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Weeknote 22 March 2024

7 min read

On effective teams, effective programme boards and effective public services


I’m currently working on a few projects. By definition, project work is temporary and volatile but it does help to have some routines. With the project teams I am trying to find some routines which will help us and not waste our time. If you have been on one of our introduction to agile courses you will recognise some of the routines but we are adapting things to suit the teams we have. Here are some examples:

  1. Daily check ins are too busy for us right now. We are covering three (arguably four) chunks of work which don’t overlap that much and we are dependent upon other teams either inside the council or suppliers. Instead of daily we are aiming to cover each chunk of work a couple of times each week. This feels like a reasonable compromise so that we are not greedy with people’s time but also don’t let issues hang around for very long. We will probably do the same thing with planning and review as the same sorts of trade-offs apply. We may find things need to get busier at a different stage of the work and we can dial the frequency up or down as needed.
  2. Different trade-offs apply to some of our other routines. We’ve been holding roadmap sharing sessions with leads from many teams on a weekly basis. These don’t take a lot of time, they are flexible for people with occasional meeting clashes and they are a good way to spot risks and dependencies between teams. We’ll probably keep them as they are for now. Our regular show-and-share sessions are also outward facing so we may well keep a single shared session for these and rotate the time around the different chunks of work.

I am not a subject matter specialist for most of the projects I am working on at the moment but I am a subject matter specialist on teams of people. This involves a fair amount of emotional work at the moment. This means working on topics like confidence, commitment and conflict. Cormac Russell[1] mentioned working at the “speed of trust” in his FRED Friday[2] talk this morning and that is a nice sound bite to capture this sort of thing. It is easy to dismiss emotional work because we are all mature professionals and should be rational but it is naive to pretend we aren’t humans. I think it is more mature to recognise how things really are and deal with it. Whether we like it or not feelings and relationships have a big impact on decisions and performance. We can’t eliminate them but we can work with them to mitigate some of the undesirable side effects - such as bias - and amplify the good effects - such as motivation and satisfaction.

Some people are naturally great at this. I’m not but, fortunately, there are some tools and techniques which can be learnt. I am always going back to the Tuckman Model[3], Situational Leadership[4] and basic stakeholder mapping (e.g. a simple influence vs interest grid). When the stakes are higher, having training in negotiation and sales techniques really pays off. Active listening is really powerful but easy to forget. If you really struggle with someone try asking them to coach you. I can’t remember anyone refusing this sort of request and half the time I’ve found the problem was my own hang ups rather than anything a “difficult stakeholder” was doing.


This week we held another Digital Future[5] Programme Board. It is good to see how these are developing. It feels more like a team than the first meetings nearly a year ago. They are open, direct and decisive. The main thing I am seeking to learn from attending is how the board evaluates value and risk. I’m not looking for the obvious e.g. £10 is more valuable than £1. I am trying to learn about the more subtle trade-offs such as how much are the lessons from an experiment worth? At what point does short term efficiency take priority over strategic alignment? I’ve seen some organisations try to condense these things into deceptively simple numbers (e.g. our risk appetite is 7 out of 10) but never found them very useful. I find the questions and answers and the case law of what is approved, rejected or avoided much more illuminating.

I’ve also been learning about how people are using cost of delay[6] and where this is different from the original intention. I’m one of the people that has been pushing this as a way to make better decisions so sorry if you don’t like it. I’ve seen it used well to provide some light-touch alignment so that we can delegate priority decisions to teams - which is good as small teams often make better, faster decisions than centralised processes. Unfortunately, I’m still not very good at explaining how it works. Cost of delay isn’t a financial threshold or gateway but we can easily make it sound like one and create unhelpful incentives. In theory we could express cost of delay in terms of atmospheric carbon, healthy life expectancy or citizen satisfaction. Any common unit would do and might help people understand the intention. In practice, we’ve got a lot more tools and had a lot more practice in converting things into financial units so we are probably stuck with it for now.


Have you heard about our FRED Friday[2:1] talks? I am continually amazed at the sorts of people that want to come and talk to Cornwall Council[7], answer our questions and help us think about what we do and how we do it in new ways. Over the last few weeks we have heard from Vimla Appadoo[8] and Cormac Russell[1:1]. Both these talks covered foundational topics and raise challenges about what public service is and what it should be. Both of these are quite a way outside my comfort zone and I think I only got 20% of their value on the first watch. I am going to need to replay the talks and read some of the references. Vimla and Cormac had some great suggestions for things that the Council could do to make things better. I think the actions will feel more like a social movement than a planned programme. I wonder if we are ready for something like that and what else is needed for us to become ready.

Another powerful talk, but on a completely different level was a discussion about a possible Data Challenge event. This could be an intensive period, perhaps anchored around a 1-day event, where a mixture of experts and interested amateurs can work together to try to draw useful insights out of data for the good of Cornwall. There was a lot of agreement that an event could serve a useful purpose but really needed to be part of something more ambitious. We talked about promoting and satisfying curiosity about data, opening up ways for people to grow their skills and personal networks and creating a community that would have a life beyond one intensive event. We are going to continue the discussion in a month or two and put some more shape to this idea.


  1. Cormac Russell ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Every few weeks Cornwall Council invites a guest speaker to share their insights and challenge our thinking. We have had some amazing people come and share their experience of using new ways of working and/or new technology to improve large organisations and the services they provide to the public. ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. The Tuckman Model ↩︎

  4. Situational Leadership ↩︎

  5. Council strategy for our digital future. ↩︎

  6. Cost of delay ↩︎

  7. Cornwall Council website ↩︎

  8. Vimla Appadoo ↩︎

Originally published on by Richard Barton