Rediscovering leadership

In my (nearly) two years at HackIT as our Lead User Researcher, I’ve been really lucky to have a range of opportunities to develop my skills individually and also within our teams.

‘Things to Make You Think’ talks that our colleagues in the Learning and Organisational Development team regularly set up have been great. These are run with respected professionals across different sectors, sharing their personal experiences and challenges that help you reflect on what you do. Also, last year our team visited NatCen to spend time perfecting our skills in conducting robust in-depth interviews, essential when we regularly conduct research with our residents and staff.

Recently, we’ve partnered with Stride – a new type of leadership product. The Stride team are on a mission to democratise leadership development. I’ve joined 9 colleagues, all of us from different backgrounds and different points in our careers, in piloting the product. 

Right, I’ll be honest. When the opportunity first came up, I did see it and think “Oh no, not one of those leadership courses!”. I think the term “leadership” comes with a lot of baggage. Historically, I’ve seen it as a bunch of similar people from similar backgrounds in a room, learning about academic theories about how to be a “better leader”. 

Now, I know that might seem harsh. I know these programmes work for lots of people but, for me, I was always turned off by the idea. Personally, they just didn’t feel human. Whilst I always want to learn things that are based in academic rigor, I’d want them to be designed in a way to help you connect with the people around you – not feel distant from them. 

However, even with that expectation in my head, I decided to give it a go. Maybe it is something a bit different.

Striding for the first time

Stride is based around an app which you can use whenever you want to help build your leadership practice. The early version of the product covers topics including giving feedback, setting goals and objectives and also understanding your values.  The Stride team is working to add more to the app all of the time.

Stride has also been running a series of webinars every other Thursday which expand on topics you cover in the app and we’ve set up a weekly ‘buddy’ check-in with a colleague who is also trying it out to compare notes.

When I first started using the app, I was quite critical. I initially found it difficult to connect and identify with the content. Maybe I wasn’t giving it a chance but it did take a bit of time to get into the habit of taking some time out for me to regularly reflect on my skills and practice.

One thing I did like was the fact I didn’t have to commit spending weeks at a time to something. By checking in with the app little and often, it meant I kept going with it. I also was really strict keeping the time in to watch the webinars and check-in with my buddy, something I’ve found I’ve had to be disciplined with more than ever, especially whilst working remotely.

Whilst I wasn’t initially seeing the change myself, the people around me were. My team told me I was having more stretching conversations with them that got them thinking. My line manager could see how I became more energised about planning and developing both myself and people within the team.

Spelling out what we stand for

One of the strong things that came out of my learning with Stride was to really understand what you, both as individuals and a team, believe in. The reason you get up in the morning to do the job that you do. The beliefs you hold that you never compromise on to help you deliver your best work. As individuals, we had our own ideas but we never got them down anywhere together or formally used those beliefs to shape what we do as a group.

We have got council wide values but I wanted to make them more relatable for us as a team. I set up an hour-long remote session over Google Meet where we individually reflected and then shared with the team what those broader values mean for us. 

I was slightly apprehensive going into the session as I wasn’t sure what we’d come up with. Doing everything remotely also felt like it was going to make it more difficult. However, by the end we came up with what our values are as user researchers – the reason why we do the job we do. 

Here is what we came up with: 

Proud

Crafting accurate research that compels teams to make people centred, evidenced decisions that impact residents’ lives.

Ambitious

Acting with courage to present our work far and wide; seeking opportunities to develop ourselves and support others in our sector to be the best we can be.

Pioneering 

Always evolving our research practice, not being afraid to try new things whilst being the experts on using the right research method at the right time to get a fair, accurate picture. 

Open

Truthfully sharing what we’ve learnt and how we’ve got there to impact decisions across the wider community whilst continually improving our own work.

Proactive

Pushing for ways research can continually make improvements to council services, successfully embedding ResearchOps within our team so we can do our best work. 

Inclusive

Representing the diversity of the people we serve, portraying the lived experiences of those who may be underrepresented whilst always treating participants and their data with the respect they deserve.

Reflecting on the journey

Using Stride has changed my perspective when I hear the word ‘leadership’. Leadership now feels more relatable, accessible and human for me. It’s not just something reserved for the few at a certain time in their career but something anyone can practice to get the best out of themselves and the people around them. 

Next week, the council is running our annual Leaders’ Conference – a week of online events to get people thinking more about what being a leader really means for them. I’ll now be going into that with a different perspective.

At the end of the day, we are all leaders – we just might not know it yet.

Our experience of experience mapping

In this blog post, I describe our experience using experience mapping, whilst collaborating with four other councils on a user research discovery funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Croydon Council previously blogged about how we started working together and our delivery lead Naintara Land recently wrote about understanding the needs of people doing user research in local government. 

