With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

It falls to me to capture day 5 of Birmingham’s second Spaghetti lab – pitch day. I feel great power: I can sum-up our week. But how do I capture our week in a few feeble words? What a responsibility.
We all have our own unique experience – we have all learnt something of ourselves. We have immersed ourselves in a subject we knew little about – foster caring. Then today we had to pitch our idea back to the experts, the experienced and our bosses!

The day starts with a check-in; we are nervous.
We watch a great example of a pitch

TheKingsFund: Joined Up Care, Sams Story

We run through our pitch – it is better than yesterday but still not right. We repeat ourselves too much. We waffle.
We get feedback, we make changes and we try again. Make, measure, learn.
We run through the pitch again – less repetition, still a bit waffle-y.
More feedback, more changes and we try again. Make, measure, learn.
But now the time is short; Mikaayel has joined us today, he is very positive but also very polite – so how can we believe what he says!
The pressure is on, after lunch we set up the room for the pitch. We decide to use the main auditorium which shakes us up a little – out of the comfort of the Lab room which we’ve used all week.
We run through again – I forget nearly everything that I want to say, I make points that others are planning to make. Is practicing helping? Is this idea any good? What will people make of it? Have we got anything useful to say? Will they wonder what we’ve been doing all week?
Final, run through – still waffle-y, still stilted. It’s too late to change now. A crowd is waiting outside the door…
Make, measure, learn.
Judge for yourself: the video will be released soon.

Afterwards, question number 1: “how will this actually benefit the children?” Talk about getting to the point; this is why I love Impact Hub Brum. Where else could we give this presentation and have someone in the room with first-hand experienced of the foster system along with those in the positions of power who control the system. Unique? Certainly very special.
After this, the feedback moves into positive comment, then into a more informal setting allowing one-to-one discussion.  The pitch has been generally well received, the team feels relief and we’re pleased.

The star of the lab is the kid’s artwork from the weekend.


The star of the pitch is Dalbir and our family

Dalbir and the familySerious point being made

Today went well. We got good feedback, the pitch wasn’t perfect but it did get the message across. And, importantly, all of us involved gained a bit of something for ourselves.

I do hope we turn this idea into reality. I believe it will lead to more available foster parents and, eventually, translate into Birmingham’s children getting better foster care. After all, THAT is the point.

Spaghetti lab day 3

The plan for the day IMG_1256

We checked in first thing with a summary of how we found day 2, our understanding of the brief from the Fostering service and our thoughts, looking forward to getting involved in the prototype.  We first looked at the drivers to fostering.


Here we looked around Human Needs/Behaviours, Existing Technologies, Existing Services and Data Sources.  From this we came up with some initial ideas.

We came up with Inspire, Reassurance, Inform,

Spaghetti attended an awards event in a school over the weekend and fed back their insights back to the group from current foster carers and their children. Below are some of the visual thoughts from fostered children.


During the whole day we took part in various team building exercises including the exercise called apple, see below.


A powerful exercise, that enabled the team to get down ideas quickly.  We were given a grid to complete with as many visual/words we could think of in a set time.  The word we were given was APPLE, and our restriction was we couldn’t talk to each other.

After lunch we looked at a video on Lean Start Up – this was around developing an app quickly for people that wanted to see what they looked like in different styles of sunglasses.

We then, the exciting bit, began to develop the first prototype on how to attract potential Foster Carers.  We presented this back to Spaghetti and the representative from the Adoption and Fostering team.


We took this prototype out to the streets of Birmingham, meeting the public, to capture their thoughts







We came back as a team and consolidated our ideas and confirmed the reasons why we arrived at the prototype.  Looking forward to day 4.

Spaghetti lab day 2

We checked in first thing with a summary of how we found day 1, our understanding of the brief from the Fostering service and our thoughts for the day ahead. 

Today’s sessions were about insights and ideas!


