Category Archives: Services

Making use of Open Data

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

The Wales Audit Office recently released our first Open Dataset. What happened next? Ben Proctor of Open Data Institute Cardiff talks us through how he made use of the data.

A screenshot of a dynamic map created by Ben Proctor to show levels of Council Tax per head of population in Wales

A screenshot of a dynamic map created by Ben Proctor to show levels of Council Tax per head of population in Wales

Oooo! new data

I was excited to see that the Wales Audit Office had released a set of data as open data. Open data is data that anyone can find access and use and it is the most useful sort of data.

Dyfrig Williams wrote about the process they’d gone through to release this data set (a summary of the audit data from each local authority in Wales for each year). The data is a simple table and you can download it as a CSV file (essentially a file that will work in any spreadsheet programme) here.

But there are problems

I downloaded the file and quickly spotted some problems. These are not errors exactly but just things that are missing or inconsistent and will make some uses of the data a bit harder. But this is not a complaint, because one of the attractive features of open data is that I could resolve these problems. I can do this because the Wales Audit Office have released the data under the Open Government Licence. This tells me I don’t need their permission to do anything with the data and there are no limits to what I can do with it (apart from I have to make it clear where it came from).

I can fix the problems

These are the things I did to my copy of the data.

I changed the format of the “financial year column” because in the Wales Audit Office file some of these are numbers and some are text.

I added a column of GSS codes. GSS codes are codes that are used to identify local authorities (and other boundaries). Having the GSS code means you don’t have to worry about whether the data says Anglesey Council, or Isle of Anglesey Council or Ynys Môn. And with the GSS code I could add “polygons” for each council. Polygons are basically instructions on how to draw the outline of each council and information about where to put the drawing on a map.

With these changes I was able to draw a series of maps showing the level of council tax per head in each local authority and how this has changed over time.

And given the Wales Audit Office an improved file

And I’ve been able to hand back to the Wales Audit Office a KML file. This is a file suitable for use in mapping software. Anyone who wants to visualise the Wales Audit Office data on a map can just open the KML file and get going.

You can download this mapping file yourself.

Why did I do this?

I’m part of the core team at ODI-Cardiff so I get excited about open data.
It took me a very few minutes.
I’m trying to get better at using a Google service called Fusion Tables and this is a good opportunity to experiment.
I’m actually quite interested in what this data might tell us.

Why Open Standards lead to better public services

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

How can the use of Open Standards lead to improved integration of Information Technology systems and public services? Dyfrig Williams reflects on what he learnt from taking part in the Good Practice Exchange webinar on Open Standards.

Digital has been a key theme of our work for some time now. We’ve delivered a range of events on that theme, from our seminar on Information Technology as part of our assets work in 2013, to our latest webinar on Open Standards.

This is the most techy digital themed event that we’ve hosted since our Cloud webinar, but it’s a topic we particularly wanted to give air time to because of how important Open Standards are in the integration of public services. Training and consultancy services the length and breadth of Britain are currently sending marketing material selling all kinds of products and services with the “digital” prefix. Open Standards are key to enabling many of the services that are being sold to integrate with each other and to enable better public services.

During our webinar, I described Open Standards as standards that are developed through a collaborative process for data, document formats and software interoperability. But as Evan Jones pointed out, there is no universal agreed definition of Open Standards – ironically! So for that alone, it’s well worth catching up with the webinar!

So what were my key learning points?

“Do the hard work to make things easy”

Terence Eden of the UK Government Digital Service gave us so much food for thought during the webinar. He followed up this gem with “It’s not about you, it’s about the users.” The opening question from a delegate was around whether it might be difficult to implement Open Standards with their existing technology. Terence’s response immediately got me thinking that Open Standards are an enabler of better public service, rather than an endpoint in and of themselves. We should be thinking about how we can provide the best possible services for the end user, and using proprietary standards that hinder integration certainly don’t help with that. As Terence said, “Open Standards can save lives!”

We’ve done a lot of thinking at the Good Practice Exchange about the complex and complicated environments in which public services are delivered. Our Manager Chris Bolton has written this great post on the problems that come with implementing a one-size fits all solution in a situation that has many variables. The problem with continually going down the proprietary route is that we’re adding layers of complexity in to an already complex environment. It narrows down service options and means that solutions themselves have to be increasingly complex, which can generate further issues and decrease reliability. It’s worth reading how the New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor-General made their information systems open by default, which resulted in a more reliable and robust IT system because of the cleaner configuration without endless permissions and restrictions.

