On a year in Cornwall Council.
I’ve now been working at Cornwall Council for just over a year1 and have been regularly writing weeknotes2 for most of that time. It is a bonus if someone else gets something from these notes but they are mostly for me. In theory, I could do all of this reflection in a private journal but I’ve never kept them going for very long. I guess the tiny chance that someone might notice I have stopped writing them is enough to keep going. This is my first go at using the notes for some more longer-term reflection.
My official job is to be the Agile Coach for Cornwall Council’s IS Department. This is a pretty rare job and you won’t find the title very often, especially in a UK local authority. However, if you look behind the title to what an Agile Coach is supposed to do3 you will probably recognise a lot of things that you or your colleagues are already doing. There are many other agile coaches in Cornwall Council but most don’t have it in their job title.
There is always a bit of pure agile coaching in my week but the proportion has varied a lot over the year. In my first few weeks it was close to 100%. Recently, it has been around 20% and occasionally lower. I am pretty happy about this. There are a lot of things that can make teams struggle and lack of agile coaching isn’t always the most important one. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t keep trying to progress our agile transformation, but I wouldn’t be a good colleague if I left others to struggle when I was able to help. This year, I’ve done everything from handling calls on our IS helpdesk to unblocking extension funding for some critical contractors. In recent weeks I’ve been covering Delivery Management and Product Management4 roles that we haven’t been able to fill on a permanent basis. Many of my colleagues have done way more than me including taking secondments in front line services during the peak of the COVID crisis.
I’m also really happy that I’ve been able to coach outside of the IS Department - including my first ever invitation to talk to an internal audit team about agile audits! We can’t develop IS services in isolation. We can’t even start work on them without talented teams so our agility in technology is constrained by our agility in managing people, money and commercial arrangements. Also, none of our IS services are very useful on their own. They are just components of the richer services the Council provides to Cornwall’s residents and visitors. The measure of our agility should be the experience of our residents and visitors, not a couple of hundred people in the IS Department.
I really am part of a fantastic team. Yes, we have our issues, but I’ve worked in enough private sector companies to know that most other organisations have the same.
I was impressed by the standards of our IT services when I first joined the Council. I got my work laptop on my first day and everything just worked. I already had a pretty good mobile phone and tablet, and our bring-your-own-device service meant that I could use these securely with very little fuss. Our default security settings for work IT are very high but our Head of Cyber Security actively supported me in getting external collaboration tools unlocked so that I could continue to be an active member of several professional and public sector communities. I’ve worked with private sector and central government organisations of the same size that couldn’t match this and they had much bigger budgets.
As the COVID crisis took hold the team rose to the challenge. Months into the pandemic some large private sector organisations are still struggling to handle calls. Our brilliant teams had most call centre staff working effectively from home within a few days. They have followed this up with the rapid roll-out of online collaboration tools and hosting broadcast-scale events for internal staff briefings and public Council events. We’ve had our fastest ever releases of new systems (one in only 9 working days and a second, including fast track procurement, in just 15 working days) to help manage COVID outbreaks or help run our services in a COVID-safe way.
Some of our work does not go so smoothly but, even then, you can rely on our teams to get stuck in and sort things out. Many of the team have worked evenings and weekends to put things right. We probably need to do more to make sure this sort of burden is shared fairly around the team but, otherwise, I am not sure what more I could expect.
I could probably fill a book with the things I have learnt in my first year at the Council. A few things have stood out for me while going back over my weeknotes.
- Most people starting out with agile practices see them as a set of rules or procedures. After a while they start to realise it is a way of thinking: a way of focusing on what is most important and continuously getting better at it. I’ve been learning to look out for people and teams that have already evolved some great ways of working, and build on that rather than promote my own favourite tools and techniques.
- I’m learning to be patient when guiding teams to be more independent and, ultimately, self-managing. People who have had very little influence over their work develop habits and routines that are not easy to let go. It takes time to build the confidence and trust needed so that people can make their own decisions and put them into action. They need to be sure that it is safe for them and safe for the people we serve.
- It is good to base important decisions on data but I have been learning that people can be misled by how it is presented. For instance, feedback from customers using our services might appear as anecdotes or narratives. Estimates for a large project will be presented as a set of numbers broken down across a range of dimensions in fine detail. We consistently put more weight on the numbers over the narrative when it should be the other way around. Customer feedback is valuable data for user research; estimates are just opinions in numerical form.
- It is really hard to maintain external collaboration when working for a Council because our range of services is so diverse and complex. I still believe we need to find ways to share more across the sector but I now have a better understanding of why my colleagues are consumed by internal collaboration, and lack the time and energy to engage outside. I’ve pared back my own involvement to a few key activities and dropped out of some online collaboration platforms completely. I’m determined that this won’t be a permanent state of affairs but I will continue with a lot more sympathy for people that find it really hard to keep up.
For most of my career I was blind to issues of equality and, later, was just a passive and mostly silent supporter. In recent years, I have been trying to be a more active ally. I’ve tried to educate myself, got involved in events and initiatives to increase equality and have taken up the issues with friends, family and colleages. I still hesitate too often and wonder what people will think - I’ve spent more time editing this single paragraph than the whole of the rest of this yearnote. Poor me but, if that’s all I’ve got to worry about, I am a lot luckier than the people I’m trying to support.