Organizational Agility

By Greg Smiley, CIO, Florida Department of Transportation

Greg Smiley, CIO, Florida Department of Transportation

Today, more than ever, government IT is experiencing rapid change. As private industry evolves, so do customer expectations. The citizens we serve and the internal customers we support expect low friction experiences, intelligent systems, and access to real-time data for timely and accurate decision making. Agility has quickly become an organizational necessity.

"An organization that is able to comfortably adapt needs fewer standards, policies, and procedures"

To move at the speed of innovation, an organization needs to modernize its portfolio. In an effort to squeeze every last ounce of value out of our assets, we can actually see the history of technology ref lected in our portfolio like layers of geological strata. This weighs an organization down like an anchor as more and more resources are allocated over time to keeping the lights on rather than addressing innovation and activities that move an organization forward. If left unaddressed, the technology gap between the organization and modern industry will continue to widen. But modernization is less about upgrading technology and more about creating an environment where modern technology and practices can thrive perpetually. If you want to modernize, focus on modernizing your approach rather than your technology.

The secret to organizational agility is to leverage emergent strategies. Emergence is a form of self-organization where the individual components are bound by a set of simple rules and as a result, the group as a whole exhibits more intelligent behaviors as it reacts to changing conditions. The behavior of birds f locking, for example, can be achieved by applying three simple rules that are followed by each individual bird: steer towards the average heading of neighbors, stay close to neighbors, and avoid crowding neighbors. With each bird following these rules, the entire f lock can move in more complex ways. Emergence allows the group to adapt and react to situations that may not have been encountered before.

This phenomenon is not only found in nature, but also in a variety of other instances like traffic patterns, economic f luctuations, and even the web. Private sector innovation is, in itself, an emergent behavior so it makes sense to apply a similar philosophy within an organization to keep pace. Applying emergent strategies within your organization enables problem solving for constantly evolving situations with varying complexity. This is a core requirement for agility.

When you approach your organizational problems through the lens of emergent principles you are more likely to see rapid progress. Effective delegation, for example, isn’t just about giving other people assignments to free up your time; you are still the bottleneck for receiving, distributing, and reviewing the work being performed. Instead, leverage emergent behavior and give basic, yet specific, guidelines with which your staff can operate and respond. Empower them to make those decisions. Endeavor to push the decision-making responsibilities down the reporting structure. Sure, you will reduce some bottlenecks, but more importantly you will create a more resilient organization that can adjust to ever-changing conditions more easily.

An organization that is able to comfortably adapt needs fewer standards, policies, and procedures. It needs fewer restrictions, and even fewer staff members dedicated to updating and policing those restrictions. When people cooperate and f lock together, they use fewer resources.

This is the real solution to a staffing shortage. We quickly conclude that we need more resources to handle the workload when delivery times swell and backlogs grow, but that is addressing the symptom rather than the problem. Often you don’t need more people, you need fewer obstacles and less friction. The reality is, although we don’t directly battle against competitors with a product, we battle against ourselves, our own bureaucracy, and our own complexity. Distill that out of your team’s culture and then scale when needed.

When we improve our delivery speed, we reduce the urgency to change processes. This creates the time that is necessary to make better decisions and implement more forward thinking solutions. We can make strategic moves that avoid technical debt and support long-term goals. In addition, we can reinvest the newly unencumbered resources back into innovative efforts. When we are finally able to balance the delivery of daily work with exploration and experimentation to solve new problems, the organization is no longer trying to keep up with innovation, it is actually contributing to it.

Some organizations are stuck in a reactive posture, bouncing from emergency to emergency and unable to plan. Others make a five year plan that becomes obsolete after two years and fail to implement it. The best approach is for an organization to plan how to react. By leveraging emergent strategies, we can reintroduce lasting agility back into the organization and deliver the level of service our citizens and internal customers expect. We can properly plan for the future, adjust for disruptors, and operate as industry leaders for innovation.