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.

 

Deeper reflections from coaching and mentoring

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“The battle and balancing between the old and new power will be a defining feature of society and business in the coming years”
Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms

So around last christmas I started coaching/mentoring conversations with Phil Norrey (Devon County Council’s Chief Executive) and Mike Bracken (Cabinet Office Executive Director for Digital and Chief Data Officer)

I’ve previously written about some early reflections here and here but wanted to dig a little deeper in how the process is challenging my practice and helping me to develop as a practitioner and hopefully as a leader.

Some key insights and learning from the last 8 months…thanks go to Phil and Mike who have and are continuing to support me on this journey

  • Balancing thought leadership with doing leadership
    I’ve started to see this more as “how to do system leadership effectively” – One of the things I gained the most from this process is having a mirror displayed in front of me and being able to see and understand the value I offer from different perspectives and sometimes the value I create is not what I thought it was…I’ve always been keen to share my thinking and whether that makes me someone who offers thought leadership is perhaps for others to decide but It is also the doing leadership which is where I had most insight as I always thought I wasn’t doing this very well…I know more about how I can better balance this and have a clearer understanding as to my role in Devon and wider. This doesn’t remove the barriers of course but it does create clarity around direction and focus.
  • Creating a pathway from the edge to the centre
    When your work makes you work on the edges of your organisation you often feel isolated or frustrated that people don’t listen or you feel annoyed that projects never scale – a previous view of mine was to pull the organisation to the edges and hope for a disruptive impact…that didn’t exactly work – through this process I’ve learnt not explicitly but implicitly that I have to focus more and work harder to push the change towards the centre of the organisation and change the fundamental and underlying structures and systems we work in for sustained change. Again all of this is probably obvious but I hadn’t realised or given myself the time to be challenged or challenge my own thinking in this space.
  • Letting go so I can move on
    Before I started this process I didn’t think too much about the stuff I had to let go off in order to allow myself to move forward. One of the most simple things I did was forgetting my Job Title as the label by which i am defined…obvious to some perhaps, but the job titles we have are labels or boxes by which we constrain and limit ourselves. This was in response to the first session with Phil, when I asked him what value he sees from what I do and none of it was around digital – which was great to hear but equally hard to hear as I thought that was my niche!
    I also realised that letting go of ideas, thoughts, preconceptions was a healthy process and one which allowed me to rediscover ideas in new ways, gaining new insights and new vantage points.
  • Better understanding and harnessing the people around me and in the network
    This is linked to the system leadership question which has and does underpin most of my self discovery. Again and no surprise my insight here was and is such a simple one, but you can’t be a system leader unless you make a commitment to positive change, connect and collaborate with others, influence and mobilise peers and coalitions of people, accept and encourage feedback and having confidence in yourself.
    None of this happens without the people around you, the people whoa re directly and indirectly connected…creating lasting and positive change requires  bravery, courage and a willingness to build and sustain networks and relationships.
    I always thought I was pretty good at networking but that alone does nothing, the challenge is how we can all collectively create impact. It is also about knowing when you need to step back and let go and allow others to lead.
  • My role in supporting othersJust as I have asked for help, I realised very early on that I needed to be open to offering and being asked for help by others. A really good example of that process is Sarah Lay’s journey over the last 6 months
  • My personal ambition
    Before this process started my personal ambition was very much on the emergent side of things – a lets see what happens and take it from there point of view…all of this was reflected in my previous appraisals where you capture what your want to do moving forward…mine read like this – “Carl is happy and content exploring new avenues and will assess opportunities when they arrive, Carl does not currently aspire to be a head of Service or a Chief Executive”  I don’t know why I limited my own ambition or set limits…I guess it kept things safe and comfortable and this was one way I coped with the uncertainty of the future.

Now it’s different – I think differently about my ambition…I feel I want to become a “Head” of something, a “Director” of something or a “Chief Executive” of something – the what, well that will no doubt emerge or be created in response to things I help make happen. But I’ve now set that direction and that has changed how I see myself as a leader and a practitioner and most importantly how I see the opportunities and possibilities in front of me.

 

Reflections on my second coaching / mentoring session

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A couple of weeks ago I posted about my first coaching/mentoring session with Phil Norrey (my Chief Executive) and it has had such a positive impact on my thinking, approach and behaviours already.

This week I had my first session with Mike Bracken (Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office) who kindly agreed to support me and help me over the coming months.

First and foremost I want to thank Mike for agreeing to do this and for taking time out to speak to me and help me professionally and personally it means a great deal and I believe it will provide the necessary challenge and encouragement along with my sessions with Phil to help me develop as a practitioner and a leader.

Like before the detail of the conversation will stay private but I will use this space to reflect on themes and specific challenges to help me work through them.

One of the interesting things in speaking to Mike was reflecting and talking about the work we are doing here in Devon (not just me, but the wider transformation that is also being driven hard by Sara Cretney and many others) and it isn’t until you try to capture everything that you realise how much is happening and how much things have significantly changed.

It was refreshing to get Mikes perspective and observations on the challenges we have faced and what we want to do moving forward and also reassuring that the direction of travel is a good one.

