S08E02: This title intentionally left blank

This week I’ve been thinking a whole lot about trust. Also about where to go from here. Here is a really exciting place, but because my organisation has really hyper-specific rules about hiring I may have to move soon. Endings, or horizons, should encourage us to stop and wonder what’s ahead.

First thing: I finally finished my first automation project, the one I started in season 7 episode 10. It’s been a huge amount of fun and I’ve learned absolutely tons about Google Apps Script. I am confident that it’s like much of my early Python code: incredibly bad. It sucks, but it works, and that means it can one day suck less. One option on the horizon is to go back to that. I’ve had a couple of early conversations with people writing code across government, and the idea of going back is exciting. But it’s also a bit sad-making. This role is so big, so enormous, and so wide-ranging that to go back to writing code feels (from this side) like a step down. On the other hand, every time I start writing code, particularly in Python, I find that there’s so much I don’t know and so many things that I could do. Like async and await. I don’t know anything about them! There’s so much to learn!

I’m going to keep hoping I don’t have to move, but if I do, I’m so lucky that I’ve got a skill to fall back on.

We submitted the thing I’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks. The writing – the writing and the presenting – is just the manifestation of three weeks of impossibly hard work by the rest of the team. It is not the easiest part. I know it is not the easiest part because plenty of people struggle with it. But I don’t, and so for me it is the easiest part. And so I feel more than a twinge of guilt when I am the one presenting and writing, because it would be impossible to do without this team of brilliant people. I know this because I tried. My first draft was full of grand language and sweeping statements and prose that was beautiful and, this is the important thing, totally lacking in anything approximating an economic analysis or a funding model.

I am only one seventh of the effort that makes this work, but because I am the face of it I worry that my colleagues’ work will be undervalued. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen. I also don’t want to put some of my colleagues up in front of a challenge panel – or at least not the panels that we’re up against. I don’t think throwing people into the deep end is a valid leadership strategy. “Perform or die” is not the mantra.

At the end of the day, I’m a supermodel wearing the work of other people. I want, as much as possible, for them to get the credit.

Feedback this week has been interesting. First, I chose to give someone some critical feedback on the way they’d communicated in a meeting. I’m going to say chose because we always choose whether or not to give feedback. Particularly with negative feedback, I find it’s easy to just avoid saying it and then rationalise my unwillingness to face the potential conflict. For example: this piece of work is important. Arguments will slow us down. If someone falls out with me, they’ll do worse work, or maybe even just leave. And all of those things are possible. However, where someone is being antagonistic, there’s equally a danger that those things will happen anyway. Your choices are between closing your senses and hoping the problem goes away, or fronting up to the problem and surfacing it. My entire professional career to date has been centred on agile processes, and they’ve taught me that we have to surface pain points, that we have to get rid of them, and that we can do it with kindness.

Using the prime directive in critical feedback helps me to centre the behaviour and not the person. Understanding the why of the behaviour helps us work out how we can improve things. Sometimes the why is “I just don’t like that person”, and that’s valid, but it’s not sustainable. By valid I mean true and impactful for the individual, even if I don’t agree with it or like it myself.

As it happens, the feedback was well-received. I suspected it would be, in part because I’ve got a good relationship with the team, and also because I’ve given critical feedback in the past and it’s something that gets easier the more you do it. I’m also white and a man, and so was this member of my team, and the social dynamic there can’t be ignored.

I also got some positive feedback on how I’d faced up to the complex and frustrating process of writing a business case in my organisation. There was a concern that I would be shown the process and exclaim something like: “What? What? You MOCK Jonathan? You kick his brain like the football? oh! oh! jail for you! Jail for you for One Thousand Years!!”

(listen, if you’re not enough of an Internet Person to understand that, then that’s perfectly fine and you’re doubtlessly happier than I am.)

And I think it’s an interesting piece of feedback, because I am known for being impatient with bad processes. If I could think of a better way to disburse billions of pounds in a way that would achieve better outcomes and still be politically acceptable, I’d be jumping up and down and yelling about it. But I absolutely can’t. This is a genuinely wicked problem that I don’t know if anyone’s got a genuine solution for.

Aside from communism/anarcho-capitalism, both of which solve the problem by creating totally different and equally wicked problems.

Finally: the folks at OneTeamGov are offering people the chance to get together for two hours to hack together a ‘solution’ to the problem of submissions, or subs. We shall put aside for a moment the change in mental gears some people suffer when they hear the word ‘subs’, imagining that we are talking about the football or some other strenuous mode of exercise. Here is the tweet:

I have issues with the way this tweet is worded – our Victorian processes for moving sewage around, for example, are absolutely marvellous. But I also note that massive companies like Amazon use written documents of no more than six pages to clarify thinking and create a shared understanding. Remote-first companies like GitHub stress the absolute importance of documentation. Writing – I mean I would say this, wouldn’t I – writing with clarity to capture and finesse an idea is a skill that we should all have. Submission-as-thing is a great thing, in my view, and I’ll stand up to anyone who reckons we need video briefings or some other means by which bluffers and chancers can sell ideas.


Submission-as-process is absolutely fucked.

It’s fucked because it’s inherent to the culture of an organisation where everybody has an opinion (fine) and the right to make edits (less fine), everybody’s rushed, and authority is badly defined. None of these can be fixed in two hours.

And yet, in the spirit of optimism, I’m going to attend the session anyway. I hope I’ll see you there.

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