Thoughts on Senior Digital Leadership – 1 – business value through tension

I recently joined a panel at Durham University to talk about Government digital transformation, taking questions from an eclectic audience — good to see millennials mixing with mature corporate leaders. The panel were asked “what is your biggest challenge?”. I could have given any number of answers: the challenge of transforming one the largest technology estates in the UK; designing, building and running 24x7 digital services meeting the needs of all citizens — end-to-end, cradle-to-grave; delivering the largest transformation of our welfare state in a generation (Universal Credit); rebuilding an internal digital capability at scale and with pace. However, I settled for an answer which for me encapsulates these and others: delivering real value to our business quickly.

Our role in DWP Digital is to deliver many DWP business outcomes. It is all too easy to get caught up in process, methodology, governance, internal transformation, culture development — but we are here to deliver for our business and that is the strategy of DWP Digital Group — “to deliver”. We do this through design and systems-thinking, bringing together data and technology and iterating our products. However, the key ingredient and a personal leadership focus is to do so through highly competent individuals, multi-disciplinary teams, encouraging spontaneous collaboration and innovation whilst building strong and lasting relationships.

Like most large digital technology organisations in Government we have been on a journey to reinvent and rebuild ourselves following necessary disruption injected by Government Digital Service (GDS) starting in 2011. In the last 6 years GDS have truly transformed delivery of digital technology in government and Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore, Kevin Humphries and their colleagues should rightly receive many plaudits. The most powerful change I have seen was putting user needs at the heart of delivery and this is something that DWP has taken on board wholesale. You can see exemplar results in Universal Credit Full Service, Carers Allowance, Check Your State Pension, and others. Our ambition to deliver excellence is ensuring these services are transforming how citizens engage with UK Government, and their creation has been a major contributing factor in DWP Digital’s own internal transformation journey. There is much more we need to do for DWP, Government and the country as a whole — we are not short of challenges.

As the DWP Digital Executive Team, led by Mayank Prakash (CDIO), we have been working through how to align product, platform and enterprise focus. It’s not easy but it is essential. Individual digital products do not exist in their own universe (DWP currently has over 350 digital products), platforms must meet the needs of digital products and the enterprise must meet the needs of products and platforms. These focus areas need to be held in balance — one does not trump another — and that balance needs to be an asset exploited to deliver services that meet user needs and add business value quickly.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Payne, Founder and Partner of Fahrenheit 212 (an innovation/design consultancy firm with an impressive roll call of clients) and talked to him about the process of making products that meet user needs and add business. One does not always follow the other. He wrote a book called “How to Kill a Unicorn” on the subject and it is well worth a read. We talked about his approach, process and how he builds multi-disciplinary teams with equal tension of meeting user needs and business value creation; putting design-thinkers in the same team as hardened investment assessors right from the very start of concept.

The similarities were striking between his world and ethos and those of DWP Digital Group as we create digital products which meet user needs within an enterprise that expects clear business value. These often natural tensions need to be exploited not swept under the carpet.

I believe the key is to focus leadership attention on individuals, teams and their relationships in the pursuit of shared business outcomes. Easier said than done but we in DWP Digital are on our way (perhaps a subject for my next blog….). I’ve found the more extreme views of either variety, “product is king” or “enterprise is king”, are not helpful and divert attention away from our mission to add value to our business. We should of course put user needs at the heart of our design and delivery but do we always have to start from a blank piece of paper? and often ignore all that has gone before or available today or in the near future? It is vital that the enterprise as a whole is successful but does that mean that all architectural decisions need to be taken centrally? No and no but bringing opposing views together, as an adaptation of the Fahrenheit 212 model, within an empowered multi-disciplinary team is a journey myself and team are on.

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