Strategy, not Stupidity

I’ve reached that point in my career where I am spending an increasing part of my time thinking strategically… or at least thinking about strategy. It’s one of those areas where I always thought there was some mystic art involved, but I am finding it’s more straightforward than that. If leadership is about making good decisions, then strategic leadership is about making good longer term decisions that can impact over a longer period of time and potentially across a broader range of areas.

My starting point is that we simply dont spend enough time thinking strategically. Supposedly 85% of leadership teams spend less than one hour per month on strategy, and 50% spend no time at all. One hour per month equates to less than 1% of monthly working hours, so we are arguably spending 99% of our time moving in a direction that may not have been properly considered. That’s not to say that we dont have enough strategy documents, but that’s not the same thing as having an agreed, cohesive and meaningful strategy.

Cutting and pasting strategy other organisation’s documents and passing them off as your own is largely pointless. Just like writing an essay at school, carefully considering how others’ work can enhance your own thinking is valuable; copying word for word is plagiarism.The power of strategic thinking is not the final strategy document itself but the discussions and often conflict that goes into developing the strategy. It’s this that provides the value in making sure that your strategic approach has undergone appropriate challenge and ultimately presents a shared vision that everyone buys into. It isn’t strategic thinking when you have a management team all with very different and often conflicting strategies. That’s stupidity, not strategy.

In a world of cloud computing, software as a service, artificial intelligence, big data and all things digital, the opportunities are endless – at least that’s what the salespeople will tell you. The trick therefore is deciding what not to do, or at least what to prioritise – accepting that not everything can be a priority. An ongoing frustration of mine is that we don’t make decisions on what not to do, or at least what to prioritise right now. The result is that everyone ends up trying to do much and delivering nothing – so you simply dont move forward.

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Michael Porter

A former Director set a new mobile strategy to go ‘all in’ with Windows phones. At the time it was a sound approach, reducing the complexity and cost of our mobile estate. One year on and Microsoft ceased production of the Lumia phones. It was the right decision at the time, but was unfortunately undone by the wider technology market. Nonetheless we had a strategy.

This example demonstrates that with rapidly evolving technology, it is incredibly difficult to create a strategy. But for me, that makes strategic discussion even more important. 5-10 year fixed strategies are now largely pointless, but a rolling 3 year plan, that is constantly reviewed and refreshed, coupled with a longer term vision, is essential.

Karl Weick talks about the need to replace strategic maps with compassess, and distinguishes between old school, analogue leaders and those emerging in the digital age: “Maps, by definition, could only help in known worlds — worlds that have been charted before. Compasses are helpful when you are not sure where you are and can only get a general sense of direction.”

Switching Off

Today I returned to work after a week away with my young family. This is the first full week I have taken off since Christmas (7 months ago) and I have returned to work feeling relaxed, refreshed and ready to go again. I made a point of leaving my Corporate Laptop and Phone behind, as I am one of those that find it hard to ‘switch off’.

With or without my Corporate Phone, I am aware that I can struggle to stop my mind whirring with thoughts about work. I was promoted about 18 months ago and was naturally keen to make a good impression. Since then I have continued to work hard to drive myself, my team and my department forward. I often spend my spare time reading up on work related topics on my smart phone or reflecting on what went well or badly and my early mornings, evening’s and train journeys are spent sending work emails or instant messages. I know this can be seen as obsessive and I had a bit of an awakening recently, when one of my team got very excited at the thought that I might have a social life when one day I left the office at 4.30pm!

The irony here is that the very technology that has made me personally so ‘productive’, is now also the biggest threat to my mental wellbeing and long term health. I know that I am not alone in this – research commissioned by the Myers-Briggs Company found that 28% of workers said they find it difficult to mentally switch off from their jobs because of access to work emails and smartphones, while 26% said the expectation to be always on interferes with their personal life. A further 20% of people said being constantly connected to work made them feel mentally exhausted. Those who are “always on” were found to be more engaged at work, but more likely to experience stress or mental exhaustion.

I am aware that even on my personal phone I am now spending increasing amounts of time on LinkedIn and other business related channels. Like Facebook, LinkedIn is filled with good news stories – big money promotions, incredible boardroom performances or ground-breaking discoveries. And like Facebook, I am finding that LinkedIn is impacting upon my mood and increasing anxiety when my own career doesn’t seem to be so dazzling by comparison.

As with anything, the first step is admitting that you have a problem, so having returned to work today, I have made myself some personal mantras;

1. No matter who you are or what role you do, your team will manage just fine without you for a few days – the emails can wait;

2. You will not perform to your best if you don’t take the time for you (and your mobile phone) to properly recharge;

3. Your wife and children will always appreciate your physical presence, more than your work colleagues will appreciate your virtual presence.

