Agile working can help public sector bodies improve performance

03 July 2018 6 min. read

Agile ways of working are sweeping the private sector. From start-ups to some of the world’s most successful businesses, including Google, Microsoft and Amazon, companies are reaping the benefits of an Agile approach. Public sector bodies, with their more measured and consensual working methods, have been slower to adopt Agile. Yet given the need to deliver more from less, public bodies could well benefit the most from adopting Agile working practices, explains Paul O’Shea, CEO of management consultancy Kumoco.

Being an Agile company means adopting a mindset of continuous improvement, creating time for people to innovate, and encouraging a culture of collaboration and empowerment to support that innovation.

Management must drive the Agile transformation if it is to succeed. The senior team must be able to communicate the strategy and demonstrate that they themselves are becoming Agile, without this, the teams will falter and return to old ways of working. At Kumoco [a consultancy that specialises in Agile working and cloud consulting], we believe that ‘Agility moves at the speed of management’ because the executive team is so critical to Agile’s success. If the senior management team has a strong understanding of the Agile ethos, continually drives change and becomes the evangelists, they will help to embed Agile thinking and practices effectively into their teams. 

One of the best ways to achieve management buy-in is to provide managers with a workshop, then training and ongoing coaching that will prepare them for their Agile responsibilities. Consistent training across the organisation will ensure all employees share a common language and understanding about Agile methods and their goals.

Agile working can help public sector bodies improve performance

Cultural foundations must be strong

Culture needs to be at the heart of every Agile transformation. Particularly in larger organisations, an Agile culture needs to be embraced across as many departments as possible. Sometimes this proves difficult, as shown by software platform VersionOne’s ‘State of Agile’ survey. This revealed that 44% of respondents identified the inability to change the culture of their organisation as the biggest barrier to further Agile adoption.

For larger organisations seeking to adapt their working ethos, the first step is to evaluate honestly their current working culture. This will inform the changes needed to transform the organisation. In many cases, this means a transition from a silo mentality to empowered small cross-functional units allowing decisions to be delegated and issues resolved quickly.

Measure success

In order to evaluate their progress, teams need to agree a transparent method to assess the value delivered by Agile initiatives. The criterion to be measured should flow from the corporate vision. Even so, this is not an easy task; a 2017 global survey by the Scrum Alliance, a non-profit organisation in the Agile community, showed that for 41% of participants, measuring value was their greatest challenge. Measurement of value is normally made in two dimensions, that of the Agile transformation itself, and that of each individual product (for public sector, use a different word than ‘product’...perhaps business activity?).

In order for teams to correctly assess the value of a product, there should be regular reassessment. The metrics should be bespoke and relevant to the business function and value should be measured not solely by financial gains but also on the true benefit gained by the ‘customer’.

At Kumoco, we use the term Measurable Outcomes to describe business value that can be determined. Measurable Outcomes ensure that every individual on a project (from customer to operations) is working towards a common set of goals with clarity on the value they bring to the business and customer.

"For Agile to be a success, there must be a clear vision and measurable outcomes to prove the transformation is working. A mindset of continuous improvement will allow to quickly adapt and scale up.”
– Paul O’Shea, CEO of Kumoco

Each part of the public service body should define their own Measurable Outcomes with these cascading throughout the organisation and allowing each team to show the value they are creating as contributing the wider company vision. 

Pace yourself – start with pilots, then scale up

It’s important to start small, demonstrating that the organisation can adopt Agile ways of working and succeed. Choose a project or activity and set it up for success by creating a cross functional team and providing experienced support and coaching to the team. Once the pilot demonstrates the value derived from Agile methods, celebrate the success and allow key team members to help evangelise the transformation.

The next step is to have a scaling strategy with the aim of ensuring that all new projects have the support required to ensure success with this new way of working. Embed in new teams some staff who have already been part of successful pilot projects. Consider setting up an Agile Community of Practice and a centre of excellence to guide new projects through the learning process. 

Train and mentor your staff

The biggest mistake we see is taking existing project delivery staff and expecting them to be able to assume new Agile roles without prior experience. The roles of scrum master, product owner or kanban lead are significantly different to those of project or programme manager and require experienced hires to fill them. Whilst it is not expected that everybody on the team will have worked in an Agile way before, it crucial that these key roles are filled by experienced hires and have coaching support.

It is important to develop an internal capability, and to ensure experience is retained. This means ensuring your staff are supported beyond the first few months. Two days of training and being part of an Agile team for three months does not give an individual the experience to lead and drive new projects; they still need ongoing coaching support to develop (or accumulate) the full lifecycle experience required.

In summary, for Agile to be a success, it is a journey that your whole organisation needs to be part of. There must be a clear vision and measurable outcomes to prove the transformation is working. A mindset of continuous improvement will allow you to quickly adapt to any changes arising in the mandate of the relevant public service body.

Related: Seven best practices for Agile working according to BCG Platinion.