Personal reflections on a year of LOTI
On 15th July, LOTI celebrated its one year anniversary.
In this article, I want to take a moment to share a few more personal reflections on what the last year has been like and what I’ve learned along the way. I’ll cover some thoughts on collaboration, designing ways of working, Covid, and looking after our wellbeing.
Collaboration is hard, but it’s also worth it
At LOTI’s launch on 10 June 2019 at London TechWeek, I gave a brief presentation and included the slide below, stating: “Collaboration is REALLY hard …but it’s also worth it.”
After a year at LOTI, I absolutely stand by that statement. I just need to add two words of emphasis: Collaboration is really really hard, but it’s also definitely worth it.
Let’s start with why it’s hard.
First, there’s the sheer logistical challenge of bringing 18 organisations to work together. After a decade of austerity, almost everyone in local government seems to be doing what would have been two or three people’s jobs five years ago. Finding time in people’s diaries is hard. Coordinating them, even harder!
Second, communicating in that environment is tricky. We make heavy use of Basecamp – our main communications and project management platform – and Whatsapp, to keep everyone in the loop, but it’s still hard to get messages across. That’s especially true when we need to reach people beyond our core constituency of CIOs, and where our members need to keep multiple colleagues informed. (We hope this new website will make that easier.)
Third, in our early months, it was clear that boroughs had quite different views on what LOTI was for and what issues they wanted it to tackle. Trying to find ways to create good project ideas that were aligned to boroughs’ interests and also made strategic sense was challenging. Even where boroughs did have common areas of interest, they were often at different stages of their journey, making it hard to design projects that were relevant to all.
To find that common ground, our first few months were made up with numerous workshops. I suspect some boroughs experienced a bit of workshop fatigue in that period. Yet those conversations were vital. Our strategy emerged as being about fixing the plumbing in areas like digital skills, technology procurement and data collaboration; areas where the challenges and frustrations have been known for years, and yet little seemed to have changed. We couldn’t skip the step of trying to go deep on those issues, understand the reasons for their inertia, and see what meaningful role the LOTI community could play.
I could write a whole blog on the challenges of collaboration, but let’s skip to why it’s definitely worth it.
Originally, I’d assumed the benefits of collaboration were about having more people working on a problem, having more perspectives and a broader range of skills.
That’s all true, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about energy. Back in the days when you could still get people in a room together, the energy was palpable when we managed to connect peers from different boroughs to discuss an issue and find a way through. Some sessions felt like group therapy when colleagues from different boroughs realised they weren’t alone and could support each other.
It’s also about innovation. In my previous role at Nesta, we often used to remark that it would be slightly mad for any single council to take on the full risk, cost and time to trial an innovative new approach alone. Perhaps the single most helpful thing LOTI can do (and live up to the ‘I’ in our name) is to help boroughs share experiments – spreading the cost and risk and learning faster with a greater chance of success. With all the changes that Covid has brought about, that ability to experiment has never been more needed.
From all of this, I learned a great deal.
That you can never communicate enough. That it’s often better to work on a project with two or three boroughs and then scale the results to others, rather than trying to get everyone involved from the start. Perhaps most of all, that we need to create a vision of what can be achieved through collaboration that’s inspiring enough to be worth the extra effort. I’ll be taking all of that to inform our work in Year 2.
Designing our ways of working
One of the things I was most excited about when starting LOTI was the chance to co-create our ways of working from scratch.
Onyeka, Genta and I spent our first week writing our team charter, designing the rhythm of our working week around when we each had most energy (I’m a morning person, others aren’t), and putting in place our outcomes-based methodology. On our wall, we posted a number of quotes that reflected some principles we wanted to follow. These included:
- “No agenda, no meeting”
- “What would this look like it were simple?” (paraphrasing Tim Ferriss)
- “It’s Hell Yeah or No” (Derick Sivers’ wonderful phrase that encourages you to preserve your time to focus on opportunities that really excite you.)
Looking back on Year 1, I think quite a few of our pain points have come about when we’ve drifted from those original practices.
In a world of remote working, failing to carve out time for deep work from endless back-to-back meetings leaves you feeling burned out. Few meetings without an agenda ever feel like a good use of time. Overcomplicating things causes confusion and occasional chaos – especially in a collaborative environment where you have to communicate messages to dozens of people in numerous different organisations. And saying yes to too many things leaves you feeling unable to give your all to each project.
As the year went on, a few other challenges and lessons emerged.
Since day one, we’ve very literally been designing our approach as we’ve gone; mostly by trialling, reflecting and adapting our ways of working based on experience and feedback. Flexibility has been the order of the day as we didn’t know what would work best.
My assumption was that our team roles needed to be fluid as well. However, by not more clearly defining who should do what, we found ourselves spending more and more time discussing who should take each action, which started to get inefficient. More seriously, I think my team members sometimes felt hindered by not knowing which pieces of the LOTI jigsaw were theirs to run with. That risks undermining their freedom to grow in a role and makes it hard to establish a professional identity. We’ve tried to find ways to create greater clarity while accepting that a small team is necessarily more a Venn diagram than a clearly delineated org chart. I still struggle with this and know we have much more to do to strike the right balance.
