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An Agile District Council in the Making: A Behaviour-led Transformation
An Agile District Council in the Making: A Behaviour-led Transformation

In This WHITE PAPER

April 2019 | Agile Research Network | Agile Transformation

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Austerity and financial constraints have been threatening the public sector in the UK for a number of years. Foreseeing the threat of continued budget cuts, and addressing the situation many local councils face (Chu, 2018), requires internal transformations that help achieve financial stability without losing the key ‘social reason’ focus of their existence.

Created by the Agile Research Network

An Agile District Council in the Making: A Behaviour-led Transformation


Summary

Austerity and financial constraints have been threatening the public sector in the UK for a number of years. Foreseeing the threat of continued budget cuts, and addressing the situation many local councils face (Chu, 2018), requires internal transformations that help achieve financial stability without losing the key ‘social reason’ focus of their existence.

This paper introduces, describes and analyses an ongoing behaviour-led transformation in a district council in the UK, Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC). It presents the results of the analysis of a series of interviews with internal stakeholders at the council, of observations of different meetings among senior and middle management, and of an internal survey based on the Cultural Values Framework carried out in the period of January to May 2018.

The change programme started in 2008 with a behaviours-led programme of internal renovation in the way strategic planning and transactional operations are conducted at the council, with its most significant period of change up to the mid of 2017. During this period, all staff (except for the CEO and 2 directors) had to undergo a behaviour-based assessment and reapply for their job. Jobs were grouped into clouds and anyone could apply for a job in any cloud; the behaviour assessment test undertaken was specific to each cloud. Subsequently, there is a continual improvement approach revisiting adequacy of structures with a more recent restructure happening in October 2018.

This case study was carried out by the Agile Research Network (ARN), a collaboration between researchers at two UK universities, funded mostly by the Agile Business Consortium, working with organisations to bridge the gap between industry and practice. The aim of this case study was to follow part of the undergoing transformation journey as seen by the council’s staff, and to act as a critical friend voice with observations of a snapshot of this journey drawing on existing literature and other perspectives on agile transformation.

The following summarises the main findings.

There is a strong overall positive message as a result of a massive transformation programme that touched the whole organisation. We found a council with a clear and inspiring purpose focusing on results to stakeholders; a supportive leadership, committed to transparency, fluid and constantly changing and iterating.There was a feeling of achievement and a sense of collective ownership with the people we talked to. The council is now financially sustainable, not for profit, restructuring when needed, continuously consolidating and learning. We found strong teams, supporting each other and with good communication.

In the context of such change there were naturally some challenges identified. The following reflect what we found between January and May 2018.

  • Recruitment was a problem in some areas where it is difficult to recruit staff with both the right skills and the right behaviours
  • Loss of focus on ‘business as usual’ due to the change programme
  • Loss of knowledge due to people leaving who did not pass the behaviour assessment; also, people joining from outside the organisation with different perspectives and expectations
  • Silos, new or old
  • Lack of processes and procedures
  • Heavy workloads
  • Vulnerability of the leadership team who were still forming as a team, and reliance on a small group of individuals
  • People challenges resulting from the impact of the transformation
    • Negative – trauma, survivor guilt, pockets of unhappy people, frustration, resentment
    • Positive – emotional journey, novel/unique, support

We also found that there were differences between how the directors and assistant directors viewed the future of the organisation compared to how middle management, as represented in the strategic board, expressed their preferences for the future culture of the organisation.

The situation portrayed through these findings was assessed against the elements of the Agile Culture Development Matrix (Agile Business Consortium, 2019). Based on this viewpoint, two areas were particularly highlighted as worth further attention:

  • Collaborative and autonomy, and
  • Adaptability to change.

In summary, the recommendations are:

  1. Consider suggested actions to help develop autonomous collaborative teams: surfacing and sharing assumptions, understanding contexts and rallying around a common interest.
  2. Empowered teams need to have a view of the strategy and a clarity of purpose, boundary conditions and expectations. Goals and priorities need to be clear and all those affected engaged in discussion and development (ownership) to understand how they relate to their jobs. Consider mechanisms where every member of a team sees what every other member of the team is doing.
  3. Allow for ways of working to be developed bottom-up.
  4. Identify the coordination modes for different interactions and be prepared to change them as the situation evolves.
  5. Develop processes and procedures from bottom-up where possible. Where processes and procedures need to be written down, follow agile documentation guidelines.
  6. Work towards a strong sustainable core that can sense, seize and transform, considering the dynamic capabilities needed in a volatile environment; develop a succession plan.
  7. Embed continuous improvement with retrospectives to reflect, learn and make changes.
  8. Consider using the three principles of Integrating Simplification Theory to support adaptability: needing, rethinking and common sensing.
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