Monday, December 4, 2017

Purpose-driven work using an Agile Mindset in Municipalities

Is Scrum and agile only for IT companies and IT departments? Not only, it is also something for municipalities where we call it purpose-driven work using an agile mindset. The agile mindset offers the municipality a perspective to anticipate and act responsibly to the needs and wishes of inhabitants and civil society organizations. This is a huge task; you can rightly speak of a transformation. In terms of values and desirable culture, municipalities aiming to work with purpose have similarities with agile front runners in business. With values like trust, cooperation, empowerment of employees, autonomous teams and leadership that serves. A municipality is of course something different from a company.
In the municipality of Ede(113.000 inhabitants) we started to work with purpose using an agile mindset. We started with four teams in the social domain and one team in the physical domain. By working and learning we develop an approach that fits the municipality of Ede.
The society is changing enormously, becoming increasingly complex - also for municipalities. Municipalities wish to realize social effects and so focus is required. They wish to get away from those long lead times with little results. Municipalities realize that departments thinking and working in silos often result in confusion, with all the consequences.

More and more municipalities are aware that they can only achieve results in partnership with partner organizations and inhabitants. Using their position in the network they will have an added value. Inhabitants increasingly know how to make their voice heard. They expect the municipality and its partners to quickly anticipate their questions and needs and they ask for a flexible municipality dealing with their goals and priorities. In short, inhabitants ask for an outward-looking organization, which calls for staff of the municipality and its partners to be able to operate effectively and flexibly. 

In the social domain, the biggest change process takes place in decades in The Netherlands: decentralization from the government to the municipalities in youth, welfare and participation & inclusion. In addition to this transformation, digitization and working with data within municipalities plays an increasingly important role. Unfortunately the decentralization also means a budget cutback. Organizations have to work together to cope with these challenges, otherwise their services will not be as desired. Of course, this is also the government’s appeal to the municipalities: work smart with impact and accelerated learning is exactly what the agile mindset means ...

The answer of municipalities to all these developments is summarized with the word purpose-driven work using an agile mindset, with the scrum rules and meetings organized in sprints. ... Purpose-driven work with an agile mindset means:
  • More vigour and more impact 
  • Working together with partner organizations and inhabitants: from outside to inside 
  • Focus and prioritize (stop activities that do not have an impact on society) 
  • More and better results through cooperation 
  • Working in multidisciplinary teams (including IT and data analysts) 
  • That the policy and implementation departments work closely together 
  • An internal structure and process for external cooperation 
  • A structure and rules of play tailored to purpose-driven work 
  • That management manages by milestones and progress results 
  • The City council and the executive board adjust its role with the teams working with purpose 
  • The City council and the executive board are actively anticipating requests that go beyond the financial framework
New perspective by scrum/agile or cyclic project management
 Most municipalities work increasingly with project management and embrace program management. The scrum / agile or cyclic project management approach presents an alternative to these classical waterfall project approaches.

In large scale projects with a clear 'scope', the 'traditional' waterfall project approach is obvious. When the product requirements cannot be clearly specified and the project leader expects that there will be a lot of scope changes, in interaction with inhabitants and then project planning is difficult. In this case the cyclic project approach or scrum methodology is a better alternative. The scrum method with sprints is suitable for situations where it is desirable to present a quick workable (intermediate) result to the customer in the municipality. The teams make sure that they constantly involve the customer/ inhabitant in the progress of activities and they respond directly to the wishes of customers presented in the review meetings. The scrum methodology is suited for complex issues and for creative processes, and this often characterizes the context within municipalities. This certainly applies to the three areas of decentralization in the social domain. Activities with known actions and procedures do not fit in purpose-driven work; like the department of permits, granting a decision to help households or civil affairs.
Why does agile spread so quickly? (Henrik Kniberg, 2017)

Specific challenges in municipalities 
 The context of a municipality is of course somewhat different from the commercial sector. To begin with, a Dutch municipality operates within the framework of the municipal law. To be able to carry out the tasks assigned to the municipality and to make its own policy, there is a municipal council that takes decisions. In line with the municipal council, the executive board members fulfil their own role in a democratic manner. The city council has mainly executive and supervisory duties and the executive board has administrative and executive duties. Within the framework of the municipal council, the executive board manages the municipality. The city council supervises the way the executive board carries out its duties. The municipality also carries out all kinds of legal tasks such as enforcement and it ensures that legitimacy for inhabitants is guaranteed, for example regarding access, licensing, etc.

