It’s OK to get emotional on the purps

Nostalgic feels and useful bits from a learning trip to GDS.

Like many people schooled at GDS, I’m spending my subsequent career trying to recreate the best of its culture and methods wherever I go. 

But, of course, that’s based on the 2018 version, frozen in time from when I left. 

While recently extolling the merits of firebreaks the way we did them on GOV.UK, it occurred to me I have no idea if they’re still a thing. So I arranged for a few of the BFI team to visit GDS with me and find out. 

First things first, let’s deal with the feelings. It was weird going back.

I have mixed emotions about The White Chapel Building – I worked there several years but it still doesn’t feel like my GDS. Those were the directionless years, after John Manzoni‘s bizarre decision to appoint someone who at best didn’t get, and at worst hated GDS, to run it.

On the other hand, it’s in that leadership vacuum – and that new HQ – where I really stepped up and matured as a leader. It’s a building where I worked hand-in-glove with some phenomenal people I’ll forever feel close to. And it’s a better place now, under new leadership and in different times, after its vital function during the pandemic.

My happiest GDS memories still live in Aviation House, though – the grade II listed former church opposite Holborn tube. That’s where we shipped a nation’s website (no biggie). That’s where Pete deleted my backlog. It’s where we played conkers on GOV.UK birthdays. And where (with Jamie, Stuart and Lindsey) I built my dream roadmap wall

By coincidence, and assuming the WeWork that replaced us isn’t shuttered up, I’ll be there next week on BFI business to meet Reddit. I might cry, the nostalgia is that potent. 

I actually had a bit of an emotional moment on Friday, when Kelv showed me this surviving segment of “the purps” nestled among newer seating in a Show and Tell corner.

Is it weird to have a romantic connection to a piece of office furniture from your old job? I don’t think I’m alone in this – so many friendships formed and so much joy was created on these purple sofas in Aviation House. It might need adding to the famous It’s OK poster – it’s OK to have a nostalgic moment on the last remaining purp.

Wobbly emotions aside, Friday’s visit and our little BFI-GDS knowledge exchange sesh were insightful. 

Just being in the building is inspiring, soaking up the scale, professionalism and creative culture evident on the walls and live dashboard screens. Not many people were about (it was Friday after all) but it was nice to bump into Kelv, Paula, Sam and Jess

Thanks a million to Anna Sherrington and Rob Rankin for their time, generosity and candour. 

We talked about team design, processes and templates for setting quarterly OKRs, holding effective check-ins, tracking and reporting ROI, and the constant challenge of communicating plans meaningfully to stakeholders.

I learnt that GOV.UK thinking on OKRs has evolved to expect objectives to span multiple quarters while Key Results are quarter-specific.

Their OKR template has evolved to include a short narrative on why the objective is a priority – we’ll steal this wholesale. My BFI team has been feeling towards something similar, like the NCT framework I mentioned here – frustrated that OKRs can be too devoid of context. 

The answer on firebreaks, by the way, is that it has indeed iterated since I left. After a hiatus for more top-down task allocation during Covid, it’s been resurrected in the form of  twice-yearly ideas and future-thinking weeks, with a good deal of maturity about how they’re run. Food for thought as we set up something similar at the BFI.

Perhaps most useful of all though is the realisation none of this stuff is a solved problem for either organisation. We all came away feeling confident we’re in a better place than perhaps we thought we were, and reflecting that the best you can hope for with this stuff is continuous improvement, not nirvana.  

Side note one: a new GOV.UK homepage shipped last week and is nice, bold and chunky. Look out for further iterations. 

Side note two: (sorry to bang on about it but it’s very much a theme of this blog) all these memories I’m talking about are super fuzzy scraps of facts, not images or experiences I can visit in my head. I think the SDAM and aphantasia exacerbate nostalgia – I feel sad that so little of this happy time in my life is accessible to me.

It’s probably all a bit rose-tinted too, though, let’s be honest. I do remember being jolly cross about that backlog.

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3 Comments

Andrew L. November 4, 2023 Reply

Ah, the purple sofas – that was a nice bit of nostalgia to bump in to! You’re right that GDS was a great place, with many memories made. I still count it as my favourite place to have worked, a decade later.

Simon November 15, 2023 Reply

GDS leadership is like Hogwarts’ Defence Against the Dark Arts Teacher – clearly a cursed role where, for every Remus Lupin there’s at least one Delores Umbridge or Gilderoy Lockhart…

neillyneil@gmail.com November 15, 2023 Reply

Potter refs are all lost on me I’m afraid! Nice to hear from you though and thanks for reading 🙂

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