Flexible Working by Default

Last week marked a big week for UK workers, with Conservative MP Helen Whately introducing a flexible working bill in Parliament. The bill asserts that flexible working should be the default position for all employees, rather than it being up to individuals to request. This is a viewpoint that a number of organisations and myself as a manager, employee and human being fully support.

The history of flexible working

Flexible working legislation was first introduced in the UK in 2003, when the government gave parents with children aged under 6 or parents with disabled children under 18, the right to request a flexible working arrangement. There have been several amendments and additions to that initial piece of legislation since, and in June 2014, flexible working legislation was broadened out to include all employees, whether they are parents, carers or not.

What is flexible working?

Flexible working is defined as any working style that is different from the standard 9-5. This could mean different start and/or finish times (flexitime), working from home or another location which isn’t your main office building. Part time, compressed hours and job shares are also included with this definition. In essence, flexible working allows employees to work at a time and location that is mutually beneficial to them and their employer.

My first experience of flexible working was about 10 years ago, working in a department where the managers and senior members of staff got to take the department laptop to work from home.

Moving forward to my current organisation, I am pleased to say that everyone in my team now has a laptop or tablet and flexible working is the norm. The majority of us (myself included) are parents but moreover all of my team appreciate the ability to work away from the office at least one day a week. We are also a team that work at different hours, with early starters , later workers and others somewhere in the middle. I like to think I am supportive of the team needing to leave early or start later due to important commitments, and I often find members of the team logged on first thing in the morning or late in the evening. Essentially I have faith in my team to get the job done and Skype for Business or Teams allows me to contact them at anytime. Our weekly Team catch up now takes place on Microsoft Teams with members of the team dialling in from various locations and it works really well.

In many organisations however, the policy still says that permission must be given to work flexibility- as if doing so is something that a member of staff needs special dispensation to do. There are plenty of studies now to suggest that the ability to work flexibly actually increases productivity and from personal experience, I know I can be a lot more productive on more in depth tasks when away from office distractions. So in effect are we still asking staff to seek permission to be more productive?

Microsoft Teams and Marginal Gains

Microsoft Teams is a challenge facing many organisations right now – we are aware that there are significant benefits, but the elevator pitch is proving difficult – particularly when users are familiar with SharePoint and Skype for Business.

From a personal perspective, I can best describe it’s impact through the idea of marginal gains, made famous by Dave Brailsford of British Cycling and Team Sky. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. The idea being, if you broke down riding a bike into its smallest constituent parts, tiny improvements in each area, would add up to a significant improvement overall. His approach is famous for things like applying alcohol to the tyres for better grip, giving the riders heated shorts so their muscles were at optimal temperature or providing the best pillows to guarantee a good night’s sleep. The dramatic rise and continued dominance of British Cycling is well documented.

Beyond the functionality of its constituent parts or the other Office 365 tools, for me marginal gains best explains the impact that Teams has had on my own way of working and productivity. My organisation has been using SharePoint, Skype and Office 365, but Teams makes it all slot into place.

As an example, I work across multiple teams, my own team, the management team, various project teams, and often I would go from one meeting to the next frantically looking for the agenda or actions hidden somewhere in Outlook or SharePoint. With Teams and Channels, I can easily move between my different roles, finding previous conversation threads and documents easily.

As another example, my team have a number of different Office 365 tools that we use on a regular basis. We use Planner to track issues, we have a PowerBI Dashboard to monitor Office 365 adoption and we have our own Wiki which we use as our knowledge base. We have now added these as tabs within Teams which means finding them is easy and time spent searching or moving between windows is greatly reduced. We also get exactly the same experience on the Teams mobile app.

I also forget sometimes that as a member of the IT Division our use of technology is and should be ahead of other areas of the organisation. A common collaboration task is the production of Committee Reports, which involve multiple stakeholders from across different departments. Staff are starting to understand the value of Teams (and SharePoint) as a collaboration platform for co-authoring and reviewing documents. With Teams, the pain of sending reports via email and trying to rationalise amendments across multiple versions of the same document, should be a thing of the past.

None of the above is news to Microsoft, that is exactly the rationale behind Teams and what makes it the fastest growing Microsoft Business Application ever. Earlier this year, Microsoft commissioned Forrester to report on the Total Economic Impact of Teams. This was timely for my organisation, as we were planning a large awareness campaign and this report gave real gravitas to our campaign.

