Well-established, complex organisations require a significant transformation in mindsets and cultures in how people work and how teams collaborate to deliver great end user services in the digital age. The service innovation lab of Assurity Consulting in Wellington was set up as an experiment with the ultimate mission to help raise the level of collaboration across government agencies in delivering better services to New Zealanders.
People want to deal with government in new and different ways. In particular, the people of New Zealand, fondly known as Kiwis, expect service delivery that is digital, responsive and personalised. Many new technologies, methods and business models have emerged in the last decade that government agencies have, with a few notable exceptions, been slow to adopt. The government agencies need to re-think the way they deliver services for the public to access government services digitally.
In this experience report, I will describe how a successful collaboration between public and private sectors, in the form of the service innovation lab, has contributed to increased productivity, innovation and agility in order to provide better public services. I will also discuss how I was able to make a difference to the transformation in mindsets and cultures in how people work and how teams collaborate to deliver better public services in New Zealand.
In May 2017, I had joined Assurity Consulting in Wellington as the Agile Consultant, primarily to help teams from the government agencies work in new ways. In New Zealand, the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) had partnered with Assurity Consulting to set up the service innovation lab (The Lab) as an experiment to explore sustainable ways to transform how government agencies refine and deliver services to Kiwis. The existing ways of working of legacy organisations, especially government agencies, with the use of annual planning, hierarchical, siloed organisational structures, traditional project management techniques and heavyweight governance, and traditional delivery processes and technologies do not promote or support innovation and effective delivery of service.
The New Zealand government defines the ‘New Zealand way of working’ under four key concepts . In fact, these concepts have set the basic expectation of how teams would work in The Lab. These four key concepts are briefly described here:
(i) A ‘can do’ attitude
As an isolated country of pioneers, Kiwis have a pragmatic reputation for ‘giving it a go’ – using what you have and experimenting to make it work – often referred to as the ‘number eight wire approach’.
(ii) Smaller scale, greater involvement
A huge number of New Zealand businesses average under 14 employees, which is about half the average size of businesses in the USA. Even our big businesses are small by international standards. The simple nature of our smaller-sized companies with fewer organisational layers allow us to be closer to the senior people – and therefore able to influence decisions and direction.
(iii) Unstructured, independent working
Kiwis have a strong independent streak that affects the way we like to be managed. In general, Kiwis value independence and therefore we place less importance on status, rank and hierarchy than many other cultures. This allows people to work across the organisation quite freely. Often, finding a way to solve a problem will mean engaging directly with other parts of the business.
(iv) Working together
Kiwis create social workplaces as they realise that, with smaller teams, it’s critical to get along in order to do business. Cross-functional networks inside an organisation are critical. There is also a focus on networks and contacts in the wider environment which can be used for customer insights and working partnerships.
With the fundamental understanding of the ‘NZ way of working’ in general, we assumed that Kiwis would be culturally predisposed to the Agile mindset. We were certain that helping them adapt to Agile ways of working shouldn’t be too challenging. The continuous experimentation mindset and natural social collaboration makes for a naturally adaptive climate and Kiwis will generally be willing to give it a go. Often the leadership team would be willing to dive into the unknown with their teams, take a risk that they know their customers and will do what is right. The leadership team would encourage open and honest communication and authentic behaviours across the organisation and be willing to fail and learn.
3. THE LAB
The Lab experiment was modeled on what we believe is the DNA of successful digital organisational cultures. When teams commence work from The Lab, they had to commit to a set of Lab principles that shape how we work together (see Figure 1). The work is done in the open, collaborative space that has been set up for multi-disciplinary teams. The governance teams of the respective agencies met at The Lab where they get to connect directly with the delivery teams. Perhaps the most important aspect of The Lab was the availability of the Agile, DevOps and Design Thinking coaches to support teams to get better at delivery (see Figure 2). New ways of working using Agile, Lean, DevOps or Business Agility are all just means to an end .
On the first day of my work at Assurity Consulting, I was assigned to be the Agile Coach in The Lab with the key aim to help teams to focus on the right work, to do the work right and to deliver value in a timely manner, regardless of the organisational structure. Working together with business owners and delivery leads from both Assurity Consulting and DIA, we identified the fundamental process for team selection (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Team Selection
When the selected teams arrived in The Lab, we help to baseline and then track how they’re getting on. This baseline captured how well they feel they’re operating and what issues the work might be facing at the initial stage. Some of the aspects we assessed with the team were the clarity of product or service direction, the level of sharing and collaboration among the team, the value gained from observation of the Lab Principles and the degree of user insights fed into their work. We then used this baseline to focus our coaching and support to get the best outcomes for the teams.
Next, I will describe some of the key challenges of the teams in The Lab. Understanding these challenges has helped me to coach them in new ways of working with right tools and techniques that could be applied for resolving these challenges.
3.1 Slow to deliver
Many organisations take many months to go from idea to delivery to the customer – during which the customer need may well change or be fulfilled by a competitor. One of the teams has provided me with astonishing data showing the average duration for delivering a project has been 3.5 years, and they delivered a recent project almost 5 years later (with an increased cost of 57.5%). In general, slow delivery is a sign of many different problems. Given the complexity of the projects, there isn’t one simple solution to this problem. However, we started by using the Value Stream Map to figure out how work is currently delivered, identify the bottlenecks and processes in the way of faster work delivery. I had coached them in breaking the work into smaller, simpler chunks that delivers value fast, increasing automation in the systems that support delivery, getting better organisation-wide support to enable faster delivery, forming teams that support delivery as well as introduced several effective techniques to visualise the progress of the work.
