Thinking about change
— 20th August 2015
When I first heard about the job at DWP my excitement at the opportunity was mixed with something else, a kind of anxiety. Not because I was afraid of the job, or my ability to do it, but because it was immediately clear to me that it would mean change. A big change. I had been freelancing successfully (more or less) for about four years and enjoying both the variety of work, the flexibility of hours, and that nice sense of self-worth I got from being my own boss. I was in no way looking to go back into a permanent job.
But the opportunity was too good. My feelings about what had been going on at GDS were too positive. The idea of perhaps getting to be involved in those things and doing that kind of work in that kind of way was far too alluring. I had a definite sense that whilst I might not even get the job this was an opportunity that I couldn’t let go by.
So suddenly out of nowhere change was on the agenda. A change of focus, maybe a change of routine, a change of environment. Change is scary, especially when it suddenly comes looming at you out of nowhere, but sometimes it’s important to embrace it, so I did.
Despite all my experience with user-centered design, iterative design and service design in general, I’d never really worked in this kind of agile process. I thought maybe I had a bit. I certainly thought I understood the point of it, the way it was meant to work. Turns out I hadn’t really. I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here and have to say I like it. I like the rhythm, the enforced visibility, the amount of communication and the discipline of it. What I like the most though is how much of what we do is changeable. It’s not just the service that we iterate, but the process itself. If things are working well we celebrate but if they’re not working we can change them.
The fundamental idea is feedback. The opportunity for a team to take in information about what’s happening and to interpret and make changes based on it. It runs through everything we do and being able to change things is a fundamental requirement because if you can’t change things then the feedback is pointless.
You could say this is a pessimistic view, that the need to be always able to change is based on an expectation that things aren’t going to go well. “If you get it right first time, then why would you need to change it?” In fact though, not getting it right first time is a fact of life and inside this process is a brand of optimism which is actually more powerful.
This is a disconcerting time for the digital bit of UK government. A time of speculation and concern. Yesterday Ben Terrett stood up in front of a cross-government gathering of designers and told us not to worry. He wanted to reassure us that just because he was leaving, things weren’t going to change. That good people were already in place and things would continue. I was reassured and I do believe things will continue, but they won’t continue in the same way. They'll change, maybe in some ways for the worse, hopefully in lots of ways for the better. There will be problems but given the chance people will solve those problems and the problems after those. It’s easy to be scared by change, to cling to the way things are, to seek reassurance in continuity, but actually what we need is the kind of optimism I described above.
However, it’s not just about changing things (although we certainly need to do that). We also need to fight to make things more changeable and to keep them that way. A natural propensity to see change as worrying or scary is something that needs to be overcome because whilst it might feel counterintuitive, making things as changeable as possible is the best way to make them better.
The fact that this concept is part of the actual way we work, the fact that it’s an integral part of the Service Standard and the fact that this philosophy has spread out to the different departments of government and is taking root is the most reassuring thing. Of all the things that have been achieved so far by GDS that is by far the most important and by far the most precious.
I was talking to a couple of new recruits the other day and during my babbling about user research, agile ceremonies and prototyping toolkits it suddenly struck me that what I really wanted to know when I first started was whether it’d be the way I was hoping it would be. Whether all the reasons I’d thought it was an opportunity too good to be missed would actually turn out to be true. So I stopped babbling and basically said that yes it was.
It definitely is. And then some.