Case Study Background: A radical restructuring of a State Education Office (SEO) that illustrates the 4th stage, Customize, of the 5 stages of Agile Organization Design (see visual). This stage tests the operating model from the first 3 stages and develops implementation details.

To get a flavor of this project, it was done on the heels of almost 2 decades of government innovation based on David Osborne’s “Reinventing Government” as well as the widespread use of large engagement methods such as America Speaks, Open Space, and Future Search.

The task was to merge three existing agencies, incorporate 10 new legislative mandates and move to an e-government platform. Human centered design practices that contributed to the successful outcome were design thinking, employee engagement, and customer focus. They were constants through the complicated work of integrating three different operating structures, cultures, and personnel systems on a digital platform.

Two dramatically different leaders during the 3-year initiative added both volatility and serendipity. The first leader was an “in charge,” lawyer, well-suited for the politics of start-up. She was well connected legislatively and secured the necessary political and financial resources. However, she had no experience in education, and her fatal flaw was an inability to shift or develop the leadership skills to create a cohesive team to address the complexity of standing up day-to-day operations.

Her successor, a former schoolteacher and administrator, had strong collaborative skills and a long record of working well with the regional educational system. An excellent team builder and administrative innovator, she quickly and firmly busted the silos and began building the organization on a digital platform. The transition between the two leaders was abrupt and messy. Retrospectively, the serendipity was that the different leadership styles were ideal for the respective stages of the organization’s early evolution.

What Happened:

The former schoolteacher moved quickly when she assumed the helm to quell the high level of staff anxiety created by her predecessor. She announced that no one would lose their jobs if they were willing to learn new skills and collaborate on the redesign. That helped drive the fear out of the organization. The next thing she did was to determine a road map for the way forward. She did not have the time or the interest in using a top-down approach and she understood the importance of engaging the workforce. Because of her leadership style and high level of emotional intelligence, among the options purposed for the transformation in the Sensing phase, she and her leadership team selected the high engagement process of the Axelrod’s Conference Model of Change that would involve four or five large conferences. That aligned and influenced the development of Agile Organization Design. She said it would be the perfect way for her new leadership team, employees and stakeholders to collectively learn and grow adaptive skills through the process of co-creating their own future.

After nine months, the first three conferences Vision (Sense), Strategy (Mobilize), and Structure (Frame) delivered a unique and innovative draft operating model not seen previously in the state government. Because of the full stakeholder involvement in the first 3 conferences, everyone understood the direction, goals and high-level operating design (as well as the trade-off that had been made). Thus, they were well positioned to take up the 3 deliverables of the Customize conference: Deployment Plan, Detailed Design, and Reconciliation of the draft operating design.

Customize was the final conference. Six nine-person agile teams made up of SEO subject matter experts, stakeholders and four integrating roles: executives, managers, HR staff, and IT automation staff was the organizing scheme. These teams were remixed each day as they moved through the 3 deliverables: Deployment, Detailed Design, and Reconciliation. They were also tasked to surface any significant tensions. The mix and rotation of teams over the 3 days was used to maximize leadership and participant interaction as well as creating psychological safety (no one person was identified with any issue they generated in the small groups that they rotated through over the course of the conference). Demonstrating an emphasis on shared leadership (rather than top-down), all executives and management were active participants throughout, and so the outcome was readily adopted by management.

What difference did this approach make?

An unexpected improvement emerged in the Reconciliation step. It was decided to adjust the operating model to have a single integrated front-end customer service center and the back end would have cross-functional teams to provide escalation on products and service issues.

Additionally, the Conference Model circumvented the need for traditional change management and resulted in this complicated organization being stood up within 12 months, and within 24 months it had received a national award among State Education Offices for its groundbreaking design and successful implementation. The human centered approach addressed (if not resolved) the important tensions of stakeholders during the process. It energized the workforce who found it fun and were delighted to experience the non-linear magic of design methods – which created ownership and pride. Importantly, implementation was completed in 3 months.

About the Author

Bill Zybach is a member of the instruction team for the “Mastering Agile Organization Design Certification” Program. He has a long history of supporting organizational change in local, state and the federal government. During the Bill Clinton administration, he worked on “reinventing government”, which led to a balanced federal budget and increased public confidence in government.