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Why I don’t have time to write this blog post but really, really need to

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Defra digital

There’s plenty to do but how do we balance daily demands with delivering what’s really, really important to Defra?

Data. There’s something about it that keeps drawing me back to it in government. Not sure I can put my finger on the precise ‘why’, but I suppose it’s a combination of it being tremendously important in the day-to-day functioning of an organisation, that there’s so much opportunity to be had with using it better, and because the people who want to make data-enabled change for good, tend to be pretty amazing to work with.

We need to move from studying the theory of the opportunities – opportunities that are placed centre-stage; efficiency savings, effective delivery, making users’ lives easier…you name it, data has promised to do it – and turn to the practical application of data-enabled change for good.

Only having joined the Defra Data Transformation Programme team at the tail-end of last year, part of my work as Head of Strategy is to develop a system that provides a way for demands for new, innovative and data-driven products to be considered on their merits to Defra’s business needs, and then if the demand passes a series of challenges, we mobilise a transformation project. At the heart of these projects – we call them Proofs-of-Concept – we test the potential of specific generic capabilities, with a view, if successful, to replicate in other systems across the Defra group...with the ultimate aim to increase efficiencies and save money.

Of course, we’re not just working in a team-focused silo, we’re part of the wider Defra transformation agenda, so we link up with our colleagues across the Defra group to ensure we’re properly connected on what the priorities are. We’re calling this process the data transformation pipeline and we’ll be blogging about it in more detail in a few weeks’ time.

So that’s a bit on creating a pipeline to manage Defra’s business needs, but what about everything else that we get inundated with? After all, data is at the heart of what the department does, so how do we as individuals in the data team manage the demands of so many stakeholders who know (or don’t quite yet realise!) the importance of data in what they do? How do I as an individual make a decision on what I really, really need to do, and have time to do it effectively, and be okay with allowing some of the other stuff to be let go?

Timeline of procrastination
Timeline of procrastination. It's easy to fall into this trap.

It turns out this article is about productivity. Productivity of transformation, and productivity of the individual. So what tips can I give – and this is where I felt it was important to write this article, because a bit of sharing of ideas (or could be read as sharing information and therefore, data?!) and having some breathing space to allow some time to think, might help others too – here’s a list of productivity tips I’m trying to live my life by...

Make a decision, make it at pace, and move on

Making sure you’re equipped with the right information is essential, so know how to get it, analyse it to allow you to be confident in your decision making.

It’s more often than not people are waiting for you (and you could be one in a long line), so moving at pace is important too, and before you know it, you’ll have another decision to make, so don’t let them build up.

Know your experts and use them

If there’s one thing you have to accept, it’s the fact you can’t know everything, especially if you’re working on something new, scientific or technology-related.

A subject knowledge expert will know a lot more than you, so hunt them down and speak to them. Find out what they think are the most important things, and if in doubt, ask another one. A second opinion goes a long way to in a good decision-making process.

Limit your meetings

I hate meetings about meetings, so if there’s no agenda or no clear ask or decision required, why are you going when it’s highly likely what needs to be done can be done through email, and thereby saving you time.

Another bugbear is overly long meetings. If what needs to be said in a regular weekly or fortnightly meeting can’t be done in an hour max, then there’s something not quite right.

Don’t cc-in the world

Clogging up other people’s inboxes is a crime. Think about whether all those people really need to see a long threaded conversation between you and just a few people.

Think about using other means for more conversational communications, e.g. Slack or Hangouts. When it comes to big decisions and having a record of it, yes: emails have their place.

Frame your communications clearly

People don’t have a lot of time to read emails or slide packs, so it’s important you have a clear ask up front, and other things like issues and background information presented clearly and precisely.

Less is more in most cases, and don’t be afraid of the white space in slidepacks – your eyes need to breathe too.

If you see a problem that’s embedded in the culture, change it

If it’s cultural, then more often than not, no one is going to do anything about it apart from you, and actually there’s probably a bunch of people who have been desperate for someone to be bold enough to break the cycle.

Openness and good lines of communication with senior leaders is crucial to make this possible.

Make the time to think

Once you’ve been able to make decisions, manage your diary and the avalanche of emails, it’s important to have time to think about the bigger picture of the work you do.

Go and do some research, go and talk to colleagues or experts...quite simply, get up from your desk, walk around and let your brain wonder. There’s a lot going on up there no doubt, so taking some time out to let that flurry of information, ideas and issues settle. It might even lead to a Eureka moment.

Learn from others and share your own wisdom

Everyone has something to share, whether it’s knowledge, a tip (or a few, like this article) or just an idea. We’re not robots and we’re all in this together and the more we share, the better informed we become.

Are these helpful? Have you got your own productivity tips? Share them here in the comments...

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  1. Comment by Alan Rider DfT Data Transfomation Manager posted on

    Thanks for this Farah. This all sounds very familiar! You are spot on with point 7. We all need to make time for that to make transformation happen! It is usually the first casualty of a busy day, but that's a real mistake in the long run.

    • Replies to Alan Rider DfT Data Transfomation Manager>

      Comment by Farah Ahmed posted on

      Hi Alan, thanks for your comment. I agree, finding time to think beyond immediate tasks is usually the first casualty. I think it's good to acknowledge this and remember that yes sometimes you don't always have the time, but making the effort is good for you and the job your doing in the longer term.

  2. Comment by Graham posted on

    Good tips. I like points 3, 5 and 7 as they all refer to making *space* - not leaving space is one of the things that really kills my productivity. Space to think, space to contemplate, space to absorb. Case in point - meetings should build in a break. Not just to take a breather from the agenda, but because in that breather people go off and process the discussion, and (importantly) have ideas by themselves. The rest isn't a relief, but an opportunity.

    I'm also learning that, in times of pressure, there's a real need and benefit to just being able to trust myself - I don't have to think everything through immediately, and my brain will work things out for itself, if I give it space and time. I'm still getting used to this, but it seems essential for not going mad 🙂