand more why it happens, how I can work with it and what I need to do differently.

One of the biggest light bulb moments I had with this recently was when a colleague outlined the learning journey individuals make and how when working with senior leaders and organisations you need to be mindful of the learning journey everyone is making or not as the case maybe.

Basically what I realised is that the pace of my own individual learning worked against others and that because this learning was not directly shared I ended up communicating across a deeper void than before i started the learning. This void simply increased the frustrations on both sides when communicating about opportunity or redesign potential.

The picture/sketch below hopefully provides a visual explanation of this…

One of the biggest mistakes and missed learning opportunities I’ve made is that I’ve failed to recognise my own role in helping others learn and develop as I learn.  When I reflect back on my personal journey over the last 6-7 years I’ve been on an individual journey of learning and I have benefited from that in a variety of ways and on the whole It hasn’t been a problem…But as I’ve tried to shift and change my approach to supporting my organisation to learn and develop I’ve missed this key insight although I’ve been starting to address it without having clarity about what it was exactly I was trying to address (if that makes sense)

My Insight: What I had unintentionally done was dis-empowered others in their learning and not focused on the collective learning and opportunity this could have created moving forward.

Learning Gap

Key:
Green Line – My individual journey of learning
Blue Line – A senior manager / colleague / service areas journey of learning
Red Line  – Gap in knowledge = increased frustration

So how I see this now is one of a series of individual and collective learning cycles where the experiential learning is a normative process for everyone involved and we create a sustained change in thinking/learning/mindset which benefits the whole organisation.

I am now actively thinking about my approach to learning new things and whether it would be more beneficial for that learning to be done collectively with others or whether that learning needs to be done individually and then I simply revisit the learning again to support others, so instead of moving on my learning I work actively on repeating the learning with others to reduce the frustrations and disconnection.

If I simply want to develop myself then an approach of individual learning is OK. I’m a huge advocate of self-directed learning and very much value having the time and space in my head to spot something interesting and then research deeper and experiment to build my knowledge and learning base. However I’ve also learned that I am very much a collaborative learner and absolutely thrive when learning with other people – I find shared learning experiences more powerful, more meaningful and have more impact all round..

However if I want to play an active part in helping my organisation learn, to help it change and adapt to the future, then I have a responsibility to ensure others develop their learning and the organisation as a whole creates the knowledge and doesn’t rely on a few individuals.

I am not interested in creating a special role for myself over time, As I believe that we should all design ourselves out at some stage and never overstay our welcome in a given time and space. Paul Taylor better outlines in his post here about planned obsolescence and how this helps creates better systems for innovation. This in turn helps foster a new culture of continuous learning and adaptability, but that only happens when everyone is clear about their role in helping each other to learn and grow.

As an aside I have been reflecting on my purpose recently and have tried various activities to think about what my contribution to the world is and should be…you know that deep internal reflective stuff…Its the kind of thing I want to explore and find answers too..So I am going to be signing up for some Theory U self-study with some colleagues / friends in the Autumn as it will help me find my purpose and clarify the opportunity I have in my head.

What are your thoughts on learning and how your approach helps you and your organisation?

 

 

What am I doing?

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I often ask this question of myself as the answer is rarely the same and it helps me get a sense of where I am in terms of understanding the context around me and the value I may or may not be providing.

I asked this question of myself over the weekend, one of those internal dialogues, primarily whilst I was cycling along the roads and lanes of Devon as I’m in training to do a cycling challenge during the first week of September. I’m cycling all three sides of Mont Ventoux in a single day with a group of friends, why? the only answer I can give is why not, its something which will challenge my physical and mental limits and I think I need that right now.

In a professional context I’m currently involved in some work to create some understanding around how and why people contact the council, the type, frequency and value of that contact. It is all part of a much larger piece of work to redesign 5 significant areas of the council and to question and challenge our purpose in those areas and ultimately deliver better outcomes with less money.  The work is fascinating and is already challenging some of the perceptions I had about why people contact us and our ability to deal with some of that contact.

