Hello, and welcome to Making Tech Better – Made Tech’s fortnightly podcast, bringing you content from all over the world on how to improve your software delivery.
My name is Clare Sudbery, my pronouns are she and her, and I am a lead engineer at Made Tech.
On Tuesday 22nd of February 2022, I spoke to Katy Armstrong. Katy is Head of Digital Delivery at the ‘Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ otherwise known as D-LUHC, and formerly known as MHCLG. We’ve been working with Katy at Made Tech for a while now, so I was delighted when she was available to chat to me about ‘servant leadership’.
Clare: Hello, Katy. How are you doing?
Katy: I’m alright, thank you. How are you?
Clare: I’m good, thanks. It’s great to see you.
Katy: Yeah, likewise
Clare: Like I said, my pronouns are ‘she and her’ – What are your preferred pronouns?
Katy: Mine are also ‘she and her’.
Clare: Fantastic, thank you. I’m going to start with the same question that I always start with, which is: Who in this industry are you inspired by?
Katy: So, the people that I’ve been most inspired by are people that I’ve worked with, specifically when I started at the Home Office, I worked for a lady called Emma Charles who I then went to work with at the Valuation Office. That’s how much I valued her as a mentor. And I’d been seeking a mentor for some time. And then when I first started working in digital, I worked for Emma and it really clicked, the ways that she was thinking about delivery. But also at the Home Office, there was another woman who also super influenced me, somebody called Clare Young, who was in charge of the delivery management profession, and was also a Delivery Manager. She was relatively new. I think she was like three years into it at that time, but already the ways that she thought about looking after people and teams are still very relevant, obviously, to the topic I’m going to be talking about in this podcast. But yeah, both Emma and Clare. The ways that they deliver and care about people, and do things in quite a practical way, massively influenced me, and still inspires me to this day.
Clare: Wonderful. Yeah, one of the things that I really try to focus on is just looking after people, making sure that people are okay, because teams are made of people. People matter!
Katy: That’s right. And work is about being with people, at least it is for me. So if people are happy, then work is better. They do work better, but also, it’s just nicer for me as well. If people are happy.
Clare: Yeah. So, we’re going to be talking about ‘servant leadership’. A really obvious place to start is – what does that phrase mean to you?
Katy: So I’ve mostly thought about servant leadership in the sense of – if you’re a Scrum Master; or what the government calls a Delivery Manager, you would often think of yourself as a servant leader. And so, you’re not a leader in the sense of ‘you tell people what to do’, and you’re not a servant in the sense of ‘only doing things for other people’. What you’re trying to do is guide them and put the people in your team into a position where they can do the best job possible.
And I know that this concept of servant leadership isn’t just from Agile and software delivery. And in fact, that’s one of the things I want to talk about, the fact that within a Scrum team, you have the specific role, which is a Scrum Master, who is a designated servant leader. But not only do the whole team benefit from thinking about themselves in the sense of being a leader, in and of their own specialism, because we’re talking about multidisciplinary, agile teams. And so, everyone’s a leader in a way, in the sense that everyone’s a facilitator in a way, that’s the Scrum Master or the Delivery Manager has it specifically in their job; but also, people who are leading in any sense, I think, can benefit from thinking about leadership in the way of servant leadership.
From a day-to-day perspective, what you’re trying to do is bring people together so that they can talk about problems. And then they probably have blockers in trying to achieve the aims that they have. And so, as a servant leader, a large part of your job is removing those blockers. But it’s also – you’re not just being a servant. A lot of people think that Delivery Management or Scrum Mastery is about booking meeting rooms, particularly pre-pandemic, and that’s very much like the servant part. But one of my favourite Delivery Managers I’ve worked with, a guy called Richard Blake, actually refused to book meeting rooms for his team, to try and move away from that ‘servantiness’. It is a leadership role as well. You are trying to make something happen. Ideally the whole team is trying to make something happen as well, but as a servant leader, your role is to try and facilitate that delivery, to make it possible, and to try and make the vision clear, that people are moving towards as well, particularly from a leadership perspective. So yeah, it’s both of those elements.
Clare: I love it. And I was thinking about it, as you were speaking, I was thinking the word ‘servant’ has got ‘serve’ in it, hasn’t it? And I think that word is really helpful in this context, that you’re serving these people. You’re giving them what they need, in order to do a good job. It also has an element of kind of being a role model, that you might be trying to exemplify particular principles or, you know, aspirations. And that idea of having a vision is also a part of that.
Katy: Yes, all of those things. And obviously, you mentioned the word ‘serve’, which is also part of ‘Public Servant’ or ‘Civil Servants’. I think it’s baked into a lot of the things that I do as a civil servant, that you want to try and work not just for your own personal gain, but for citizens, or in this case for the team themselves. So, it’s quite appealing from that perspective.
