April 14, 2022

Chapter 7 — Generate Strategic Business

It was about four months into my time at Difrent that we landed our first strategic deal. This was for the NHS — one of the largest employers in the world — and was to transform their existing jobs service. NHS Jobs was to become the platform for all hiring into the organisation, whether you were looking to recruit a hospital porter or a brain surgeon.

We bid for a Discovery through the DOS framework. This was a 14-week project which would include User Research (UR), Business Analysis, Delivery Management, Service Design, and the creation of an outline business case to validate building a recruitment platform for all hiring into the NHS. It was a huge deal for us.

We bid for this piece of work up in Newcastle upon Tyne. For a Londoner, this was literally the other end of the country. I made the journey north and led the bid and pitch with our then Delivery Director. This was very early into us being an outcome-based business. I had a few months under my belt at Difrent and this was why I’d joined — this is what I wanted and it was time to step up to the plate, grab the bull by the horns, put my head above the parapet and… not fake it ’til we make it. This was where we were going to make it. We needed self-confidence and the knowhow to back that up, and it was all in place to get us where we wanted to be. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. You can’t rock up to a pitch giving it the big one — people have heard it all before. And that would be the wrong kind of reputation to start building.

This initial piece of work got us motoring! The way I saw it, startups need to start somewhere. It was just the company that didn’t have the track record yet. We were absolutely worthy though. There was a lot to do within a 14-week Discovery. It was unusual to include a business case, but we were super keen! There’s always going to be a bit of give and take, a bit of compromise and negotiation… and being relatively new to the game, we probably gave more than we usually would have. They’d be getting a lot of bang for their buck. We all knew that, but to us this was a long-term investment. We threw absolutely everything into this opportunity and we were over the moon when the gig landed. It was the first outcome deal, our first UCD deal and it was our first NHS client. We were bouncing off the ceiling!

Confirmation came through within a couple of weeks. At first there was the theoretical, We’re gonna be in Newcastle to the, Fuck, we’re in Newcastle! It was a huge chicken-and-egg situation in that respect — there are notice periods for mobilising permanent staff, and it’s all speculative. I’m risk-averse, so we couldn’t mobilise anyone ’til we signed the contract.

I spent the first nine months of this gig working on-site with the team as we went from Discovery to Alpha phase. In parallel, it felt like the company was in Discovery at the same time. We had to bid for the Alpha again and managed to build a great team around it that really supercharged Difrent. A lot of our workforce were from, or based in, the area — with 50% being interim, albeit our aim was always to have a 70/30 split in favour of perm!

Newcastle bridge as the sun sets
Ant and Dec’s home town

Newcastle quickly became a second home to me. I’m a huge fan of the accent and the banter up there. The city ultimately became the home of our second office when we found space in the Toffee Factory — a great old building in the creative Ouseburn area, just by the River Tyne. It wasn’t just the cool, arty neighbourhood that drew us in — we deliberately took office space outside of NHSBSA’s main site to ensure we were creating our own culture, but also to allow for overspill from BSA. Splitting out a team that had been co-located proved to be an interesting experience. It was a decision which cost us money and was reversed towards the end, but a good learning curve nonetheless!

The Toffee Factory in Newcastle when the sun is setting
The Toffee Factory
A man pointing to a smartwall with papers pinned to it
Designing user journeys on the smartwall

For this outcome, I wasn’t alone in thinking we would probably do a deal with an existing recruitment platform player. However, when we did a procurement exercise, we found nobody out there who was prepared to create a licensing model that would work for the NHS. Importantly, it was obvious that the existing systems on the market did not meet all of the user needs we’d identified.

Our pitch was to build a platform to meet the user needs for the NHS use cases. The NHS would then own the Intellectual Property to create a revenue model, as we could see there was a market across the government departments. Even in the early stages of writing our proposal we came across similar systems within DfE, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Civil Service.

