5 Fundamentals for Designing an Agile Organization (esp in local government)

Ben Guhin
Ben Guhin
May 31, 2018 · 7 min read

Lessons learned from building, iterating, and scaling the City of Austin’s capacity for design, technology, and innovation

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In May 2016, we launched the City of Austin’s Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows program to “bring the principles, values, and practices of the technology sector into government.” In our planning documents, we listed four high-level goals:

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And… we did it! We completed all of these in our first 18 months:

  • Hired 35 design and technology specialists,
  • Worked with staff from dozens of departments to improve services around permitting, recycling, homelessness, and public safety,
  • Introduced and refined practices for user research, interaction design, service design, content strategy, engineering, project management, and product management,
  • And launched Austin’s first Digital Services Strategy with a new platform at alpha.austin.gov.

It’s been an incredible ride.

Over the past month, our Fellows Program has graduated into a new Office of Design & Delivery, making our work a more sustainable part of how our City delivers services to its residents. As we look back at what’s worked well and the many challenges that we’ve experienced along the way, five areas stand out as fundamental to our success:

1. Unlock your funding sources

We’ve received funding from the departments we work with, in the form of project budgets, usually between 120k and 400k. We collaboratively scope these budgets around the department’s desired outcomes for improving services for residents. Since our first team of Fellows started working in August 2016, we’ve allocated over $2M from eight different departments, allowing us to build a much larger program by distributing the financial burden.

This “cost-recoverable” model allows us to scale our impact based on resident needs rather than a predefined budget, growing the size and skill sets of our teams based on what’s necessary for the tasks at hand.

2. Unlock your people

We’re extremely intentional about who we hire and how we assemble our teams for the right combination of backgrounds, skillsets, tenure at the city, existing interpersonal relationships, and other types of diversity.

Our teams are assigned to projects and products that are scoped around desired outcomes, not predetermined technologies or other solutions. This allows the teams to decide how to move forward, as they’re the ones who know the most about how to solve the problem. We keep “agile” agile, trading the rigid frameworks of the scrum coach industry for processes that adapt based on how our people work best.

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As a leader in this sort of organization, your feedback and involvement on projects is like a really great hot sauce. You’re necessary for the overall flavor of the thing, and with just the right amount you can contribute to a mind-altering experience. But pour on too much and you ruin the taco. Don’t ruin the taco.

3. Take competency seriously

In public service, I feel strongly that it’s not appropriate to “fake it ‘till you make it.” The work of governance, policy, and service delivery is critical to serving our residents, and as public servants we need to be honest with ourselves and our colleagues about what tasks we’re good at and what tasks will benefit from someone with more expertise.

Our fellowship model allowed us to be flexible with recruiting and hiring, and over the past two years we’ve established a framework for assessing six primary competencies in each of our disciplines based on an individual’s ability to work independently, the quality of their work, and their understanding of when and how to use alternative methods and practices. Adapted from work by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner in their book Org Design for Design Orgs, this framework has provided structure for redesigning processes around hiring, paysetting, training, and performance evaluations, as well as longer-term conversations on how we’re developing our design and technology capacity at the City:

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This framework is also helpful in disrupting the over-reliance on binary and single-factor measures of technical competency, such as certifications or specific types of work experience. For example, the fact that someone is a “Certified Scrum Product Owner” is an indicator that they might be a great candidate for working on your digital service project, but how are they at relationship management? How are they at planning and scoping with designers and developers?

4. Agile teams require flexible resource management

We started our program in August 2016 with three project teams, closed out one project and added two more in early 2017, and continued to grow our staff throughout 2017 as we supported additional projects and products.

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With projects involving over a dozen departments and initiatives, we never had a clear organizational structure where specific individuals “reported” to specific departments because of their project assignment — we designed this to be flexible so that individuals could move easily between teams.

A huge benefit of this approach is the ability to adjust for the diversity of backgrounds, skillsets, existing interpersonal relationships, tenure at the city, and other factors, building the best possible team for achieving a project’s desired outcomes for residents.

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This flexible resource management is the norm for design agencies around the world, as you mix different combinations of interaction designers, visual designers, copywriters, art directors, and project managers based on the needs of different projects. In government, it’s even more important, as we see an increasing need to build teams of individuals with backgrounds in design, product management, engineering, content strategy, and a wide range of subject matter expertise spanning utility management, public policy, and public safety.

With this flexible structure, we also introduced a new type of manager position at the city — a “Practices Lead” who can provide technical guidance, mentorship, and career direction for employees within a given discipline (for example, content strategy), but doesn’t necessarily work in the same department in which the employee is completing a project. As the employee is given opportunities to complete projects across different departments, their Practices Lead doesn’t change, and the ability for Practices Leads to evaluate work across departments helps them develop standards and trainings that can be shared across the City.

5. Agile teams require agile org charts

The flexible resource management mentioned above is often thought to be about arranging the work of the “do-ers,” or “practitioner-level” employees across projects, with a curious silence around whether managers and executives should also be adjusting their roles based on the changing needs and dynamics of their teams. The reality, of course, is that yes, managers and executives should absolutely adapt their roles as an organization grows and evolves. If everything else needs to grow and evolve, why not management and leadership?

This is probably the hardest part about designing an agile organization — as leaders, we need to continually question whether we’re the best fit to continue leading the organization. Amanda Linden has a great post on Medium about her experience of designing herself out of a job as the Head of Design at Asana, in which she notes the related aspects of humility and leadership that she looks for in hiring new managers:

I look for managers who are thinking more in terms of team happiness than personal happiness. These are people who don’t hesitate to give away the best design projects and take on the tasks that no one else really wants to do. I look for effectiveness in simplifying processes and fostering a sense of teamwork. I look for people who can motivate and make people feel secure during times of ambiguity.

As we complete the transition of our Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows Program into our new Office of Design & Delivery, it also closes out my role as its lead. I’ll be transitioning my role to explore how we can collaborate more effectively with other cities, non-profits, foundations, and the technology sector, and I couldn’t be prouder than to pass on the leadership torch to our Head of Product (and former DTI Fellow!), Marni Wilhite, who will be supported by Amenity Applewhite as Product Manager, Gerald Oliver as Operations Manager, and a freakin awesome team of humans who are setting a new model for design and technology in local government.

Keep Austin odd

Want to learn more? Follow @civiqueso on Twitter and Medium, and learn more about our new Office of Design & Delivery at odd.austintexas.io.


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