And then going back to the sort of like role model perspective, a lot of what people say about Scrum Masters or Delivery Managers is that in some cases, you don’t need it, because your team is so self-organising in themselves, so they don’t necessarily need somebody to help facilitate them. And that’s kind of the ultimate goal really, for all servant leaders, is to try and get to the point where actually you’re not needed at all.
And some of the experiences I’ve had in my current role, which was, until recently, called the’ Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government’ and is now called the ‘Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’. I have managed to get to the point where I was very, very involved at the beginning, and then through the actions I took, as well as other things obviously, it wasn’t just entirely me, but I’ve been able to withdraw to the point where that team is now completely self-organising and doesn’t need to have me, because they are able to do the same things that I was doing from facilitating and servant perspective.
Clare: Yeah, and I think that one about basically making yourself redundant, I think that’s a really interesting one. And I think it’s something that people often struggle with when they’re new to leadership. So you know, when I first became a technical lead, I struggled with the same thing that I think pretty much everybody who ever finds himself in that situation struggles with if they’ve been a software engineer, and then they become a technical lead.
So, and it doesn’t have to just apply to engineering, but you know, when you move from being a member of a team to being a leader within that team, at first you think – right, okay, it’s my job as technical leader to be the cleverest person on the team, who knows the most stuff and who is the best at software development. And if there’s any kind of really difficult problem, it’s my responsibility to leap in and fix it, and show everybody how to do it. And that’s completely unrealistic. That’s how people burn out. That’s how people get totally, totally stressed out.
And it’s also although people don’t intend it to be it’s kind of arrogant. Because you’re saying, “I have to be the best”. Well, actually, no, not only do you not have to be the best, it’s unlikely that you will be, because now your job is to coordinate and lead and facilitate a bunch of other stuff as well as writing code. So you’re going to be less hands-on, you’re going to be less experienced day-to-day, you’re going to be less immersed. So even if previously you were the most proficient, other people are going to overtake you, because they’re going to be spending more time doing it than you are.
But not only is that a thing that will happen, it’s something that should happen and it’s a thing that you should be aiming for. Yes, you should actually want these people to be able to do what you think you should be doing. And not just in the realm of the things that you used to do. So, you know, if we’re talking about software engineering, it’s not just that other people should be able to be really good at writing code. You actually want them to also take on leadership responsibilities. So, there’s also a temptation to think – okay, that now I’m in charge, I have to make all the decisions, and I have to, you know, decide on direction, and I have to think of new ideas, and all of that’s sort of my shoulders, and everybody else just does what I tell them. And actually, all of those little responsibilities that you think are yours – if you can encourage other people to take them on, then you’re increasing the self-organising-ness of the team, you’re giving people responsibility, you’re letting them step up and learn more and move more towards the direction of maybe being where you are. And all of that can feel threatening, but it isn’t. It’s a good thing, because it means the team is more effective. So, I’ve gone on and on about this!
Katy: But you’re totally right. And it’s not only a really good example in and of itself, but it’s also talking about how it’s not just the Scrum Master, who’s the traditional servant leader, you’ve just given another example of, like as a tech lead. And what it was also making me think is when I first started, when I was most anxious, I guess, about this, I felt quite attacked when developers might say that they were Certified Scrum Masters and made me feel like they were more qualified to do my job than I was. But actually, as you’re saying, it doesn’t matter if somebody else is more qualified at doing something in that team than you are. Actually, that’s totally fine. It’s more about creating that environment where it’s okay. And in fact, as you say, expected and good that people should be really good at things, and some of them are the things that you’re really good at too. And that doesn’t matter because the unit of delivery is the team, and so ultimately want the team to be really good.
And then the thing I was thinking about, from a software development perspective, if you’re in a team, and the other people in the team don’t necessarily understand that, that’s where potentially there could be frictions. If they’re thinking of the Software Lead being the best – and it’s like “well, I’m better than that person, so why am I not in charge?” That obviously can happen.
One of the things when we talk more about autonomy later, that is so crucial, is what Kanban says – you should make your policies explicit. But I think also just making things that are important to you explicit, as well. So bring that into the conversation of the team really, saying that “as the Lead Developer, I don’t expect to be the best. I know enough to be making the right decisions, but I’m expecting you actually, you’re doing all of those things day by day, so I’m expecting that I won’t necessarily be the best”. And if you raise that at the beginning, it’s much easier, I think, to have conversations later. When people are like, “Oh, that was weird that you didn’t know that”. Like “of course, I was in five meetings instead, while you were busily investigating cutting-edge technology”. And so yeah, it helps to have those conversations, if you’ve said upfront: “This will happen. I absolutely expect it will happen. But you will know something that I don’t because of course, how could I possibly know everything?”
Clare: Yeah. I think what helps as well is the idea of facilitation, that as a leader it’s your job to facilitate the rest of the team to be able to do a really good job. And that includes encouraging them to learn all the things that you know, and also – even that thing about decision-making – that actually as a leader, you’re going to make the best decisions if you get everybody involved. Get them to share what they know and share their opinions, because actually, that’s gonna give you a whole bunch of extra information, that you’re not gonna have if you just try and do it on your own. And again, what you’re doing is you’re facilitating them, you’re enabling them to have control over what happens, to have a say in what happens, which then makes them more effective.
