The University of Southampton
Digital Team Blog

OneWeb: wrapping up 2019

We’re saying goodbye to 2019. And what a year it has been! We got our financial approvals, started delivering, assembled teams and, perhaps most importantly, brought greater clarity to what our programme is here to do. 

So much has happened in just 8 months (we officially formed on April 1st, and this was not a joke 😂) so I wanted to talk candidly about the work we’ve delivered, what was challenging and not so shiny, as well as all the good bits we’ve celebrated that are worth sharing publicly. Here’s five of them:

Change programmes are short-lived, intensive things

For any of you who might be thinking, “great, we got our funding, and we can start”, all I’ll say is that everything is always a lot harder, tougher and messier, because change is inherently hard to implement. This is especially true if your organisation is large, complex, has internal processes that are not fit for the Internet-era, and your programme has a fixed amount of time to make a true difference (before stakeholders lose interest). One important thing we have learned this year is that we can create a safe environment in which those conditions will flourish in the face of such challenges. 

Diligent prioritisation is essential in delivering value for users and stakeholders alike, and we constantly need to evaluate (and reevaluate) the scope to ensure that our implementation is achieving this. 

That’s not an easy thing to do. Especially if your teams are dispersed across locations and many of them are new, getting used to the University as well as each other.  So although things are not perfect (when are they ever?) we managed, for example, to embed Product roles as part of our work. This has enabled us to represent the University’s interests, the needs of the user, and prioritise these needs to project teams. This means that our work can give better return on investment to the University, leading to better quality products to the user.

Bringing digital services around user needs is a thing  

You know you’ve made a real impact when, out of nowhere, you hear your own words spoken back to you in a meeting, or when you notice a valued colleague (that might have not always been on your side) using your own terminology about user needs, data or culture. 

We have a lot of stuff to do for the next three years, and time is of the essence. We need to establish core services and assets for the University. And realistically, not everyone will buy into what we are trying to do, so we understand the need to challenge ourselves every now and again about what we are meant to do when things don’t quite fit together. 

One conclusion is that not everything in life is meant to fit together nicely. Sometimes there could be something right in front of your eyes that is already working, and all you need to do is find a way to scale and repurpose it in a slightly different way than originally intended. We’re finding examples as such in education-related work, designing end-to-end experiences, but also some great examples from enterprise and research discoveries. We have found that, often enough, the best way to progress is by identifying practices that already work in our organisation, finding out what is good about them and then working to amplify it. To give you a real-world example, we have seen exactly this with our approach to staff profiles (currently in Alpha) where we have focused on solving the user needs problems while also finding efficiencies around existing sources of the truth. 

This is why discoveries are important – they may tell you something you already know (but save you time and money in investing in something that will not help), or they may bring up new opportunities to investigate, or even a few old ones that are worth exploring further. 

Forming a team takes a long, long time

I changed a lot of things in 2019 and my team bore the brunt of these changes. We needed to change the way we worked in order to start delivering quickly for our University. For me, it meant a long-term recruitment strategy and operational plan, and working very closely with HR, Procurement and Finance partners on an almost weekly basis. 

This work is ongoing, and I cracked the back of it (processes, business cases etc.), but what was important to me was that there was an acknowledgement that in order to deliver change you have to make changes to structure and roles. More on this in my first January 2020 blog post

But what did this mean to my team?

Well, the Digital Team had to adapt quickly and change its way of working. The OneWeb programme gave new opportunities to teams and other internal staff within the University. But when new appointments were made as part of the programme, it created a domino effect in other parts of the University and especially my own department. 

We also had to change the way we work. We might have been a team before, but there is a world of difference between ‘being a team’ and ‘working as a team’. Delivering the project using agile methodology means fundamentally changing the manner in which we think and operate, in a way that is also right for our University. As such, directly copying successful models from other organisations that are going through similar journeys isn’t always the right way to go for us. I won’t claim that we’ve nailed it by any means, and we might yet face other challenges and concerns, but what I can say that the strategy of building internal capabilities is working. 

I would also add that moving people around can create unnecessary anxieties and dramas. If you want to maintain  a motivated team in times of upheaval, it’s vital that you take time explaining your thinking and rationale for the changes. One-to-one conversations in-person help too. Always consult where you can.

Relationships in and outside the team really matter

We have a lot of disciplines and people on the team. Some are new, some are very experienced and it’s not given that people will necessarily work well together. Working ‘as a team’ means that we all have something to bring to the table, that people have complementary skill-sets, and of course that they basically all get on with each other. Without these, it is extremely difficult to get stuff done in a positive way. 

It is not unusual for big programmes to have issues with working as a team. There have been many discussions about ‘Discipline blindness’ – “the inability to see things through any lens other than that of our own discipline”– Ade Adewunmi. 

Ade says that in new or less experienced teams, this can sometimes lead to stand-offs which result in the whole team getting bogged down. Sometimes even the most competent and experienced people on your team could be most affected. 

This is where one of our rules – “the user holds the trump card” – is used to mitigate. Whatever delivers the best value for the user, quickly and effectively, is what we go with. 

We’re not quite there with our guiding principles, but there have been a few that formed organically as we started working. Bringing in Product Managers (Owners) has really helped with this.

Breaking silos

The point of digital is to change things. It is about collaboration and working with many other functions at our University. What we do, create and implement has an impact that will be felt elsewhere in the organisation. We saw this with the launch of the Undergraduate course pages. It was fascinating to watch how many parts of our organisation came together to solve a last-minute problem that could have impacted our launch. We don’t often shout enough about it, but because we are changing the ways we create (digital) products, and because we are trying to tackle legacy, truly un-sexy problems around systems and data, we must collaborate much more closely with different groups of stakeholders and break the siloed way of working.  

Now, one key takeaway for me and the rest of my management team is that if we’re asking people to do something that challenges pre-existing university ways of doing things, we need to support our teams and others through that. We’re not done when the team is formed.

I changed

I learned a lot about myself this year. There were many, many good and wonderful days, and there were some very dark ones too. Trying to hold effectively two positions, occasionally in a complete contradiction – Head of Digital and Business Owner for OneWeb Programme – has been an interesting and personal challenge. It also forced me to dig deep for personal and emotional resilience that I didn’t know I had. 

There were a lot of personal sacrifices from many people, not just me. We hired new people, we lost some good people, we had to think about problem-solving in a creative and different way, we won a few awards, and my team had to learn new skills on their feet, which sounds cool, but in reality is also very hard. We’ve all earned our badges of honour. 

All of it with good reason though – because (thank you Mark!) “transformation is a window and an opportunity that won’t exist perpetually. And resilience can’t always be sustained indefinitely.” Which is why we need to gain ground now, persevere and continue with the plan.  

Bring it on, 2020 💪

I haven’t covered everything the team got up to here. We also wrote many blogs this year, from the launch of our UG pages to our discovery work, and more will be released soon. We also shared our roadmap with you all and published Show & Tells on the University’s OneWeb SharePoint site. There’s a lot more work that we’ve just finished or are about to finish which isn’t public yet, but will be soon… 

With all of this in mind, and from the bottom of our hearts, we’d like to thank everyone who has been part of our 2019 – teams, departments and colleagues from across the University. We look forward to seeing you again in the new year and working with more of you to help us make user-friendly digital services the new normal! 

After the whirlwind of 2019, we’re excited to see what 2020 brings! We’ll be back on 2 January.

If you’re celebrating, we wish you happy holidays and season’s greetings! 🌟

My thanks to Mark Wyatt and Jonny Vaughan for their thoughts, suggestions and, most of all, their improvements to this post. 

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