Open Standards aren’t just for IT specialists

The discussions during the webinar weren’t just about Information Technology systems working well together. I mentioned above that Open Standards are an enabler for better public services, and as such knowledge and awareness of them shouldn’t be constricted to IT departments. They help systems to integrate and enable collaboration. The data gathered can be used to plan long term, so it’s clear how they can be really beneficial in enabling organisations to work through some of the ways of working that are identified in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. If we want to gather data for effective planning and to work together to provide better public services, then awareness of Open Standards is important amongst everyone from Public Service Board representatives, to Elected Members, to Capital Project Managers.

The power of procurement

Linked to the above point about Open Standards being important beyond IT, it’s something that staff in procurement roles should consider. Not only do they reduce complexity to enable integration, they also open up procurement opportunities beyond major vendors to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is clearly linked to some of the Wellbeing Outcomes within the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, especially around a Prosperous Wales and a(n economically) resilient Wales.

As Evan Jones pointed out during the webinar, Open Standards also help you help you to take a longer term view of systems, as they will be interoperable with the future you. We also had a good discussion about encouraging vendors to work with Open Standards during the webinar, and as Jess Hoare said, it’s important to remember that it’s us as public services who are procuring services. It’s perhaps easy to forget in these situations that as the procurers, the power during negotiations lies with us. Evan encouraged us all to negotiate with vendors – if they can’t store data in an Open Standard, you should be suspicious about their motives.

Where do we go from here?

Resources from this Open Standards work will be fed into our Digital work in order to prolong its impact and also to give people who are interested in the agenda some food for thought. We’re also thinking about how we can share this work internally as well. I’ve fed my learning from the webinar into the Cutting Edge Audit Office project, and we’re also thinking about how we can share the learning with auditors, because Open Standards have a key role in ensuring that systems and organisations can work together effectively to deliver value for money. Short term thinking here has a big impact in the longer term.

We also have a procurement webinar scheduled as part of this year’s programme, which gives us an opportunity to look again at some of the issues raised here. We’ve come across some interesting practice in our initial scoping work on procurement, particularly how CivTech have taken a different approach to driving innovation in Scotland. We’d love to hear from you if you have further practice that we can highlight. Because after all, our work is only a success if it’s learning from and reflecting the key issues that you’re facing as Welsh public services.

Is ‘common sense’ more useful than ‘process and the rule book’ for taking well managed risks?

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

The Good Practice Exchange held a pilot seminar on how you manage risks around organisation change, service transformation and innovation. In this post, Chris Bolton looks at what people use to help them make decisions about risk.

This is the second in a series of posts following a pilot session we ran on well managed risk taking. An explanation of our approach to the session is in the first post, ‘Context is Everything’.

What is helpful when we make decisions?

There are many factors that influence how we make decisions. Some are highly logical, rational, and based upon extensive evidence and information; whilst others might be driven by ‘gut feeling’ and emotion.

We wanted to see if there was anything in particular that influenced how people thought about decision making in relation to the two risk management frameworks and the three scenarios we presented to them. The thinking that shaped the questions we posed people is explained below.

In each case people were asked to move the white ball on the triangle to a position that bests reflected their thinking – the closer it is to one statement, the more important it was to them (in the context of the risk management framework and scenario they were thinking about).  An example of one of the triangles we used is below

A triangle where people moved a point to show whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making process

  • The question ‘what would be helpful to decisions?’ is quite straightforward.
  • The choices for each apex on the triangle are all things which should be positive and helpful when making decisions.
    – Clear process and rules,
    – Common sense, and
    – Freedom to act.
  • There was no right or wrong in where people moved the white ball to on the triangle.
  • Their choice was literally to identify a place where they felt most comfortable (in the context of the Framework and Scenario we were discussing).

What does the data tell us?

Graphic 1 shows the distribution of the 218 dots in the triangle. Each one of these dots was placed in response to the question; ‘what would help you make decisions, and within the context of the two frameworks and three scenarios.

In Graphic 2, we have highlighted what look like 4 distinct clusters of dots.

