So – this is the write up from the agile session I led at #localgovcamp. Much of the preamble I started off with can be found in other blog posts but the core of the session was trying to move the conversation that was had at UKGovCamp in January on a bit further – so am going to assume that you know a bit about the context and not cover earlier stuff again here. In terms of direction of travel I was particularly trying to focus not just on barriers but on the actual shape of a more agile organisation.

@LoulouK has written a really good response to the session which looks at this from the point of view of someone who is trying to be more innovative within her organisation so you should have a look at that as well. Not come across any other write ups – but please shout if you have.

I should say here – I think there is some crossover in terminology and often when I am talking about agile I could be talking about any kind of innovative structure – and I felt the group also moved between definitions. However there are two main reasons why I tend towards using agile as a personal shorthand for a more innovative and future proofed organisation approach:

  • the challenges that caused the software engineers to move towards agile style methods are similar to those faced by whole organisations now; absence of fixed context, speed of change, challenge from the environment to list a few
  • Many of our organisational structures are going to be technology faced – it helps to share thinking with the developers of these solutions

However as the session concluded (with some good thoughts from @harryharold on this) its important to accept the limits of the metaphor. Perhaps most specifically there is a limit around testing. Unit testing is a bug element of the software approach which is perhaps not replicable in an organisational context.

We also discussed another potential limitation which is the difficulty of operating in this way in a political context where the leadership have their eyes simultaneously on the next election and the next headline. We concluded that you would need strong alignment between political and officer leadership in order to deliver innovation on this kind of scale.

Its a guerilla war

In an agile organisation you should be able to push decision making out as close the project delivery frontier as possible – once again its about trust. We felt this implies an organisational structure which relies on small teams which are formed around the project requirement and then are dissolved back into a talent pool when the project is completed. These teams need to be trusted empowered and informed.

There are some ramifications to this statement:

  • You need to focus on people’s skills as much if not more than their experience or their grade
  • You need to spend time developing team working skills to give people the tools they need to be effective in this environment.

More than that you need to both recruit and performance manage to support these kinds of skills – this is potentially a long term change. The question is how you get it started – but imagine if you started creating these agile teams via 3 month secondments within your organisation.

There is also the question as to how you integrate innovation back into the organisation – this secondment idea could address this.

Our most important conclusion around how you create an agile organisation was the belief that we need leaders not managers – there is a big difference.

Failure – how interesting…..

We spent a while talking about failure. The mantra of agile software development is fail fast, fail cheaply. The fast project cycles mean you try things and rapidly discard them if they don’t work. We agreed this was one of the most difficult ‘values’ to put into place in the rest of the organisation with failure being seen as something with politically and organisationally difficult to accept.

There is no quick answer to this but we discussed a couple of useful tactics:

  • Take risk management seriously – have a proper conversation about what the level of acceptable risk is and stay within those boundaries. Over time you should be able to change this.
  • Create a body of evidence – we have a responsibility to show this approach works rather than expecting people to take it on blind faith but instead be open and honest about evaluation
  • More challengingly – don’t pretend everything is a success – but communicate failure as progress – because it is
  • Innovate at the edges – do the duller less risky stuff first. It may not be the most exciting stuff but it makes a big difference and it allows you to learn and build evidence in parts of the organisation where the issue of failure is less acute

We also talked about collective and individual responsibility – an reflected on the fact that a lot of lone innovators end up accepting organisational risks. We also talked about the more negative coping tactic of ‘consultant scapegoating’ where you get external contractors to do your failing, or innovation, for you. The issue here is a need for organisations to take responsibility for innovation but in the context of agile we are back at the question of trust – are you trusted to innovate?

Trust me – I’m an innovator

As ever with an open ended session we are left with questions:

  • Do we have enough trust in the people within our organisations?
  • How do we need to change not just the organisations but also the people within them to create a culture of innovation?
  • Do innovators do enough to earn trust?
  • Can we change attitudes around failure to embrace more learning and more innovation?

These are not unusual questions – the additional question is whether the agile metaphor is still useful in exploring and addressing them. My view of the session is that the answer is yes. We need to keep in mind the limitations that I stated at the beginning of this piece but I still think this is worth pursuing.

As ever – please let me know if you don’t think this reflects the session or if you have comments – thank you


I sometimes use the description of the internet as being very like a teenager, messy, difficult, and creative and with a tremendous energy and excitement that is not always focused constructively.  The shifting cultural norms online feel as if they are driven by that generation and it’s not surprising – anyone born after 1993 has only know a networked world.  The issue for all of us is how we integrate these new behaviours into our organisations and how do we influence them towards more traditional ways of doing things – how do we respond the cultural challenges of a networked society?

