Leadership skills when you’re in the business of disruption

A couple of weeks ago Rebecca Kemp and I ran a leadership workshop at the Service Design in Government conference. We had a great time doing it — we had an engaged and lively bunch of people and some really good conversations. We’ve written up the main points from the session. We enjoyed doing it and got great feedback so we're turning it into a training course.

Service design, like any other aspect of transformation, is inherently disruptive

The workshop focused on leadership during times of disruption, especially when you’re the face of that disruption. Service design is inherently disruptive and if you work in government you’re as likely to be working on the redesign of an existing service as on the design of a new one. Either way you’re disrupting ‘business as usual’ within an established organisation.

In order to succeed you’re going to have to lead the organisation through the disruption you’re wreaking and because delivering change is very much a team sport, you’re going to have to lead your team of fellow-disruptors through it too. This also applies to other disciplines like technology, user experience, content, design, delivery management and product management. Basically, if you’re in a digital team, you’re probably going to need these skills.

What we mean by leadership

We used the term ‘leadership’ very broadly. We think it applies as much to someone leading a team or programme as it does to an expert leading an aspect of their team’s delivery approach. And when you’re in a multi-disciplinary team, you’re always leading on your discipline area, even if you don’t manage people.

Principles of leadership

During the first two parts of the workshop, we explored the same five principles, albeit from different angles:

  1. Tell a good story
  2. Have evidence for putting users first
  3. Get people involved, it gets them invested
  4. Be nice
  5. Look after yourself

Anyway, I’ve written up my part of the workshop below and Rebecca’s written her’s here.

  1. Tell a good story: Every team needs a north star to guide their work, a coherent narrative within which everyone can anchor their work. I could get even more lyrical but I think you get the point — when there’s more than one person working on something, an easy-to-understand story helps keep everyone pulling in the same direction. This story is just a more granular level of the organisation-facing mission statement Rebecca described in her talk. That’s the primary reason but there are at least two others: as a recruitment aid and as a basis for prioritisation.
Image by Paul Downey

The team may be the unit for delivery but very few of us will join fully formed teams that remain unchanged through the lifecycle of the product or service. In other words, at some point during the course of the project you’ll need to recruit. If you’re building a digital service or transforming an offline service into a digital one, this won’t be a trivial undertaking as the skills you’ll be recruiting for are scarce. It’s great if you can offer financial incentives but a strong story about the transformative impact of the work can be a powerful draw too. This is especially true when you’re recruiting from within your own organisation and offering more money isn’t an option. People want to be part of a cool team working on a project that is going to deliver real value. A good story helps them see how working with you will help them achieve that.

Lastly, it’s helpful to the team when, almost inevitably, time or budget constraints forces some degree of de-scoping of the original vision. A clear narrative will help the team decide what’s core to delivering the original plan and what can be de-prioritised.

2. Have evidence for putting users first: The most effective way we’ve found for delivering products and services is through multidisciplinary teams. That’s true of the transformation projects we’ve led too. You could say we’re fans. But they’re not without their challenges. The biggest of these challenges is ‘discipline blindness’. [NB Don’t look that up I’ve only just invented the term and it hasn’t gained much traction yet, but I’m working on it so watch this space. Totally going to make fetch happen!].

Anyway, discipline blindness is the inability to see things through any lens other than that of our own discipline. In new or less experienced teams this can sometimes lead to stand-offs which result in the whole team getting bogged down. Having said that, anyone can be afflicted by it and sometimes the most competent amongst us are the most severely stricken. So it’s important to have an effective tie-breaker. User needs are central to successful transformation and that’s what makes them excellent tie-breaker. If there’s a stand-off between two discipline leads over the best approach to achieving an agreed outcome, going with the one that will deliver user needs more quickly and effectively is not a bad basis for making a call.

3. Get people involved, it gets them invested: Regardless of how amazing the product or service you’re building or transforming is, things will go wrong and the team will get disheartened. Hopefully these will be relatively short-lived dips but when you’re going through them they won’t feel that way.

The extent to which your team will be willing to stick out the rough patches is the extent to which they are invested in the work. Investment isn’t automatic. Active engagement in promoting the work and being publicly identified with it increases investment. That’s why encouraging everyone in the team to speak at Show and Tells and at conferences is a good way to achieve this.

4. Be nice: Being nice shouldn’t be confused with being smiley or avoiding or evading difficult decisions. At a team leadership level being nice is about making sure team rules that allow everyone to work ‘nicely together’ are clear and adhered to. These rules may be about expected levels of performance, appropriate ways of giving feedback or resolving conflicts.

5. Look after yourself

By Justin Hoch. Property of The Hudson Union Society.

‘Take care of yourself and each other' was the sign-off catchphrase that Jerry Springer would sing-song at the end of his eponymous 'talk show’. While I would argue that there’s very little that Jerry’s show could teach us about self care or kindness towards other human beings, his catchphrase wasn’t wrong. During her part of the workshop, Rebecca outlined, with useful tips, the importance of self care and building personal resilience. At a team level there’s more of the same with the caveat that your self care shouldn’t be at the expense of the team. If anything, do what Jerry says (not what he did), find ways to take care of others too.