SEPA weeks 04 and 05


This two weeks’ broad context

There was a senior management meeting in week 4 that gave us all an injection of enthusiasm. Although our project had sign off a long time ago, senior people wanted to talk about how it fits into wider SEPA visions of 21st century regulation and after this was discussed, we saw a spike in interest from senior people wanting to speak to us. Our project is now a called a ‘corporate priority’ which is a good feeling. That feeling and some new conversations with senior types was a catalyst for our small UR/SD team to confront the elephant in our room: we were not getting along very well. With the uptick in attention from the organisation finally came explicit permission to start to plan our external research participant recruitment strategy and explicit permission to go forth and doorstop staff to involve them in research and workshopping. The door was open for us to go forth and be awesome but the tension between us was high (indeed people we are co-located with had pulled me aside to ask if everything is OK) and the way we were interacting with each other couldn’t have been further from good conditions for collaboration.

We agreed to set time aside to talk things out and it went surprisingly well. I was nervous about going into this discussion because our personalities are so different. One member of the team has a very emphatic and blunt conversation style while the other is quite picturesque and epigrammatic. It’s a total reflection of how they think and work but neither of them were feeling respected by the other and IMHO it’s because we had never given ourselves time to understand each other before we kicked off the project. Bear in mind the interpersonal tension wasn’t the only source of frustration at the time- our brief was giving us grief too! The scope and focus of our work was still huge and unclear and layering that on top of issues between team members was getting us to a combustible state.

The idea of sharing personal user manuals (this is a brilliant one from FutureGov) had been discussed over a couple of days on our Slack but only between a couple of us- the idea wasn’t embraced by the whole team so it died a death. So while there was some attempt to nip the problem in the bud, we only really tackled it as a reactive instead of preventative measure.  But we got there in the end and things are much better though I feel things are still fragile. It just needs time to get stronger.

This is what I learned

You may have noticed I didn’t mention myself at all in describing tension in the team. And that’s because I largely retreated for the first three weeks. One reason was I was the only part-time member of the team for a couple of weeks so I didn’t feel like I really had a place in setting direction or setting a tone for the team. The other reason is I didn’t quite know what to do but watch what was going on, stay as objective as possible and think about how I could mediate when it was needed. I was in the middle of two powerful personalities attached to people who seemed to be defending their expertise and professions in a hybrid team. The only place I felt I fit was in the background not contributing to the stress and tension. Like when mom and dad fight, you know? I also suffer from Imposter Syndrome more often than I’d like and this doesn’t help matters. Looking back on my natural reaction of retreat and observe, I learned a lot about me and it’s something I’ll be reflecting on for quite a while, mainly because ATM I’m disappointed in myself for it.

I also learned- or reinforced my knowledge that none of the things that were going on in our team are unique. I dug deep into my networks for support and found others writing and reflecting on the difficulties of working in hybrid UR/SD/UX/insert your acronym teams, especially now with the trend of ‘agile’ and ‘service design’ hitting public services hard. With these trends can come a really superficial understanding and application of things like agile, service design or user research in public service which sometimes makes incomers (like former public servants turned consultants or people entering public service from other sectors) feel misunderstood, underappreciated or disregarded. This Medium post by Kelly Lothbrook-Smith (currently Lead UX Researcher at DWP) really struck a chord with me on this front. For reasons that might not seem immediately apparent, I also found a lot of comfort and re-energising of myself in this podcast about the Modern Agile movement and its principles (thanks to Ben Proctor for putting me onto this). The principles of make people awesome, experiment and learn rapidly, deliver value continuously and (top in my mind right now) make safety – especially psychological safety– a prerequisite gave me back perspective I lost while retreating.

This surprised me

I surprised me. I put myself on the back burner, I stopped being myself at work because I felt self-conscious and I lost confidence because of things going on around me.

This frustrated me

I frustrated me. I didn’t stand up for myself, I didn’t push for conflict resolution earlier, I didn’t ask for support or help from my PM. I retreated.

What I will do next week

  • Keep true to myself
  • grow personal resilience
  • value my contributions to the team and to this piece of work
  • use my words
  • keep some perspective
  • ask for help and support when I need it
  • support my colleagues at all times
  • keep fighting the good fight for public sector reform.


Posted in: Weeknotes

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