The aim of our collaboration is to explore whether one council can use research from another council to improve the same statutory service. One of our central challenges was agreeing a common approach across five councils, so that we could compare findings and see whether similar themes were emerging

We picked adult social care as our service area after getting agreement from all the councils involved. We wanted to understand the journey people go through when they ask for help with social care. To achieve this, we decided to experiment with experience mapping during our research with residents and adult social care colleagues. 

Learning the process together

This was a new methodology for most of the team. We were excited to try a new technique and one which might help us compare findings. To begin with, we practiced in groups of three. Taking it in turns to be the interviewer, note taker and participant. 

The interviewer asks the participant to describe a recent challenging experience from start to finish. Such as a time their commute didn’t go according to plan. As the participant talks through what happened, the interviewer maps out each step of their journey on post-it notes. The note taker uses different coloured post-it notes to capture what the participant said and did, their feelings and any difficulties they experienced at each stage. 

We found it helps if the interviewer then plays back the steps to the participant. Presenting back the map enables the participant to check the accuracy of what’s been recorded and to see if they’ve missed anything from their journey. We also learnt how important and challenging the role of the note taker can be in capturing the details. It was useful to remind ourselves of the anatomy of a good sticky note blog post here, and to practise in groups so that you switch roles and get a different perspective.

Next, it was time to pilot test this approach with adult social care colleagues.

The importance of piloting

Earlier in the project we ran a workshop at Hackney where we brainstormed the topics we needed to cover in research sessions. We explored best practice for getting participant consent and reviewed our existing council consent forms too. As a result, we produced shared discussion guides and consent forms. These are now available for other councils to reuse on our User Research Library. 

I piloted experience mapping with some social workers. This provided an opportunity to validate our methodology, whilst trialling our staff discussion guide and consent form before other councils started using them. Each social worker talked me through two of their recent cases. I then asked follow up questions on their typical workload. It was a lot to cover and their case studies seemed to be things that went well or cases they were proud of. 

We wanted to hear about the challenging cases too. I amended our discussion guide so that participants focused on describing a recent complex case, which they’ve taken from start to finish. Some of the cases I heard about were still in progress and I wanted to understand the details of their end to end journey. Other improvements included adding timings to the discussion guide to help structure the sessions and simplifying wording in our consent form to make it easier to read.  

The whole process helped us realise the importance of piloting user research. So when it came to starting experience mapping with residents who’ve asked for help with adult social care, we ran a pilot for that too.

Sharing experiences and best practice

I also played back my initial staff experience maps to the user researchers in the collaboration at one of our meet-ups. The idea was to help others learn from my experience before trying it for the first time. Mirabai from Croydon Council then did the same with a resident experience map she created after trialling our shared resident discussion guide and consent form

Staggering the research across the five councils resulted in us regularly checking in on how things were progressing. We shared our experiences and best practices with each other, iterating our approach along the way.

We made sure we prepared for our research with residents by considering safeguarding issues, speaking to subject matter experts and being ready to direct participants to places where they can find more information and support if they needed it.

We had some challenges using the experience mapping technique, especially when carrying out research with vulnerable adults in their home. When explaining what happened, participants had a tendency to switch between different parts of their story or go off topic. You need to bring them back to concentrating on what happened next, so that you can go through it step-by-step and use probing questions to ensure you get enough detail at each stage. 

Julie from Essex County Council gave us a great tip for experience mapping during home visits. Instead of mapping out the experience on a large sheet of paper, just bring along a notebook and place each post-it note step on a page. You can then read back each page in the journey to the resident like you’re telling a story. 

With research sessions in the office, we found you need to schedule in 30 minutes after each session to put the note taker’s post-it notes in the right place while it’s still fresh in the mind. Another tip is to remember to bring along a large roll of paper as some experiences are very lengthy!

Bringing all the research together

We completed experience mapping with 23 adult social care colleagues and 29 residents in total.

Each council then analysed their outputs using a common approach. We started by creating skeleton maps of each journey. This reminded us of what happened in each session and allowed us to easily compare individual experiences at every stage. We then recorded our key themes from the interviews with colleagues and residents on post-it notes.

Last week we met up to compare our results. We used our skeleton maps to create overall archetypal experience maps for each council which showed the typical process. We worked in pairs which helped massively as you had another researcher who didn’t participate in the research to ask questions and assist you to create an overall experience map. Finally, each council shared the themes from their research so that we could compare our findings. 

Next steps

We’ll be sharing the findings from our collaboration over the next two weeks. This will include the similarities and differences between councils, in order to help understand how one council can use research from another council to improve the same statutory service.

We’ve all said we’ll use experience mapping again during future research within our respective councils. I’d highly recommend it as an approach for understanding complex council services that take place over weeks or months. It gives you a research artefact straight away, which you can use to tell the story of a user to help create empathy and understanding.