What makes a municipality fundamentally different from commercial companies is its local monopoly; it does not have to survive in the arena with competitors. You could also say that the monopoly is relative; all the activities of the municipality are under the magnifying glass. There are also more and more municipalities inviting inhabitants to consider the magnifying glass; these are municipalities taking transparency seriously, involving inhabitants constantly in activities and tasks.

Values and culture
In purpose driven municipalities, core values often match with those from enterprises implementing an agile work environment: empowerment of inhabitants and employees, trust in employees and partners and a lot of cooperation at all levels. Empowerment means that municipalities invest much effort in engaged employees to be a people- and results oriented organization.

Employees working in multidisciplinary teams work with sprints or iterations. Self-management and autonomy of teams are highly important. These teams operate again in a network of teams. Working in autonomous teams raises the level of engagement and it also raises questions about the alignment between teams (team-of-teams) and management (strategy). Purpose-driven work means focus at all levels; through the intention and the Why in the longer term, which has been translated into the multi-year city council program. This is the framework in which purpose-teams operate.

Purpose-teams get the trust of management and directors. And trust is not something for free, because the board should create trust in practice and everybody knows: trust arrives on foot and leaves by horseback. It means that executive board members are not tempted by the pressure of politics to ask for everything from employees in the short term because they know that teams are busy with activities that are of great importance. Trust also means a (psychologically) safe working environment and this is not easy to secure in political organizations. Trust and autonomous teams demand servant or supportive leadership from management and department managers.

You only get this together when management and the executive board have a clear vision with shared values and communicate these values to employees and partner organizations. This calls for a courageous and inspiring city manager who easily switches between the executive board and the organization. Purpose teams work with a lot of initiatives and start experiments in the field. That also means that making mistakes is visible to everyone and that makes workers vulnerable. First, as management and municipal executive board members, you are behind the team. Then it is not appropriate that opposition parties in the city council, in collaboration with the local press, shout out blame about the mistakes. Purpose-driven work means that purpose-teams deal differently with mistakes; errors are instantly restored, and also visible for everyone. Anyone learns from mistakes. It is important that the entire city council is considered in the new approach and is talking with the purpose-teams about the prioritized customer stories and the agile process. The city council outlines the policy framework and what does this mean when policy and implementation go together in purpose-teams? You simply cannot afford that a new situation first requires a policy paper that needs to be discussed with the city council members and perhaps along the executive board members. In a next sprint, purpose-teams should be able to anticipate immediately the new situations. And both the city council, the executive board and the management must learn to deal with a purpose(product)-owner who is responsible for the prioritization of customer stories.

In an agile mindset, work is one big learning process. If you want to be flexible, you will work in a learning way. Teams work in experimental labs and with purpose-driven work they learn constantly. Teams get started and by doing, learning and reflecting they develop their working methods. And similar to the transitions in business; purpose-driven work does not take you over in one night. Teams will have to work for at least some years before the puzzle pieces are in place and employees of the municipality and partners are into the new process. And in the meanwhile, the municipality shop is open .......

Customers and ecosystem
Purpose-driven work demands a transformation of the municipal organization in interaction with social partners and inhabitants. Actors in the municipality increasingly operate as a learning platform or ecosystem that seeks cooperation between inhabitants and so-called social innovators, civil society organizations, companies, universities / high schools and the municipal organization.
Labgov: government of commons
Together they can bring potential to blossom. The actors invest in the generation of value with visible society effects and create a cooperative ecosystem that promotes creativity, knowledge and trust. And since you can only be agile by learning from each other, you can speak of a learning ecosystem. What do you hold back to invite a crucial social partner in your purpose-team? It is quite often said that the municipality is in charge. However, in a network or in an ecosystem there is no coordinator and you are talking about customer-supplier relationships. In nature there is no coordinator or supervisor, neither in business, is there a network coordinator in municipalities? The municipality often takes the lead in the network to develop a joint vision and to collaborate. This calls for a different kind of direction, whereby the municipality does not operate as all overlooked, omniscient, commissioning party who thinks it's the way to organise.

The linear relationship of the municipal organization with inhabitants and civil society organizations is no longer sustainable. Within a purpose there is a dynamism between the purpose-team, the network of inhabitants and social organizations and the management of the municipal organization, the executive board and the municipal council.