Our first steps with Microsoft Teams

For anyone that has ever given a demonstration of Microsoft Teams you will know that the most difficult part is the opener. How do you explain what Microsoft Teams is, or the impact Teams can have on your ways of working – particularly to those that have not seen it before. My personal favourite is to describe Teams as the single pane of glass within which you can access all your Office 365 tools (except Outlook). But it is very difficult for the uninitiated to visualise that impact until they use it and most importantly, fully commit to using Teams to fundamentally change the way that they, and their team, work. Fundamental change takes time, but there are some easy first steps…

The Teams persistent chat (group instant messaging) is usually where people start their experience of Teams. My organisation are very email dependant, and prior to Teams our 3000 users were sending 1.2 million emails a month. Emails are appropriate where formal communication is required, but this can be an overly formal and time consuming communication channel for people you work with regularly. With Teams our email dependency has reduced to around 500k emails sent per month, which is still too much, but it continues to go in the right direction. From a personal experience I also love the seamless Teams mobile experience, and sending a quick Teams chat message whilst travelling is so much faster and easier than drafting an email. Dare I say it, the emoji, memes and giphys can even make the working day fun.

The next area of focus is Teams Files, with the inevitable question – so is Teams replacing SharePoint? The response, as we all know, is that Teams Files are built on SharePoint but provide a more user friendly veneer to access documents, with a look and feel more aligned to file explorer. There is an even an option to open the files in SharePoint for the purists. Most significantly with Teams, Microsoft have softened their approach to folder structures, which most users are comfortable with. Even though I promote the value of metadata and the opportunities with SharePoint, I still inevitably go back to folder structures eventually. It is also important that Teams Files, aren’t used in addition to other file storage but as a replacement. As such, I am an advocate of the need to convert SharePoint sites to Teams and move files away from traditional file servers.

Within each Team, the tabs are the area that cause the most excitement but also pose the biggest challenge. Beyond the Files tab, each team need to define their own set up, deciding how best to bring in the other O365 tools (and external connectors), to make the most of their workspace. I would assume most Teams are like my own, we have tried lots of different tabs, but have now settled on those that add the most value (Wiki, PowerBI, Planner, embedded SharePoint intranet page) – with the option to add in other tabs for shory term work.

Teams Meetings is proving a slow burn for us, with many users staying with Skype for Business. Teams as we know, overtook Skype for Business in terms of feature parity, in the summer of 2018. Audio and Video conferencing, coupled with the ability to easily share content is a platform for culture change – and can be a great replacement for expensive conference numbers and travel. My organisation has continued to run Skype and Teams in parallel for now, but features like the sharing tray and the ability to organise meetings within Teams make it feel simpler and more user friendly.

It is still early days for us. Having fully launched Teams in February we have increased to over 1000 users month on month – around a third of our workforce. Usage stats also show that most of our users are infrequent and certainly not using Teams to its full capability. The role of my team, having raised awareness, will now be to support users to make the most of the features, embedding Teams within their daily routines and taking the bolder steps to transform the way they work.

Why I ❤ Office 365!

I feel that early on in my blogging career, I need to come clean around my obsession with Office 365. I realise that part of ‘digital’ is about disrupting the market, enhancing the role of SMEs and utilising open source software but I confess, that is not the world I live in. I am a convert for all things Office 365… and I feel the need to share it with the world.

My Journey with Office 365

In 2018 my organisation delivered a significant IT Transformation to bring the Corporate desktop right up to date. The organisation is now 80% tablet or desktop, with most of our core services (email, personal file storage, document management, Intranet) now in Office 365, giving our staff access to the latest offerings from Microsoft. What we didn’t realise at the time was that not only were we providing a more resilient, accessible platform, but that we were unlocking a treasure trove of tools to radically transform the working culture and practices of the organisation.

It has been a sharp learning curve for me and my team, getting to grips with the potential of Office 365 and then shaping the narrative to explain it all to our users. Initially we focussed on the basics – Microsoft Office, OneDrive (which is now used for personal file storage) and SharePoint Online. Like most organisations, we already had an older version of SharePoint on premise, which had been a mixed success, so as part of the Programme we reviewed the existing sites and migrated those still required to SharePoint Online. SharePoint Online was one of the early successes for us, as the number of active sites grew from less than 100, to over 300. One of the great drivers for us was the ability to create external collaboration sites, a secure location for our users to work and share files with external partner organisations.

The next area of focus was Skype for Business and changing the organisational culture from traditional meetings and emails to audio and video conferencing and instant messages. In the first few months we saw a steep increase in Skype use to more than 1000 regular users (about a 3rd of the organisation). Initially instant messaging, but we have also seen month on month increases in audio and video conferencing use as well. One of the great headlines for me is that the organisation has halved the number of emails that are sent each month – reducing from 1.2m emails in October last year, to less than 600k in recent months.

Most recently we have installed a number of Skype Room Systems at our main office site, including in some Senior Manager’s Offices. Again this is likely to be a slow burner, as with any cultural change, although there have been some very promising leadership from some Directors, who are now using Skype for their regular meetings. One key lesson is the need for Senior Managers to lead by example, and often staff need to be given license to make best use of technology by their manager.

