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Podcast - IJYI & Suffolk County Council - Behind the scenes on an inception workshop

Podcast

In this episode of The IJYI Way, we’re joined by Gareth Morris, Senior Technical Lead at Suffolk County Council.

Gareth chats to Andrew and Chris about his experience of working with IJYI on a two-day Inception Workshop to kick-start a project to replace their existing Analysis of Additional Needs Tool (AANT) in April 2020.

The trio discuss the experience of carrying out a two-day workshop remotely due to restrictions on in-person meetings, how the workshop enabled the Council to build a clear roadmap for their project and what kept them up at night during the process!

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Podcast Transcript

Andrew
Welcome back to our podcast, we are back in our virtual studio, hovering in the ether, me in one sleepy little village in Suffolk with terrible bandwidth and in the powerhouse of the IJYI studios is my co-host, Chris Pont.

Andrew
Hi, Chris. Andrew, so I just want you to know I’m really jealous of your amazing bandwidth there in Central Ipswich.

Chris
Yeah, yeah. We’ve got a decent connection to the office. It’s pretty smooth. Maybe a bit too much detail on the video sometimes. How fast is it? I think we’ve got 100 meg up and down. 100 meg up. I’m sorry. Sorry. Two hundred up and down.

Andrew
Well, we’ve got a show this week about a really interesting topic, which I’m sure people most people will have heard of sprints. Well, we’re talking about Inception workshops this week, which is, you know, a bit of a spin on that whole methodology. It’s a really interesting thing because you’ve been doing some Inception workshops with Suffolk County Council, with the team there.

Andrew
Tell us more about how you got into offering Inception workshops in the first place.

Chris
So Inception workshops, they they help set the scene for a project. And what we found is if you jump straight into a project and start development, you haven’t really understood where the risks are, who the people you’re dealing with, what projects even for, and why it’s different to anything else that’s out there. So the Inception workshop was designed to make sure that we get all of the stakeholders in a room generally for about two days and we go through everything.

Chris
We start with why we’re there, what it is we’re building, what the problem is we’re looking at solving and who we’re solving it for. We then move on to, you know, some of the key features. So what’s different? And you know what what the benefits are of using the software for the end user. And then we start to flesh out, you know, some of the features, some of the high level stuff that would be building.

Chris
We look at the risks associated with that project. So anything from it department might might put a stop to something or the legal department or marketing department might might not like what we’re doing. And we look at ways of sort of attacking those risks and making sure that, you know, we can identify them as early as possible and and overcome them as quickly as we can so that the project can deliver smoothly. So all of that sort of stuff, you know, even to the point where we put a rough estimate on how long it’s going to take to build, how much it’s going to cost to build, and that really gives companies a basis to go forward.

Chris
So, yeah, we write all this up into a big glossy report and it gives them something to go to an investment committee or a board with to say, look, this is a project that we’re building, would like some money to to actually build this. And we’d like to sign off to to go ahead with the project. So it just makes make sure that we identify these big, big rocks as early as possible and we can start working on them to make sure that the project delivers smoothly.

Andrew
OK, so just just for old people like myself who, you know, may have done their software engineering postgrad in mine, actually was in multimedia platform design stuff back in the 1990s. And now we’re in a waterfall, developers, old folks home. How is it different? How is an Inception workshop different from…It just sounds like requirements gathering.

Chris
But, you know, with cooler clothes like snowboarding, it’s it’s not going quite as deep as you traditionally would be with waterfall. So, you know, the way that we tend to deliver and and by the way, when we do these Inception workshops, we deliver a report, it doesn’t mean that we actually have to go ahead and do the delivery. It could be someone completely different. But the way that we tend to deliver is is with a scrum methodology.

Chris
So we deliver in two week sprints and we deliver something every two weeks. So we’re we’re constantly delivering value. And really what we’re trying to do is get those big things out of the way at the beginning. We’re not going deep into feature design. So we’re not we’re not working out exactly what text you want on the screen or which bits of data that we can get together. We really just sort of doing that high level stuff. And that means that when we go forward into a scrum delivery cycle that recycles the we’ve got enough information to go forwards.

Chris
And you as things start to take shape during that, during that process, people change their minds. You know, as people start to see something building in front of their eyes, you know, they have other ideas and things that were important before and not as important as as they once were or, you know, they identify new features. And so. You know, it’s important just to get the high level risks out of the way at the beginning.

Andrew
OK, so our special guest this week joining us in the virtual studio is Gareth Morris, who is the senior technical lead at Suffolk County Council. Gareth, welcome to The IJYI Way.