2 triangles where people indicated whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making process

In Graphic 2, the 4 areas highlighted appear to indicate:

  • Top centre – a preference for clear process and rules (in favour of other options, including common sense)
  • Bottom centre – a preference for using common sense in combination with having the freedom to act (rather than clear process and rules)
  • Middle centre – using all three options (in balance)
  • Right bottom – a preference to have freedom to act, with limited rules, process or common sense (superficially this could be interpreted as reckless approach to risk management – which highlights that the data does require some further examination and understanding)

Examination of the data, using a number of different perspectives follows:

2 triangles where people indicated whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making process

Observations & Questions: What would help making decisions?

  • Graphic 3. For the Safe to Fail Framework, common sense and freedom to act are preferred (quite strongly) to rules and process
  • Graphic 4. For the Failure Not an Option Framework, there is a more dispersed pattern. There is a grouping towards process and rules, but many dots are scattered elsewhere.
  • Question 1. Do some people prefer to not use process and rules, even when failure is not an option?
  • Question 2. Does a preference for process and rules (compliance) reduce the need for common sense?
  • Question 3. Does a pressurised environment (failure is not an option) lead to greater indecision and variability in  how people approach decision making (a more scattered pattern of dots)?

2 triangles where people indicated whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making process

Observations & Questions: What would help making decisions?

  • Graphic 5. For the scenario about a Complaints Handing process the dots are scattered around the triangle approximately matching the overall distribution for all frameworks and all scenarios.
  • Clusters are seen with a preference towards clear rules and process, and another towards a preference towards common sense and freedom to act.
  • Graphic 6. For a scenario linked to tackling obesity, the overall pattern has formed with a preference towards common sense and freedom to act, with few dots close to the process and rules apex.

For clarification, the Complains Handling scenario was about an organisation improving its internal complaints handing process. It was a big challenge, focused in internal processes. Tackling obesity was about a society wide challenge involving multiple partners, citizens and stakeholders.

  • Question 1. Does distribution of dots for the obesity scenario reflect the context? It is a complex situation with many unknowns. There are not clear rules on how to achieve success so, would people prefer to make decisions based upon common sense and the freedom to act (rather than what might appear to be arbitrary rules)?
  • Question 2. Do the dots close to the Freedom to Act apex, distant from both Clear rules and process and Common sense raise any concerns? Is making decision without rules or common sense something that should be avoided?

Common sense the rule book and decision making

Similar to what we described in the first post, the context in which people approach risk management has an influence upon how they make decisions about managing that risk.

The broad conclusions from this test indicate that in a ‘safe to fail’ context, people would find it more helpful to use a combination of common sense and freedom to act to make their decisions, in preference to clear rules and a process. If the challenge they were facing was a situation where failure was not an option, there was a shift towards using clear rules and process, but not a wholesale move. Many people still edged towards wanting freedom to act and using common sense.

The scenario about tackling obesity might help to explain this as it described a complex situation with many unknowns. The desire to have freedom to act and use common sense appears to be more helpful than following clear rules and guidance (which may be arbitrary given the unknown nature of the challenges).

These findings raise a number of questions. Many organisational project and risk management approaches are built upon a clear process and rules. If the organisation places a high value on compliance with the process and rules, there is likely to be a conflict with the desire of many people to use a combination of common sense and freedom to act to make their decisions about risk management (rather than rules and process).

So is common sense more useful that the rule book? Based on this limited analysis, of a small set of data which focused upon people using a safe to fail approach, the answer seems to be yes.  But it does deserve some further examination and wider discussion.

Finally. As mentioned earlier, this is an experiment for us and an example of us ‘working out loud, doing things in the open’. There is still a lot more we would like to do with this data. We are certain that we haven’t got things right and would appreciate any comments and feedback on what we have tried here. If anyone would like to have a look at the dataset and help expand our understanding, please get in touch, we would very much like to talk.

This post is linked to others that look at:

  • Post 1. Context is everything. This is a brief description of what we did in the session and some observations on how people think they would respond to failure in the context of different risk management approaches.
  • Post 3. Does service user involvement in decision making lead to better decisions? This tested the technology we used and pushed our understanding to the limits.

Study and purpose: Systems thinking and public services

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

How can Systems Thinking be applied to public services? Dyfrig Williams reflects on what he learnt from reading “The Whitehall Effect.”

