Agile ways of working are gaining momentum in the public sector. Rising citizen expectations, continuing budget pressures and emerging digital technologies are driving the need to do things differently. The traditional risk averse, process-driven and inflexible working methods are no longer able to meet these needs. They do not offer the agility to respond to the changing, sometimes unpredictable demands of central and local public sector organisations, and they focus very little on the end user. There is also a disproportionate effort on process rather than outcomes. Additionally, they do not offer much support for innovation and allowing for both rapid / bare bones delivery and a fail-fast approach. It is perhaps unsurprising that projects are often late, costly and do not deliver the intended benefits.
Agile has been used for over a decade in the technology and product development sectors and is the standard approach for some of the world’s most innovative tech organisations (think Amazon, Spotify, Netflix). These organisations don’t just use agile as a means of delivering IT projects at pace; they use it as an approach to run their businesses.
As a result of the increasing visibility of the benefits reaped by the private sector through agile working practices, I am starting to see more and more public sector organisations explore and implement an agile approach to delivery to enable better results, more social value and crucially improved outcomes for citizens.
Agile Is More Than Hot Desking Or Remote Working
The starting point is setting the right expectation. There is often a misconception that agile is about hot desking and remote working, and that the way to reap all the benefits is to invest in new workspaces and buy the latest mobile working technologies. In fact, agile is far more than this. The goal of agile working is to create a more responsive, efficient and effective organisation. Agile working is an approach to getting work done with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints. It involves working in a completely different way focusing on performance and outcomes. Much of the work I have done in this area is helping organisations to understand both the benefits and the organisational impacts of taking an agile approach to some of their delivery.
Agile Working Is About Mindset And Culture
At its core, agile working is about mindset and culture. Being agile means adopting a mindset of continuous improvement, adaptability and pace. It means creating time for people to innovate and encouraging a culture of collaboration and empowerment. Multidisciplinary and empowered teams are established to deliver user centric, high value solutions. They deliver frequent iterations to ensure continual alignment with business needs and changing circumstances and rely on fast feedback and adaptation to reach desired outcomes. The teams work in a collaborative manner, co-creating and co-designing solutions with citizens and stakeholders. Individuals and interactions are favoured over processes and tools, working solutions (or prototypes) over comprehensive documentation and responding to change over following a plan.
There Are Significant Hurdles To Overcome
Adopting agile in the public sector is difficult. Agile working brings a fundamentally different approach to solving business challenges and is a step change from traditional ways of operating. Public sector organisations are not usually geared up to operate in this way. Complex stakeholder environments, a wide range of objectives, long-established hierarchical structures and processes, centralised decision making and a risk-averse culture present significant hurdles to implementing agile across the organisation.
Additionally, the people challenges should not be underestimated. In fact, this is often the hardest part. Deeply ingrained behaviours and working practices will need to be changed and new capabilities developed to enable employees to work in an agile, outcome focused manner. This will be a significant shift for many. For example, I have seen employees who are used to working with clearly defined processes become paralysed when they are set the goals and given no process to follow! I have also seen employees struggle to make the shift from ‘planning for perfection’ to a ‘test and learn’ and ‘pace’ mindset that agile working requires.
A further challenge relates to the reality that agile transformation takes time and effort. This brings with it the capacity challenge of delivering the transformation whilst simultaneously running the business as usual activities.
What Are The Success Factors For Implementing Agile?
Below are the critical success factors that I’ve seen make the difference for public sector organisations attempting to implement agile.
1. Ensure strong leadership and sponsorship
Agile transformation must be led from the top if it’s to succeed. The senior leadership team must have a strong understanding of the agile vision and continually drive change. They must act as role models and become evangelists. This means leading by example, encouraging collaboration and providing the support that people need to adopt agile working. It also means understanding and continually re-iterating that things may not be optimal (or even fail) the first time around and it’s ok to try again.
2. Focus on building an agile culture
Organisations should focus on building an agile culture. This includes integrating traditionally siloed team structures, moving from command and control to self-organising teams, ensuring teams follow agile principles and shifting mindsets from being process led to outcome led. Governance models will need to be adapted and be more flexible to allow for a more iterative style of working and to enable faster decision making. A culture of failing fast will also need to be developed.
Small, multidisciplinary teams should be established to deliver specific outcomes in short time periods (sprints). For the teams to be effective, they should be empowered with greater independence and resources and be given the necessary authority to make decisions. Leaders will need to ‘let go’ and trust the agile teams to deliver. Functional managers should focus on playing a broader coaching and mentoring role.
HR processes should be adapted to attract, develop and promote the talent needed for agile teams. A recent client that I worked with moved to a behaviour-based recruitment approach which proved instrumental in hiring the right talent. They also established a set of organisational values and behaviours, encompassing agile principles. This was embedded into the annual performance appraisal process, which was critical to enabling effective people development.
3. Build a strong change team with the necessary capabilities for success
A strong, multidisciplinary change team should be established to drive the agile transformation and ensure continued momentum. The team should have a clear remit, roles and responsibilities be well defined, and team members equipped with the necessary agile and interpersonal skills. Team objectives should be linked to individuals’ annual performance goals, so that driving the transformation is an integral part of the day job and not a discretionary extra.
4. Train and coach employees on agile principles and methods
Internal capabilities on agile principles, tools and methods should be developed. Too often I see organisations focus on training - because it’s easier! But a 2-day course won’t make employees agile experts. Training should be combined with giving employees opportunities to be part of an agile team and ongoing coaching support.
It’s also not just about agile principles. Soft skills are equally, if not more important to enable effective agile working, especially in the areas of communication and problem solving.
5. Secure early wins, then scale up
It’s important to start small, demonstrating quickly that the organisation can adopt agile ways of working and succeed. Once the pilots demonstrate the value derived from agile approaches, successes should be shared. Key team members should help evangelise the transformation.
Where possible, agile changes should be highly visible. One of the clients that I worked with introduced standup meetings and a Kanban board in an open office space. This was seen by the broader organisation and rapidly replicated, gathering momentum via word of mouth.
6. Keep challenging the teams on mindset: outcomes vs. traditional
When things get difficult, I often see people revert to the comfort of traditional approaches and behaviours. It’s critical to ensure that any relapse doesn’t stick. As soon as the warning signs are seen, people should be quickly re-focused on agile ways of working and outcomes. I also see leaders struggle to ‘let go’. They must learn to do this and resist the urge to dive in when problems arise. Leaders need to trust their teams to ‘get on with it’ and self-manage.
Barriers that may be standing in people’s way should be looked for. Employees should be regularly asked what’s stopping them from working in the new way and what support they need. One barrier that I have frequently seen is managing the workload of the change initiatives vs. the business as usual activities. A possible solution is stopping or pausing certain projects to give teams the bandwidth to focus on the agile changes.
It’s also important to share success as it happens to ensure that employees continue to be energised and excited by the new ways of working. Accomplishments that serve as evidence of the positive strides being made should be communicated and celebrated!
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Blog by Sandeep Thakrar