On transforming through a crisis, small continuous improvements and the value of communities.
Transforming through a crisis
As the lockdown took effect we officially paused the IS agile transformation programme. As many organisations have found the crisis has actually accelerated the pace of change. We’ve been collecting and sharing success stories internally and this week we had another great example.
For a couple of months our offices have been virtually empty as we quickly got thousands of staff working at home. This has had lots of positive effects but many people find working at home difficult or next to impossible as they don’t have the space, facilities or equipment they need. As the lockdown restrictions are eased we want to help these people return to an office, if that is what they need, but make sure people are spread out to minimise the risk of passing on the virus. From next week people will be able to use an online tool to book desks in reconfigured office spaces. The life-cycle of this development has been around 9 working days. At the moment, delivery at this pace is still the exception rather than the norm but it is great to have real examples to show what is possible.
To make sure we don’t go back to business as usual we are looking at getting the IS transformation programme moving again. Something similar is happening across the Council as a whole. We are shifting out of crisis response mode into crisis recovery but we also want to prioritise renewal. Adopting more agile ways of working is a part of this.
Small continuous improvements
I had a very fragmented week at work joining a wide range of teams to help progress our work and also take opportunities to try out or introduce agile ways of working. This is continuous improvement at a number of levels in parallel. We are constantly tweaking:
- how an individual team works
- how teams collaborate
- the agile practices that we share across teams
- how we engage people in the community of practice
- how we explain what we are doing to the people we serve
Here are some examples of these layers from the last couple of weeks:
I helped one of our infrastructure teams refine their ways of working. In a previous note1 I wrote about changing the agenda of their regular team catch ups. This has mostly worked but we’ve been neglecting the kanban board so we will bring back a regular walkthrough with the team.
I also helped refine the product backlog. This is exposing some competing pressures as the order of items moves around depending upon what we think is most important. We’ve considered:
- customer service
- performance targets
Of course, in the long run, all of these are important but we can’t do everything well at the same time. We need to make some tough choices, even just for a limited period of time, so we can get things done.
We are bringing two teams together to work on a major upgrade to the Council’s main website and this is going to feel uncomfortable for a while. We are starting out with different assumptions and expectations and are gradually uncovering what these are. On top of this we want to adopt some of our new ways of working but are also going to discover some of their limits (or our limits in applying them).
The discomfort could be a sign we are progressing well and quickly getting to the most important issues. It could be a sign that I am not facilitating well enough. Which it is will hopefully become clear next week.
Sharing across teams
We held another session to review a project we wanted to close and used the simple questions we had drafted2 from earlier reviews. The questions were quick and easy to apply again. This time the work wasn’t finished but the next steps are clear and manageable so we will leave the project open for a short while to get these done.
This week we also looked at starting projects and might try a similar approach. At first we tried to describe a process for starting projects but they can arrive in lots of different ways and take different routes. The next thing we are going to try is a simple set of principles about what a team needs to start a project well. As long as most of these principles can be met it won’t matter that much what order things happen. In practice, we may still have to start projects before everything is in place but this could help us be clear about the risk we are taking by starting anyway.
Community of practice
We have been trying a maturity model as a way to track and share our progress in transforming. We aren’t worried about achieving some arbitrary level of agility but we do want to get some evidence of how we are doing. The first model covered some basic agile activities and our community has been discussing what we would expect to see next as we improve and how we would know we have got there.
Explaining the changes
We are working on some big programmes that started life before our agile transformation and not all of these are going smoothly. Like many organisations, we have a history of trying to tightly constrain scope, time and budget up front and leave very little room for manouver to take on board what we learn later.
Often, a good response to the risks and issues that come up is to apply some of our agile techniques such as prioritise, focus and deliver the most important things early. This still feels like a leap of faith for some of our stakeholders but we are getting better at making the case and some good results from applying this approach during the COVID-19 response has helped build confience.
A word about a good cause
I joined in several community events this week. One silver lining of the lockdown is that everyone has to be remote so it is now much easier for me to join in some groups which used to focus on face-to-face events in London.
The public sector professional community for Digital, Data and Technology3 ran a lunch and learn looking at the way part of the Home Office has set up self-managed learning. The course covers agile techniques and also serves as a demonstration of how they work in practice. I’m hoping to get a copy of the materials to see if something similar would work for the Council.
I also joined in an event on Liberating Structures4. This was both a way for new people to learn about the techniques and for the experienced practitioners to experiment with applying them virtually. I’ve used some of the structures already but I am definitely still in learning mode. An international virtual workshop with over 60 attendees could have been chaos but Liberating Structures combined with effective facilitation saved the day. A really diverse group also provided a great opportunity for a middle-aged, white bloke to get more practice at shutting up and listening.
The three main questions are: Is all the work finished? Are the project accounts closed? Does the live service seem to be working well? ↩
You can have a go with the Liberating Structures yourself and all the information is available on line but I recommend taking part in an event first to see how they work. This week I joined an event hosted by a volunteer group based in London ↩