It was clear that we needed some fine tuning of the brief and after some pre coffee  discussion agreed it could be summarised as

‘Engaging new foster care applications and then keeping applicants engaged’ 


We spent some time going through what we had learned so far,  what are the facts and what insights do we have.

e. g.  we know we want to increase foster care applications from 27  to around 144 per year,  the process is repetitive for applications and there is out of date content on website.


Insights such as – struggling to  keep the website up to date,  lack of clarity on the foster care process and a  wide funnel but low conversion rate.

We used the insights to begin  thinking about empathy mapping,  rather than personas .  We wanted to understand behaviour,  concerns and  aspirations of potential applicants.

Armed with a basic understanding of the facts and insights,  we stepped out into the autumn sunshine to find some potential foster carers!

We split into 2 groups,  leaving Tim back at the lab to do some telephone research.


We managed 8 interviews,  which were very enlightening,  including 2 people keen enough to want more details! Of note were the facts most people new something about foster care or knew someone that looked after a foster child and they also talked about financial and emotional rewards along with a lot risk.


After lunch we interviewed Aleysha,  who had been in foster care since the age of 13 and Joy who is a social worker in a residential care home for children.  This was a very thoughtful and moving interview,  giving great insight  into the realism of foster care from both the  child’s perspective  and the carer perspective.   Therer was a contradiction  how you sell the foster care  role and the reality of the challenging nature of the role.  Army recruitment and boot camp were mentioned as similar processes.


The empathy mapping exercise initially lacked clarity,  we then split it into potential applicants and those with actual experience.  It was easier then  to see different factors affecting each group.

We tried to bring together our understanding of everything we’d heard over the day and group together common themes. We gathered these as Key insights


We finished the day thinking about,  more detailed analysis of the issues and barriers along with potential territories and ideas that may be considered in pre alpha prototyping.

Checking in

Welcome to Spaghetti Lab 2! We have a new problem to solve, and a new team to work together to design the solution. Simon and Tim who were participants from Lab 1 will be participating in this new task, to be joined by Dalbir, Des, and Sue from the Web Content Management team in Customer Services to work on the challenge which has been set for us.

Lab 1 was principally about learning and testing the process, but with Lab 2, as well as iterating and refining the process, and sharing it out to a wider group of people, we have an additional goal – to have an outcome at the end of the week which will be turned into a real product as part of the council’s digital transformation project.

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As with Lab 1, the first morning session consisted of introductions and early team-building exercises – an introduction to the process for the benefit of Dalbir, Des, and Sue, followed by a period of questioning and sharing during a walk around Digbeth; from each other we learned things such as where we think we’ll be in five years time, what keeps us working for the organisation, and what we think we might like to work as in a parallel universe.

Then after lunch we were joined by Paula, our Customer Service service director, and Natasha, from the council’s Adoption and Fostering team, to be set our brief:

How might we enable Birmingham’s ‘pragmatic doers’ to see the potential in fostering Birmingham’s looked after children?

We learned from Natasha that there is currently a shortage of new people coming forward each year to join the pool of potential foster parents to meet the needs of children the council has responsibility for, and we also learned that despite the many misconceptions about the requirements to be a foster parent (did you know that the only cast iron requirements are for you to be over 21, with a spare room in your house, and no criminal convictions against a child? Anything else which you might think might stop you from being accepted can be discussed on a case by case basis!), the service has a reasonable number of initial contacts enquiring about being a foster parent, but from those initial contacts there’s a high abandonment rate. The problem we need to solve is how to use a website and wider digital technology to make the service more attractive to potential fosterers in the first place, and then keep them engaged through the whole application, training, and placement process.

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And to end the day we created an initial Customer Journey Map of how a new foster parent joins the system, from how they initially learn about the service’s existence, what the touch points are as they make their initial enquiries, and how once they are in the system they are kept engaged. From this we can carry out an early analysis of where the issues might lay and how to start solving them.

Tomorrow, we meet the public!

