Staying true to the source of Helpful

When you work closely with the founder of a business, it can feel tricky at times. I’ve worked with 4 founders in my career. Two of these were the old-school type of founder. They were motivated by the prospect of earning a large amount of money and, to a lesser extent, building teams and contributing to the economy.

For the past 5 and a bit years I’ve been working at Helpful, directly with Steph. He’s very generous, works incredibly hard, is clever, astute and good fun to be around. So, pretty much the ideal founder to work with.

There are still tricky times, primarily because having lots of responsibility in a successful business like Helpful means I am paranoid about not messing things up, for myself or the rest of the team.

I feel very protective of the ingredients that drew me to Helpful in the first place:

Helping people do digital for themselves

There are lots of agencies delivering products and services for their clients, having identified a gap in the market. I genuinely believe that we continue to push our clients to do more for themselves, by responding to their opportunities in creative and practical ways.

Quiet ambition

Success is judged as much by the quality and variety of work we are delivering each year, as turnover or profitability (although it’s essential that we are hitting some modest profitability targets too).

Occasionally we get caught up in planning for headcount or other types of scale, and this will become more important, but hopefully not at the expense of any of the values listed here.

Being generous to ourselves and others

When I first joined Helpful I was struck by how neat everything was for a team of 6 people. Nice kit for everyone, a comfortable, clean working space and loads of opportunities to work flexibly.

In addition Helpful supports all sorts of great causes throughout the year. Some of these are related to our work i.e. sponsoring unconferences or donating to charities nominated by staff. There’s no agenda here. No culture strategy or sinister plan to lock people in to the team, although I’m sure it helps retention.

An open minded approach to clients

I love the fact that we work with such a diverse range of clients, by sector, country and profile. We’ve developed this partly through accident rather than design, but fundamentally we’re not brand snobs.

Sure, it’s exciting to land a contract with Global Hyper Mega Corp PLC. However some of our most rewarding work (in every respect) still emerges from the niche or little-heard-of organisations – provided they have a need to communicate well online.

What’s in, what’s out, what’s next?

Tom Nixon wrote a great piece about the ‘source’ of founders, and taking forward a business by identifying What’s In, What’s Out and What’s Next. I think the values above should always remain in the ‘What’s In’ category, regardless of what happens.

We don’t always get all of these right, all of the time. As the business continues to grow in different ways it’s getting harder to maintain Helpful values consistently across all projects.

The What’s Out category is easier: the opposite to all of the above. For example, scrimping on time and kit to squeeze every drop of profitability from a project.

As a team we’ll talk more about What’s Next through 2020.

Staying true to the source

I’m not the founder, so I end up feeling a bit like a values policeman. Often interfering with work that would be acceptable anywhere else, but with good intention: to ensure we’re staying true to the values that make Helpful a little different and true to the source of the business.

However, I’ve never felt more invested in a business or vision before now. I am excited to see how we maintain these values throughout all our work.


Understanding time and productivity in an agency

For a number of years we’ve been using timesheets in our team.

We do this to keep track on how many hours we put in to client projects and to measure our margins on particular pieces of work.

When we first started using timesheets, I really struggled. In fact, I’d say it was one of the most difficult parts of a transition away from public service life and back into the private sector. I understood why it is a good idea, but I felt uncomfortable laying my working hours open to colleagues.

This was mainly because I could see others racking up huge numbers of hours each week, whereas some days I might struggle to record more than 4 hours of focussed work. I’ll return to this point in a moment.

My other worry about timesheets is that I have seen them create anxiety among the rest of the team: who is measuring what and why? In a world of Strava and Fitbit, measurement equals performance and league tables.

Wind forward 4 years or so and I don’t know how I’d get by without a timesheet. It’s the single best productivity tool I have and I get loads of satisfaction logging time each day. Sad but true.

In order to get to this point I’ve learned a few things about timesheets at Helpful.

