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Managing agile complexity while meeting bureaucratic priorities

The situation

Our customer, a key digital division within State Government, was transforming their systems and skills to further embed agile ways of working across multiple projects and teams.

This taxpayer-funded organisation embraced agile to maximise their team’s efficiencies and create more scope to deliver digital products and services that make life easier for the public. However, their work is driven by ministerial and agency priorities — areas of government that remain guided by traditional approaches.

Elabor8 helped the digital division to develop a customised framework for agile portfolio management to improve cross-agency collaboration, visibility of workflows and the digital team’s capacity to deliver under pressure.

In the time following, our customer has made history by becoming the first public service agency in the country to be listed in the top ten of the ‘Great Place to Work’ rankings.

The challenge

The digital division was ‘all-in’ but still in the early days of their agile fluency. Their services were in high demand, which had prompted a transition from a project-focused organisation to a product-focused one in order to increase the quality of work being produced.

Elabor8 was brought in to sustain the adoption of lean-agile principles through coaching. While working in the organisation, we saw an opportunity to improve the high-level planning across teams, and smooth transactions between the organisation’s upstream and downstream business areas.

Elabor8 consultant Greg Shield said it became clear that portfolio management was a problem.

“The organisation was buried deep in hierarchy, with little capacity to control their workflow, and also working closely with other parts of government that hadn’t undergone any change, which was a point of friction,” Shield said.

“They lacked shared understanding and alignment with their stakeholders, and therefore couldn’t effectively prioritise deliverables that were set outside the organisation.”

Additionally, there was no public source of truth and agile work management tools were inconsistently applied meaning that high level information about project & product delivery was patchy at best.

The solution

Our State Government client has leaders open to experimentation. They gave Elabor8 the space to investigate the problem and test solutions before committing to a long term course of action.

We listened to the teams and stakeholders involved to understand how the portfolio worked and pinpoint the specific issues that needed to be addressed through portfolio management.

One experiment was tracking the top four projects with thrice-weekly standups and tasks allocated every two weeks. Roadblocks were encountered: there was poor coordination between teams and limited preparedness to prioritise projects.

Elabor8 also demonstrated the value of story mapping sessions and inceptions. Inceptions brought project teams and employees from external agencies together to create a shared understanding of scope and each project’s readiness to be put into development. It also allowed the groups to trade off scope and break the projects down into separate releases of value to citizens.

Inceptions worked well and allowed for more agile mindsets to emerge through conversations about overarching business value and customer needs.

As a result of these experiments, Elabor8 came up with a three horizon approach: first was extending the organisation’s ability to gain clarity and prioritise work; the second was building an understanding of capacity; and finally, a planning component.

Improving transparency was done slowly, and with the buy-in of all stakeholders.

Two visible prioritised lists were created: one for externally-facing projects and one for internal initiatives. Each fortnight, two meetings were held to discuss each list individually and update the priority of work and who would do the work.

Shield recalls, “We had sessions in open spaces so anyone could come in and listen. It’s helped enormously to manage expectations and ensure everyone knows what’s going on, because there’s a lot of Ministers and Directors that need to be informed.”

The successfully trialled inception meetings became a prerequisite to a project being added to a list, so that nutting out project details could occur upfront before prioritisation takes place.

Another board that showed team allocations to different projects and initiatives was also updated monthly to indicate how each team’s time was being spent, e.g., 30% product, 20% initiatives, 40% project and 10% support.

“Seeing exactly how each team’s capacity was split up provided a helpful mechanism to inform co-planning of workloads so that conflicts could be evaluated, and effort allocated more realistically.”

Our customer was impressed by our nuanced approach to developing a solution: “The Elabor8 team were exceptional, their depth of knowledge was some of the best I have experienced. They provided sound advice after considering the problem from all sides.”

The results

The measures put in place by Elabor8 have dramatically improved the transparency of information, prioritisation, and cross-functional communication within this State Government environment.

Our bespoke approach to agile portfolio management has helped the digital division to align work and prioritisation decisions across multiple agile teams. It has also fine-tuned linkages between development teams and broader strategic and operational initiatives, including dependencies between teams using different delivery methods.

Elabor8 consultant Greg Shield said “By putting information on the wall it became the truth — but talking about it every two weeks was vital. Every board needs a meeting. It enables those face-to-face discussions where everyone can talk about the problems, potential solutions and make trade-offs.”

“Bringing project teams, project managers and agencies together in the same room was a big plus and helped to bridge the new world and the old world. In our very first meeting we were able to successfully change priorities.

“The systems we introduced became a catalyst for conversations and behaviour change, rather than just information on a wall.”

The digital division is now more confident in their capacity to:

  • Involve and inform stakeholders effectively
  • Highlight their top priorities and visualise their work flow
  • Deliver to deadlines and stay on track despite a shifting organisational backdrop
  • Have honest conversations about product/project split and how teams are organised.

A key team member from the State Government division said, “For the first time we’ve been able to track the agile journey of teams — to deliver back actual data about our agile journey.”

Final thoughts

A key reason this portfolio management approach worked for our customer was their willingness to receive feedback, communicate out across their organisation, and invest in their agile maturity.

This openness allowed Elabor8 to help the organisation to optimise processes and shape more purposeful teams that can deliver well while proactively navigating bureaucratic constraints.

After the success of introducing the two boards for projects and initiatives, there was a window where the digital division could have progressed the next two phases of our three horizon approach. However, they recognised an opportunity to build momentum and instead opted to streamline the current stage of managing the portfolio.

Bringing genuine coordination and stability to planning and prioritisation requires many conversations. Fortunately, they are now supported by a meaningful framework that will improve how they deliver products that positively impact citizens.