Is our public sector ready to adopt agile structures?
With Wendy Weber / 9 December 2019
Organisational design expert Wendy Weber explains the advantages for government agencies of moving to agile work structures. She argues that a phased approach is likely to be best.
I’m often greeted with a groan when I tell people at parties here in Wellington that I’m an organisational designer.
I can understand their reaction. Many have been on the receiving end of multiple organisational restructurings in recent years, and these often bring a lot of disruption and anxiety. And the problem is that by the time a new structure has been implemented, the environment has already changed so much that another restructuring will soon be underway.
The traditional organisational structures are no longer doing the trick. But is our public sector ready to adopt more agile structures with in-built flexibility?
How agile structures are different
Traditional structures are built around a stable hierarchy with clear chains of command, defined functional areas, and detailed job descriptions. This works well in a stable, predictable environment, but with the speed of change increasing, it requires almost continuous restructuring to respond and adapt to the changes.
Every new restructuring brings uncertainty to the people involved and often leads to a dip in morale. Hierarchical decision-making also tends to slow things down considerably and doesn’t meet the current need for speed.
In response to the need for more flexibility, cross-functional project teams and more broad-based job roles are already becoming the norm in our government agencies. However, a truly agile structure takes this approach quite a bit further by doing away with hierarchical decision-making and structures altogether. Instead, the agile structure can be characterised as ‘a network of teams operating in rapid learning and decision-making cycles’.
With this approach, the right resources and capabilities are brought together when and where they’re needed. People are hired based on their knowledge, skills and experience to perform a range of tasks rather than for a specific job with rigidly defined activities. Decisions are made by the teams or people closest to the information, based on clear, common organisational objectives.
Should public sector organisations go all-in for agility?
New Zealand’s public sector agencies are clearly feeling the pressure to become more flexible in the way they work. More flexibility (particularly across agencies) is a central pillar of the public sector reforms. Our government has never been asked to do so much — to deliver more, and better, for less. The public is demanding more customer-focused services from government and is less and less patient with bureaucracy. Public servants are also weary from disruptive structural changes that may have to be re-done before the ink on the consultation document has dried.
To meet this challenge, the agencies need to continue to transform their operations and embrace the opportunities that digitisation is providing. But are these organisations ready to overthrow their hierarchical designs in one fell swoop and adopt a full-fledged agile approach?
An ‘all-in’ approach is hard to get right without preparing the foundations. For an agile structure to work well, a lot of things have to be in place — such as the right mindset, leadership style, and behaviours. You also need a strong, stable backbone of shared values, principles, systems and processes to ensure that speed is coupled with stability. Doing this across organisational boundaries is even more challenging.
A phased approach to agile
A phased approach may be the way to go for some organisations as they look at the way they organise themselves to deliver more flexibility. This involves focusing first on those areas that will most benefit from an agile structure. For example, policy groups may be one of the first areas to consider, because their priorities and areas of focus change frequently while their core skills are often transferable across topic areas.
A careful, phased approach to adopting agile structures may sound timid but it is still quite transformational in practice.
Getting the ‘soft stuff’ right
What the move to more agility looks like in practice will be different for each organisation. Those of us at MartinJenkins working in this area are now less focused on ‘structure’ and more on looking at how people work together, what culture and behaviours are needed, and what enabling mechanisms are needed to make decentralised decision-making acceptable in a risk-averse environment.
So a move to an agile structure does not have to be all-in — instead a phased approach can begin with focusing on those areas where it provides the most benefits. Supporting organisations in making this move will be less about getting the structure right and more about tackling the ‘soft stuff’.
Hopefully, in the near future, when I tell people I’m an organisational designer at parties, it will be greeted with a cheer!
About the author
Wendy Weber is a specialist in organisation design and development. She has a strong track record of successful facilitation of end-to-end organisational transformation.
Her approach favours close collaboration with the client and she enjoys facilitating workshops to develop a clear, system-wide vision for the future. She is known for her ability to inspire clients to see new and exciting opportunities to take their organisation to higher levels of performance.
Wendy’s expertise covers all the steps of organisation design including organisational review, strategy development, operating model design, structure and process design, culture change, transformation planning and change management.
Originally from the Netherlands, Wendy has international experience as a management consultant with top consultancy firms before settling in New Zealand several years ago.