by Vasco Duarte
How can you change – dramatically – a government organization? Well, big organizations and flexibility, that’s not always a match made in heaven. And when it comes to big organizations, few are larger than a government. My Dutch friend Berend van Duijvenvoorde told me the story of his heroic quest for agile working within the Ministry of Economic Affairs. I couldn’t stop laughing of enthusiasm.
It all started with Berend opting to introduce agile and scrum into his IT department. But, since they where in the middle of a big reorganization, top management didn’t like the idea of ‘another new thing’. What he could do though, was creating a sort of test lab in order to see how they could work laws and regulations into technology. A small concession… Or was it? I think people heard a loud evil laughter coming out of Berend’s office that day.
Stand up, standing out!
You see, the Dutch have this saying; “Just act normal, that’s strange enough already”. And among government officials not standing out is considered the very best strategy for success. In such a way that wearing colored socks is seen as the zenith of frivolity. Despite this, Berend decided it was about time to stir things up a little. After all, he might not be able to introduce agile to his department yet, but nobody had said anything about his test lab.
He called a friend from another department, asked for white laboratory coats and handed these out to his team. He made sure they had the big table in the middle of the building’s restaurant during lunch time and they made a big show of themselves. They even performed stand up meetings outside in the sun where everybody could see them. Of course wearing their white coats.
Thinking out of the black box
Within two days everyone in the department knew there was something meaningful going on. Normally, with the kind of assignments Berend got, nobody would hear or see anything of what was going on. Apart from the people he had long and exhausting meetings with. At the end of the project you’d publish a complicated report that no-one would read. That was not the case now. Berend and his team held regular presentations. And they made a show of that as well. They showed their results in very different ways. As a game, through a video, by turning the reports into a theater play, and so on. During the second presentation the big boss of the department dropped by. From that moment he joined every presentation they gave.
The result? They are now implementing the systems he and his team tested, with their appropriate test lab coats. Berend got to introduce Agile and Scrum despite all signs to the contrary, and now there is a change of culture going on! No longer is everything managed top down. Apart from that Berend was the first to work with people from several disciplines, something that worked remarkably well. Is everything perfect? No, not everyone can cope with the new way of working. Some people just can’t handle change too well, but they are a small minority.
The best years
The biggest benefit for Berend himself? ‘People wrote me notes: ‘I’ve been working here for 25 years, but I just didn’t know work could be that much fun’. For me personally these where the best years ever. And I’m still training new people, so it’s still spreading. The greatest thing though, is that the people from the initial lab are doing great. They inspire others, and that makes me feel proud’.
Don’t you just love Berend’s story? For me it shows that if you hold on to what you believe in, you just will succeed!