You can’t find an answer before you have a really good question and I think we need to ask ourselves what are the unique pressures that we are seeing right now that mean we need to respond with culture and behaviour change rather than process re-engineering and re-structuring?  Personally I think there are three main effects we need to consider:

  • Real time information
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Not surprisingly I see all of these as a product of a more networked society and I see the answer as bringing greater agility into our work practices.  ‘Agile’ is a software development approach that has core principles which can be applied to other business processes, it reflects the speed and pragmatism of the web without forgetting the need for control and quality management.

Responding to a changing world

Real time information is something that we increasingly take for granted – I use twitter for this but mainstream news is also moving to real time reporting with eye witness accounts and user generated content.  The question for me is how your organisation becomes part of this information flow without compromising on process and accuracy – fast shouldn’t mean sloppy.  The example that springs to mind was from some officers who are taking part in our Virtual Policing study who had to stand next to journalists who were tweeting inaccurate information because those officers had not had the story officially confirmed to them.  Clearly you can’t have officers making up the official line on a story on the spot – but they do need some real time responses they can use and they do need a closer to real time response from the communications team than having to wait for the Press release.  I am sure that this is a process issue that is echoed in many other organisations – the question is how do you make it more agile?

Our process thinking has been massively influenced by Just In Time production management approaches – we have industrialised production of content and services in the same way as manufacturing modularised and productised its processes of production.

I am suggesting that this is no longer the most efficient way of working and that in a networked and conversational world its no longer the most efficient response to write one really thorough response that may take a while to prepare – you need to communicate a little and often and make it clear what you do and don’t know.

Transparency leads a necessity to be much more clear about knowledge bounds – you can’t claim expertise and authority without being able to back these claims up as people expect to be able to be able to ‘click here to find out more’.  We write ourselves into being online and we do this by transparently showing our views, ideas and feelings.  The consequence of this is that we are pushed towards thinking institutionally in public – which means that we won’t always have the final answer.

Transparency sits very closely with collaboration.  With reducing budgets there is a clear need to consider how to collaborate with partners and with the public more effectively.  You can’t collaborate effectively without trust and transparency is one way of fast tracking establishing that trust – not to mention making working together more effective as you can clearly see what the other people are up to.

I was speaking at conference recently and was asked ‘who is losing power if the people are gaining it?’ – The answer is the state.  More co-productive ways of working mean that the people at the top of a top down structure are losing power and this needs to be faced.  I think this shift is best articulated as the fact that more transparent and collaborative ways of working mean that ‘the people’ collectively gave a greater sense of their own power – you get the confidence to act because you know that other people feel the same way.  The point is that this can be true internally as much as externally – don’t we want our staff to have a sense of what they can achieve and the ability to get on and do it?

This is what brings me back to thinking about culture and behaviour change.  These pressures are opportunities to effect change internally as we respond to externally circumstances – indeed if we don’t transform ourselves then we reduce our ability to deal effectively with that external world.  If the world is changing then we need to change as well.

Organisationally I think agility really comes down to two things – having a shared set of values and a clearly understood vision of what you are trying to achieve – a well-articulated objective.  Is anyone else flashing back to about a dozen leadership books and motivational speakers?

An agile process is slightly more than that – it releases on that vision and values but it then responds to the changing environment.  Agile processes work in short iterative cycles that allow you to act immediately in a controlled way – going back to that Police example the press office could be asked to tweet a holding message – and then short updates that make it clear what is and isn’t know at that point.  The immediate objective here is to reassure the public and to make it clear you have the situation in hand – not actually to pass information so this doesn’t need a lot of thought or a full press release.  Communicate a little and often with a clear view on who is able to do this in real time in a crisis situation.

How do you influence behaviour? 

I am coming from a point of view that says that the developing network society is one of the main pressures here and so my suggestion is the adoption of the tools of the network society is a useful first step to do this.  Use yammer internally, blog your management minutes rather than sticking them in a word document and use tools like basecamp to create collaborative workspaces.  Technology does not change people – but it can change behaviours and it can expose the attitudes and assumptions of the people who are creating it.  The network society is a more conversational, collaborative, transparent and real-time space – use its tools to explore what that means.  It’s also not a change that can happen without some kind of experiential element – you need to find the usefulness within these tools so that they become relevant – otherwise you’ll be asking your staff to join the LOL cat movement.

