March 16, 2022

Chapter 3 — Plan Your Approach

I’ve never been much of a shrinking violet. Those who know me know I’m honest and straight to the point. It makes things a lot easier, doesn’t it? That doesn’t mean to say I’m rude. It’s just me. Some people may take that the wrong way… and those people can just jog on! By doing things my own way, I can get things done faster. There’s no ambiguity and, when people get to know me and see it’s delivered with a huge slice of fun, we’re well on our way to getting where we need to be.

When I Whatsapped a mate Jo Brown in November 2017 with a simple message, Oi Oi Fancy a real job? she knew I wasn’t messing around. She didn’t take it the wrong way. She probably laughed, she probably groaned, she probably thought, What the fuck is she cooking up now?! but I knew she’d be well up for my classic Murphy approach. It was probably as much tongue-in-cheek as it was serious… and it worked. My proposal was to ‘do a couple of hours a week for five days a week and see how you get on. Get on the socials, start looking at different things, this is what we need, this is what we don’t need. Don’t be shy. Go large.’ Not the most formal of job descriptions, but it was all about getting stuck in and seeing where she could take it.

Apparently, normal people have a chat about this kind of thing, rather than assuming it’s a done deal. I’m not that conventional. You may have realised that by now. And here’s where I assure you that it wasn’t an arrogant approach. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew the kind of people I wanted around me to help make it happen. Some of them may not have realised how good they were at this point, but they were about to learn. This was an opportunity for us all. It felt great to select who I wanted as my dream team.

And so it was time to get a band together.

I’d struggled a lot towards the end of my time with NHS Digital (NHSD). The level of attention you get in those senior roles is unreal and the environment can sometimes become quite unhealthy. When you start delivering on a national scale, you’re met with a lot of opposition — as strange as it sounds. You can be doing X, Y, and Z one minute and being thrown a massive curveball the next. You may all have the same goals in mind, but quite often it can feel like there’s no alignment to your way of thinking as a wider team. That can be like banging your head against a wall all day.

When you’re in the NHS you are really in and there are no half measures. Your world gets that bit smaller and you are so preoccupied with what’s going on that it can rule your life. So many people burn out in this industry. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a permy, contractor, junior, senior, delivery lead — whatever — if you’re doing the work, you’re 100% involved and you rarely come up for air. Intense projects can take you to hell and back (or just leave you there) and you need to make sure you’re fighting fit for the next battle. We all need to take more care of ourselves, but of course, we rarely do. I felt like I needed to be in a decompression chamber after the NHS!

My decompression was a month off. A whole month! 20 of those days were spent in India with my mum and then my girlfriend, Yvonne joined us. We did all the hippie cliched things that are cliched, but you don’t care because that’s the whole point. It was a real life-changer for me. You know you’ve lived when you’ve ridden a train in India, been on the back of a Royal Enfield around Mumbai, ran into a cow on the beach, and ridden a tuk-tuk! We travelled all over the place, laughed a lot, tried some amazing food, some terrible food, suffered a few dodgy tummies along the way… our trip really was the perfect antidote to working 80-hour weeks. Apart from the hospital visits. But hey-ho… when in India.

Royal Enfield motorbike
Royal Enfield motorbike
Rachel and her Mum, Karen, in a cafe in Goa
Me and Mum (Karen) in a cafe in Goa

And this is where we pick up with my business partner Steve Dhillon. We’d known each other for about six or seven years and were mates. He’d delivered people to me across local authority projects through his recruitment company, Blue Fire, which I would later transform into Difrent. It was my vision to repurpose everything about the company: how it was structured, how it functioned, how it operated, how it created revenue, how it grew, and so on. Steve came out to India to meet with me, to have some fun, but also to plan and strategise the future of Difrent. For me personally, it felt like I’d got everything in near enough the right order. Somehow I’d made the stars align, and I felt ready to make the move. As it was such a big and bold move, I couldn’t have done it half-heartedly. There are countless phrases like, Fail to plan, plan to fail and whatever else. I mean, if you’re setting up a new company with people employed and looking to turn over millions, you’d be a bit of a muppet if you jumped in without a plan.

Rachel writing on a whiteboard
Workshop in my flat in Fulham (2017)

At that first meeting on 29 March 2018, it wasn’t just planning at this stage — it was to see if the ‘old band’ would gel as I imagined they would. And what better place to do it than round my huge whitewall, where we could throw our ideas up there and get lively!! Present at this one were Rita BrocklessPauline StewartSandra LewisTom Butler and, Jo and I. Behind what looked like a collection of randoms, there was a lot going on. There was definitely a masterplan, it’s just that you couldn’t tell immediately. And I think that was the beauty of it. Everyone was going with it and seeing what would emerge.

Rachel and Tom Butler sitting on a sofa
Me and Tom Butler
Pauline Stewart standing reading from her phone
Pauline Stewart holding court
Sandra Lewis sat talking to someone off to the side
Sandra Lewis

Early thinking from this session: there was an absolute opportunity in the space we wished to play. Some people were more available to support follow-on thinking and workshops than others, but we really kicked the tyres on what services could look like in the Delivery, Leadership and Design spaces!

And… we had lift-off!

Kind of. We certainly hit the ignition switch and I was certainly fired up. Was it a grownup version of those early days, or had I been waiting for the right moment? I think it was both. The stars aligned. For that moment. Maybe just a little bit, but it was palpable, and we could take the next step with a team spirit, not just a solo mindset. It was time to get strategising.

My takeaways

  1. It’s not just a cliche — you really do find yourself when in India.
  2. Not everyone will share the same enthusiasm for your ideas — despite your best efforts!
  3. Always ask people for help. In my experience, the answer is normally always a yes.
  4. If you don’t plan, you’ll end up making a shedload of unnecessary mistakes.
  5. That idea paint is an absolute godsend whether it’s for your flat or an office. And no, I’m not on commission!

What helped me plan my approach

  1. Buying that idea paint. I’ll not link out to it, but it’s well worth the investment for workshopping!
  2. Brainstorming using the Business Canvas Model to kick-start the process. It’s an oldie, but goodie!

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