Agile from the outside in

Councillor Madden with John Newton and Caroline McCabe

Here in the Service Transformation team, we like to think we do things a bit differently. We’re agile, we iterate and we put users at the heart of what we do.

We feel pretty secure that the leaders in our directorate understand this and support us. But we know beyond the brutalist corridors of E block, across the bridge into the older parts of County Hall, lies the mysterious world of the politicians.

Luckily for us, when the Cabinet Member for our area popped over to join our stand up, he also stopped for a chat among the post-it notes.

As a former detective in Essex Police, you might think Councillor Dick Madden would be more used to asking the questions. But over the course of an hour with him, Dick plied us with coffee and explained how he likes to do things differently too.

Dick spent 40 years in the police, specialising in child protection. This experience proved to be invaluable in his role representing children’s services at cabinet level. He talks with pride of the recent ‘outstanding’ rating they’ve received from Ofsted.

Listen to residents

We asked how his career in the police had influenced his approach to his role. “Throughout my career, wherever I go, I’ve always believed in thinking differently,” he replies. “My whole mantra is: I am the spokesperson and listener for residents.”

This is welcome news to a team that puts the user at the heart of what it does. He stresses that he doesn’t want to get involved in the operational running of services. He takes a strategic view to promote innovation and efficiency where he can.

A big part of this is listening and making sure what’s been planned matches up to what’s being delivered.

Here, his police training comes in handy. “I’ve always done this, wherever I’ve gone, whether in the police when I was in command of things or here, I love walking around and just listening.”

I ask if this helps to identify when things aren’t working. “I ask particular questions of people – I don’t want to see the managers…I want to talk to more junior people, or people who’ve just joined so I can find out what’s really going on.”

The councillor told us he takes an equally hands-on approach when he finds blockers. “If I pick something up that might be a blocker, whether it’s for the individual or the organisation, then I get involved. The blockers could be to do with welfare, even down to a blocked sink once, a literal blocker, that had been there for 3 months.”

Putting users first

Moving on to ways of working, we explain that we always put users first. We always take an evidence-led approach and use research or analytics to test our assumptions.

The councillor agrees, “I always say, a good detective is very good at seeing what’s in front of them, but also finding the thing that no one else can see.”

When talk turns to the maverick detectives you see on TV, Dick is adamant, “I never solved a murder. I was in charge of the investigations but I had a team.”

Stand up

While the context couldn’t be more different, some of the ways of working are remarkably similar. “We’d always start the day around the table, we didn’t stand up like you, but everyone had to bring something.”

“What impressed me today,” the councillor goes on, “was the energy in the room” during stand up. “I don’t think that was there for my benefit, I can imagine that happens every time.”

Failure is an option

He talks about other organisations where he’s seen similar energy. I ask how leaders, particularly political leaders, can encourage that. “People talk about personalities, the prime minister, the government, but they don’t talk about the people behind them – the civil service. We should be talking about them and that’s why I go around on these visits. At the end of the day, my job is to facilitate, and that’s easy. It’s the key workers who really contribute. They’re a goldmine of ideas.”

I ask the councillor about failure, and tell him our motto is ‘fail early, fail often, fail cheap’. He throws it back, “I don’t think we ever fail, it’s all experiential learning.”

He talks about the teams he managed in the police, where he gained a reputation as someone who could bring out the best in people. “For whatever reason, I was always given, shall we say, ‘challenging individuals’ in my teams. But I loved to develop them and I loved it when they became successful.”

I ask how you give people permission to fail. “I believe in empowerment. Empowerment is about... when things go wrong, which they do, you haven’t failed. You may have made a bold decision, but that’s experiential learning.” He notes that in other organisations people talk about empowerment when there’s actually a blame culture. In those places, “you don’t return the favour and trust people.”

He credits his success in the police to a wise detective spotting potential in him, even as a slightly “wild” new recruit, and giving him the encouragement he needed to progress. This experience, he says, was crucial in shaping his outlook on what teams should look like. “There’s different roles…it’s about weaving them in. That’s what teams should be like, your managers should be looking at all the different personalities.”

Kindness and empathy in teams

I mention that at our team away day, we highlighted empathy as one of priorities as a team. The councillor recalls a senior colleague telling him, “You’re too nice to people, you need to stop doing that.” Kindness is key to keeping a team running, he explains, listening to everyone and valuing everyone.

“I’m not really into rank structure. Where someone is committed to their role, irrespective of what that is, you can see that in the way they behave.” He goes on, “You’ve got to listen to your team and act on what they tell you. Don’t treat them as a commodity, just fulfilling a role.”

Councillor Madden's thoughts on our team

What would he recommend for the future of our team? “I keep going on about the energy.” he says, “that must continue.” He adds, “There’s so many germs of ideas in this room. How long have I been here now? An hour? My head is literally buzzing with ideas, with issues to take back and say, ‘Why are we not doing this? Why are we doing that?’ That’s only one hour.”

“You’re a hidden seam of gold, that we strategic people sometimes don’t acknowledge and don’t see.”

And with that, the councillor’s phone buzzes and he’s whisked off to his next meeting to discuss an issue a resident is having.

Later he’s going out for tapas to celebrate his daughter’s birthday he tells us, as he bustles past the post-its, back over the bridge to his regular beat on the political side of County Hall.

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