All Hands on Deck: The GovTech Way

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(Far too often, we focus on the latest tech know-how and rocket products — but what really makes an organisation tick is how the individual teams take time to re-ignite product vision, re-align with organisational objectives and re-anchor shared values; and in so doing, cascade leadership vertically and horizontally throughout the organisation.

In this article, I share my very first experience of how we go about workplanning in the tech sector. Beyond just a recipe for replicating the process, I hope to cast some light on why and how the Business Grants Portal (BGP) development team, as with many other teams in GovTech, continues to work on its vision and people even when our product and team are mature ones in the government grant landscape. Like Netflix, Facebook and many other products in the tech space, projects may be done and dusted, but the product development cycle never ends.

But most importantly, it is a tribute to the BGP team. A big thank you for teaching me about Agile software development in so many ways.

Check the team’s product out here — https://www.businessgrants.gov.sg/)

Recently, the Business Grants Portal (BGP) development team ran an All Hands on Deck, a two-day bi-annual internal alignment workshop that sought to rejuvenate our product vision for what is a very mature product in the government digital space. But as you’ll see, it goes very well beyond the product vision into each and every member of the team.

Old Product, New Vision!

Rejuvenate our product vision, you say? Yes, because old ways won’t open new doors for sure.

BGP Lead Product Owner (Lin Zhi Xun) - vision-casting the way ahead for the team

The BGP was first launched in 2017, in the early days of the Singapore government’s thrust to consolidate business grant applications onto a one-stop portal, and in so doing, streamline government-business interactions as well. In those days, capturing the majority of grant application transactions onto the BGP was the key objective, since we were working with digital-nascent government agencies (at least in the government grants landscape) without any central platform for aggregation of government grants. The main product focus was on improving the broad experience of businesses who wished to apply for government grants, and to also create a single shopfront for all business grants.

Today, our operating environment has changed significantly in a post-COVID environment — the digital ambition of many government agencies has been raised, and so has the digital demand of many businesses who interact with the government. Simply remaining a product that seeks to be a one-stop portal for all government grants will not keep us competitive.

BGP Lead Product Owner (Lin Zhi Xun) — sharing on product roadmap refinement

Just as we once looked outwards, the way ahead also requires us to look inwards to increase government productivity through automation of grant processing and data-driven insights for policy making. Pre-empting the inevitable equilibrium of just a few core grant portal systems in Singapore across the various grant sectors, we also need to ask the hard question of how to re-design our overall solution architecture to create a more sustainable and common solution architecture for all grant portal systems.

Empowering the Product Owner

A significant portion of the All Hands on Deck focused on how to transit development back to a central product roadmap, rather than through opportunistic and stakeholder-led development. In short, empowering the product owner.

BGP Deputy Product Owner (Jolene Lim) — redirecting development focus back to a central product roadmap

As the BGP grew in influence and importance, it began to attract its fair share of stakeholders. We started to see various government agencies co-funding the BGP and other products wishing to integrate with the BGP to create a greater ecosystem for streamlining government-business interactions.

All of these were much-needed investment opportunities for the BGP, allowing it to become more than just a consolidated government grant portal, and reap synergies across government. But receiving investments and attention was not without its trade-offs — you see, product ownership doesn’t quite scale in quite the same way development resourcing does. The greater the number of stakeholders, the more fragmented the relationship between the product owners and the product backlog becomes and the more difficult it is for product owners to strike the delicate balance between fulfilling investment requirements and the execution of product vision.

A product owner leads the development team not through a position of authority, but through his vision of the product, for which there is shared responsibility

The product owner has the difficult responsibility of achieving all the concerns and objectives of the stakeholders through his product vision and product roadmap. Think of it as part of the hallmark of Agile software development, where given a broad outcome, there are any number of ways to achieve it — and the product owner must funnel all possibilities of doing so through his product roadmap.

In order to do so, the product vision must be communicated clearly, and solely, through the product owner. This was overdue for the BGP team, where the past 2 years of rapid COVID-19 development, albeit necessary, had steered us along opportunistic trajectories rather than a central product roadmap.

But if we pulled through COVID-19, we can most certainly do better going ahead.

Bringing It Back to the Team

The peculiar thing about the tech sector is that we very rarely have a solely in-house development team. Most of the time, it is the done thing to hire augmented resources to bolster in-house resources, tap on ready know-how in the market and encourage knowledge transfers. It then becomes all the more important to ensure that there is a coherent work culture and common expectations of work across two different organisations, that works to the success of the product.

That’s where product-level Objectives & Key Results (OKR) setting comes in. The All Hands on Deck was also an opportunity for us to bring to light the personal development goals and objectives of every single development team member, be it GovTech or partner developers from the industry, so that there would be team-level oversight of what every team member wished to achieve for himself.

Objectives & Key Results (OKR) setting exercise
Team members (Yi Ming & Ling Yun) deliberating on their personal goals for the year

But that’s not where OKR ends — key to the process is what we call affinity mapping, where the team makes a concerted effort to collectively map all of their personal objectives into coherent verticals that support the product vision.

Inviting each team member to share on his own personal development goals and objectives
The BGP Team co-creating the verticals that support the product vision, composed of their individual development goals

It is this close-knitted co-creation process that we seek to involve every one of our partners in, be they GovTech employees or not, that makes our product team a truly coherent one.

BGP Lead UXD (Loh Chia Shee) explaining the importance of geling individual-level objectives with team-level and organisational-level goals

Balancing the Team

A key portion of the All Hands on Deck also focused on the clarification of expected roles and responsibilities — not so much to draw lines between functional roles, but more to develop an awareness of how T-shaped cross-functionality needs to take root within the team.

Developers racing to clarify expected roles and responsibilities

In huge teams like BGP, there is frequently a large coordination cost in order to move any piece of working increment through all the required areas of work. Inevitably, with handoffs, knowledge is lost, and the tendency is also to develop an “it’s not my job” attitude with an increasing number of handoffs.

Ironically, a clarification process highlights synergies more than just differences in job roles — and it is these very synergies that need to re-articulated regularly, even in a mature team, to keep cross-functionality going. After all, cross-functionality is first a mindset, before the skillsets needed to be acquired to make it a reality.

BGP Tech Leads on their hopes for the BGP Team to be a T-shaped cross-functional one

Celebrating It All!

Last but not least, we celebrate the team for being the team. It has been an incredible journey since 2017 with this team of developers, UX designers, scrum masters and product owners. As they say, a product is only as celebrated as its team members are.

Birthdays galore!
The GovTech Business Grants Portal Team, in full 2023 force!

A great thank you to the BGP Team, for your 5 years of service. It is a pleasure to be working alongside you.

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Yeo Yong Kiat
Government Digital Services, Singapore

Teacher l Data Analyst | Policy Maker: currently exploring the tech sector