Katy: Yeah, so it means that you don’t have to have every experience, which I think I already said, but I’m going to jump off to say: there was a recent report into why NHS technology had failed. And one of the key recommendations that came out of it is all senior civil servants should have experience in digital projects, which kind of makes sense I guess, if you think about it, but to me, that was the wrong recommendation. That says like, you have to have done something before, in order to be able to do it for the first time. And in fact, what I felt the recommendation should be, rather than like “go to some training at the Government Digital Service and have done digital services before”, is “be willing to lean on the rest of your team to make decisions, that you then trust are the right ones, and back”. And so that’s why I think the servant leadership idea is the one, really, rather than like, “Do you know what an API is?” I don’t know what API stands for, but I know what it does. And I can bring in people who do know what it stands for and can build one.
Clare: Yes, people having to have experience, that’s a really good one that’s come up in other episodes. Like particularly, when we were talking about inclusive teams, and talking about diversity, is that if you say that people can’t do a job without having experience of the job, then how does anybody ever get experienced at doing the job?
Katy: Yeah, absolutely. It seems obvious, but yes, I think particularly if you only have a small number of people to hire, it can be really tempting to insist that they’re experts or like you’re looking for a unicorn before you can hire anyone at all. But growing your own talent is the way to keep people, and as you say, grow diverse teams, really. Because otherwise, the only people that you can hire are people that other people might have hired before. You might not have the same principles around diversity that you have.
Clare: Yeah, yeah, exactly! So, we’re talking about leadership. We’re talking about how to make it go really well. But obviously it doesn’t always go really well. I mean, nothing goes really well, there’s hard times in all projects. And I know that during the work that you did with the Energy Performance of Buildings Register, I know that you had huge successes, but obviously there were also failures. So how did you ensure that the hard times lead to positive outcomes? You know, how do you deal with those hard times as a servant leader?
Katy: So just to give a bit of background, in case for some reason you don’t know what the Energy Performance of Buildings Register is – Why wouldn’t you?(!) So basically, there’s a thing called the ‘Energy Performance Certificate’ where if you sell or rent a property in the UK, you have to have it. It’s got different coloured steps on it. That’s what people generally know. And I would say not a lot of people actually look at it. The policy is to have one, and ideally it will help decrease your energy consumption and make your house more energy efficient. And when I started at my department, which was then called MHCLG – I’m gonna keep calling it that at the beginning of this – we had a service that was being run by a third party, that was about 12 years old, and obviously that’s quite old for a digital service, so we wanted to build a new one. And the government has certain rules around how you build digital services now. And my department was quite late to digital transformation – we were about six years after the founding of GDS, we were doing this piece of work.
Clare: Slight interruption – just for those that don’t know – GDS is ‘Government Digital Service.”
Katy: So difficult to get away from acronyms in the civil service! So yeah, so it should have been quite easy in a way to say “okay, we’re going to build the service and it’s going to meet the government service standard” which broadly fits into three themes, which is: Care about users, building good technology, and operates in a good way, and working in an agile way as well – hence, from a servant leader perspective.
However, as I say, our department hadn’t built any services. We’re much more used to asking somebody else to build something for us. And even though there was this mandate they had to build services in this way; a lot of what I had to do was persuade people that we did have to do it that way. We did have to work in this way. We did have to do a lot of user research, much more than anyone had ever done on this service before. And crucially, we had to take ownership of it into the department” Okay, well, we want a service that fulfils the legislation. Please go off and build it, large supplier, and we won’t really get involved other than paying you the money”.
So we were earlier talking about growing talent. There was somebody in the organisation who had been in a similar kind of role as a Product Owner, but wasn’t in digital, and I managed to steal him away into my own team, and asked him to be a Product Manager – which is a very similar role to Product Owner, except it says, “this is your job”. So often, government Product Owners, you’re kind of doing it on the side of the desk, or maybe not a digital professional. And you’re being much more guided by the team. Probably there are Product Managers listening to this and being like, “What are you talking about?” – But anyway, as a Product Manager, that is your bread and butter to be in the team, to understand how to prioritise and use user research to make good decisions for the team. So, I stopped Matt doing his regular day job, and put him into this role, and surrounded him with digital professionals who were people who had done this quite a lot before – in the expectation that he would flourish, I guess, and learn his job on-the-job in that team. And that was the first key thing that I did, to have somebody who I had a strong relationship with, who’s in that team.
