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Collaborating, reflecting and iterating

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The last two issues of our Newsletter were on collaboration, and reflection and iteration, respectively. These three activities are, I would argue, fundamental to transforming how we work.

'Digital is people, not pixels.'

'Data is culture, not code.'

'We need to think and act differently.'

'Iteration' poster on the blog cover image is by the brilliant @gilest

I'm lucky to be part of a data transformation programme that puts people and processes at the heart of what it's trying to achieve: taking a large, complex organisation on the journey to becoming data-driven.

Those memorable phrases above sketch out, with honesty, what it is we're trying to achieve with more broadly with transformation in Defra group. Beyond mere slogans, their sincerity is being backed up by actions. We are beginning to work differently and beginning to see success. But there should always be a place for taking stock and making corrections, and so I wanted to outline a few philosophical positions that I think are useful and I personally strive for, even if I sometimes fall short.


Just after I started working at Defra, there was an intranet or forum-based discussion about digital transformation – and a question somewhere along the lines of: 'what processes or hardware/software tools do you think are most valuable to an organisation like Defra'.

My answer came naturally – I'd been lucky enough to have come directly from an organisation that was very good at the thing that would form the basis of my answer.

Making the decision to collaborate.

Deciding to making collaboration central to what we do isn't a process, or a tool, but it does lead to many other positive outcomes. Collaborating widely requires we work in the open – it leads to greater transparency. Being able to bounce ideas, reflect on criticisms, and iterate leads to better outputs. In the worlds of data and digital, we might choose 'open' as a position, when publishing, licensing or sourcing data, choosing standards, or adopting software tools. We might, for instance, choose tools because they make collaborating easier.

More broadly, collaborating builds bridges and networks, and maximises an organisation's impact and resilience.

Collaborating is really hard, though, and it doesn't always come naturally to me. But I always prefer the outcome when I have managed to collaborate successfully on a piece of work.


Having just reflected on collaboration and the challenge of doing so well, I would reflect that dedicating  time to reflect is even harder for me. It's very difficult to assess personal contributions and actions in the context of an enterprise as collaborative as the work we do in the Civil Service and lots of other organisations – there will always be a degree of subjectivity in how we evaluate how our input leads to success or failure and how we might improve. It's even, I find, hard to decide the best way to reflect. I find the most important thing to do is to set aside some time, so I block out some time in my diary that can't be overridden. I also reflect creatively: so I need to have a pen, pencils and notebook at the very least, even if all I can expect to produce is a doodle.

Of course, you could always ask your collaborators what they think too – but remember, everyone has their own point of view, so don't be swayed too much by feedback that surprises you. But do listen, and most of all be honest.


One of the challenges around agile working is how we communicate what it is we're doing. Communication in any organisation traditionally seeks to make sense of what's happened and what's going to happen at a natural break point - a safe place, or checkpoint. Things do 'make sense when you look backward' as Steve Jobs said at his now-famed Stanford commencement speech, but the soft focus of history does allow for a bit of artistic licence (or sanitation) with respect to narrative. We don't necessarily hear about the twists and turns – those iterations – that were gone through to get to that point.

I think it might be more fun to engage and communicate as we go. This would not only be more honest, but it would normalize the understanding that failures are steps on the path to success. That iteration is good.

That's why I thought the communications outputs others in the Data Transformation Programme team started with Capgemini (which were unfortunately halted by the pre-election period for the snap election taking effect sooner than anticipated) were a brave move; or the video show-and-tells that Tara, the videographer in the Digital team, has done with work-in-progress video edits that tell the story of how digital thinking is being applied to Defra services. Show the audience; see what they think; iterate on the edit.


Musing on my observation that video seems to be one of the last things we can collaborate on editing, I decided to try the test audience process with some videos I've been working on, on making Earth observations data analysis-ready and some proofs-of-concepts applications, with crowds around the country at various Civil Service Live events. I got some useful feedback, and I did iterate on the edit (although there's a bit more to do). You'll see the fruits of that labour soon.

I like the idea of public testing and iteration. Stanley Kubrick recut parts of 2001 on a mid-Atlantic liner after an initial screening; DJ Larry Levan played and replayed iteration after iteration of his production of Don't Make Me Wait by the New York Citi Peech Boys every week at the Paradise Garage before he settled on a final version (which is sublime).

Most of all, I enjoyed collaborating with Dom Burton on planning and delivering the sessions. There's a Storify of the whole tour here.

We'd also like to thank:

  • Alison Pritchard, Director of Transformation, Defra
  • Colin Banno-Thornton, Head of Enabling Digital Transformation, Defra
  • Tom Halloran, Business Analyst, Data Transformation, Defra
  • Clare Moriarty, Permanent Secretary, Defra
  • Neil Hornby, Director of Marine and Fisheries, Defra
  • Dan Hallam, Data Manager, Marine Management Organisation
  • Sonia Phippard, Director General, Natural Environment, Rural and Marine
  • Steve Wilkinson, Head of Innovation, Data Transformation, Defra
  • Sarah Hendry, Director of Floods and Water, Defra
  • Nigel Gibbens, UK Chief Vet, Defra

...for collaborating with us on those sessions. Next year, of course, provides the opportunity for another iteration!

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