Andrew
Good morning now, Gareth. I’ve got to say, for those people who are listening, who don’t immediately think of a local authority as being a trailblazer in the tech sense, actually, Suffolk, you are you know, obviously you’re a local authority in an area that is outside London, the biggest sort of tech scene in the U.K. and has got billions of investment flowing into it. And you’re pretty technically savvy. Local authority, the county council. Tell us, how did Agile arrive at the county council offices there in Ipswich?

Gareth
Yes, certainly. So I think Suffolk County Council’s first introduction to Agile can be tracked back to the joint venture partnership we had in place with BT that ran from 2004 to 2014. So council services such as I.T. Finance, Public Access were moved into a new company called Customer Service Direct. BT provided executive leadership and invested a significant amount of money in the modernisation of of those co-council services. So in ICT, we had experienced eight program managers and solutions architect embedded within the service and probably around about 2008 2009 with being very keen, agile practitioners.

Gareth
They used Agile to deliver several software development projects inside of our city. And I think it was this initial exposure, the influence likely to recommend that be a requirement to use Agile for any software development projects where possible. I think what we liked about it is that Agile gave us the codification of user requirements in a form that made sense to business users. It gave project managers a clear breakdown of the workflow of delivery and ultimately delivered value really quickly because that was a stark contrast to the previous Waterfall based project, which typically ended up in a solution that not really deliver value to the end.

Gareth
And consumers. And I think around this time as well, central government also started to notice the benefits of agile, and we tend to follow their lead in terms of public service standards. In fact, today in their Service Standard Handbook on Capital UK, they mandate the use of agile project methodology.

Andrew
I mean, it’s a really interesting thing, isn’t it?

Andrew
Because I suppose Waterfall was really never fit for purpose, because the the role of a council touches across so many different touch points and different kinds of service delivery that you could never really capture all the requirements of a local authority because you’ve got everything going on there from trash collections through to benefits and assisted living units. You’re right the way through to housing and, you know, school school meals, school buses, transport. I mean, it’s such a vast and complex array.

Andrew
How do you approach that? I mean, as a senior technical lead, do you find that your projects could be in radically different parts of the county and with very different user groups every time? Or do you have a specialization you tend to focus in down there?

Gareth
So it’s the former, really? So I’ve had projects across the different council directorates and departments. We don’t tend to specialise in terms of senior technical aid. Well, you know, we will take whatever comes into the team, essentially. So, yeah, it is a huge challenge and I think. When we were trying to deliver projects, pretty agile, you know, I don’t know if you’ve seen that comic strip, it’s called the tree swing approach to project management, where you’ve got this comic strip depicting how each team or project interpret the requirements differently, but to a disastrous effect then that without that was the very, very common experience that we that we kind of had pretty agile was I think now with us embracing the agile approach, it makes it a lot easier to bring together all those stakeholders, especially if I got a project that sits across five different directorates like social care, cyp, etc.

Gareth
because you can do with a big technology projects. You can see across those to bring all those together, you know, under the banner. It really, really makes a huge difference. Your latest project used one of our Inception workshops for your new analysis of additional needs too as part of Suffolk’s Psychology and Therapeutic Services Department of the Council. Tell us a bit more about the goal of that project. Yeah, so CLaire and Imogen our the educational psychologist at Suffolk County Council really have a vision and passion to use technology in the delivery of their service, which is educational psychology, assessments and interventions supporting their children with additional needs.

Gareth
So so really, Suffolk County Council does not have an in-house development team. So kind of the first task we had to do was to source a partner to help bring that vision to life. And we’ve already engaged on some previous work on based on that good experience. It was natural to reach out to you guys to explore that opportunity. So I think the the Inception workshop approach really appealed to the project team as it made sure that the functional and nonfunctional requirements were discussed and scoped in the same workshop.

And I think we really nailed the what, why and how for the entire project by having all the key stakeholders take part at the same time going through the various exercises, such as like the elevator pitch product box, the not least probably my favorite. What keeps us up at night? Um, at the end of the process, we had a document of clear requirements of solutions, design, indicative cost and a projected timeline of delivery, which within two days was kind of very impressive.

Gareth
I think our previous engagements with other organisations following the more traditional project scoping and method, this would have taken several weeks and there wouldn’t have been enough focus on probably the nonfunctional side of it, which is sometimes seen as an afterthought, you know, with a third party that they’re interested in, in getting that business from from the users who are only going to be interested in the functional side of things rather than the non functional side of things.

