From tension to trust: how to form a partnership that works

Essex County Council and Cyber-Duck, a digital transformation agency, recently completed a ten-week discovery of the ECC employee intranet. We worked as a blended partnership.

We faced some real challenges. These included:

  • Setting clear expectations.
  • Sorting the right technology and access.
  • Blending two remote teams from very different worlds.

We’re going to share how we overcame these challenges to create a high-performing discovery team at pace.

What the discovery was about

Like many organisations, Essex County Council has an intranet.

We knew our intranet was not perfect. Some employees struggled to access intranet resources, others struggled to find what they needed when they needed it.

We wanted to run a user centred discovery to understand what information and resources employees needed. To understand how the current intranet was, and was not, meeting these needs.

As a small design team, we would need research and design support to undertake this discovery. But by staying close to the action, we could provide the capabilities, organisational links and content knowledge needed for the discovery to be successful.

We needed to partner up with a team who would be open to working with us as a blended partnership.

We asked ourselves:

  • How might we move from an employer and agency relationship to delivering as one team?
  • How might we work well together in ten weeks to deliver a successful discovery?
  • How might we overcome the technological and physical barriers to working together?

Creating the partnership  - First, we formed the right team.

We went through a rigorous procurement process. It was important we found an agency with the right skills and mindset.

First, we shared the opportunity on The Digital Marketplace.

Our brief focused on outcomes to be delivered through the work, not its outputs. This represented a different way of working with suppliers.

We were open to being flexible with deliverables if this would deliver the desired outcomes. We felt it was important to embrace agile working, an approach that may have unsettled some suppliers.

Our selection process focused on understanding the agencies’ openness to collaboration. To blend with us as one team.

We wanted a good cultural fit with our work and values. We wanted people who would be fun to work with while not being afraid to challenge us when needed.

We wanted to find true experts in inclusive design, to supplement the skills within our team.

This is how our partner, Cyber-Duck, felt during this phase. UX Designer, Fabiola Degani said:

A discovery project is always exciting, as you never know what to expect at the start and where the insights will lead to.

With Essex County Council (ECC), we knew the discovery would be run through intense agile collaboration between our agency and ECC, as the client.

This was because ECC already had a team of experts in research, service design, interaction design, and data analysis, alongside their clear subject-matter expertise; so, we knew we had to deeply involve them to achieve success.

At Cyber-Duck, we were really excited to share our expertise and knowledge and become an extension of the ECC team and establish close collaboration that would guide us through the unknowns of our discovery.

We then entered the storming phase of the partnership.

In this phase, we tried to agree common ways of working and to build clarity around roles and responsibilities.

This was harder than expected It took time to understand each other’s capacity and capabilities. It's easy to have misunderstandings. Next time, we’ll clarify how we work together upfront.

We developed tools to enable capacity to be clearer and to keep the work collaborative and open. This included development of a user research calendar.

User Research Calendar for Interviews
User Research Calendar

Research sessions were visible across the project team. This meant any team member could schedule time to support these.

We also took some time to establish the right tools and rituals. Our initial meeting structures didn’t work.

Meetings were too lengthy and weren’t adding value. Fortnightly team retros meant we learnt this early.

We adapted to a 15-minute stand-up process. These had clear ground rules to keep them focused.

We struggled to share documents across the team at first. We were able to find the tools and approaches to using these tools that worked best for us.

For the first few weeks of the discovery, we struggled to grant Cyber-Duck’s team access to our intranet. This made it difficult for them to understand our starting point and to help us plan user research.

We had to adopt some workarounds. Team members from ECC used screen sharing so that Cyber-Duck’s researchers could explore the intranet in the interim.

To fix all these problems, we needed to have open, frank and sometimes challenging conversations.

This is how Cyber-Duck reacted to this phase.

During the first few weeks of the project, we had to overcome challenges with technology, team engagement and process – for example the frequency and length of meetings and understanding ECC’s openness to adapting the priorities from those contractually agreed upon.

Open conversations were necessary to quickly adapt. improve our ways of working together and the direction of the project.

Although it was still early stages, Cyber-Duck and ECC realised we had built a positive and open team culture, where people were comfortable to share their thoughts.

The whole team adopted a flexible attitude to improve our way of working. Gradually, there was less of an agency-client relationship. We became ‘the intranet team’ — both teams working as one.

Next, we normed as a team.

During the norming phase, we held a meeting that changed the course of the discovery for the better.

Mid-way though the discovery, we met as a full partnership to explore what we had learnt so far, and to plan for the second phase.

We realised that our original plan for the second phase would not provide new insights. We needed to be agile, so reassessed and adapted our plans.

We decided to remove diary studies with employees from our research. Instead, we focused on learning more about certain employee groups.

These included new employees, and those who faced contractual barriers to accessing the intranet.

This enabled us to learn about specific challenges for these groups. This was vital to gain more well-rounded insights to support alpha planning.

Detailing their thoughts Cyber-Duck said of this phase.

When working on a discovery phase, you have to be comfortable with the research process being fluid at times.

Depending on the insights gained from the research, priorities can pivot, and plans can change.

That’s what happened mid-way through our project.

Together, we embraced the changes, and instead of digging deeper into the ‘knowns’, we decided to go wide and keep exploring the ‘unknowns’, which we felt resulted in a more rounded and informative discovery.

Finally, we reached the performing phase.

By the performing phase, we understood our roles and responsibilities. We connected as a team, hit our stride and produced great work.

During the performing phase, we achieved the following as a blended design team:

  • Developed user personas in partnership, while remote working.
  • Created “key insights cards”, each with supporting evidence and links to organisational impact.
  • Identified important areas to explore in alpha for each insight.
  • Identified our riskiest assumption to take into alpha.

We believe this efficient and impactful work happened because

  • We understood each team member’s capacity and strengths. This meant we were involving the right people, in the right things, at the right times.
  • We got our rituals right. We were communicating in a way that suited both organisations, and our intended outcomes.
  • We were agile: we remained open to flexing our approach, as and when it was not working.

Cyber-Duck had the following to say about the collaboration work during the performing phase:

Together, we built a team culture where people weren’t afraid to share, try, fail, and do it again.

The positive environment made all the difference, especially in the final weeks. All of us worked, full steam ahead, to wrap up the discovery and deliver a set of hypotheses supported by solid data.

These are now ready to be explored and tested in alpha.

Discussing the benefits.

The greatest benefit was the human connection we made, as a group of people working towards a common goal.

By adapting how we worked together, we were better equipped to meet deadlines. Our work was efficient and delivered within budget.

We delivered comprehensive research that gave clear direction for the next phase of work. This will lead to better work-based resources for ECC employees.

As teams grow, this approach to partnership may provide significant benefits:

  • An optimal environment to learn from each other. ECC learnt from Cyber-Duck’s approach to research and design. Cyber-Duck benefitted from the experience of using these approaches in a local government setting.
  • A breeding ground for creativity. In design, many perspectives are often better than one. The partnership delivered creative workshops that helped move the discovery forward.
  • Enabling fast and efficient working. ECC team members used organisational tips and tricks to remove potential blockers and ‘red tape’.
  • Future-proofing the work. It enabled the work to be “owned’ by those within the organisation it will affect. We could have acted on a discovery report, but the real knowledge came from ‘living the discovery’. And with the help of our friends at Cyber-Duck, that’s what we did.

To learn more about this project and how to work in a design partnership, contact Edmund Wellington via

Written in conjuction with Fabiola Degani, UX Designer, Cyber Duck.

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