Build relationships

Its also worth thinking about how you build networks within your organisation – you already have people who are using these tools to talk about their hobbies, manage their photos or keep in touch with family and you want them to transfer these skills internally.  More than that you want to open up the possibilities and creativity that a more networked way of working can facilitate.  This is going to need a different kind of mentoring and support than more traditional structures – you want to break down barriers of hierarchy and also of organisation. Run internal social media surgeries, encourage staff to attend unconferences and city camps in order to connect to the people who are already working in new ways and let these networks grow organically – you can start to think about structure and order when there is actually something there to organise – in the first place you need to find and support the people who can already work in new ways as it can be a lonely business trying to bring about cultural change on your own.

Ultimately its all about making better decisions.

I believe is that you aim here is to be able to pass the decision the place closest to the issue so that you have faster and more effective organisational reactions.  However to do that you need to also get the information and the strategic there so that those decisions are backed up by the right organisational knowledge.  You also need to make sure that staff have an understanding of your organisation that goes beyond being able to recite the strategy – they need to understand your values and your purpose as well.  You need to wrestle brand off the design people and give it some heart.

But we’re not out of control yet

This does not have to mean a loss of control by the organisation it just means that the control moves – an agile process is not undisciplined.  Testing and evaluation is an inherent part of the mind set and you are trying to create new processes that are fast but measured in the way that they work.  In software terms you use unit testing to check each element is working – in policy terms you need to check each deliverable against the actual objective – does it move you forward?  If you bring this unit testing idea to policy making and implementation that you have to push the understanding of the objective out to the whole delivery team so that they can effectively make this judgement as they encounter variations and impacts from the environment.

Where do we go from here?

If you have got this far and appreciate the sense of urgency then you need to think about some tangible actions – you can’t change your organisation without changing your own behaviour

  • Get started – use the tools of the network society, communicate the objective as well as the plan and work both transparently and collaboratively so that it’s easier to learn from your experiences.  The social web tolerates and expects experimentation and you can’t learn from this environment unless you use it – get in the game.  If you are already online then think about how you mainstream your involvement – don’t let it be a side line that you fit in around your day job.
  • Accept complexity and plan for it – Agile assumes that we are not working in a closed system and that the environment effects our outcomes.  We know this is true so it makes sense to have an approach that accommodates changes and complexity rather than futile attempts to manage it out of existence.
  • Establish your relevance and communicate it – in a transparent world you need to understand where you fit and make sure everyone else does as well.  If you are pushing decision making out to the edges of your organisation then you need to give them the framework to work within

We are coming up fast to the point where the majority of people will be online and engaged digitally.  There will always be pockets of people that will be hard to reach but the people working within your organisations will be living networked and digital lives.  It becomes impossible to keep this fact out of your organisational culture – the question is how you change to get the best out of the new skills and opportunities without losing the essence of who you are.

I drove up to Birmingham on a very wet Friday night with the feeling I usually have before an unconference – a mix of pleasant anticipation and mild resentment for giving up my weekend.  As ever I left feeling stimulated, challenged and warmed by the people I spent Saturday with.  Thank you all – and especial thanks to @siwhitehouse and @davebriggs for all the work on organising it. I have already written up the session on identity here and will also write up the agile session when I have time – this post is really some more general observations…so here we go…

  • We need to be mindful that we need to make these events work for both the first timers and for the people who have attended many.  I don’t think this is difficult – but perhaps a bit more prep / continuity from those of us that attend frequently would give us the sense of building something bigger rather than having the same, albeit valuable, conversations again and again
  • There is something to be said for reaffirming your energy and engaging with other innovators -but we also need to take responsibility for building the evidence base for our beliefs collectively if we are going to be anything other than positively disruptive outsiders
  • So much comes down to culture change within organisations – which is where I am trying to focus my efforts now.  Thankfully we seem to have moved past the ‘tools are cool’ stage to talk about real change.
In addition to the two sessions I ran I also went to a few others. Hopefully someone else will write up the session on innovation games – and hopefully they will focus on the ideas around gamification that we talked about rather than the slightly duller stuff around games as facilitation tools. Also hope they focus on some of the co-productive opportunities here.
@TomSprints session on Yammer was good – and also pointed me back to think about culture change and I enjoyed digging more deeply into a subject – hopefully he will write up some thoughts on this.
The other session I went to was on emergency communications which after a slow start was interesting. Best summary of the main learning from this was from @Nickkeane with the advice to ‘practice in peacetime not in war’ and make sure that you have a trusted online presence BEFORE a crisis. I was also appalled to hear how few organisations seem to have social media in their emergency plan – sort that out people.
Thanks all for your thoughts and ideas – when can we do it again?
PS  I have no idea what has happened on the font in the second half of this post as there is nothing in the HTML to explain it – oh well