The government says you have to take ownership of the service, like “here you go, here is a person who is going to own the vision of that service, and we’re going to support him from the centre as well”. And then I also had to do a lot of like, persuading people, once we have done the stages, first stage is Alpha, which is prototyping stage, again, to continue to build a service in-house. It sounds so obvious, and it shouldn’t be a thing, that at this point – I guess it was like 2019/ 2018 – that any government department would just completely contract out the service. But there was such a perception that we couldn’t do it, if that makes sense. So, it felt like every failure would be proof that that we couldn’t do it.
And we did fail! So, I think you said ‘difficulties’ – Our first major difficulty was not passing an Alpha assessment. So GDS assesses services at the end of Alpha, which is a prototyping phase, and then at the end of the Beta phase, which is a building phase, to make sure that any service that’s going live on gov.uk meets the standards that GDS has set. And I was super confident because we’ve brought in this great team, I’ve appointed the Product Manager. They’re thinking about building the service in the best way. And I thought that we would that we would pass because I thought that the team of people at GDS would see that we were really trying and trying to follow these principles. Not everything was perfect. How could anything be perfect, but that we were trying.
And the other thing is, I not only thought we were going to succeed, but I really wanted us to succeed, because as I say, failure felt like it was gonna be such a sign that this was all a terrible mistake and we should have just asked one of the ‘big four’ or something, to build the service for us. And then we did fail. The report is online so you can have a look at that if you want, faithful listener, but the key things that came out of it were that there should have been more work on design, and also that we needed to think more about plans for the next phase -were really the big ones. And I hadn’t planned for failure. So, I’ve just said I really wanted to succeed. And so, I’ve been maintaining to our stakeholders that we would pass. I thought we were going to pass. But yeah, I hadn’t really planned for failure in the sense of – I just said, we had a Product Manager, but we didn’t have the rest of the team. They were all contracted in, and the kind of contract that we had meant that we had run out of money. So we had no way to keep the team after that failure, or as GDS would say, “not pass”. But yeah, it was kind of treated as a failure.
And so, in order to get through the next stage, I had to find other people within the organisation who could help address the things that had been flagged in the first report, which basically meant asking a lot of favours of other people in the organisation to help make this happen. And I think this is very relevant to what we’re talking about, because it was about having connections to the rest of the team. So, you had to find a team from somewhere. And there were other digital teams that we built by then in other parts of the organisation. And the way that you can remove blockers in my opinion is to have relationships with other people who either might be creating blockers or can help you resolve them.
I guess it’s worth defining like ‘what is the blocker?’ as a classic Scrum Master removed blockers. Well, what is that? It could be another team you have to integrate with needs to make some changes, or maybe like a commercial process. That’s a very typical one. And government’s like, “I need some software, how can I get that software?” Or maybe somebody is not making a decision. All of these things are things that would stop an autonomous team being able to continue.
And a lot of the ways that you can make those problems go away is to have relationships with those other teams, to make sure that they understand your priorities, or just simply they might want to do something for you because they know and like you, and they understand that it’s important what you’re asking for. So in this case, I had a really good relationship with the commercial team, but because it was a contractual issue, they couldn’t exactly make the fact that we had run out of money on the contract go away.
I did suggest another way that we could bring in a User Researcher, who’s one of the key roles for that team. So, we did that. And then I also spoke to a lot of the other digital teams within the organisation. And basically, they agreed to stop other pieces of work, to give me enough of the relevant roles to form a sort of crack team of people who could help address this. And they did some more work in terms of design. They did think about design, but basically stayed with the traditional steps that you will still see today, if you go and look at an energy certificate, so iconic. But we had explored them, that was a point, which we hadn’t previously. We hadn’t done enough work on the design.
And then we did get to the point where we passed that out for assessment, then internally, we needed financial sign-off to move into the next stage, which means that I had to write a business case about what’s going to happen next. And again, it should have been simple. It should have been just “let’s bring in the team to do this work in exactly the way that GDS has said we should do it” – but people were still like, “well, you know you failed before. And also from a business case perspective, we need to consider all the options that are out there”. And I was trying to argue – not only is this option the cheapest, but it’s also literally the only one! The government has said you have to build services in this way. But there was such a strong drive to consider all the options, to the extent that I took over writing the business case to make sure it said what I thought it should say. Really, I should have facilitated people into writing what I thought was the right thing. And instead, I was just like, “no, I will do it myself”. But it worked out really well, in that the business case did say what I wanted it to say, but also that meant I was part of all those conversations, and it did convince people.
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Clare: Before the break, Katy was telling us about how she took over writing the business case when getting signed off to move on to the next stage of the Energy Performance of Buildings Register. So, you talked about how you hadn’t planned for failure. What would you do differently going forward, and what’s the relevance of that to servant leadership? So, what would a good servant leader have done?
Katy: Really good question. Thanks for bringing me back on track, Clare. So as a servant leader, you should accept failure. And everybody in the team – because you know that they did their best – as our classic Agile retrospective prime directive says – that like everyone did the best they could, knowing the things that they did at the time. And also, you can’t predict who the assessors are GDS. Even if you think you did the best possible thing that you could do, there are other factors. So yeah, I didn’t blame the team for not passing, which is what I would expect from a servant leader, but also should have put in contingencies. So, we’ve definitely learned from that.
