My accelerator journey…

How taking a chance on an accelerator scheme helped me find meaning and motivation in my work.

I joined my department in April 2015 at end of a significant technology transformation project, the first of it’s kind in the Civil Service.

It’s fair to say that when I started, my team we were all on a very steep learning curve. We hadn’t existed before the transformation, so there was a lot of work to be done to define what our “business as usual” offering would be. There was lots of firefighting and uncertainty. We did our best, but many of the team (including me) were new to the Civil Service, which meant that we “didn’t know what we didn’t know” in terms of processes, policy and assurance.

To make matters worse, being new meant not having any networks or contacts. We were introspective.

It was a busy and chaotic time, and if I remember rightly, most of my energy was spent trying to understand how to get anything done[1].

I felt like a fish out of water. My background in web design and advertising had been fast-paced and creative. I was used to doing the “cool” thing.

I wanted to work quickly. I wanted to run around the office in my jeans, trainers and a Tatty Devine necklace and not feel like the naughty school kid at the back of the bus[2].

I was completely lost. I felt like I didn’t belong. I decided that I would leave, and started looking for opportunities back in the private sector.

I bought and used an array of passive-aggressive notebooks to subtly signal my discontent.

I may not have realised it at the time, but this period was helping me to define my own thoughts about work culture. I was beginning to build a picture of what a good culture looked like to me.

In October a blog by the Women’s network appeared on our intranet. I had somehow managed to work for half a year without knowing that such a thing existed (the network, not the intranet). Nobody had told me.

Then, in December, an opportunity cropped up on our intranet. It was for an eight week accelerator programme run by the Policy Lab team. It was designed to take a handful of grassroots ideas and provide a framework to get them off the ground for the benefit of the department.

It was called an accelerator; terminology I could get down with. I decided to apply.

In order to get into the scheme I had to pitch an idea to some “big bosses”[3] in my organisation. For some reason I couldn’t make it in person so I recorded a three minute monologue into my laptop camera and sent it[4].

My idea was simple[5], networks have a wealth of knowledge and experience, but “people” don’t know they exist. How could we change that?

Obviously the answer was an online Agony Aunt service. Staff would send in their questions like “what do I do about a colleague who smells” or “someone in my team keeps making comments which are making me uncomfortable”. Then, we would curate them and then go to one (or more) of the diversity networks for a response.

It would allow a range of voices and points of view, while also promoting the work of the networks. It would be intersectional. It would be inclusive. It would be brilliant.

I could see real value in “surfacing the unsayable” as Helen Lederer (our department’s diversity champion) had said to me when I pitched the idea to her.

I made it onto the programme. The first ever cohort, with five other people. I watched as they set out to deliver their original idea.

While I thought my idea was good, I wasn’t wedded to it. I decided to treat the accelerator as a Discovery and was ready to change my plans if I needed to.

I set coffee meetings with everyone I could, including all of our diversity network chairs. I told them about my idea and they listened. But the more meetings I had, the less I spoke, the pendulum began to swing the other way.

The more I listened the more I heard that my idea was fine. Just fine. But there were more fundamental things to sort out first: visibility, recruiting volunteers, expectations from leadership that networks could deliver work despite these first two points, lack of comms support...

The Agony Aunt service would help answer some of those needs, but it would also deviate resources needed to deliver other important work.

So, I went back to my original premise, why had it taken 6 months for me to realise that there was a Women’s Network? I looked for more information and I started collecting data about our intranet.

I started drawing this graph and showing it to everyone I met:

Number of blogs posted over time. Number of blogs posted by networks in that same timeframe.

It easily demonstrated the lack of visibility for networks (and you’re lucky, I’ve drawn that one just for you so it’s much neater than most that I showed people at the time…)

I realised that actually what the networks needed was amplification and support. Something I could do myself.

I refined my plans down to an MVP, a single regular blog showing what all of the networks were doing month by month and I set about getting approval to publish it.

The end of the programme culminated in a pitch to our Perm Sec. I had a crisis. I knew that my original idea wasn’t viable. What was required would be a set of much smaller changes which would lead to something bigger. It was a journey that I had personally taken and that I could personally take responsibility for delivering. But would it look like my aspirations weren’t high enough, or worse still, that I had failed?

I didn’t feel like I had failed, but some of my earlier neurosis about being the fish out of water raised their head.

As it happened, he agreed with all of the pitches and we got permission, nay, mandate to make them happen.

In December 2016, almost a year since I set out, the first networks blog was published. Numerous conversations, increasingly untidy scribbles of that same graph, and my idea finally fell on the right ears.

Now all of the networks get representation and visibility much more regularly HR have taken on the responsibility for publishing it. And for the networks, anything else they do is extra, but there is a baseline now.

And what did I learn? Well lots…

  • The accelerator opened doors for me at a time when I didn’t feel empowered and didn’t have a network of my own to support me. It helped me to build that network and find a set of likeminded people who I’m lucky to have great working relationships with.
  • I started listening and learning about what was happening outside of my day-to-day work and “seeing the bigger picture” about the aims and needs of the department and the people in it. That’s ultimately helped me to do my job better and understand my value to the organisation.
  • I learned to “keep banging on about it” and keep drawing my graph because anything important takes time. Sometimes, when staff turnover is high or when people are busy, it takes a long time to find the right person’s ears. When you do it all happens very quickly.
Parrot gif again (it was that or a broken record)
  • My interest in Diversity and Inclusion lead to this becoming a significant part of my day-to-day role. I now sit on our department’s Disability Action Group, and part of my role has become supporting networks with their digital and technology needs.

The accelerator got me nominated for a Cabinet Office award, and an award from my business unit, things I never expected or wanted when I started out (though I appreciate them greatly).

Since the accelerator I’ve been involved in numerous other pursuits. I’ve set up a “Culture club” for my team and we go out and look at exhibitions, I’ve co-ordinated Mental Health Awareness week which changed people’s approach to collaboration across networks and was a huge success as a result.

I’ve shared my learnings and I’ve brought people along with me.

I learned to give it a try. I learned that failure only looks like failure if you position it that way. I learned that learning and listening are the most important things.

The accelerator has helped me to see that if I start making little ripples they eventually turn into something much bigger.

[1] I say this not in criticism of my team or to show us up, but as an honest reflection on a time when I didn’t feel like my personal performance was good for a variety of reasons. What our team have grown into a BAU offering out of that disorder has been really impressive IMO.

[2] At that time I read James Darling’s story about milk, which resonated, you can read the blog here.

[3] Thanks to Dan

[4] A blessing. My presentation skills are still a work in progress.

[5] Hahahahahaha. I told you I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

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