• Steve

Agility in the Public Sector

We all want rapid change so we can meet the ever-changing demands and aspirations.

Increasingly, we find Senior Managers in all sectors want results quickly; they are under pressure to do more, faster and with less. Frustrations run high when the pace and outcomes of changes don’t meet these expectations, often leading to behaviours or decisions that slow the pace or reduce results further. There is a general belief that this is much more difficult in the Public Sector, but we don’t know of evidence that proves this hypothesis. We do, however, understand that the features of organisational agility work in the Public Sector and elsewhere.


We thought, to illustrate what’s possible in the Public Sector, we’d tell the story of our very first Sprint and examine why it was so successful.


It all starts in a Lecture theatre near Swindon! Boeing staff are presenting and outlining their approach to agile planning. It’s impressive, energising and looks like it may help with some of the frustrations with existing methods. Of particular interest, was a technique known as a Sprint.


We’d just started working with Maternity services at Morecambe Bay Hospitals Trust, who had a pressing need to show progress against a set of regulator warnings. With our new-found knowledge, we thought using the Sprint approach could help, as it seemed to enhance the route we were already taking.


The area making the least progress appeared to be a good starting point, the development and review of outdated clinical guidelines. The sell was easy; people were so frustrated with delays to this critical activity that they were willing to try anything, so a few days later it began.


The following Monday, in Lancaster a hastily established ‘sprint team’ gathered in a small office, the only absence being the clinical consultant, who, although keen to get involved, had limited time. We had, however, scheduled some of his time later in the week. In the two hours we had on Monday morning we achieved three key things, that set us on our way;

  1. An understanding of sprints and their underpinning mindset.

  2. An agreed set of objectives for the two weeks of the Sprint.

  3. On the office wall were Post-Its showing the activities needed over the next two weeks, and the blockers that could prevent us achieving our objectives.

Then the work began. Every day, as many of the team as possible reviewed the blockers and remaining activities, moving and changing the ‘Post It’ notes on the wall. Although not everyone could physically be in the room for these short reviews, an audio conference facility still allowed team members to be involved. By using the photo facility on our phones, team members could be kept up to date with the plan and blockers board as it flexed and evolved.


The team worked well, sometimes working alone on activities, or in small groups and for many they needed to draw on other ‘non-sprint team’ people to do work. One of the roles that emerged during the two weeks was around some of the blockers; we found that we spent time liaising and negotiating with others external to the Sprint to support progress. For example, one of the biggest blockers was apprehension around the term ‘sprint’; several people thought we had gone crazy and were initially unsupportive.


At the end of the two weeks, we reviewed our progress against the original objectives. As is often the case, the original intentions were way too ambitious, but we achieved around 75% of what we set out within the two weeks. We had made more progress in two weeks than the previous nine months for this critical activity. The Sprint had been an enormous success and made a significant dent in work that had been creating such anxiety.


The team felt that most of the remaining work needed to be undertaken by a clinical consultant. A one week sprint six weeks later finished off the remaining work.

When the sprint team reviewed the first two-week Sprint, the following were the key messages:

  • All things are possible, however significant and insurmountable they appear!

  • We have learnt the importance of engaging with other partners.

  • Whi le we didn’t meet all the objectives, there has been an enormous leap forward.

  • Agree a reduced business as usual commitment for participants.

  • Get the right people for the team, who are committed, but spread the load.

  • Gain line manager support for team members, in case the day job slips.

  • It is an intense but rewarding, productive and positive experience.


While an excellent outcome, followed by further sprints with positive results, the approach didn’t sustain in the organisation. Our subsequent learning and experience have helped us understand why. During this Sprint, we were able to create a microcosm of the agile mindset. However, this would need to be extended across the whole organisation for the approach to be embedded and sustained. Now, whichever sector we work with, we achieve pace in change initiatives through attending to organisation culture and embedding agile mindsets within it.

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