The first thing is to not try and convince people that failure isn’t an option. Again, put it into the room. So just as I would say to the team, you know, “it’s totally okay for you to fail” – from a leadership perspective. What I should be doing is again, before it happens, telling stakeholders, “This is absolutely a possibility, because of all these factors that are nothing to do with them”. So, setting the stage for failure to not only be okay within the team, but also from a stakeholder perspective first.
And then making sure that you have a way back if that does happen. So, it’s not just okay to be accepting of it, but also part of my role is to make it okay. So that bad experience that first time has meant that we never set our contracts up in that way again. We’ll always make sure that there’s enough headroom for that not to happen, but also to keep Alpha and Beta together, so you’ve got the continuity of the team, and you can like move into that space again. Both of those things, I think, making sure that you have a backup plan, but also making that backup plan just as acceptable, really, because Agile is about thinking that not everything will work. How could it? Otherwise, there would be no need to experiment.
Clare: Yeah, exactly. When we were talking about this episode, you shared a blog post with me that talked about alignment and autonomy, which I think those are two really interesting concepts. And can you talk a little bit about what alignment means to you, and how it relates to good leadership?
Katy: Yes, so the person in question is written by somebody called Jason Yip, who works at Spotify at the moment, and it’s called “What you should learn from the Spotify model”. So, Spotify model is quite a famous way of doing Agile at scale, but it’s also in a lot of ways being debunked by people. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still good principles behind it. And one of the things that Jason suggests that you should think about is this concept of alignment and autonomy. So, autonomy is pretty obvious. It means that you should be able to do the work that you need to do without having to go to people to have things signed off all the time. But also that, like we talked about blockers, removing blockers, a lot of blockers can be the interaction with other teams. And then alignment I think is the key one, that is less obvious, because empowerment is obviously a good thing, want to move away from micromanagement and let people make the good decisions. Again, we’re talking about how they’re specialists, so specialists can make good decisions.
Alignment is less obvious, but it’s saying that you should be able to make sure that people understand the overall concepts – so we talked about vision right at the beginning. It’s not enough to say – “Just do whatever it is that you think you should be doing”. The role of a leader is to say, “What is the vision, okay, and now let’s help to achieve it”. Also, more than that, there are probably other teams who should be autonomous somewhere else, but they probably have interactions with your original team. And so, they should know what’s going on in those other teams, particularly if they interact with each other. And that doesn’t need a massive framework to do it, which is what the Spotify model can become, really constraining. But there needs to be ways to have those connections, particularly where there’s an important interaction in that team. And that’s one of the things that as a leader, you should be responsible for, not just to make sure that everyone knows what the vision is, but also to make sure that everyone’s talking to each other, not just to you, and they are aligned in the kinds of ways that they’re working.
Clare: Yeah. I think alignment and vision are really interesting, particularly from the context of leadership. Because exactly what you say – You want people to have autonomy. You want people to have control over what they’re doing. You don’t want them to be constantly having to ask for permission or waiting for people to provide the things that they need. But you also, if everybody is autonomous, but has a different goal, they’re all going to be disappearing off and scattering to the four winds, and you’re not going to get cohesion. You’re not going to get people collaborating with each other, and actually getting each individual part of the puzzle. Connecting up with the other parts. And alignment means that you need to have vision, it means that everybody needs to know which direction that they’re going in, but not just know, but also agree. So, I think one of the really interesting things there is that vision doesn’t work if it’s only one person’s vision. So as a leader, you have to be able to kind of provide vision to some extent, and check that everybody has the same vision, but you also have to gather that vision. And that involves allowing people again to have an input into that, doesn’t it? So how do you decide on a vision and get people to agree and align on those goals?
Katy: So, I would say this is one of the things that I don’t excel at, in terms of like coming up with a vision, but then to go back to the servant leader perspective, that’s fine, I think as long as I’ve identified that, and there are other people who are around you can do that. So, there are lots of sort of like, quite well-known well-trodden product management techniques around coming up with visions, running workshops. And what I would usually do is bring together key people from within my team to go through one of those vision exercises and come up with like, kind of a starter for 10 because it’s just a first stab of a vision; and then share it regularly with all kinds of people. On the alignment perspective, you almost sort of can’t share things too much. And I think it’s quite a good sign that you are aligned when people start to say “yes, yes, we already know that”. And you can kind of make it funny as well. So, like a lot of show-and-tells and my team’s people start with a vision, but they also kind of say, “Now I know that you already know all of this…” but it’s still worth it to remind people why we’re doing this because the vision might change as well. And if it doesn’t, people are new to the organisation, maybe they don’t know the vision, but it’s worth boring people with things that are that important. So, continuing to mention it regularly is super important and useful.
