On pushing boundaries, technical frustrations and race science.
Pushing at our boundaries
We’ve been gradually getting more disciplined at prioritising our work and trying to get a few things done well rather than having loads of things partially finished. This is probably harder in a Council like Cornwall than most other types of organisation due to the huge diversity of what we do. If we have capacity to work on our top thirty projects then almost every service department would have one of their top items in progress. At points during the COVID-19 crisis we have been progressing less than 10 which leaves lots of services frustrated. To help keep this in check we have a transparent way of prioritising work which is moderated by a group of service managers. It also helps that we have a growing reputation for fast delivery so services teams can have some confidence that the top items will get done and we can get onto their work next.
COVID-19 is still pushing at the limits of this. In the middle of the week some work we had been anticipating arrived. It immediately went near the top of the priority list and we had mobilised a team by lunchtime. By the time I finished on Friday we had a rough cut budget, the key parts of a procurement strategy for the elements we can’t do in-house and a draft options appraisal so that we can apply some appropriate control and governance. Early next week we’ll run some demonstrations to see if we can meet at least part of the need re-using things we have already made and, if we are lucky, have at least part of this running by the end of the week. I was impressed by how everyone responded. A couple of things stood out for me.
- People recognised that there is a risk in going fast but there were also risks in not addressing the needs quickly and we have had some quick, pragmatic discussions about how we far we could go in flexing our processes and controls without breaking them
- It is hard to move fast with a new and large team when there are a lot of unknowns. At some point during the last few days each of us has run out of energy or creativity for a while but someone else in the team took up the baton and helped us all keep pushing on.
The lockdown has forced us to adopt some new tools and ways of working and mostly it has been working well. For example, one of my projects involves changing some of our internal and external data flows so I ran a workshop with our engineers and architects to map out what needed to change and highlight any obstacles. This sort of thing is easy in a room with a flip chart but is suddenly challenging when everyone is remote. Our bring-you-own-device service meant I could share the screen of my iPad as a digital flip chart page and sketch out the flows and capture the key points from the team. As a bonus we left with a digital copy of what we discussed.
It doesn’t always go that well. I started out as a software engineer and so I tend to use small software scripts and programs rather than spreadsheets to get my work done, for example, to keep track of the costs on projects. For personal things, like this blog, I have got used to quickly starting up things in the public cloud and throwing them away when they are not needed. We are building these sorts of capabilities in the IS department but they have to work in a different way. The value and sensitivity of the things I build myself are small - a few basic security controls are good enough. The risk profile for our main IT systems is on a whole different level. To make sure people don’t accidentally or deliberately cause damage we have to disable many convenient features by default or limit access to people with particular roles. A little productivity aid I could create myself becomes a service request for a busy engineer who has a backlog of much more important things to do. Eventually, we will have more automation and self-service for these sorts of things but it is hard to be patient sometimes.
A word about a good cause
I recently finished Superior by Angela Saini1. It was one of a number of titles highlighted during the recent racial injustice demonstrations. I thought I was reasonably well informed but I learnt a lot of new things about the myths and bias behind race science. It is one of those books that leave a mark and I keep hearing and seeing things that make me recall some of the facts and insights which Angela shares.