The new model of local government digital transformation requires a completely new way of working. And for that reason, early adopters need to share their experiences and inspire others to cut the billions of pounds wasted every year on inefficient IT.

This is a reproduction of an article Tim Hanley contributed to the Local Digital Campaign.

No-one has the time or money to wait years for expensive projects to fail and then try and learn from the lessons. In short, they need to work out loud.

The principle applies internally to organisations who want fast, iterative models of project delivery; and externally between organisations to enable them to constantly learn, improve and evolve.

Working out loud involves being unprecedentedly open about what you are doing: making everything you are doing and how you are doing it visible constantly to anyone in your organisation who wants to contribute. The next step is to extend the process outside your organisation so that other public sector bodies can also see what you do and after that, make your work fully visible to the public.

Although it can feel strange initially to regularly discuss work in progress to an open audience, the principle is not as fraught with danger as you might think.

Our own experience has been that people are more likely to offer constructive help than criticism. Those that do criticise often become supporters and valuable advisors when given a voice. The benefits of encouraging constant improvement at speed, hugely outweighs any initial feelings of self-consciousness.

It’s already happening in the public sector. The development of the G-Cloud programme was itself an example of working out loud. It was iteratively developed by users, buyers and suppliers. As a local authority, you could adapt the lessons learned:

  • Help people to get comfortable, accept it won’t be perfect
  • Don’t limit yourself to one tool, but be careful of having too many
  • Encourage working out loud constantly, but mandate a minimum daily interaction
  • Show senior staff that working out loud and getting it ‘wrong’ i.e. not being right first time is OK
  • Take on feedback from the entire team
  • Celebrate working out loud success, no matter who was in the team
  • Don’t be scared — dive right in — you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

As for the tools needed to help you to properly work out loud, I would recommend blogs and news groups — in fact, anything that will allow people to easily share what they are doing. Those who are interested can subscribe, follow and contribute.

Collaborative online tools can help make the process more open, but creating a culture where people feel safe narrating their work and making it visible is far more important.

Now an example of working out loud from the private sector. In his book The Year Without Pants, Scott Berkun provides insights into his experience of working at WordPress — the software that serves 20% of the world’s web pages. Berkun spent a year leading a team of programmers designing and building new features for Berkun summarises the lessons he learned:

All discussions, decisions and internal debates in the WordPress community are public. The spirit is that if you weren’t willing to say something in front of your community how much conviction could you have in it?

Authority was earned, not granted. There were few job titles or designations. People who complained were given less respect than people who made or fixed things.

WordPress was born from a failed project. The Open Source license meant that [even if someone tried to destroy WordPress]someone could fork the project and continue. Contributions would be eternal.
I find it amazing that today ‘retrospective lessons learnt’ reports are being conducted at the end of a project rather than as they happen. Working out loud can improve sharing of experiences and make it easier to gain feedback to improve the course of a project in time — not when it’s too late.