Clare: Yeah. I think it really helps when you’re making decisions as well, doesn’t it? Because if you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you can disappear down all sorts of garden paths because you’re not thinking about what the actual goal is, you start doing things for their own sakes.
Clare: I loved what you said about getting everybody involved. And I think also that does address your point that you personally might not be great at coming up with visions, and why should you be? Actually again, it comes back to facilitation. What you’re doing is facilitating things so that everybody can come up with a shared vision, rather than you telling them what the vision should be.
Katy: I completely agree. Yeah.
Clare: Fantastic. Okay, I’m just gonna quickly kind of almost encourage you to be a little bit critical. The question is, how do you feel about the style of management that’s often referred to as micromanagement?
Katy: So obviously, I’m not in favour. One of the key reasons I’m not in favour of it is I just think it’s a massive waste of time. Like, surely you have enough of your own job to be getting on without like, checking in on other people. We were talking about it this week. One of my colleagues even suggested that it can be like a legitimate form of bullying, to say “I just don’t trust you – I’m gonna watch over you all the time”. It can be just really demotivating. And a lot of what you’re trying to do as a leader is exactly the opposite – to give people a chance to be interested and want to work there and do a good job. Obviously, it’s quite a negative question around micromanaging. I think very few people would think that it’s a good thing, even if they were themselves micro-managers.
I tried to think about how it could be interpreted in a positive way. And another series of tweets I was reading this week kind of encouraged me to think about pairing. So, you could think of micromanagement. I’m not saying that people should go and micromanage, you’d have to discuss this obviously with the people that you were talking about. But like from pair programming obviously, from a developer’s perspective, it’s quite a good way of learning how to be a developer. You could have the person who’s newer, driving, managing the keyboard, while the more experienced person is telling them what to do. So, they’re not micromanaging them. They’re probably like encouraging them to come up with their own ideas to some extent, but you’re pairing on decisions. And so, if you think about it from that perspective, I think there is a lot that you can get out of not just being alone. I mean, that’s kind of like the theme of what I’ve been talking about the whole time, like one brain is not nearly as good as two or a multidisciplinary team. But from like a growing talent perspective, there could be times where that person doesn’t know everything and doesn’t feel confidence in making those decisions themselves. So, with agreement, which I think is key, and with allowing space for both parties to work through what’s going on, I can see that there could be something around working through decisions together quite closely, in a way that some might think of as micromanaging, but hopefully a much safer and controlled environment.
Clare: Yeah, I suppose maybe what you’re saying is you’re acknowledging the impulse to micromanage and you’re saying what would be a better way of doing that? And what is it that you’re trying to achieve? So if you feel an impulse to micromanage, then consider pairing instead. That’s right. So it’s not that we’re saying that pairing is a form of micromanagement, it’s that actually pairing is a better approach. If you find yourself being tempted to micromanage, then think about why and think about what would be a better approach. And actually, maybe it’s just that you want to work very closely with somebody because you want to guide them through something – in which case I call it pairing – and also get their consent. Get their agreement and be clear about what it is that you’re doing, rather than standing over their shoulder saying, “Have you done this yet? Have you done this yet?” What do you do now?
Katy: Absolutely, yes, you’re probably also I guess, with micromanaging and I’m thinking about it from very positive perspective, trying to ensure alignment, we talked about as being such a key part of leadership. But again, there are other ways of doing that than focusing in on one person and removing the ability to be autonomous as well, which is the other key part.
Clare: The other question that I was going to ask is, do you have any just top tips for good leadership?
Katy: I think the key is talking to people. Again, it sounds so obvious, but make sure that you have time to talk to people one-on-one and understand who they are as people and be willing to tell them who you are as a person as well, because people often don’t say the truth to leaders because they think of them as being a scary, important person who hasn’t got enough time. But you can’t really understand how to fix things if people only tell you the truth. So, make yourself approachable. And the easiest way to do that is to talk one-on-one. And then there’s another other tweet… I don’t read business books; I find them too long and difficult to be interested in. Like, I could be having fun doing something else! But Twitter and blogs are just like a good length of like “I learned something, but I didn’t have to spend like six weeks going through it”. So yes, another tweet from somebody else I really admire who I know a little but haven’t worked really closely with: Nayeema Chowdhury, who works I think at NHS X at the moment. She came up with a list of ‘leadership orders’ for herself.
And another one I thought that was really good that is worth remembering is ‘sharing what you know now’. So again, a lot of people try and reduce uncertainty because uncertainty is frightening. But that is kind of treating people like children, and also maybe they’re going to find it more frightening, I think to not know what’s going on, they might think the worst. And so putting upfront the idea that this is only what we know now, so everything could change. But this is all it is. There’s nothing terrifying. It’s just this thing. And sharing that often, and I thought that was really well stated.
And then she also had another thing on her list as well, which was like people like it when your children and pets come on to the camera as well. It is fun. And that kind of implies another rule I think, which is make work fun and likeable. Don’t just treat everything super seriously. I think creating an environment that people want to be in is the key really to good leadership. Hire good people, make an environment where they feel trusted and safe to do the things they want to do, and help them through identifying what the vision is for them to do that work.
