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Weeknote 13 - 17 July 2020

4 min read

On the many faces of progress and virtual privilege walks

Successes in different guises

There are lots of good things to look back on this week although some of them need a bit of interpretation. First the obvious successes.

We went live with a system which will help our Public Health teams manage any local outbreaks of COVID-19. The end to end process, including investigating options in the market, make-or-buy decision, formal governance and now getting a basic working product in the hands of users took around three weeks. I think we can be rightly pleased with that. This had the ingredients of some of our other fast deliveries - cross functional team, clear priorities, risk-aware approach - and added in some new elements. It was great to have a member of the procurement department as an integral member of the team to help us navigate the various rules and regulations and provide some assurance we were handling the commercial risks appropriately.

This week I also saw demonstrations of elements of our future web site. These are the first steps of a long project but, even at this early stage, it is good to be seeing working components and draft content rather than presentations and documents.

Other successes aren’t always so bold and visible but are critically important. Cross-skilling is one of these. Many of our routine IS operations get taken for granted but they require deep specialist skills and, because of the impact if things went wrong, a fair amount of nerve. Several of the teams I work with have been using pair-working and other types of coaching and training so that more of the team have the skills and confidence to carry out this work. This makes our services more resilient, gives us more flexibility in responding to new demands and gives the team more options when people want to take leave or we need to support work out of normal hours.

Developing systems is a creative, high risk process and so it is inevitable that things go wrong. If you don’t realise this is an unavoidable aspect of the work then you can make bad choices or create perverse incentives - for example, people padding out estimates to game milestone and budget targets. If you accept that problems are going to be a fact of life you can find successes in how we handle them. Some of the good things this week fell into that category.

  • We postponed a major systems upgrade for a modest amount of time so that we can fix and test things which are not working.
  • We escalated lack of progress in part of a project in order to confirm priorities and then give the team the help and support needed to get back on track.

These don’t always feel like successes, particularly to the teams involved. They can provoke tough conversations and fair amount of anxiety and frustration. Sometimes unhelpful behaviours creep in, such as questioning people’s commitment or motivation or down-playing the impact of other work if there is a priority clash. These are understandable reactions but, generally, we acknowlege the issues, respond in a decisive and collaborative way and build the lessons into the next bit of work.

The lessons we are learning are a few more of the good thing this week. Sometimes it is pretty obvious what needs to change but often there are a range of responses such as:

  • increase capacity
  • build up skills and understanding
  • communicate more clearly
  • apply more checks and controls
  • test and get feedback more quickly
  • plan and prepare in more detail.

Learning the wrong lesson can compound the issues we are trying to resolve. This is another area which involves a lot of creativity and uncertainty. We won’t always get it right but we will keep improving.

A word about a good cause

This week I took part in a virtual privilege walk as part of an event on race in the public sector[1]. I wasn’t surprised I scored highly. 28 of the 30 indications of privilege applied to me and even the other two were questionable. Others at the event scored less than 10. More powerful than the scores was the opportunity to talk about all of this with a wide range of people. If you are prepared to put your assumptions to one side I highly recommend you take part in a similar event if you get the chance.


  1. Nour Sidawi lead and tweeted about the event. ↩︎

Originally published on by Richard Barton