Firestarters 11: Russell Davies and Delivery is the Strategy

Culture eats Strategy for breakfast

Peter Drucker

Last night was the eleventh instalment of the always wonderful Firestarters event, curated by Neil Perkin. Russell Davies took to the stage and discussed his work as Creative Director of the GDS – the Government Digital Service – and how the team there have relaunched the governments main website site, changing directgov into gov.uk.

There are some brilliant write ups of the evening that have already been posted – such as this fittingly economical one from James Caig – so I wont regurgitate the contents of the evening again. However, as I walked back to the train and even as I sat eating my dinner later on last night I kept coming back to two questions.

Firstly, at a time when the London’s, and indeed the worlds, advertising agencies are supposedly crying out for great digital talent – how has Davies managed to recruit a vast army of the best and brightest developers, analysts, and project managers? This isn’t to do Davies down – but, the civil service, in ‘austerity Britain’ is hardly the swaggering, fashionable beast that an agency like Mother or Wiedens is, is it?

Secondly, how did Davies see his role as a ‘creative director’ given his background as a planner?

It struck me on the walk to the office this morning that the answer to both of these questions lay not in the ‘strategy’ or even ‘delivery’ as the talk’s title professed, but in somewhere or something closer to the culture of the organisation and project.

In stark contrast to not only advertising agencies and client projects, but also more importantly,  in contrast to the predominant stereotypes of the ruling establishment, Davies has created a culture that makes the GDS and their work a highly desirable place to work, specifically for digital creative talent. My observation being that the qualities of this culture meant:

– The ‘creatives’ are tasked with solving real world problems for the end user (how to work out when a bank holiday was, or more importantly how much money someone on maternity could claim) rather than trying to sell more toothpaste or something comparably prosaic

– The end user not the ‘project owner’ (in this case the government, or in agency land the client) essentially set the agenda and indeed the spec for the project. Davies and his team focus not on trying to shoe horn in thousands of tiny pieces of information but focus on what really matters to people, evidenced not through flaky research but by hard data. The british public wrote the brief, not the minister with responsibility for the project

– The team work in a way which is open and transparent, rather than closed and secretive. The GDS upload a lot of their content, ranging from blog posts detailing their working process or even the source code for their projects, to the web – available to access by all. Not the way you’d imagine a government so traditionally obsessed with security to behave.

– Whilst Davies mentioned cost savings, he barely spoke about objectives – more central to his talk was the processes that they have set up and work by, day by day.  Another example – and something Neil has written about before – that perhaps processes, not goals, are crucial to success.

In an evening full of infinitely quotable nuggets and titbits – my favourite was the statement that there is a significant difference in the way a bridge building organisation behaves when compared to a website building organisation. If you’re a bridge builder, you treat everything like a bridge – even if in fact, it’s a website – and therefore totally different.

Maybe Davies’ role as a creative director then, was not so much about the end product, but as a creator of culture – constantly creating the most fertile environment for the tech dudes and the front line coders and developers to do their work, to protect them from bridge building mentality.

It was a great talk and a great reminder that Strategy, although important, is nothing without culture.

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