Inspired by conversations with Kelly Doonan and the GovCamp Cymru Books Channel on Slack, I’ve recently finished reading John Seddon’s “The Whitehall Effect”. The book is billed as being “an uncompromising account of the way Whitehall has systematically and perversely made public services worse”, so I wasn’t expecting a light and breezy read. He’s also fairly scathing about the role of audit and inspection, so I’m not entirely sure that he’d want to be stuck in a lift with me. Having said that, I’m pretty sure he’d like to have a good conversation with me about it. Here’s what I learnt from the book:

Purpose

Vanguard's model of better thinking, where measures are derived from purpose, which liberates methodRecently, the Good Practice Exchange held our first team away day in order to give us the space to think about whether we are working as effectively as we could be. There was some discussion about how we measure success, which is something that I’ve thought a fair bit about since my previous role, where funders’ targets led to me counting things that didn’t really indicate service improvement. I ended up measuring things like numbers of subscribers to our newsletter. We were asked to do this because it was an easy thing to measure, which contrasts with the difficult task of evidencing actual service change. Seddon’s point is that such thinking creates a defacto purpose (getting more subscribers) instead of the actual purpose (facilitating improvement). By deriving measures from the customer’s perspective of the organisation’s purpose, we measure things that matter.

Applying this to our work, if we measured success by the number of delegates that attend our events, we might stop doing work on things like Open Standards and focus on popular topics instead, even though we know that their use supports public service integration. Our real measures should be derived from our purpose, which is to help public services to improve and to deliver better services. This means looking at outcomes rather than outputs – we need to continue our evaluation approach where we evidence how our work has led to public service improvement.

Learning from…. studying

John Seddon reflects on the Toyota Production System in the book. He talks about how the tools from the process have been applied as part of a lean methodology to gain savings.

To give you a bit of background, Toyota developed the Andon Cord, which empowers employees to stop production when a defect is found and call for help. This flew in the face of conventional thinking, as people thought this would slow productivity. Which it did initially, before they started producing their products faster, cheaper, and more reliably.

What Seddon counsels against is putting those tools into practice without first understanding the context that people are working in, which is particularly true in complex public service environments. We’ve previously blogged on how the Cynefin Framework can be used to better understand the application of these tools when the relationship between cause and effect is muddy.

So how did Toyota put this into practice? Seddon talks about how Ohno would “draw a chalk circle on the factory floor and tell his managers to stand there and study the system in action, on the ground.” This study phase is something that is rarely given meaningful resources in the public sector, but it’s something that organisations like Ricoh UK are doing through the Gemba Mat and the Government Digital Service is doing by focussing on user needs.

This struck a chord with me, because our team’s founding principles are that one size does not fit all, and that people should look to adapt, not adopt the approaches we share. The study phase then is key to understanding how any learning from the Good Practice Exchange’s work can be put into practice. To revert back to the Toyota example, setting up an Andon Cord won’t improve the quality of cars in and of itself. The thinking behind the cord needs to be put into practice too. The same results can’t be expected without the right mind-set or if the organisation hasn’t taken the appropriate steps to empowering staff.

Where do we go next?

If you’d like a bit more information on the study phase, then Simon Pickthall has written a great post for us on how studying mitigates risk. He’s also previously looked at how Vanguard use normative experiences to encourage buy-in in another excellent post.

If you’d like to see examples of how Welsh public services are putting Systems thinking into practice, Dilwyn Williams of Gwynedd Council shared with us how they’re doing just that, and we also shared how Monmouthshire Council used the FISH approach (Find Individiual Solutions Here) at our Prevention seminar. The below video is a great overview of what they’re doing.

As for me, I’ll be thinking about thinking! I’m going to think about how we apply this study phase to our work, and also relay some of this thinking around measures into our evaluation approaches. As we work to improve public services, it’s important that we walk the talk, and also that our measures really are derived from purpose if we’re going to effectively support organisations in Wales to deliver better public services.

Enabling staff to make better use of data

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

How can we enable Wales Audit Office staff to make better use of data? Dyfrig Williams reflects on learning from our Cutting Edge Health Audit prototype.

A screenshot of our intranet, which shows the latest health news and data

In my work on the Cutting Edge Audit project, I’ve been looking at how we can bring together data from public bodies in a way that’s open to everyone and easy to access so that we can get further insight as auditors. The Health Team at the Wales Audit Office kindly volunteered to work with us so that we could look at what this might mean in practice.

In order to develop the parameters for the work, I developed personas for staff in various roles so that we could be better informed about what work we needed to undertake. This really helped us to identify how research time is used and who is doing that research.

The feedback that I received was that data is difficult to access, so we’ve developed a prototype to bring useful health data and information together in one place.