Another interesting piece of work I was involved in was to support one of our county Councillors with facilitating a new conversation in his area around Highways and how we as a council can start to enrich our data about the highways which is primarily hard data with the lived experiences of those people who travel around those roads on a daily basis. Our aim was to provide a different type of space and meeting and not involve our Highways colleagues in the process as we felt they would create barriers to a new conversation emerging at least on this first occasion anyway. This is what I learnt about that conversation and the process:

  • Sometimes sending in a shock wave can make a difference (takes bravery)
  • Putting people in a different setting does result in traditional behaviours being harder to maintain
  • If you remove the traditional platform then you can
    • (a) allow those who want to engage to do so and
    • (b) challenge unhelpful behaviours in a far less threatening way.
  • Communities and the council do seem to have a common understanding of each other’s points of view, but we don’t yet seem to have any mechanism for using this information to effect resolution.
  • We appear to rely a lot on hard data and this data is not representative of what the communities value
  • A single meeting in isolation won’t change anything unless the wider behaviours change as well

On the back of this my role has changed, I’ve now moved out of Corporate Communications and into the Organisational Change Team managed by my colleague Sara Cretney. I’ve been asked to keep the strategic lead for Digital. So I’m now the Digital by Design Lead. My former team managed by Tom Dixon is going from strength to strength and no longer really need me, although I will maintain a strategic link and as individuals I am very passionate about ensuring they can be the best that they can be, so I am still committed to supporting them as individuals if they want it.

We are making real progress with the broader Digital agenda as well which is aligning with the wider organisational change I mentioned earlier and we are also taking opportunities to up skill, develop and challenge the current thinking of our Digital Board as well as other leaders in the council by inviting in external people to constructively challenge and disrupt which is helping us unblock some things as well as generate a new momentum for real and deep change. A couple of weeks ago we had Mark Thompson come in and give a talk to our Board and about 30 other leaders including some of our cabinet members on Digital which went down very well and people are still talking about it – in a good way. We also hijacked a leadership meeting next Monday which will now focus on creating a strategic mandate for action around all the work we are doing relating to Data.

The wider sector development work through LocalGovDigital is also going from strength to strength… ALL of the recent success is not down to me (as I’ve not been involved) and is down to people simply connecting and making things happen – all the work around the service standard is showing that councils can work differently together and that collaboration perhaps needs to be rethought as something more fluid and agile which responds to need and shouldn’t have too much formality around it but enough infrastructure to see it flourish – this and this are good examples. Phil and I have had a lot of conversations recently about how we can push the network forward and continually develop the opportunities to see action on the ground connect with the wider and broader strategic challenges. Whilst what we do as a network may appear somewhat random, it is having a positive impact on people working in the sector and in particular professionals working in this space. Without that I would have advocated the network think about its future and whether it had one – these are questions I constantly think about…If the network isn’t creating or adding value it shouldn’t exist.

My voluntary time is taken up by school governance work with my local primary school and now the emerging cooperative multi-academy trust that we are moving forward with where I’ve been asked to be the inaugural Chair which is a scary position to be in. The opportunity to help transform and improve outcomes for children and young people is a massive responsibility although it really is a huge honour to be asked. All of this activity and development is challenging me every day – providing and demonstrating strategic governance and knowing what this looks like all the time pushes me so far out of my comfort zone for such long periods of time, but I know I am growing and developing. It feels great to be on the journey with such fantastic people who I admire and trust.

I’ve made significant changes to how I work over the last 6-9 months to see whether I can be more effective and It hasn’t been easy, it has been a personal journey and one which has challenged my previously preferred responses.

Now I feel I am in a better place generally and when I ask the question of myself “what am I doing?” I can answer holistically and without seeing all my activity as a whole I can’t begin to see what impact I am making or what value I am contributing to or adding.

 

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.