Record meaningful time

Timesheets are a record of focussed, productive time, or ‘committed’ time. By committed I mean time you have to spend on something, such as travelling to a client, or a meeting. They should also record holiday and L&D. But timesheets aren’t there to apportion a regulated 8 hours you spent in the office, or to justify long days that may not have been necessary.

For example, some days you might leave the office late and have only recorded a few hours. That’s not great, but it tells you a lot about the projects you’re working on, the tasks within those and how easy or not you might be finding the work.

Be comfortable recording a variety of hours

Timesheets only work from a business management perspective if they are accurate. We don’t want to bill clients extra time because people feel they should be recording 8 hours a day. Equally, we need to make sure we understand which tasks and projects take the most time.

Timesheets work really well if you have lots of small tasks and meetings to deal with. Great if you’re providing client support or have a busy day of meetings. Terrible if you’re thinking about a new business strategy or seeking inspiration for a project.

Realistically, I don’t think a typical day equates to 8 productive hours. It might be 4, 5 or 6 hours, depending on the tasks you have or how focussed you are feeling.

Busy periods, travel or hard projects might equate to many more hours.

Daily timesheets are more useful

I maintain the timesheet daily. It’s the only way I can keep on top of it and I like to use it as a way of understanding my productivity. I don’t believe records of emails or calendar entries can ever give an accurate picture of time spent on projects. Completing a timesheet little and often also helps to bring a natural break between tasks throughout the day.

Use your timesheet to change your patterns

Most important of all, after working this way for a few years, I think I’ve developed a good sense of when I am at my best for different types of work. For example: admin first thing to get me started, creative stuff mid-late morning, but pretty useless 11am – 2pm (so ideal for things which ‘lead’ me: lunch, calls, meetings, travel). I’ve even used it to tweak my diet, with some success.


We use WorkflowMax right now. It’s clunky, but does lots of clever things with our accounting software.

I preferred Freckle, which we used to have.

I turn off desktop notifications most days.

I make hundreds of to-do lists every month, mainly in Trello and also in my notebook. There’s something satisfying about ordering, reordering and crossing off.

I’ve recently started using Forest. A very neat app that makes a game out of staying focused.

The first 4 months of 2019




A whopping year

Here’s a download of a few thoughts I’ve been meaning to share online, from the past 12 months. Not quite a review of the year, just an opportunity to reflect in no particular order.

Working with engineering companies

Engineering is a broad catch-all term for a group of huge, high profile organisations we’ve found ourselves working with in 2017 and 2018. This has been by fate rather than design, but whether they’re energy, aerospace or pharmaceutical they all have very similar challenges – and they have all been utterly brilliant to work with.

Two things I’ve come to realise, from these projects:

  1. These are all deeply technical companies. Their staff want to understand how stuff works, and they are in the habit of sharing new things with colleagues. They don’t need an innovation lab, or any of that nonsense – they just do it every day. So, building capability around social media can be fun, iterative and well supported internally.
  2. When a big brand asks you to pitch for something, don’t panic! Yes, their online advertising may look spectacular and far outstrip our creative and technical experience. But, more often than not, so much of this work has been largely outsourced. The appetite for digital skills, particularly within corporate comms and operations teams is huge, as they feel increasingly left behind by the agencies whom they commission.


I keep coming back to this word when we’ve been talking about the past 12 – 18 months as a team.

I’ve loved the variety of work we’ve been involved in. By any measure, be it sector, country, type of project, value or overall demand, the hypothetical pie chart is a feast of slices and colours.

More importantly it’s challenging us as a team. Challenging us to keep on top of skills and knowledge that we should already be sharing in our training courses and the technology we build. And giving us confidence when we deliver something new, and it works well.

In hindsight, in previous years we’ve been slightly stuck in 1-2 markets and with a fairly strict menu of offers. It now feels like we are *everywhere* and with a much more blended offer.