Testing approaches

Our initial attempt to bring this data together in one place is very much a proof of concept to see how this could be progressed further. Our initial thinking was to try and create a data one-stop shop for each health board, as well as a page for national work that covers the whole of Wales or the UK. When we thought about what a functioning prototype might look like, we decided to use a national site as our test.

We initially decided to use Sharepoint Online because it gave us the opportunity to look at how we could develop our use of the service to make data more accessible internally. Unfortunately whilst this worked as an initial test, we could only make the site available to a selected number of users, as we’re currently testing it with a small user group. We really wanted to share the results throughout the organisation so that staff could think about whether this type of approach would be useful in their work, so we decided to host the information on our intranet (The Hub), which is a Drupal site.

We used feedback from the Performance Support Officer to bring together information feeds in order to save research time. We created widgets from RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication feeds, which deliver regularly changing web content from news sites, blogs and other online publishers) where available. We also generated our own widget (a small application that can be installed within a web page) for a Twitter feed that we generated from a Good Practice Exchange Twitter list. We embedded these feeds as IFrames within the site.

Making data more user friendly

We wanted to make data easier to understand and use. There was a strong feeling from the staff that I interviewed that knowledge and understanding of data shouldn’t be siloed, so we looked at how we could make data more accessible.

We decided to use Microsoft’s Power BI (a suite of business analytics tools to develop insight) to make health data sets more accessible and easy to understand. This meant that we didn’t have to buy any software, and that we could host the data directly through the Power BI service. We didn’t use any sensitive data for our test so it wasn’t a problem to publish it directly to the web. There was mixed feedback from staff that I interviewed as to whether the site should include private data, so we will need to look at our options again should we choose to go down this route.

The data sets that we used are publicly available and use APIs (Application Programming Interfaces, which access the features or data of an operating system, application, or other web service). This means that the Power BI data tools are linked directly to StatsWales for the data so that there’s no manual downloading of data after its set up. It also means that we’re always using the most current data that’s available.

Where do we go from here?

The use of our prototype has now been developed and extended so that it can be used as a data tool for a Primary Care project in health so that colleagues can use it to analyse data for their own Health Board, so it’s great to know that the work has already been of practical value.

Our use of widgets and APIs mean that the amount of work needed to maintain the current information that the site holds is very limited. However, if we want to develop the data that it holds, we need to think about who might be responsible for its upkeep, should it be seen as valuable.

The next step for us as an organisation is to use the personas that we generated, as well as informal feedback from this work, to look at what an effective data site and service might look like, and how that might be adapted for other parts of the organisation. That will enable us to learn from any mistakes that we’ve made so that we do things differently in the future, and also to build on our successes. And if we can build on that learning, we’ll be well placed to develop our work in order to be the cutting edge audit office that we aspire to be.

What is digital leadership?

What does digital leadership look like for a public service? Kelly Doonan looks at the subject in advance of her workshop at our event on Improving digital leadership and ownership.

I’ve been thinking about leadership.

As so often happens several things have almost serendipitously come together giving me the opportunity to reflect on what leadership means and what good leadership could look like.

  • I’ve read several articles on leadership; specifically digital leadership and data leadership — links to all articles at the bottom of this post
  • I’ve received invites to webinars and conferences on leadership for digital transformation and innovation.
  • My organisation is examining and discussing leadership models through the lens of a new leadership charter introduced by our leadership team.

I’m also thinking about myself as a leader and what that should look and feel like; so it feels like a good time to bring my thoughts together.

What is leadership?

Firstly, I think leadership and management are two different things and, although I often see them used interchangeably, I want to keep them distinct.

My definition of a manager is a position in a hierarchy whose role is to manage down and report up, and keep the current system operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. A manager is a command position that is usually removed from doing the work and so is unable to see the whole system.

There’s lots of information available about the roots of modern management arrangements — but essentially most public and private sector organisations are using an approach created around 1900 by Frederick W Taylor to deal with a specific set of problems in factory production during the Industrial Revolution, and it has barely changed since.

For me management is a time-limited idea designed to solve the immediate problems of:

  • a predominantly low-skilled and uneducated workforce
  • rapid expansion
  • large-scale industrialisation.

And it did that. It solved those problems so well that it’s become the dominant model across most areas of work across most industries — including people systems like social care, health and education. The problem is what was perfect for managing hydraulic pump production 120 years ago is not suitable for most organisations today.

