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Building trust and transparency: behind the scenes on the Researcher Access Service

Photo of the Appian and RDS teams, standing and smiling at the camera
Blog posts

Adam Coulson | Average reading time 4 minutes

27 Jun 2024

Collaboration is key when developing digital services. Adam Coulson, Delivery Manager, shares insights into how the RDS team worked with partners to create the Researcher Access Service.

April 2024 saw the culmination of an intensive six-month co-design project between Public Health Scotland and Research Data Scotland. The public launch of the Researcher Access Service delivered a new end-to-end digital service for researchers accessing secure data.

As Product Owner in the RDS digital delivery team, my role involved maintaining the pace of delivery with the cross-organisational team of consultants, developers, analysts and research coordinators, while creating a working environment where the team felt able to share their knowledge and experience.

A melting pot

The project brought a unique set of challenges. Research Data Scotland were brought in to lead the change, working in tandem with eDRIS (the electronic Data and Research Innovation Service within Public Health Scotland) to co-design and deliver the service. Adding another organisation (Appian, technology providers) created a melting pot of three different working cultures.

Michael Sibley in the eDRIS team has written about his team’s experience of the fast-paced agile delivery approach and how it felt to see the service come to life. He acknowledged some early feelings of fear and trepidation around how the work may play out. With RDS being a relatively new organisation, we were bringing a level of scrutiny, and there was a concern about how people might respond. Knowing this meant it was important that we put effort into building trust and being transparent.

Working in new ways with this cross-functional team wasn't easy - integrating different teams with their own norms and behaviours was not straightforward. We knew that success would hinge on how well we could create our own culture, and get our communications right, especially given that the teams were working remotely all over the UK.

Good habits

I wanted to build good habits, so decided to try a collaborative writing exercise after reading about other teams writing weeknotes.

In the spirit of working in the open, the idea of a weeknote is for you or your team to regularly reflect on the week that’s just ended. They’re supposed to be rough, quick to write, and quick to read, and ideally become a habit.

The cadence of sprints (a sprint being a unit of time in which teams do small iterations of work) meant we were already in a regular pattern of planning sessions, refinement and demos. So, an extra 30-minute slot for a ‘Sprintnote’ fitted nicely into the existing pattern.

What did you learn this week?

In each 30-minute session, I asked one - deliberately open - question: “What did you learn this week?” Each person wrote a couple of sentences in 3 minutes on a post it (we used a Miro board). Then, another person would respond to it, adding a question or comment. Then the original writer would respond to that, and so on. This created a rapid back-and-forth conversation which led in unexpected directions.

It was a great way to tease out people's thoughts. Because it was deliberately open, it meant people could take it in whatever direction they felt. This included thoughts on how the sprint sessions going, how people were enjoying seeing their work come to life in demos, and how we realised the strength of the team – i.e., no one person held the full weight of expectation on themselves. It was a joy to see these things come out in real-time, and to observe how people's knowledge and experience grew with each sprint.

There was also no pressure to attend, which created a different atmosphere to the many Teams calls we were in every day. It was a welcome contrast to the tightly structured and detailed conversations we were having as we co-designed the service.

Building trust

It also served as a teambuilding exercise, helping build relationships and camaraderie across the two teams in RDS and eDRIS. As we built trust, it was also a more informal setting to discuss issues and ideas in a smaller group. Writing in tiny snippets against the clock was a challenge at first, but a handy habit to build, and allowed things to surface organically, without direction.

Working in the open

As Giles Turnbull notes in the Agile Comms handbook “The goal isn’t so much writing a weeknote (a Sprintnote in our case) but becoming the sort of team that habitually writes.” This is what it’s about, really - creating a culture where we encourage the habit of sharing our work in a transparent way.

The challenge as we move into the next phase of the Researcher Access Service is to continue to flex these writing muscles and make it a regular part of how we work.

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