3.2 Organisational Silos
The three building blocks of organisational performance – mindset, habits, culture – determine how you think, how you behave and how you work in teams. Changing the DNA of your organisation is not an overnight thing; it involves changing established mindsets, habits and cultures inside of your organisation and collectively developing new ones that work for your future. One of the important aspects of my role as the Agile Coach was to introduce practices of new ways of working that drives the required behaviour in the team and organisation. The first habit that individuals in the team needed to remove was working in silos and instead start collaborating with team members in every aspect of the work. In addition, the different teams in the same organisation were also encouraged to collaborate to remove common bottlenecks and share knowledge across the organisation. For example, teams were encouraged to share the outcome of the sprint with the wider ecosystem of The Lab (see Figure 4). Our approach was to change habits across the whole organisation, including people, process, strategy, structure and leadership in order to support sustainable transformation.
Figure 4. Product Showcase
3.3 Do not know what matters to customers
Most, if not all, teams I have worked with (in the capacity as the Agile Coach in The Lab) do not know what truly matters to their customers. Through numerous planning sessions with key stakeholders from ‘the business’, they gather requirements for their product development. These plans sound great until you start asking a few questions, for example: ‘What are the biggest problems facing your customers?’, ‘How have you validated the requirements with your customers?’, ‘Will the proposed solution actually work in their context?’. Upon asking these kinds of questions, they quickly understand that the proposed backlog of work is frequently what the business wants, not what their customers need. Using design thinking approach and applying techniques for user research and validation, the teams had the opportunities to understand the need of real customers. Talking to a real customer isn’t that hard, but the insights can be quite profound.
3.4 Too much governance
Governance is important in any organisation. Unfortunately, many organisations use heavyweight governance that leads to heavyweight work delivery. Often teams are required to produce large-scale reporting and there exists multiple governance boards even for relatively small projects. Much of governance tends to be inspecting reports of what’s being delivered, rather than inspecting real work. One way we attempted to resolve this challenge was to ensure the right people have the right information at the right time to govern effectively and require the governance people to work with the team in close collaboration and keep regular communication. With the ‘minimum viable governance’ approach, the team and the governance people had to figure out what minimum information will be needed in order to make right decisions at the right time.
3.5 Conflicting priorities across the organisation
Most teams in The Lab lacked an absolute ordered list of priorities for work they want to deliver. If there isn’t a clear priority in the work that needs to be done, people will naturally focus on what matters to them at the time or they may just try and do everything at once, juggling many pieces of work at the same time. This certainly leads to slower delivery of all work. One obvious way to resolve this challenge was to visualise and prioritise the most impactful work so that the team could focus on the right work at the right time. We worked to identify any bottlenecks in the work and find ways to resolve the bottlenecks early and fast.
4. WHAT WE LEARNED
Successful transformations require the understanding that the desired end state always places the customer front and centre, and right across the organisation, the culture is oriented to exceed the customer’s expectations . I could not emphasize enough the importance of identifying our customers and subsequently working with them to solve their real needs instead of doing fancy work that doesn’t add value to them. While working in The Lab, I have realised that project teams often overlook the need to work closely with customer. In fact, they assume working with customer can be a huge hassle for them and therefore conveniently ignore the opportunity to work with customer for understanding their needs and getting timely feedback.
Another important learning for the teams was that they need to make small improvements constantly. There should be no end to our evolution – we always need to keep learning and improving. Several teams avoided taking actions from the feedback they received in retrospectives because they were very busy completing the tasks of the project. I had to keep reminding them about improving their practices, processes and behaviour to achieve better results from their work.
The concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) was quite a challenge to be accepted by the teams from government agencies. The teams were not confident to “release” the MVP to the customer to use and give feedback due to the fact that the MVP is “not the finished product”. It has been repeatedly described that MVP is “…that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort” . The key concept here is that they are learning about their customers, specifically how their customers will use the product, not about the product itself.
With the right support and coaching, government agencies in New Zealand are experiencing tangible benefits through use of Lean/Agile mindset and new ways of working, including better service delivery, increased level of collaboration across agencies, and improved customer and staff satisfaction.
This experience report has been written with significant contributions from Ben Hayman, Jacob Creech and Damien Leng. I thank Grant Robinson, Jenny Saunders and Chris Pollard for the huge support I had received while working in The Lab. Last, but certainly not least, I like to thank Rebecca Wirfs-Brock and Tarah McMaster for making it possible for me to present the experience report at the XP 2019 conference.
 New Zealand Immigration, blog “Our NZ way of working”, https://www.newzealandnow.govt.nz/work-in-nz/nz-way-of-working
 Corporate blogs, https://assurity.nz/whats-your-challenge/new-ways-of-working/
 Daryl Carpenter, “Service Innovation Lab keen to share a great space”, 26 June 2018, https://www.digital.govt.nz/blog/si-lab-keen-to-share-a-great-space/
 Eric Ries, “The Lean Startup”, http://theleanstartup.com/principles