Now we’re sailing the choppy, unknown waters of the Information Age and many people are calling for digital leaders and data leaders to captain the ships. We did need managers who knew about pumps and steam engines, and now we need managers who know about Blockchain and the cloud.

“Despite the fact that our current management beliefs date from the previous century, still the majority of organisations today operate with models that are inherited from a world that no longer exists. The models are already outdated, and surely not future proof. The era in which the command-and-control approach would bring you immense success have long gone.”

Corporate Rebels 2017

I believe it’s more useful to think in terms of good timeless leadership. So, in that case I need to explain what I think good looks like.

Eight steps to good

  1. I’m curious

A good leader wants to know stuff and they want to understand. They look for opportunities to learn more and they create opportunities for others to learn.

And the crucial thing here is that being a curious leader means that sometimes I will learn stuff that I may not like, or that may challenge my view. I will learn things that will unsettle me and will make me uncomfortable; and when that happens I must keep learning and asking questions anyway. In fact as a good leader I need to understand that this is when I am learning the most. A colleague expressed this as; ‘getting comfortable sitting in the why’. Be comfortable asking questions and not knowing the answers straight away. Be comfortable in a position of constant learning.

A good leader needs to be curious about the work they lead and spend time there to discover what is really happening. Is what you think should be happening? Why is that? And be curious about other systems and other disciplines. Go and have a look in another world and see what’s happening there. What do you learn from doing that?

Interestingly, I’ve met several managers who are curious in their personal life, but don’t bring that mindset or learning to work. So…

  1. Bring yourself to work

AKA be authentic. Being a good leader is not the suit you put on when you come to work.

This is really tough. Particularly for those of us who work in a culture which has a fairly narrow definition of a professional personality. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told to ‘play the game’, or have been advised not to share my real thoughts on a subject or use my own words because that’s not the right professional approach, then I’d be writing this from my yacht.

Over time the cumulative effect of this is to let staff know the right way to act and the right things to say and eventually they stop bringing themselves to work and start bringing the character their leaders want to see. This is how organisational cultures are created and maintained. The consequences of this can be seen in staff engagement events or surveys where only positive things are said because staff don’t bring themselves to the process and the whole episode becomes a nonsense.

A good leader needs to bring themselves to work, and show everyone else that it’s ok to do the same. Which brings me onto…

  1. I’m honest

Although it’s languishing at number three, for me this is everything. This is partly being authentic, but it’s so much more. A good leader needs to be open and honest with themselves and with everyone else. Have a think about your organisation — do you see this? Do you do this? Does your organisation have a culture that promotes and rewards honesty? Measuring how honest your organisation is can be a very good measure of how mature your organisation is.

Again this is really hard. The behaviours have been learnt over a long time and for most managers they have been successful. Managers aren’t rewarded for being honest and they don’t see any value in it. What happens instead is empire-building where knowledge is power and openness is dangerous. A traditional command and control structure encourages dishonest behaviour — co-workers compete and and success is often framed as stepping over others.

Being honest with yourself and with others is the hardest thing on this list because it means making yourself vulnerable. My role involves being incredibly honest with myself, my colleagues and my managers. It means thinking carefully about how I feel and why. It means using the right words to give a true reflection of my thoughts and feelings, sharing my successes and failures and reacting honestly and kindly to other people’s. It means asking questions, challenging fairly and accepting fair challenge. And honestly, I feel exposed a lot of the time.

But it’s worth it. Being honest is a strength and the rewards are huge. I believe in the work that I’m doing, I am completely present in my role and my team, other people are sharing themselves honestly with me, and my relationships are based on trust and respect.

  1. I ask for help

If a leader is in a state of constant development and sets a culture of continuous learning, then in practice that means asking for help widely and often. And for me this is where the timeless element comes in. A good leader doesn’t necessarily need to know about digital or data or hydraulics or steam. They need to do the first step; to be curious about the work and spend time in it rather than removed from it, and they need to understand what they don’t know and where they need to go for help.

The skill is not necessarily having the knowledge, but knowing where the reliable places to get that knowledge are. And listening to them. Again, how many managers do you currently know who ask for help? Who believe that the more they ask, the stronger they are? That really bench the strength of their peers and their team? Which leads me to the next point…

  1. I build the right team and I trust my team

A good leader builds the right team around them. And clearly this is not a group of people who always agree with them and whose job is to push reports and information back up to them — showing them exactly what they expect to see. A good leader should build a team that challenges and surprises them, that has strengths and skills they don’t have. A good leader supports their team to develop and grow.