Difrent has continued to work on NHS Jobs platform over the last three years, and over 6,500 different organisations currently use the platform for all of their hiring. The system has evolved a lot from the original scope. It now has full functionality, including reporting, and we’ve continued to undertake UR and iterate on the interaction design based on user needs throughout. I’m immensely proud of the work Difrent has done with the NHS. Our platform has won awards both from a user-centred perspective and for our partnerships with the NHS. As a business, we grew up alongside that contract.

The Difrent crew with the team at NHSBSA — one team, one dream. Standing for a photo with an award
The Difrent crew with the team at NHSBSA — one team, one dream

Following rapidly on the heels of our success with the NHS, our second strategic deal was with Public Health England (PHE), with whom I had a previous working relationship. This foundation helped us to secure PHE as a client and we were overjoyed to land the gig.

PHE wanted to build out a real-time digital repository for its 5,000 staff. Essentially, Difrent would be replacing an intranet and creating the ability for real-time engagement and knowledge transfer. We got in on this project at Alpha stage, as another organisation had already undertaken the Discovery work. The technical bent of this project meant that we needed an engineering partner. We pulled in Vix Digital, co-locating between their Warrington office and Wellington House (PHE’s London base). Tony Yates had been my Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the NHS, so he and I had a good working relationship. Based on that and Vix’s healthcare experience, bringing Tony on board was a no-brainer. Difrent ran the UR, Design, and Delivery Management and Tony’s crew was on the dev tools. We delivered the outcome, and had our first taste of the cultural challenges that working with a third party can bring!

We ended up working together over five months to deliver the Alpha and to support PHE with a wider change programme. Subsequently, the code we published to GitHub for this outcome was picked up and used elsewhere in the NHS for intranet creation and adoption. This sat well with my personal belief of public money, public code!

Our third strategic deal was with the British Psychological Society (BPS). This sounds like a health organisation, but it’s actually a registered charity with a Royal Charter, representing psychology and its practitioners throughout the UK. There’s a bit of a theme occurring here, as once again I had worked with a member of the team at BPS in the past and Rachel Dufton reached out for this opportunity.

The project was initially to undertake some Wardley Mapping of their IT department to help identify where some of their pain points lay. We were then given the opportunity to bid for a piece of data assessment work and change programme — ultimately a big procurement. Our bid was successful and we co-located with BPS, taking up residency at their HQ in Leicester for an 18-month programme. This called for a multi-disciplinary team. We placed around half a dozen heads onsite with BPS, covering a range of skills — Development Management, Business Advisory, Change, Procurement, Project Management, Data Migration, Testing, and Database Administration. This was an even 50/50 split of perm and interim. We were responsible for procuring and implementing a number of new IT systems, including a new CMS and Human Resources (HR) system, as well as replacing their in-house ERP with a Software as a Service based (SaaS) finance system. The advantage here for us over many of our competitors is that although we conducted UR at the outset, we opted for off-the-shelf solutions for BPS rather than a bespoke build.

These strategic deals in the first 12 months of operating as a delivery business really cemented our experience in the healthcare space. As newcomers, no one could deny our arrival on the delivery scene. We were doing exactly what we’d set out to achieve. These deals, as well as our more bread and butter work, also helped build our confidence as our experience grew. As we saw projects through to completion, we wanted to get industry recognition for what we were doing. We were proud of the work and the time was right to start shouting about it.

My takeaways

  1. Be brave and take a punt on strategic opportunities that match your values.
  2. Be clear on where you really see your company working. If we’d sat tight doing the work that came our way, rather than chasing user-centred, we wouldn’t have remained true to our values.
  3. Healthcare was always going to be our core market. We stayed true to that aim.
  4. Using my network and contacts was crucial in the first three years — don’t be afraid to use yours!
  5. You might not get work on your doorstep — you may have to travel by plane, train or automobile to get there!

What helped me generate strategic business

  1. Using Wardley Mapping to understand situational awareness.
  2. Bringing change programmes to life, I found Rich Pictures from Scriberia exceptional for engagement.
  3. Accessing the boatload of open source code that’s published to GitHub, including the NHS Jobs and PHE’s Digital Collaboration Zone. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel!
  4. Public Money, public code is a strategy that helped me remained true to our clients as we implemented our strategy.

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