Sticking to projects with purpose

For a long time now we’ve talked as a team about striking a balance between generating income and making sure that all the projects we take on are purposeful.

None of the team really want to undermine our client capability mission by delivering tick box digital. That includes vanity websites and crisis simulations that end up being more theatre than learning.

The difficulty is, we can all argue a purpose for the projects we love. But I think we’re starting to build a picture of the types of projects that ring alarm bells early on. This really needs solving in 2019, because too many of the ‘wrong’ projects back-to-back could leave people fed up and disenchanted.

Delivering on capability as one team

While we still have a team who are focussed on building and maintaining websites and our online platforms, there have been more projects this year – both for clients and ourselves – that have been delivered by both the build and social media teams. I really enjoyed working with Katie and Steph on a digital planning project for the General Optical Council, for example.

I think more and more of our clients get that we do lots of digital implementation and training, but internally we’re still a bit hung up on brands, rigid platforms and labelling of projects. I’m hoping we’ll win more work next year that fits comfortably in both Social Simulator and Helpful Technology buckets.

Building our team

I think we’re now in entering the hard yards of building a team. We are trying to build a diverse, collaborative team while at the same time continue to offer some democracy about the type of work we do.

Our approach to recruitment has come on a along way since 2017, and we’ve started to try a more consistent approach to helping people develop their roles. This is as much about everyone staying on top of key skills in their areas, as it is about having every role contributing something to the overall running of the business and our capability building mission for all clients.

But, it’s hard to keep a team energised about internal development and improvement during a busy year.

The 5 stages of proposal writing

We’ve had some interesting opportunities come our way just recently. They’ve all required a formal proposal with strict word counts and very specific details, which isn’t always the norm for us.

I enjoy it, but for me these types of opportunities tend to be a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions and productivity. There is, however, a pattern:

  1. False dawn
    The brief I thought I was getting isn’t quite the same as I anticipated. Between that cosy chat with the client and publication of the official tender, other people have had sign-off, and now the scope is less liberal than I hoped. But who cares? The show is on the road!
  2. Procrastination
    A bit like writers block. I want to give this one 110%, but that means finding a moment to start writing where all the stars are aligned: coffee, headspace and inspiration.
    I’ve learnt that it doesn’t have to be like that, if I remember one simple piece of advice from Dave Trott.
  3. Confusion and fear
    As I get deeper into the proposal, I start to wonder if maybe I have completely misunderstood the audience and aims. The client’s language becomes a blur and suddenly I’m not sure if they’re asking for training or admin support. What if we have the entire premise of this work wrong? Cue furious reviewing of the opening letter and summary.Phew.I (think I) was right all along. Keep going.
  4. Denial – not letting go
    The substantive portion of the proposal was complete weeks before deadline, but that was only in draft. Now comes the self-induced pressure-driven tweaking and tucking, honing words, checking what we’re committed to and second guessing what the client will think.
    We’ve still got a few hours left to give this another polish. Let me have one more read, just to be sure…
  5. C’est la vie
    It’s in. Submitted.
    Yeah, whatever. It’d be a nice project to have but if we don’t get it, well, the brief wasn’t what it should be anyway. Or, we have better things to do.It’s not like I’m going to be refreshing my inbox every 2 minutes for the next fortnight. Not at all.


Being a mentor

I’ve always benefited from having mentors.

Now, it’s been my turn to offer an ear, some support and guidance, and I love being able to help wherever possible.

Mentoring can mean lots of different things. On the Digital Action Plan it can be quite specific to a set of skills, tools or overcoming some fears.

Elsewhere, it can be much more general advice about careers and professional relationships. In this way, I’ve been mentoring two people I respect and whose energy is refreshing.

Both of these approaches have been through formal mentoring schemes, but I think the value for the mentees – and for me – has been in the lack of structure to the relationship.