Day 5 – Finalising the product and presenting!

So first of all, to recap on our activity during the week leading us to today:

Day 1 – Introduction to the process, team-building, and being presented with the challenge: How might we engage SMEs in Birmingham to deliver valuable experiences for young people (16 to 20 year olds) who are able to engage.

Day 2 – Initial market research – going out on to the streets to talk to people – young people, small business owners, employment advisors – to find out what their experiences of work experience and the barriers to delivering or receiving a valuable / worthwhile experience have been, and think about possible solutions.

Day 3 – More detailed conversations with people to hone down their insights into the form of empathy maps – what do they think about work experience, what do they see and hear about it, and what do they do regarding it? From the empathy maps (an empathy map for the experience providers – businesses and other organisations – and one for the receivers – young jobseekers) we created solution maps – what will our solution provide to users as gain creators, in what way might it relieve the pain of providing or participating work experience, and what will our solution actually do.

Day 4 – Design! With the research done and our ideas reasonably well formed, Thursday was the day to actually start committing those ideas into something more resembling a product to take around and show people to say ‘how does this look as an idea? Do you think you would use it?’ and get their feedback. As a team of people fairly well embedded in digital solutions, we made our prototypes by drawing boxes on pieces of paper and in notebooks. Even a man such as myself who generally refuses to touch anything which looks remotely like ink unless it’s in a printer cartridge accepts that sometimes it’s just easier to use a marker pen to convey an idea. We did an initial paper prototype to take around in the morning, came back and adjusted it based on feedback, and then took the more refined version out again in the afternoon.

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And by the beginning of this morning, with all the work we’d done during the week gathered together nicely on to the walls and connected together by a long piece of string, the room looked something like this:

(click the picture and drag it around to see the ghost of Nick!)

Day 5

The morning’s first task was to crystallise all of our thinking about the business model of our platform into one big piece of paper on which we documented our customer segments and relationships, the channels of communication to our customers, the value proposition of our platform, the costs of providing the platform and the revenue streams it will generate (in this instance less tangible than cash per se), the key activities which will be done through the platform and the key resources that platform will have, and the key partners needed to help deliver the service the platform will provide.

And then it was time to prepare our final presentation as the culmination of the week’s work!

Before doing that we had a couple of brief detours – first to listen to part of a talk / discussion in the main part of the Impact Hub led by Indy Johar about the sharing economy and what that means – good and bad – for freelancers in the context of employment rights and access to things like personal finance, and secondly to give a quick Skype call to participants at the Birmingham City Council / Service Birmingham partnership day to brief them about the process we’ve been going through during the week.

Those diversions accomplished we prepared our pitches, and waited for the audience to file into what was actually a small room for a group of about 15 people drawn from the Birmingham City Council, Service Birmingham, and Impact Hub communities. In the spirit of a meeting of the Privy Council we didn’t have any chairs out, so everybody had to stand to ensure it didn’t drag on. Our pitch began introducing the stories of Michael – a jobseeker – and Jo – a shop owner, and their experiences and the problems they faced with doing and providing work experience, followed by our suggested solution, with a lively – in the supportive sense – question and answer session following.

And as we finished our time on this project, we looked back on the real purpose of the week: to trial out a process for an alternative way of working between BCC and SB staff to deliver projects much more quickly than we usually do, by instead of the old method of disparate individuals engaged in small pieces of activity passed from person to person spread out over weeks, and indeed months, to instead get a project team together in a room to devote focussed energy on the project over a short period of time, identifying the problem, mind-harvesting the barriers and the objectives, and designing – and, most importantly, testing with real users the solution in an iterative, agile approach prior to sending on to an implementation team to make real. As the group of five staff members sent away to test this way of working on a theoretical project, we’re absolutely convinced of the enhanced value of it as a joint practice for the future. And as theoretical the brief of the project might initially have been, we think the outcome just might have potential as a real thing worth implementing as well…