S01E05: Green shoots of recovery

Taking five — This week I’ve mostly been on holiday and thinking about designed organisations, data and people. Here’s how it went.

Time for a recap

Over the last four weeks, I’ve been exploring:

  • The designed organisation: How might we design an organisation that is resilient to change, keeps learning together and is a great place to work?
  • Data governance as a service: How might we make data governance part and parcel of our organisation, built into everything we do with data?
  • Design patterns for data and analytics: How might we make use patterns to speed up making data useful, usable and putting it to use?

Folks who’ve been with me since the start will notice that the essence of my threads remain the same while the question of what we might create evolves as with my understanding. The last four weeks have been about building that nuance, challenging my ideas and assumptions, learning from experts and having the most amazing conversations with generous folks. Thank you.

What have I learnt over the month?

My secret power is … connecting people

I enjoy introducing folks to people they’ll connect with — not necessarily like-minded but complimentary. In another life perhaps I’d have been a matchmaker — not for romantic connections, for collaborative ones.

Being on a break this week meant I got to connect folks I like to folks who’d love their work or to things that could be meaningful and enriching for them. It’s not perfect, sometimes I make a connection and it falls flat as a pancake, but when it works, it’s sublime.

Connecting people has been ramping up at work too. As my employer, Department for International Development merges with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, internal networking has shifted from useful to essential for a successful new organisaiton.

On Friday, I met with the newly minted Government Data Quality Hub led by James Tucker (ONS) to develop our thinking on data quality. How might we use cross-government networks to improve data quality in a challenging environment — a newly merged organisation with culture, technology and data differences? Connecting people is absolutely essential to making this work.

It cuts both ways of course — I also made kind, thoughtful, compassionate connections through Twitter and Common Purpose Cross-Boundary Leadership sessions.

Leading in a time of pandemic

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve leaned into #TalkLeadership from Common Purpose and let me tell you, it’s been amazing!

Part of my thinking around designed organisations is how to lead them. I’d already shared some thoughts on being a better leader right now. We’re in a pandemic and many of us have been knocked off our routines. Some have thrived, others have not. It’s made me more aware than ever of how what I say and do affects the folks that work with me, report to me and those I report to.

As I recovered from COVID symptoms in February, Brigette Metzler shared “What’s Really Holding Women Back?”. This resonated so deeply, despite being a child-free woman. The pressure on carers and people with children in this pandemic is something I will never experience directly but makes me ache to see my colleagues struggling. We know long hours don’t raise productivity, but we also know long hours are “business as usual” for many.

How could I help? It’s easy to simply say encouraging things and “model good behaviour” but is it enough? This led me to “How to give great feedback in a virtual (and uncertain) world” because as a leader I recognise that yes, I am a lifeline and I can bring comfort, recognition and a little ease while being aware that folks are autonomous adults.

I recognise the importance of duty of care, ably demonstrated by Rachel Murphy, CEO of Difrent Group and Diane Barlow, Interim CIO of Food Standards Agency who generously helped me to work through this.

What does a leader in a designed organisation look like in a time of pandemic? Same as any other time:

  • They are clear and agile in thinking, acting and communicating;
  • They challenge their assumptions knowing the defaults don’t always work;
  • They listen to and learn from feedback;
  • They are always learning, as individuals and with the people they lead;
  • They know that their perspective is just one of many — even when they are from marginalised groups themselves;
  • They help people raise themselves up, creating the space and opportunities to thrive however they live best;
  • They do the hard work to give people that space and clarity;
  • They understand and practise ethical duty of care for people who work with and for them.

There are other qualities no doubt, These resonated with me.

Thinking in systems and patterns

At #TalkLeadership, I asked: How do you found the time to be a good subject matter expert with your own projects and a good leader when you have line or other management responsibilities?

It’s a tension I recognise that pulls and tugs at me each week. Some weeks I do better in one area, other weeks in another. I rarely believe I balance the two as well as I’d like to. I also recognise that I’m very hard on myself! Folks in the session shared their secrets but that of finding enough time in the day as well as the mental space to learn, review and reflect is a work in progress.

One reason I find patterns so compelling (if well used!) is how much time they free up. Of course, when poorly applied, they just make problems worse. And they don’t work in a chaotic environment which I suppose is its own sort of anti-pattern. After all, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. A chaotic environment is like a body with a fever, you need to bring the temperature down before you can start rehab. An organisation with the potential to be redesigned (go into rehab if you like) is an altogether different prospect — a more stable system.

This brings me to systems thinking. A system being a set of things — your body and mine, a country, an organism — that has a purpose, is connected and makes it’s own pattern of behaviour over time.

What if we could free up time, speed up delivery by using systems thinking to find the patterns, user research to understand them, and design systems for policy, productivity, data and analytics to automate them? There’s a lot of overlaps between systems thinking and data modelling which helps me with some of the seemingly counterintuitive thinking.

I’m (very slowly) reading through Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows which I took out of the RSA library out pre-lockdown. The Donella Meadows Project, Systems thinking and Thinking in Systems: A Primer from Meadows — Knowledge Jolt with Jack are good resources to dip your toe in.

Frayed threads

The pandemic, lockdown, contracting COVID with what doctors like to call comorbidities and I just refer to as “stuff I live with” has been an experience. And I mean that in the “May you live in interesting times” sort of experience, not the “Visiting Disney World when the park is mostly deserted” experience or the “Warm beach with a book and unlimited frosty drinks” experience. It’s been tough but enlightening.

Personally, my mental and physical health are on different recovery cycles. Usually feeling physically ill takes a toll on my mental health but overall I’m pretty chipper. I have days when I’m like “this is a lot” but I also know I will get through this. More and more I have days when I find the joy in my life overflows. I wake up (sometimes in pain, sometimes out of breath) smiling. I’m practising resisting and desisting and being OK with things I can’t do well (yet).

I do feel sad that I can’t read as fast, walk as far, or workout as hard but if that’s the price for surviving, I’m glad to pay it. Having said that, a few days off work was just what the doctor ordered (literally in this case) and I’m glad I did. This weekend I’ve been dancing, singing, cooking, cleaning, watching my wife garden (c’mon, I have my limits!) and I got a new plant!

Life is sweeter than it’s been for a long time and I’m so pleased to be here to share it with you. See you next week.

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