We’ve been ‘matched’ to a certain extent. I like to think all three of us are fairly quiet, hard working, ambitious. But that’s where it ends. The scheme (so far) hasn’t dictated that we talk about careers, skills, inter-personal communication or contacts.

My default is always to feel like I should mentor people about digital. In actual fact, the lack of structure has given my new friends and I the licence to discuss what’s holding them back, or exciting them most, about work.

The insights they provide in to their working worlds help keep me in tune with the realities of working in big organisations: the opportunities and the necessary risks. It’s a reality check – they haven’t always had the easiest of rides.

Their needs give me a different project to focus on. Something I can keep ticking over in the back of my mind but without stringent deadlines, contracts or budgets to worry about.

Mentoring helps me practice listening and observation, without judgment.

The result of this is that I feel able to give (hopefully) clear, frank advice and suggestions. And the feedback is that they find the chats useful, even if we don’t always agree.

It’s hard to put ROI or evaluation on this sort of unstructured relationship. So when it comes to mentoring schemes, join them, support them, be part of it. But keep it loose and unstructured, for maximum benefit.

Be honest – when do you work best?

Not everyone can be productive in the conventional sense. We all need to get stuff done, but not everyone’s work fits in to neat lists.

Lists are all very well, but next to useless without some variety, ordering and flexibility.

You can add something like ‘write a blog post’ to your list, block out some time to do it, but if the inspiration isn’t there, or, frankly, you can’t be bothered at that time, so what?

This is what frustrates me with productivity tools.

I have two lists: one with big tasks and hard deadlines, that need hitting. These are client projects, new business proposals and the work we do on developing products and services.

I also have a list of equally important, but much smaller items like billing, data entry and making travel arrangements. These things need to be done, but because they’re bite sized I can fit them in at a time when I feel I can’t clear my head for the big stuff.

Being honest

This is important, because I’ve started being more honest with myself about productive times of the day. And there’s not many of them, which is slightly embarrassing.

8-10.30am is good. 3-5pm is OK. Sunday mornings too.

This means that writing presentations and proposals has to happen first thing or late afternoon, or not at all. The in between bits can be usefully filled with admin. Or late morning I go for a short walk to pick up some lunch

Most importantly, I’ve stopped feeling guilty about the relatively small windows of productive time that I enjoy. I’m less worried about the fact I can’t be the hours-straight productivity machine that I used to aspire to (and still admire from afar). I don’t know how people work like this, I envy them, but my work and my concentration just don’t fit this.

There are some exceptions: clients call meetings when they need them and I work around those. I also hate being on a train or driving during a productive part of the day, but that can’t be helped.

If you’re wondering about effective working, productivity and getting more done, take a really honest look at when you’re at your best, and work to that schedule.

Image licensed under Creative Commons. Attributed to Chris Lott

Bereavement in the workplace

This is a bit of a sad topic for this blog, but something I’ve been thinking about on and off for years.

When a colleague dies, or a colleague suffers a bereavement, it’s really hard to know what to do. There’s the formal, pastoral, possibly policy-led response:

  • take some time off*
  • click here for counselling etc.

*(varies depending on who it was who died)

Then there’s the more personal response, that’s driven by your own sense of loss, bewilderment and shock. You can’t believe you won’t see them in the office again, or if it’s a colleague that’s suffered a bereavement, that this has happened to them.

We’re used to seeing our colleagues through a fairly professional lens, in a work context. You know they have lives at home, and maybe you’ve had glimpses into that life. But basically we think of each other in terms of roles, responsibilities and projects.

So when they’re upset in the office, or snatched away, or sick, it can be even more of a shock. The dawning realisation that Joe Bloggs had kids, or his wife has died. Wasn’t she the one who sent that cake in last month?

I heard of one team member who drove his colleague straight home – 120 miles down the M4 – after he received some bad news. That’s a brilliant thing to do. Get your colleague home to his family as quick as possible, and in a private space.