Clare: Yeah, brilliant. I love it. Okay, so we’re pretty much out of time. So, I’m just gonna go through the last questions that I always ask. And the first one is this little game that we play: I get to ask you to tell me one thing about you that’s true, and one thing about you that’s not true.
Katy: I would say I’m not very good at lying. So that’s not one of my things. That’s just true! My two things are that I have two cats and a dog, and that I started my career in publishing.
Clare: So, what kind of publishing?
Katy: Antiques publishing.
Clare: Wow, okay. What kind of dog do you have?
Katy: Golden retriever.
Clare: Okay, I won’t ask you any more questions! I won’t force you to tell me any more lies!
We’ll reveal which of Katy’s answers was true and which was false in our next episode, which will be an interview with Karl Dickman from the Department of Work and Pensions, about diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But meanwhile, here’s the answer from Alex Herbert’s episode on LGBT+ history, where she told us that either she once won a chess tournament, or she once won a Pokémon tournament!
Alex: I won a Pokémon tournament at school. I was good at chess, but not good enough!
Clare: And then the next one is: where can people find you, and do you have anything coming up that you’d like to plug?
Katy: So, you can find me on Twitter. I joined Twitter quite late, so my username is my surname followed by first name and then my first initial so ‘@armstrongkatya’. In terms of things I’d like to plug: We’re constantly recruiting. So, if you’re listening to this podcast and you think you’d like to work in a place that’s a bit like what I’ve described, and you like serving the public good, you might like to check out our jobs page on the DLUHC blog.
Clare: Cool, okay. And then the very last one, so that we can end on our high: What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the last month or so? Doesn’t have to be work-related.
Katy: It’s boringly going to be work-related, but it was very exciting in that we got permission to essentially decommission the last of our legacy services. So, when I took over about three and a half years ago, we had five services that were built in proprietary technology, on quite an expensive shared platform. And over the time I’ve been there, I’ve been trying to turn off as many things as possible that don’t meet the service standard. And we have now a really good chance of moving the last two out of this bad kind of technology. So that was a really exciting time for me.
Clare: Brilliant. So, thank you so much for speaking to me. It’s been fantastic to meet you.
Katy: Likewise. Thank you for inviting me.
Clare: Yeah, it’s a pleasure.
As always, to help you digest what you’ve just heard, I’m going to attempt to summarise it:
So, what is servant leadership? Well, the leadership part is not just about telling people what to do; and the servant part is not just about doing things other people tell you to do. It’s about combining the two, so that you can guide and facilitate your team to a position where they can do the best job possible. The phrase is often used within the Scrum framework, but it can be applied in any context where you have leadership; and the ‘serve’ part of servant is particularly helpful in the context of public sector work, helping to remind you that you are a civil servant, and part of your job is to serve the citizens.
The concept of servant leadership helps to highlight a lot of desirable leadership qualities. For instance, the idea of ‘making yourself redundant’, empowering a team to function without you. And a related idea is that you should want the people on your team to be experts – more expert and proficient than you are. The unit of delivery is the team. So, you want to do everything you can to make the team really good. Don’t expect to know everything as an individual. Instead, aim on maximising the knowledge of the team as an organism.
Don’t assume you need to hire people who know everything about your roles or your domain. Make room for people to learn on the job. Growing your own talent is the best way to keep people. Also grow diverse teams so that you’re creating new space for new people, instead of competing to hire the same people that everybody else is hiring.
Because facilitation is such an important part of servant leadership, you need to focus on removing blockers, which means forming good relationships with the people who are either creating blockers or can help you to remove them.
But what about failure? Make room for it! Accept it in everyone. Plan for it. Don’t set up unrealistic expectations that imply failure can’t – or even shouldn’t – happen. Agile is about assuming that not everything will work and making space for that.
So, what about micromanagement? Well, avoid it! You’ll only create extra work for yourself and also create a lack of trust. Instead, think about pairing with people to work closely together, instead of looking over their shoulder all the time.
It’s helpful when talking about leadership to talk about alignment and autonomy. Autonomy means giving teams what they need to be able to act independently. Alignment means getting everyone on board to move towards the same vision. Facilitating the definition of that vision and the achievement of that vision, and then sharing it widely and repeatedly to keep everyone focused. It’s worth boring people with things that are important!
Finally, focus on people. Work is about being with people. Make yourself approachable. Spend time with people one-to-one and maximise opportunities for people to tell you the truth about what’s going on, and create an environment that people want to be in.
Okay. That’s not all. Stick around for extra content.
Working in the public sector means that, at Made Tech, we really care about making a difference. So for this final Making Life Better segment, myself and my colleagues will be sharing suggestions for small things we can do to make the world a better place. This time we have Gina Cady, who’s our podcast coordinator, and she’s going to talk to us about the ‘Ready Steady Cook’ game that she plays with her friends. Gina – you play a little game with your friends, where you play ‘Ready, Steady Cook’. How does it work?