The customer (inhabitants, social organizations, companies, etc.) is the focus of purpose-driven (agile) work. The municipal organization serves the public interest; that's the 'intention' or the Why and Steve Denning calls it 'customer delight'. Flipping the municipal organization for customer or inhabitant delight is a topic of debate in the public arena and the agile mindset might be a promising perspective. In the scrum working method, everything starts with customer (inhabitants) stories and the purpose(product)-owner of the purpose-team is responsible for collecting and prioritizing customer stories (backlog). The purpose-owner and purpose-team members are constantly in touch with customers and other actors involved in the purpose. Customers / inhabitants have of course no unambiguous wishes / needs and requirements, hence the purpose-owner makes a consideration within the framework of the council program. At the end of the sprint (say after 2 weeks), the sprint result is presented to the customer (representation of inhabitants), facilitated by the organisation coach. During these meetings, feedback is collected and the information collected serves as input for the next purpose-sprint.

Purpose-driven work means working from the outside to in, which also means that social partners and inhabitants (in neighbourhoods) and other stakeholders in the municipality join the decision-making process on the choice of the purpose and reflect on the focus in the purpose. For example you might invite key partners to join the purpose-team. It is the responsibility of the purpose (product)-owner to assess priorities with regard to customer stories and this does not mean following requests blindly. When you act as a purpose-team in the ecosystem with partners and inhabitants, where decisions are also taken within the financial frameworks, what would be the appropriate role of the city council or executive board? They are not the customer of a purpose-team, that is just not the intention. Within the framework of the municipal council, the executive board governs the municipality and the city council supervises the way the executive board carries out its duties. What does this mean for purpose-driven work, with an outward-looking approach? Which questions should we ask ourselves? What needs to be done to fine-tune the interaction between the purpose-owner, the purpose-team with the city council, the responsible executive board members and the management. This requires the joint development of a vision, working methods, determine the duties and responsibilities of each actor, etc. The collaboration and regular interaction between the purpose-owner and the executive board member is important, delicate and is carefully build up. For example you may invite the executive board member to listen in the review sprint meeting.

A complicating factor is that the municipality often acts as an employer; it is then up to contractors to implement policies. It is the question whether you can cope with words like employer and contractor in purpose-driven work, when partners and inhabitants participate in the choice and frame of the purpose, the inhabitants and partners are the client ... In the social domain, such a separation between the client and the contractor is less desirable. In purpose-driven work, the policy development and implementation department work closely together. For traffic or construction projects, there will often be a client-contractor relationship and a project management approach might be preferred.

Purpose hackathon
You want to have the voice of inhabitants in all its diversity represented as close as possible in your team. How would you be able to arrange this in municipalities? What can the purpose-owner do that makes the voice of inhabitants in neighbourhoods be heard by the concerned purpose-team? How can you ensure that primary education and youth care are recognized in the youth purpose-team?

The purpose-owner and organizational coach might organize meetings with all stakeholders; also called hackathons. It is the very moment that managers, management and executive board members meet with inhabitants and partner organizations involved in the purpose. As a thought of mind; would the (committee) meetings of the council in preparation for the council meeting not be a good opportunity for this? Such meetings are facilitated by the organization (agile) coaches. Purpose-owners include the output of the hackathon in their worklog (backlog) and planning meetings. Such networking meetings have the function to involving everyone in a purpose, strengthening support and facilitating contacts between actors. It is up to the owners and purpose-teams to listen mindfully and benefit from it, to better serve the public interest, to retrieve new customer stories and to get more feedback on developed products at the end of a sprint. After the hackathon meeting participants will be able to find each other much easier.

Purpose-driven work with an agile mind-set provides an attractive perspective for a municipality that takes inhabitant delight seriously and wants to serve the public interest effectively. If you look at the agile frontrunners worldwide, you see that they tackle the transformation rigorously. When a department at INGbank transforms from 400 managers to 13 managers, you can imagine that the agile transformation to purpose-driven work with an agile mind-set is a drastic and convincing choice. In municipalities teams do not only deal with management; there are also city council members and there is an executive board. And everyone will need to contribute. So not only do purpose-teams have to start experimenting and learning, it applies equally to management, city council members and the municipal executive board members. There is no time for communicating endlessly with each other and tuning how to set up purpose-oriented work, that's just the pitfall. Purpose-driven work means to act decisively. The municipal management shapes the new structure and thereafter the new working method and structure is shaped together by doing and learning. And all this begins with a convincing, visionary and courageous management.

In the next article we will describe how to implement purpose-based work, using the municipality of Ede as a case. Topics such as the different roles in a purpose-team, the management, the finances and team-of-teams will be discussed. In a third article we will talk about the change approach and our experiences in the municipality of Ede.

Kas Burger – Agile learning consultant                       
Ido van der Meulen – Manager policy Social Domain

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