Gareth
And that inevitably leads to a poor product either for ICT to run and support invariably, incurs terrible debt and it’s in its in its lifetime. So the Inception workshop really made sure that everybody was in the same room and contributing.

Chris
Is there a lot of complexity involved with developing solutions in areas that touch on health care and education? You know, everyone, as you said, everyone dreads GDP or compliance, even on simple projects.

Chris
But a public service dealing with children must face some unique challenges around that.

Gareth
I think when you’re delivering a project, your privacy security clients can be seen to be getting in the way of delivering the functional requirement, right. However, my philosophy is they’re not additional requirements. They should be embraced and woven into their daily work. They should be treated as business as usual, not something to be dreaded or an afterthought. So think sort of privacy by design in everything that you do.

Gareth
And we’re quite we’re quite lucky that we’ve had a lot of a lot of exposure in Suffolk County Council to GDPR compliance and just data governance and information security generally because we are a public authority. And it’s always taken that privacy design approach to sensitive data sets, ICT information governance to work closely to achieve this. What was what was really good, though, about the Inception workshop with Alan and Chris is it the privacy and design approach was respected and understood. They didn’t question my requirements for the application in terms of, you know, some things around the identity that we wanted to do and single sign on and two factor authentication, which can be quite complex engineering tasks to actually carry out. You know, they were completely open to that, whereas on previous engagements you kind of raised those kind of things and it’s seen as a as a problem or blocker. So that was really refreshing. You know, I didn’t have to. There was no there was no question about the scope in any of this, any of the security or GDPR compliance requirements at all. OK, we’re going to take a quick break and hand over to Laura Hood, who is a marketing manager and actually the producer of the IJYI Way podcast. And she’s going to talk about Inception workshops and and the broader value of that.

Laura
Hi, I’m Laura Hood and I am a marketing manager here at IJYI. So we tend to find that thing. Customers really like about the Inception workshop is that it’s a chance to bring together everyone who has a role or stake in the project. A project is often initiated from a business need rather than an IT need, in the case of Suffolk County Council. And the Inception workshop gives those line of business people the chance to really express what they want to achieve from the project. And it’s a much more engaging than the traditional requirements gathering process. The Inception workshop takes participants through a clearly defined set of stages, which finishes up with a clear roadmap for the project.

Andrew
So the Inception workshop has several sort of stages in it that enable you to really test a concept and turn it into a plan moving forward. So it’s real proof of concept stuff. I’m interested you said your favourite bit. Was the what keeps us up at night? Now, that’s an exercise that comes at the end of it where you think about, OK, what is the worst case scenario that could happen and how would we address that? So what was what was yours? Why did you like that bit so much?

Andrew
I think because a lot of time on the project risks aren’t really addressed. They’re kind of just put in a spreadsheet somewhere and a folder and kind of forgotten about. So I was really pleased that, like, OK, let’s get everything out and get everything out onto the table no matter what it is, what what keeps you up at night. And that’s an excellent way to phrase it. So, you know, for me personally, it was like, oh, a data breach if if this a hack in a data breach. So it was really good to sort of articulate that. And and I think that it made for a much more powerful solutions delivery in the end as well, because, you know, so Chris and Alan on the IJYI side , they really got to see what worried us essentially.

Andrew
OK, now we’re going to take another quick break now to listen to a piece from Robin Birkby, who’s the senior business analyst, and she’s a really big fan of the power of the Inception workshop to get all the right people together in the same room at the same time.

Robyne
Inception workshops are really useful for me as a bA I get to see how all the different stakeholders of the project work together. I get to see how their priorities fit together. And if there are any conflicts in those priorities, we get to sort them out while we’re all in the same room and that’s the sort of thing that you can’t easily get from a document. And the other thing is, is that once projects do kick off, we’ve had all of these background discussions of what’s in scope and whats out of scope. So all the difficult decisions have already been made. And it means that by the time we get to start the project, we just get going and we hit the ground running. We can write up exactly what needs to be developed at that point because all the decisions have been made and everybody has a clear understanding of what that looks like. Before Inception workshops, people would think they have the same idea of what’s going to be delivered. But actually it’s not quite the same. In this case If we’ve had an Inception workshop, all of that would have been ironed out already. Everybody should be on the same page by the end of the Inception workshop, and I should have a good understanding of the background context of where everything’s going to fit. So if I get any questions from the devs or while we’re writing the backlog, I have a better understanding of what’s most likely going to be the best route forward based on what I know from having been involved in the Inception workshop. I think the other thing is, is that from a user’s perspective or from the people who are bringing the project in, they also have a better understanding of what’s possible. And that’s what’s possible within the time and the budget of the project all the techies are in the room. So many unknowns that they’ve had will often get answered within the project, and it kind of makes it a lot more real for them. There’s a lot lot of times that people leave the Inception workshop and that includes us. We leave the Inception workshop really excited to start this new project. And as I say, that’s for the users as well. Often they’d have had this big idea hanging around them. They wanted to develop, but not necessarily knowing how to progress forward with it. By doing the Inception workshop, they get a much better idea of exactly how it’s going to be delivered, what are the next steps to be able to do that? And it just makes it that much more feasible and that much more real to them that it’s actually going to happen.

