Around the start of 2010, I concluded that the next part of my career lay outside the telecoms operator Orange. My decade there had taught me loads. I got a ringside seat for the rise of the smartphones. I learned how to design for service at scale, and saw how technologies are socially constructed by users, as much as by designers and engineers.
But the stresses of consolidation and commodification were clear. Orange’s corporate centre of gravity had moved to Paris, where a cargo cult version of Silicon Valley management culture made many people very miserable. When my boss’s boss quit, quoting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”), I knew the action was going to be somewhere else.
Meanwhile, my home city of Leeds seemed to be waking up. I was on the fringes of a scene of independent digital makers, storytellers and doers, who were starting to attract the attention of people in power. From my office window in Marshall’s Mill, I could see the partially collapsed Temple Works, where a group of artists were proving Jane Jacobs’ maxim that “new uses need old buildings.” I wondered how I might integrate that world more into my work, rather than have business travel commitments constantly dragging me away from it.
I sought advice from people I trusted, and engaged a business coach who helped me clarify what was important to me, summarised in three simple goals that I could use to evaluate my options. In 2010 I wrote them down like this:
- Make good stuff for people who want it – As a product marketeer, my instinct is to find out what people want and need, and tailor the product to that, rather than to start with a product and try to push it relentlessly. This means continually engaging with and learning from customers.
- Build a sustainable business for this decade – what I do should be relevant today, but also adaptable and enduring. Aim is to keep busy and feed family until 2020 at least. To build something alone or with others that we can own, take pride in, and secure our long-term financial independence.
- Enjoy my Leeds family life – settled in Leeds and plan to stay. Work should take advantage of that, not be in conflict. During next few years, will have three children in school and wife seeking to establish her career. Want to give them all the support they need.
Looking back from the first days of the 2020s, I can say I achieved most of the above, if not quite as I expected.
- With Kathryn Grace, my colleague from Orange, I started service design drinks and thinks events in Leeds, which led to bringing the amazing Global Service Jam and Global GovJam movement to our city.
- I cultivated curiosity-driven projects writing and speaking about technologies, times and places that I found fascinating.
- Leaving Orange in 2012, I started my post-telco adventure contracting with Made by Many, whose pioneering integration of user-centred design, agile delivery, and lean startup method felt intuitively right to me.
- I found a great place to be in another old building, Munro House, first as a co-worker at Duke Studios, then as a friend of ODI Leeds, whose open, entrepreneurial spirit seems well matched for the times.
- Intrigued by the green shoots of GOV.UK alpha, I fell into capability building, first designing and delivering the GDS service manager programme, and then coaching in the DWP Digital Academy.
- I dabbled with the internet of things, and the power of making home energy use more visible and digital.
- As part of Stick People, I started to work, intermittently, with our local council and NHS organisations.
- In 2017, I was tempted back into permanent employment as head of design for NHS Digital, based in Leeds. I’m still there and learning loads.
Against those three simple goals from 2010:
“Make good stuff for people who want it” was fundamental to everything I worked on, from those first private sector clients through to what I do today in the NHS.
In the public sector, the imperative to start with user needs is as necessary today as it was when the GDS founders wrote those famous design principles. I’m still proud that my blog post is linked from design principle number 1.
I can’t stress enough how important the “people who want it” bit is when running a micro-business. You will run out of money before you educate a big organisation that’s not ready for your new way of working. As an insider, something similar applies to where in the system you direct your attention.
“Build a sustainable business for this decade” – Consulting worked for me financially, and it’s something I know I could return to. From April 2012 to the end of December 2019, the businesses I started generated more than £900,000 in revenues, shared between me, my collaborators, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. My family has always had food on the table. While I no longer take an active role in Stick People, Kathryn has kept the venture going.
“Enjoy my Leeds family life” was probably the hardest one to square. In the early years as a consultant, I was away from home as much as – sometimes more than – I had been when working for an international telecoms operator. Latterly, I was able to do more in Leeds, and NHS Digital’s delivery centre of gravity, if not all its most senior decision-making, is here.
Ironically, my most substantial work in this city has all been for national organisations – DWP, GDS, and now the NHS. The civic creativity that I wanted to be a part of has still not been matched by meaningful devolution to our city or its region. Couple that with the sorry state of transport links to all England’s other great cities save for London. As a consultant, I’m sure I would have done more with my clients in Manchester and Birmingham if those places had been faster and more reliable to get home from at the end of a long day’s work.
How lucky am I?
On the NHS Leadership Academy Nye Bevan Programme, a number of us have been challenged over how we talk about “luck”- to recognise our privilege while still owning our achievements.
I count myself lucky in at least three ways.
First, there’s the invisible knapsack of white privilege, multiplied by being born a boy in one of the richest countries on earth, to have had every educational opportunity and a supportive family. I was able to take risks with my employment knowing that nothing really bad would happen if they failed. I know that’s not true for everyone. Our economy would be more entrepreneurial if everyone got free passes and a safety net like I do.
Second, there’s the luck of a decade of good health, not just for me but my extended family. We suffered none of the blows that can knock people off their balance. Several people I know have had less of this kind of luck, and I am in awe of their resilience in coming back. It could happen to any of us, any time. Our NHS exists as an act of national compassion, to collectively mitigate that kind of ill fortune, and the associated fear, for everyone.
The third kind of luck is the one for which I can take a little credit. It’s the serendipity I sought out, by having an inkling of what I wanted to achieve, and getting into places where happy accidents happen. Trying new ways of doing things, and putting the results into the world, helped me to find more things I could do, things that people would pay me for. Those lucky breaks wouldn’t have happened if I had stayed stuck in a corporate culture that wasn’t working. I still have a sneaking suspicion that I ended up working with GDS because of something I wrote about steam engines.
In one way, I end the decade full circle – working for a massive organisation in a time of change – yet also a lot further forward. We have lots to do better with digital services in the NHS, and this still feels like a place where people like me can make difference.
Over those 10 years, the things that I look for in work have shifted somewhat. To tentatively redraft my three simple goals for the 2020s, I would now say:
Make the space, for people who want it, to do their best work – working with civil servants, local government, and latterly in the NHS, has showed me that most people have the potential to amplify their impact through user-centred, multidisciplinary teamwork – if they are allowed, and allow themselves, the space and time to try.
Build sustainable, learning organisations that are here for the long term – over the last 10 years I have seen organisations, large and small, succeed and fail. The common thread has always been their capacity or otherwise to learn and adapt to meet fundamental human needs in a changing world. Even the biggest institutions have no right to exist beyond the point at which they become irrelevant.
Enjoy my family and community life in Leeds – I still need to be here for my family. Over the Christmas break I’ve been thinking about what else I might do to help make things better in the city. It could be a volunteer role that fits around my other commitments, something where I can use my existing skills and learn new ones.
Looking back at a decade of photos to go with this post has also reminded me of all the wonderful people I’ve been privileged to work with over the past 10 years. They are far too numerous to mention. If you’re one of them, thank you. I count myself lucky to know you.