When you’ve built/developed your team let them get on with the job you’ve employed them to do. Trust them. Last year I watched a 2016 The Conference talk by Zero Zero co-founder Indy Johar which resonated deeply. Johar said;

“Every human is a phenomenally powerfully intelligence machine, yet we all treat them as bad robots who won’t get it”

I also read an excellent post by Nials Pfleaging which discusses Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Y. In X thinking, managers think staff are unmotivated and undisciplined. Staff don’t really want to be at work and need to be closely managed through appraisals, one to ones, staff reward systems and IT blanket bans on Facebook. If you’re using these tools as a manager then you’re really telling your staff that you don’t trust them. And they know that’s what you think. In Y thinking leaders know that people are naturally curious and motivated and essentially want to do a good job. In that case the leader’s role is to create the right conditions for them to do that; to facilitate and to remove blockages.

  1. I stop and think

I was talking to a colleague who expressed discomfort at having reflection time in his day as; “I feel like I’m slacking off!” How have we got to a place where taking time to think and reflect about what you’re learning and what you should do next is felt to be deviant behaviour?

Good management is measured by constantly delivering products, plans and outcomes. We’re churning out stuff at a rate of knots with no time to think and understand if these are the right things to do at the right time in the right way. Organisations reward and promote a culture of constantly delivering artefacts with no time to reflect on whether it’s right. And, by extension, no chance to switch it off or adapt it if it’s wrong.

Many Agile and Lean processes have stages where the team must stop and think about what they’ve done so far before they can move to the next stage. An opportunity to test, challenge, question and change direction if need be. This is progress, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

Reflection is important to everyone at every level in an organisation and absolutely crucial for leaders. Taking time and making space to reflect on what is happening gives a leader time to grow, and develop self-awareness and maturity. Give yourself space to breathe, to digest, to pose difficult questions and consider the answers. Reflection is a strength.

  1. I do the right thing, not the easy thing

My colleague Carl Haggerty, talks about good leaders having ‘curiosity, compassion and courage’ and it struck me that we rarely seem to ask for bravery from our managers and we almost never seem to see any. I wouldn’t say that my organisation promotes and rewards people for being brave and for taking smart risks. Does yours?

As a great (and sadly fictional) leader said: ‘We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy’

Being a good leader means being brave. And I think that being brave often means operating from a place of love and growth and development, rather than a place of fear. It means making difficult choices, based on evidence, knowledge, understanding and compassion. It means admitting when you are wrong and developing resilience by learning from failure. It means being visible. It means being prepared to stand on your own if that is the right place to be. It means having courage.

And, being honest, this is the biggest area for me to work on as a leader. I’ve started identifying what my behaviours are and am currently working on some 360⁰ feedback.

  1. I lead

The most obvious and the hardest. A good leader must actually lead.

This is understanding that as a leader, change and development must be led by you. Leaders are the gatekeeper of change. I keep hearing and reading about empowering staff to be innovative; I’ve been part of sessions where professionals have talked about how they are going to change, and how they want to change their organisations. And the next year we’ve all sat in the same room and had the same conversations. Why is this? Why are brilliant, clever, talented, empowered and motivated people unable to make change happen in their organisations? I understand now that this is because change, real tangible change, must be leader-led.

The problem I think is that many leaders don’t see this. They believe they have a people problem — their staff just aren’t motivated enough, they don’t take the initiative enough, they don’t really want it. What if organisations don’t have a people problem; what if they actually have a leader problem?

So there you go, easy now innit?

Of course not. It’s really, really bloody hard. Current managers are living behaviours that have been taught and developed over years and years. They are operating in systems that encourage conformity and reward longevity.

Being a really good leader — being a really good anything — is putting yourself out there and that can make you feel vulnerable and exposed. It’s incredibly hard to be open, particularly when others around you are closed.

Part of the reason for writing this piece was to help me to answer the question: what sort of leader do I want to be and how do I get there?

I now understand much more about the sort of leader I want to be. And I’ve realised that I’ll never ‘get there’, that ‘there’ isn’t a real place and that assuming it is will halt my development. Being a good leader is about constantly learning and growing; it’s about being open and honest; it’s about being mindful and reflective; it’s about being purposeful and brave.

In fact, for me, the work of being a better leader is the work of being a better human.

Further reading