On a related note, I learned early in my career that it matters to me that I can put some of my personal identity into my work. I may not be better or worse than the next person, but I want the output of my work to be different because it’s me doing it. I’m sure I’m not alone.
As a team, this really matters, too. The conversation we’ve recently started having is: “What’s the us-shaped version of this?”. We’re not just any four people. We are these four people, with our specific backgrounds, ideas, skills, strengths and imperfections. So what does our work look like when we design it to bring the very best version of ourselves to our roles?
Key lesson for me: high performing teams can never finish the task of designing their ways of working.
I’ll admit that, when the Covid crisis and lockdown first struck, I felt strangely powerless, professionally. All around me I saw our members working insanely hard and often reporting they were finding it the most difficult but rewarding time of their careers. Meanwhile, I was feeling paralysed, unable to see how we could support them.
A key challenge was that they were so busy doing the firefighting, it was almost impossible to interrupt them to ask what they needed. I wanted LOTI to be helpful, but not to try to second guess what boroughs required or insert itself for the sake of it. Yet I worried they were all thinking “Why isn’t LOTI helping right now?!”.
Looking back, I should have learned to relax a bit. It was absolutely necessary that boroughs focused on supporting their colleagues and communities in the first few days; time for collaboration would come later. Before too long we found opportunities to work with colleagues from the GLA to troubleshoot on technical and data issues; help share data, and create guidance on areas where boroughs lacked headspace. It felt much better once we found our groove.
That’s now expanding into a much broader Recovery programme focused on tackling vulnerability (on which, more details coming soon). I’ve always insisted that LOTI’s work start with real-world outcomes, not the tech. The outcomes boroughs now need to focus on a result of Covid are more important than ever and bring a new opportunity to show the relevance of LOTI and our collective work.
Key lesson for me: sometimes it’s okay – in fact, better – to take a little longer and do something helpful, rather than rush in. (Also – stop having imaginary conversations of people being angry with you in your head.)
Looking after our wellbeing
I was hesitant to add this section, but I feel it’s important to include – bear with me. It’s about the fact that I’m not at work on Thursdays.
They say that everyone is fighting a battle you can’t see. At some stage in almost everyone’s life they have to deal with some difficult stuff.
For me, that period was when my marriage suddenly ended in 2016. The reasons don’t matter. But I found it an excruciatingly painful process, made harder by the fact my son was just a few months old at the time. Moving out of the family home was the single worst day of my life. It’s not a bereavement, but you still mourn for the life you used to have. As the first in my peer group to get divorced, it felt extremely lonely. And when you feel like you’ve failed so dramatically in your personal life, it doesn’t take much to go wrong at work to set you over the edge. If I’m honest, it’s only been in about the last six months that I’ve started to feel normal again.
I say this for two reasons. The first is that I’ve been lucky to hold relatively senior positions at Nesta and LOTI and in both I’ve compressed my hours so I can spend Thursdays with my son. Those Thursdays are sacred to me. Every time I’ve skipped them because I felt I should attend to a work commitment caused my mental health to plummet, more than undoing any additional productivity I might have gained by working that day. This is why if you’ve kindly invited me to speak at an event on a Thursday I will have declined.
Countless studies confirm how imbalanced parenting remains, nearly always to the detriment of women. My experience has been a narrow and specific one of the opposite: that at the time I didn’t know of a single other man who felt able to ask to adjust their hours to spend more time with their children. Everyone loses out in that scenario. I’m glad to see it changing, and I hope I’m at least partial confirmation that it’s possible to do a senior role, whatever your gender, without having to be present every weekday. I couldn’t be more grateful to my employers and team members who have made this possible. I like to think I work hard to give them the value they expect. I hope many more people will feel able to ask for flexible working where they need it to meet their own circumstances.
The second and related reason is that during the Covid crisis, no matter your personal situation, everyone has been experiencing the most intense version of their personal set up. If you live alone, it can be very lonely. If you have a family, you might love them to bits but still wish you could have 10 minutes to yourself. If you’re a carer, you’ve had little if any support for months.
Now more than ever, we need to look after ourselves and each other. We need to take time to be well. We need to give ourselves – and our teams – permission not to have to operate under the fallacy that we’re firing on all cylinders every day, Monday to Friday. That’s the environment we’ve tried to create at LOTI. I want to learn much more about how to do this well and support my team better in future. I’d welcome readers’ tips and suggestions.
Key lesson: look after yourself and your colleagues!
I mentioned at LOTI’s year one anniversary call that there’s nowhere I’d rather be right now than working in local government. The work matters. The people are amazing. And now more than ever digital, data and innovation have a massive role to play. It’s a real privilege to do this job.
I look forward to seeing what my amazing team and the whole LOTI community can do in Year 2. I’ve no doubt there will be many more lessons along the way.