It goes without saying that giving people space is the most important thing you can do, but I also think its important to keep in touch and let them know you’re thinking of them. Hopefully it makes the return to work a little less awkward for everyone.

The return to work. Could be awkward all round. Don’t mention this, focus on that. Sweep the office for any inappropriate correspondence. One of my mentors, who wasn’t renowned for his day-to-day sensitivity, actually had a gift for welcoming recently bereaved staff back to the office. He’d suddenly launch a new magazine, website or other initiative for them to lead, creating a busy (but caring) atmosphere. ‘Work should be somewhere you can come to forget your troubles at home’ he said. I’m not sure councillors would agree with that, but I think there’s something in it.


Running a great workshop

I’ve just finished delivering two weeks of digital workshops on behalf of different organisations. Mostly, I really enjoy planning and delivering workshops. There’s a nervous rush in anticipation of the characters you might meet, and an opportunity to be creative in how you set up the session.

Workshops are an integral part of our Digital Action Plan program. They help us to understand the participants a little better, share some fresh ideas for discussion, and encourage them to identify the digital skills they may not already have, or would like to develop.

The Action Plan program supports people to identify and work on their individual needs, but the opening workshop is a team event. To deliver this element at a competitive price, at scale, these can’t be a totally unique agenda and content each time.

However, I’ve got to thinking that there are some common elements to delivering a successful workshop, which have to be in place. You may have the best and most exciting-sounding workshop agenda ever, but if the following elements aren’t right, then participants will struggle.


It’s one thing coming up with lots of exciting exercises, clever presentations and discussion points. However, you need to be clear on the purpose of every section of the workshop, as well as the activity. Doing something collaborative with sticky notes is usually a bit of fun, but how will the output contribute to participants’ learning?


I’m a stickler for this, having been a participant in too many badly-run meetings and events. Participants will always turn up late – fact. But everyone will expect the workshop to finish on time, and you need to be aware that attention and energy will be tailing off well before the stated finish time.

People will never criticise you for finishing on time, but if the session overruns (particularly if they perceive this to be due to poor facilitation), that’s pretty much all they’ll remember.

Technology, only when it’s needed

Depending on the purpose of our workshops, we have varying dependencies on technology. I’m keen to encourage participants to be trying things out on their devices as we’re talking or presenting. However, some of the venues we are asked to attend have less than satisfactory wifi. For this reason I tend to make sure we are not reliant on participants having to work online for the whole workshop.

In addition, there’s nothing more frustrating than tech for the sake of it. Interactive voting systems or video embedded in presentation have their place, but use sparingly as any glitches on the day can be disruptive and annoying.

Flexibility in content

This is the trickiest one for us to tackle, when planning and delivering multiple workshops. The content has to be relevant to the audience, but the purpose and overall messages are usually the same.

There is also any paired combination of up to six people who might deliver workshops of a similar format. Everyone needs to feel confident about the supporting material, which means presenting case studies and sparking discussions about which they feel knowledgable.

I think we’re learning how to segment agendas and supporting decks, to allow different combinations of presenters to insert their favourite content – and more importantly, make sure its relevant to the participants.


I used to think this was all about having bags of energy, making people laugh and holding their attention. That’s still true to an extent, but the single most important activity is managing contributions from participants. This means nurturing those who are less confident, focussing the contributions of those who have a lot to say and challenging those who feel the activities or case studies aren’t applicable.


Check temperature, open blinds (if you’re lucky enough to have windows), sort lighting so people can see what they’re doing, and the slides. Oh and fruit, chocolate, drinks. These things go a long way to helping people feel comfortable and alert.


Participants always ask for copies of material they have found useful – project planning grids, how-to guides, book recommendations and so on. I’m a little hesitant about issuing copies of slide decks for the sake of it – they rarely make sense on their own – and if people are inspired or curious about a particular case study or fact, there are other ways to find it.


I use this planning grid to try and keep me true to the purpose of the workshop, the timings, and the activities.