Why we talk about Interesting Stuff

A critical part of our transformation journey

Every week in DWP’s Business Transformation Group, somebody gives an “Interesting Stuff talk”. It’s 30 minutes, usually on a Wednesday, and it’s on any topic — work related or not. We’ve had people talk about the power of curiosity, how two way feedback is making dramatic changes, and how to make a short film. At the moment, we’re halfway through a short series celebrating Black History Month.

And to me, this is a critical part of our Department’s transformation.

When we talk about what DWP is doing to transform, it naturally focuses on the big stuff: the vision, the delivery of new projects, and how we’re building skills sustainably. It’s big stuff, and it’s important to take the time to explain it.

But for a moment, let’s talk about the little stuff. For example, why do we care so much about what our corner of DWP’s London HQ looks like? We have — without any instruction (or permission) from “the top” — colourful posters, bunting, post it notes on windows, fresh flowers, that place where you can always find cake, pictures of everyone who works here on the wall as you walk in, and whiteboards wherever people can cluster.

We care about this, but it’s not superficial. What it looks like isn’t really the thing that matters, but how it feels to work here: the environment that is created. Because of these little things, we know what our colleagues are working on simply by looking around us. Collaboration and curiosity are encouraged, just by walking around our office.

And it’s not only the environment that has an impact. Things don’t change if you just put up some bunting.

People dress smartly, but that doesn’t mean you always see suits; some people are comfortable in smart jeans. It depends on the work they have to do. We use “off catalogue” tools such as Huddle and WhatsApp. We encourage tweeting, we blog, and we hold events which build communities that don’t take account of hierarchies. And people pack out the room for half an hour each week to stop and listen to a talk about interesting stuff.

Each of these on their own is a little thing. Each of them is a nice thing, but they wouldn’t be transformational by themselves.

But together little things make a difference. They roll up into Big Things and change how we work. We are more collaborative, more curious, less hierarchical, and have fun. And we deliver big stuff.

This is not how DWP normally makes changes, and it’s not how it normally builds a place to work. We can see that we have some needs that are different from the rest of the Department, and we are independently making changes to meet them. We’re leaving the age of “one size fits all” behind.

There’s no rigid plan, no published HR Strategy, no agreed pilot with criteria to judge the changes. This has evolved organically over the last two years, and it fits us well.

People can hear lots about the vision of a new culture, but seeing it in action all around them makes them believe it and adopt it. People are doing these things because they can see they are empowered to make their work and their environment their own. It’s exciting.

When we’re looking at our business transformation, is this our version of the Aggregation of Marginal Gains? Perhaps. Is it one way DWP is delivering our 2020 vision today? Definitely. It is critical to it, and that’s why we will continue to dedicate effort to all of the little things.