In recent months we have been turning our attention to Microsoft Teams and some of the other applications like PowerBI, Forms, Planner, Flow and PowerApps. These will be featuring in a different blog as I can write about these forever.

Personal Effectiveness

Office 365 has also seen something of a transformation for my own working practices – and from a personal perspective I have never been so productive but at the same time never worked so flexibly. The ability to work anytime and anywhere is a reality for me – though the challenge now is to ensure that working anytime doesnt become working all the time.

I love the ability to catch up on emails or instant messages over my morning cup of coffee, and perhaps fire one or two back – using my Intune managed Corporate Phone. It is great to have the option to review documents or check in using Teams on the train or catch up on the latest team issues on Planner – on my Corporate phone or laptop. (N.B. I always reserve the right to read my kindle or watch the latest trending TED Talk instead). My current obsession is the Microsoft Usage dashboard, delivered through PowerBI, which gives me a breakdown of which Office 365 tools are being utilised at a organisation, department or user level – of course this is surfaced through the PowerBI mobile app on my Corporate phone.

Last week I was interested (and slightly appalled) to see on the dashboard that I was the third highest culprit for emails sent in my organisation, as well as being one of the highest users of Skype and Teams for communication. In May 2019 I sent nearly 2000 emails, which even for the customer facing lead in the IT Division, is a little embarrassing – and that is despite now using Teams to communicate with all of my team and colleagues. That is certainly one for me to reflect on and I am very conscious that in my role as the organisation’s lead on Office 365 adoption and a senior manager, I need to lead by example – giving my staff license to transform the way that they work, whilst maintaining a healthy work-life balance!

Delivering Digital Change

Digital is one of those terms that makes my skin crawl and excites me in equal measure. There is some fantastic work being done under the banner of ‘digital’ across a number of public sector organisations, work that has seen fundamental changes in the way that technology is defined and delivered. At the same time however, there are other cases where the Digital box has been ticked through the creation of digital strategy, but it is no more than a veneer over the top traditional and ultimately out of archaic delivery mechsmanisms.

Digital Change

At a very basic level digital, for me at least, is about making best use of technology to deliver improvements in user experience and business processes. Digital is also a mindset, which is closely aligned with agile delivery and continuous improvement- an outlook which seeks to embed a culture of always wanting to do more, better, with a focus on delivering value quickly through many iterations and learning from mistakes more quickly. Many of these sentiments are not new I know, and are key elements of the Local Digital Declaration.

The futuregov image below sets out a maturity model which many of us will recognise. Digital for most organisations started out (and continues to be) the movement away from paper forms and manual processes, to electronic and online, utilising elements such as self service, automation and integrations, and most recently artificial intelligence and robotic process automation. Importantly, digital should not stop at the customer, but continue into the culture and every day working practices of the organisation – the complete transformation of the end to end process – and not simply a Digital veneer for the customer facing elements.

The Challenges

Thinking about my own organisation, I am very clear in my mind about what ‘digital’ looks like, but there are some pre-requisites and challenges that need to met to make our Digital Strategy a reality;

1. A stable foundation – one of the immediate challenges is getting the basics right. To be able to focus on digital transformation you need a stable network, the right infrastructure and reliable end user devices, coupled with a solid business as usual IT service. We aren’t quite there yet.

2. The right governance – there is an ongoing tension between waterfall and agile, which requires a shift in the role of the PMO from gatekeeper to facilitator. There is also a leap of faith required in Agile delivery, without the comfort blanket of a beautifully crafted project plan and requirements that are detailed to the nth degree. Digital or Agile is also something that is very difficult to achieve in an outsourced environment, which lends itself more to lengthy solution proposals, than sprints.

3. The right tools – some would argue that there is no such thing as the right tools, but there are certainly the wrong tools as many local authorities will testify. Most of the traditional behemoths have no place in Digital- without naming names, many colleagues can name the outdated applications, provided by large companies, that are slowly losing their grip on the local authority software market. Applications that do not sign up to open standards and don’t include the basics like being mobile enabled by default, do not feature in a truly digital toolkit.

4. Roles and responsibilities – true digital, can’t be cobbled together with a couple of PRINCE2 project managers with a dotted line to the traditional application support team. There are fundamentally different delivery models and additional capacity needed in roles such as Developers, Product Owners, Scrum Masters, UX and Service Design specialists, formed into multi disciplinary ‘two pizza’ teams (to coin the Amazon phrase) – and not shackled by the traditional pillars of the IT structure.

5. Trust – finally and most importantly, you need the services that you support, to view you as a trusted ally, rather than just the team to go to when something goes wrong. Digital must be given license to facilitate fundamental service redesign and not just providing a payment form or integration. To achieve this the traditional IT Department must evolve into a true partner of frontline services, with credibility as a collective and as individuals, to advise and support services to deliver genuine transformation.