Andrew
I mean, it’s interesting, Gareth, Robin talks there about the power of getting all the right people in the room. So what about that for you? Did you find that, you know, this actually threw up anything unexpected or did you know exactly who needed to be a part of this project from day one?

Gareth
I think it made us really, really think about all the stakeholders, that needed to be part of the project to make it a success. It definitely decided helped us to decide who needed to be part of the project. And it was like teams for this within Suffolk County Council. So so, yeah, it was a good exercise to say. Right. Who are all the stakeholders? And I think some some did come out of the woodwork, so to speak. Oh, yes. Yes. We need to include that person because of X, Y, Z. So what was what was what was actually really good is that the workshop introduced a new concept of product owner that which was, you know, kind of foreign to Suffolk County Council. So that was really cool because that provided us with a challenge to work out who is best suited for that role. And I think Claire and Imogen maybe without knowing it slotted into that category really, really well. So, yeah, I think that yeah, it definitely, definitely made us think more about who needs to be involved in this. And, you know, we’re still working on that now. We’re still bringing those stakeholders to the table now, and that can be quite a challenge.

Chris
Tell us a bit more about developing a road map in the Inception workshop. How did that work?

Gareth
That provided us with some additional discussion points around, OK, what could we perhaps descope, speed up delivery or improve costs? And this was very useful to have that all out at the beginning because you don’t want to have those conversations coming out when you’re actually delivering something. So it’s good to get all that decided up front. And I think what was really, really, really great for Claire is that it codified her vision. Basically, she had this this plan, this roadmap, because she’d already had interest from other local authorities keen to use this platform. She now had, you know, a good estimate of when the platform would be ready as well. So, yeah, that was very beneficial.

Chris
How was the workshop, you know, people listening might imagine something that’s intensive or very technical. Was it accessible and was it fun?

Gareth
OK, so set the context for this, covid-19 had just hit the UK, you know, the prime minister had just given a stay at home direction. So I had some trepidation about the idea of a two day Inception workshop via teams. And I must admit, before I thought, will this work, will this be effective? I mean, luckily, I was proved very wrong. The entire process was great, even though it was intensive, it wasn’t tiring. You weren’t kind of like looking at your watch to say, oh, right, OK, well, you know, roll on five o’clock. So, yeah, it was very, very well paced and orchestrated. The technical side was high level and never detracted from the focus of what we wanted this product to deliver in terms of value. The exercises we went through encourage creativity. And for me personally, it was great to actually listen to the aspirations of Claire and Imogen. And their passion and dedication really inspired me. I think sometimes sort of user requirements, gathering, ICT can sometimes not be involved in that. And they they just, you know, given a document after the fact. So it made a huge difference to actually listen to them about what they wanted. So, you know, we very well balanced between discussions around the technology, the business process requirements and the customer experience design. It was fun as well. I mean, I’d never met or worked with Alan or Chris before, and they were so easy to work with and accommodating.

I mean, you say that now, but you don’t have to podcast with them until it’s that moment when, you know, when the camera’s off, you know, what he’s so fussy about his canapes and his glass of champagne in the ready room. It’s a nightmare.

Gareth
You see the. One of the things that I was really impressed with with Chris Chris was doing the solutions design is that he was really open to any thoughts or suggestions I had around around the design experience. I mean, being a senior techincal lead I’m used to doing the design and now I was taking a backseat and just inputting requirements into that design. And he was so open and accommodating with any any suggestions that I had. You know, my previous experience with other companies are you provide a design and that’s it, like all little scope to influence it. That wasn’t the case at the IJYI workshop. So, yeah, it was fun. I’d recommend anybody to take part in this. If we have future work with it, it’ll be an Inception workshop to kick things off. So, yeah. Really positive experience.

Andrew
Well, that’s great. Thank you very much for joining us today. It’s been a very positive podcasting experience for us as well. Gareth Morris, senior technical lead at Suffolk County Council, thank you very much.

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IJYI Ltd

IJYI Ltd.