Gina: We did indeed. So, during lockdown we started getting a little bit bored with our cooking, and we were trying to come up with a way to keep it a little bit more interesting, and decided that we were going to have a go at ‘Ready Steady Cook’!
Clare: Which is a TV programme, isn’t it? But remind me how it works. What are the rules?
Gina: It is indeed. Well, on Ready Steady Cook I think the ingredients are a surprise; whereas because we didn’t really want to go out shopping, we would start off the process by sending each other a photo of the inside of our fridge, our veg rack and our store cupboards, and then mutually agree or take turns in picking about five or six ingredients that we were going to use.
Clare: Okay, and then that’s your constraint basically. So you’ve got five or six ingredients, and using those ingredients you have to create a delicious meal, is that it?
Gina: That’s absolutely right. The “delicious” – I mean, I’m gonna say some of them were quite unusual! Usually, I would try and pick a little bit of a curveball to go with it. So, we had like coconut and green olives. But one time, which really threw people, was capers. So, something to keep us all on our toes.
Clare: Okay, and then would you all cook individually, so you’d all go off independently and cook a meal using the same ingredients? Is that how it worked?
Gina: We would arrange a day and time that we were going to have ‘RSC Night’ (Ready Steady Cook Night). So, I think we had sort of like 45 minutes that we were allowed for the cooking. And we would be sending each other strategic photos and videos over this time, to kind of give a little hint of flavour of what we were doing, but not give too much away. And then at the end of the 45 minutes we would start a Zoom for the ‘big reveal’ of what we had managed to come up, over the time, and then all eat dinner together.
Clare: Oh, that’s so sweet!
Gina: It was lovely. Yes, it was really nice. One of my happiest memories of that early lockdown, definitely.
Clare: And then did you find yourself getting jealous of what your friends had created, and wishing that you could eat what they had?
Gina: Yeah, quite often it was sort of, you know, really interesting use of unusual ingredients and the way people had combined it. I mean I got into a rut of – if there were a couple of vegetables I didn’t want to put in the main dish – I would do a starter of kind of a dip with ‘any vegetable plus tahini’ – works as a dip – if it wasn’t fitting my vision of a main meal.
Clare: Okay! Yeah, that makes sense. So, you remembered the capers was one of the ingredients and you mentioned green olives and coconut. Can you remember one of the meals that you made?
Gina: I think when we had that cream of coconut, I think I didn’t put it in the main meal. I did a dessert with it. But I think my mate used it as a base for a kind of sauce to go over what the main bit had been, a sort of nut roast, and she made a sauce to pour over it. And we’d always ask at the end: “Do you think you’ll ever make this again?” Usually, best case scenario was “Might do, but it’s been an interesting experience to try!”
Clare: Okay, so you didn’t discover many exciting new recipes, but you did have a lot of fun. And you got to do something fun with your friends.
Gina: Yeah, and we would take turns and choosing an album that we would start at the start time. And then suddenly jumping going “oh my god, I love this track!”
Clare: Aah, oh that’s good, I like that! Cool. Thank you so much for telling me about it, Gina.
Gina: Well, thank you very much for having me on.
Clare: It’s a pleasure!
And that’s the end of another episode. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please do leave us ratings and reviews, because it pushes us up the directories and makes it easier for other people to find us.
I’ve got a few talks coming up. You can see the details on my events page on medium, which is linked to from my Twitter profile. And you can find that at @claresudbery, which is probably not spelt the way that you think. There’s no I in Clare, and Sudbery is spelt E R Y at the end, the same as ‘surgery’ or ‘carvery’.
You can find Made Tech on Twitter at M A D E T E C H. Do come and say hello. We’re very interested to hear your feedback and any suggestions you have for any content for future episodes, or just to come and have a chat.
Before we go, here’s a quick announcement about our next episode, which will be published on the 12th of April 2022, and will be an interview with Karl Dickman of the Department of Work and Pensions, about diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths (otherwise known as STEM) – But it will also be the last episode of Season 1. I’m leaving Made Tech and moving on to a new adventure as a freelance technical coach. But don’t worry about the podcast. We’ll be back after a short break with some new faces and voices from Made Tech and beyond, all with a passion for using technology to improve society. Thank you so much for listening. See you in the next episode.
Thank you to Rose, our editor; Gina Cady, our podcast co-ordinator; Fiona Egan, our transcriber; Richard Murray for the music (there’s a link in the description); and the rest of our internal Made Tech team – Kyle Chapman, Jack Harrison, Karsyn Robb and Laura Plaga. Also in the description is a link for subscribing to our newsletter. We publish new episodes every fortnight on Tuesday mornings.
Thank you for listening and goodbye.
[Recording Ends]Back to the episode