Weeknote: 6 to 10 March 2023

Behind a metal fence, a snowy field with green showing through. Beyond that, trees on the skyline and grey sky
Snowy view from a moving train

What did I learn?

Three out of five days were taken up with module three of the Project Leadership Programme (PLP) at Cranfield University. Having switched cohorts due to a work commitment after module one, this time I felt I knew my fellow participants a little better, and enjoyed breaktime and dinner conversation with them, which inevitably came back to the common challenges we all face across the public sector.

I got a lot out of a session run by former Environmental Audit Select Committee chair Mary Creagh. On the surface, the session was about sustainability, and how we can link the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to our work. But really the challenge to us all was to communicate more and collaborate across boundaries to address complex societal problems. The response of the people in this cohort makes me optimistic that we can.

On Thursday morning, we took part in a game using dice, chips, and a deliberately hazy ruleset to get national teams to the top of the second highest mountain on earth, and safely back down again. The presence of real snow outside made it feel a little more real, but also meant that the exercise was shortened so everyone could get home safely. I felt sorry for the risk management professor who devised the game. He definitely had to respond to change over following a plan when he had only half the usual time to run it with us.

If I still have a critique of the PLP, it’s that some of the faculty have designed sessions to shake participants out of rigid project management thinking, without considering that probably fewer than half of the people in the cohort would identify as project or programme professionals in the first place. As I reflected after module two, and found again on module three, concentrating case studies on massive infrastructure projects can lead to wrong-headed conclusions about the digitally-infused service challenges that make up much of public sector delivery.

There seems to be an assumption that we need to educate project managers to behave less like project managers, rather than creating balanced teams and organisations which contain the right mix of policy specialists, service designers and product managers, as well as project roles for the things that really are projects or programmes.

What did I enjoy?

I saw a first glimpse of one of the main benefits of the NHS England and NHS Digital merger. For years, the product and user-centred design teams that I worked with in NHS Digital felt blocked from getting involved in the overall strategy of the health and care system, which was treated as the rarified preserve of NHS England policy and strategy people. On Friday morning I witnessed these groups on a Teams call, working together as colleagues. Seeing that collaboration gave me renewed hope that the disruption of the merger will be worth it, and will lead to better services for patients and frontline staff.

Not so much enjoy, but a massive sense of relief when our part of NHS England got ministerial approval in the nick of time for some staffing decisions without which our digital delivery and essential live services would have ground to a halt. A number of colleagues noticed the sudden change in collective anxiety levels when news of the approval came through. Over the past few weeks, it has felt as if the stress around this paticular decision, compounded by the impending reorganisation, has been a real barrier to teams engaging openly with the complex NHS challenges that we’re here to work on. This decision is only part of the picture though. We still have a lot of work to do to make sure we’re not in the same position this time next year.

What do I need to take care of?

We’re still storming and norming as a merged team. The good news is that, thanks to some astute leadership by my most senior colleagues in digital UEC, this week was more norming than storming, but the new way of working still feels fragile, and no doubt there are further misunderstandings ahead which we’ll have to work through together.

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