One thing I will share is the ‘killer question’ moment, I find that evercoaching / mentoring session has that killer question which makes you stop and really think, I mean really think what is the answer here. In this instance it was such a simple question and I felt disappointed in myself for not being able to answer or provide what I thought would have been an adequate response. The question was ‘What can you point at that tells me what you think?’  For me, I’ve never really thought about my blog in those terms, although more recently I did want to start writing with purpose and clarify my thinking, I’ve historically just thrown random ideas into this blog and whilst I have found that helped me there isn’t the final picture of what my thinking is for others to easily pull apart and access…

I’ve got a range of themes to reflect and ponder from the initial conversation and it isn’t until you start to reflect on different aspects of the conversation you realise how much you get from this process. The key themes for me from this conversation are:

  • Focusing on Local
  • Sharing your thoughts does not mean people know what you think
  • What people perceive you do is different to what you think you do yourself
  • Using the ‘language of old’ to change the future
  • Grassroots movements VS formal structures
  • We all have to let go of something to allow the future we want to see come to fruition
  • My story and my councils story are two different things and should remain that way, but I’m part of my councils story

An additional theme and more urgent action which I need to resolve as well is what role if any am I going to play in any of the change locally and or further afield…This wasn’t explicitly touched on in the conversation but in starting to reflect on the other areas plus the conversation I had with Phil, it is becoming an important question for me to answer.

I have already created some actions for myself from speaking to Mike and feel very positive about the experience and process and I am already looking forward to the next session.

Stop writing to sound clever and start writing with purpose

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I was having a conversation with a colleague the other day and asking for feedback on a draft document I had produced.

Now it is worth stating that this particular colleague (Sara Cretney) is also my coaching buddy and we have a very dynamic approach to coaching in that is pretty much forms part of every conversation we have.

The benefit of this is that we have developed a very open and honest relationship and can challenge each others thinking even when we don’t understand what each other is saying.

Anyway, coming back to the conversation i referred to above about this particular document, Sara asked me some questions about the documents and was also honest enough to say that she understood some of it but not all of it, so wondered what I was trying to achieve as it all sounded very clever.

In the conversation I tried to explain what i meant which was a helpful exercise in itself but during this I realised that I need to stop writing to sound clever – I’m not sure if this is a conscious thing or something which the organisation expects and therefore is a learnt behaviour.

Anyway I said that I need to stop writing to sound clever and start writing with purpose.

This blog is my place where i can start testing this, although this blog is also my space where I intend to share half baked ideas and thinking, but my intention now is to be clearer about those and to be clear in my writing about the purpose.

I’d would welcome any comments and feedback moving forward if I am not writing with purpose and am trying to sound clever…

Thanks in advance:)

Reflecting on thinking and doing

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Think DifferentRecently I’ve let myself down by not blogging as much as i feel i need to. The benefit i get from writing a post is actually a process of reflective practice which helps me manage the variety of thoughts going on in my head and i really do need to continue my personal commitment to write regularly as i simply don’t feel effective without having that process help clarify my thoughts.

Some of the things that have been preoccupying my head space (other than the detail of the day to day work which is extremely interesting and busy and the financial challenges which face all services) is around thinking different and doing different.

Do Different

It has been a personal target of mine since before Christmas, triggered from a coaching session I had that i need to make more efforts to understand the relevance of things like digital in relation to the councils services than i had previously been doing and also moving away from simply encouraging people to think differently about digital to actually doing different things with or without digital.

The last couple of weeks have really helped galvanise and challenge some of the thoughts in my head and really challenged my thinking and my approach to thinking (if that makes sense)

The week before last I was inspired by a video which was shared by Dr Andrea Siodmok at our Corporate Leadership team event – The video was Piano Stairs

Also last week I was part of a 3 day systems thinking orientation session with our Highways colleagues and gained a huge insight into the world of highways (more than i expected) but It was an interesting and fun three days.

These two things plus a range of smaller, somewhat random things have made me identify some important lessons…some are super obvious and probably everyone will say…”what you didn’t know that – duh!!

Lesson Number 1:  Don’t over evangelise.

What I mean by this is don’t push stuff down peoples throats – I would probably say I used to do this and some people may say I still do – But I’ve tried hard to change that without losing the things people have said they value (energy, fun, enthusiasm) But unmanaged you can end up putting people off and disconnecting them from the potential benefits of even the most simple of steps and actions.

This is also one of the reasons I wanted to focus on relevance as opposed to simply saying “digital is awesome, we should do digital, heh, lets put some digital in and everything will be cool”…”oh and have you seen this awesome thing, it is soooo cool, you should try this, i find it really easy, you will too” I hope I don’t sound like this but appreciate and acknowledge that I may have done in the past.

Lesson Number 2: Give people space to digest change

When people see a change, it can be difficult to digest the scale of what is required, especially if the scale of change is radical. Give them space and support them, don’t force your thinking on to them as they will need to discover the new paradigm for themselves. It is more powerful and lasting this way.

Lesson Number 3 : Relevance is about conversations

You can’t see or identify relevance in isolation from what is happening. You have to talk with people, understand what is happening, where things are going, the opportunities, the challenges and then make sense of this before throwing random ideas in a conversation to seem clever.

Lesson Number 4: Influence is about conversations

Most of the influence I’ve had on the organisation has been through having conversations with the right people and the right time. When those conversations happen with more and more senior people the influence expands and grows. We should try harder to have the right conversations with the right people and we can “hope” it is the right time.

Lesson Number 5: Listening is about being silent

This is something that I’ve learned more and more as part of my leadership course and coaching sessions. The power of being silent and allow people the time and space to reflect in the moment is very powerful. It is sometimes hard to resist simply not jumping in with an idea, an answer or a solution. Allowing someone the space to find the solution/answer them self is a far richer experience.