In the run up to Noord Group’s co-located IT & Digital Leaders Dialogue UK and Tech Infrastructure Dialogue UK the event’s director Liam Heraty took ten minutes to sit down with one of the dialogue’s speakers, Luc Vander Donckt, Director ICT at Federal Pensions Service (FPS) to talk about his case study masterclass – Agile leadership with self-organising teams, and how a radically new team organisation and culture in IT have transformed the FPS.

Throughout 23 years of experience Luc has managed large IT development projects, programmes and portfolios across the public sector, since 2005 at the Federal Pensions Service (FPS), where he became IT director 7 years ago. Whilst in the middle of very ambitious projects, and starting from a renewed IT governance structure, he has led his IT teams on an agile journey, reinventing their IT organisation. The result reached far beyond process improvements, towards greater alignment with the business and added value for the organisation, committed collaborators, continuous adaptation and a happier workplace.

LH: I’d like to start by looking at your main areas of focus over the past two years – what are the realisations you are proudest of?

LVD: I’ve been focused on three global priorities over the last two years. To start, defining and realising our strategic portfolio containing several programmes and projects within the core business of our organisation (pension attribution, payments and communication), but also for allowing citizens to obtain their future pension date, and soon, their future pension amount via our website, based on their real professional career data.

With a series of legal reforms and a changing demography, pensions have become more relevant than before for a lot of people. Citizens are now looking for information concerning their own future pension, preferably easily accessible, understandable and reliable. It is also high on the priority list of our government.

After a merger last year with the Public Sector Pensions Service, we are also working on integrating their platforms, data, processes and applications into a new IT landscape. Specifically, on the side of pension payments, we are integrating the monthly generation of more than 2.3 million payments.

Secondly, and closely linked to those strategic projects, we have been working on setting up a continuous alignment with our business, and especially across all levels of the organisation. Thanks to this, IT adapts on a permanent basis its services and solutions to match evolving demands, so the focus of IT resources is directly linked to business priorities, and collaboration is assured during the whole development cycle.

Thirdly, and most profoundly, we reorganised the IT department itself towards self-organising teams, to be able to quickly react to changing demands, but also to create a motivating and inspiring workplace with committed collaborators largely in control of their own work.

I know that the IT skills gap is something that is effecting every industry. Was it a particular challenge, especially as a public sector organisation, to attract and retain the staff you needed?

It can indeed be hard to find the people with the expertise we need to realise our IT ambitions, as it is for many other organisations, both public and private. Our large projects which are situated within a relevant social context, and also the innovative IT organisation we’ve put in place, often surprise new employees from the start, and this is already helping us a lot. Retention is as important as recruitment to make sure the work environment remains attractive enough for collaborators growing with us for a large part of their career. Some of the changes I’ll talk about were actually implemented with this challenge in mind.

So what made you decide to apply an agile, self-organising structure to achieve these priorities? Why was this the best fit?

It is our response to continuous innovation not just at the digital level, but also on a societal and legal level; in our case, pension reforms, public initiatives in e-government, new regulations such as the EUGDPR, international data exchanges and synergies in the public sector (for example, the Belgian government cloud). All of those evolutions have contributed, as in many places, to a big pressure on our IT department.

Digital has become the only way to cope with those new challenges and to remain relevant as an organisation. Working in a traditional hierarchical or process oriented organisation makes it difficult to adapt to these continuous changes, so we reinvented our IT department by shifting towards small, empowered, multifunctional teams that have a large autonomy to plan and organise their work, and to adapt to the organisation’s objectives, using their expertise to the fullest. It was reinforced by implementing a global portfolio strategy that ensures we are able to focus our teams on the strategically most valued projects.

So to summarise, we combined a very adaptive organisation with a continuous focus on the most relevant needs, and put our collaborators in control and contact with the business. As such agility and self-organisation went hand in hand with our vision.

Ultimately, how did it help your organisation?

The combination of defining our strategic portfolio with the business, continuous alignment on all levels, and the dynamics of the self-organising teams resulted in our IT organisation being able to grow at a considerable speed – a 50% increase in the size of the workforce in the development teams under my responsibility over the last two years. The self-organised teams enabled us to quickly integrate new staff, but also fostered a growth in professionalism, via an open feedback culture oriented towards continuous improvement in the teams.

This has allowed us to take up ever larger challenges and projects, and run several large programmes simultaneously, ultimately creating more added value through IT investments for the organisation, and at the same time adapting to changing needs and priorities. All of this would have been much more difficult when remaining within a traditional hierarchical organisation.

The autonomy of self-organising teams fostered a lot of energy and initiatives. This led to a workplace with committed and motivated team members, which helped to offset some of the staffing issues I mentioned previously. The mutual support, regular feedback and search for improvements paid off. Many of our junior trainees, but also senior collaborators, have commented on how empowered they feel by the level of self-organisation and trust. It’s not something that is easy to monitor, but the feedback from our teams and our business is the best indicator.

What were the most important things you learned during the process?

Personally I was initially so occupied with supporting the changes in the teams, that I wasn’t aware of the fundamental change in the role of the manager that came with it. More as a leader than a manager I learned to communicate more about vision and objectives, rather than interfering in content and implementation. I need to encourage the teams to ask themselves a lot of management questions too, which led to more management being done, at more levels in the organisation, with less managerial staff.

I should also prevent myself from taking control again if things start going wrong, but rather arrive at a solution by raising awareness within the team and engaging them to solve the issue and learn for any similar issues that may arise in the future. Taking control again is typically what I was prone to do in crisis situations, but I need to restrain myself as it might be destructive for self-organisation.

It has allowed me to focus more on strategy elaboration and implementation at an executive level, keeping in touch with the organisation (including our self-organising teams) and the larger environment in which we operate.

Was it initially difficult to get support for the initiative from the wider business? Were the benefits confined to the IT department alone?

You need to have full support at the executive level. We were presented with the opportunity that our new general manager, Mrs. Sarah Scaillet, fully supported the change in our IT department. She also initiated the example role of IT management itself, by installing an IT board of three (later four) directors, managing as a self-organising team the more than 250 collaborators within the department.

Especially at the beginning there was a lot of skepticism from our colleagues about how those self-organising units would work, and how they would interact with them. By starting small with two pilot teams, working with a business department already open for those changes, and showing successes, we were able to remove a lot of doubts, and generate interest within and outside of the IT department.

But it didn’t just happen overnight. I remember how at the beginning the result of a workshop with a business team resulted in a mail for approval going up in the hierarchy and passing down again via myself towards the team; it concerned a topic for which there was really no added value at all for management to interfere. I’m quite happy those times are history now, so I can focus on matters where I can make a difference.

I was lucky to have as internal customer a business department with a manager with whom I had an open channel of communication. It gradually inspired him, seeing already the advantages in IT, to also implement step by step some agile, self-organising practices in his own business department which made collaboration with us a lot easier. So we can see that our new structure in IT directly stimulated several changes and improvements in the business itself, for once not through technologies and applications, but through a change in process and culture.

Our teams that are working on our core business application ‘Theseos’.

So how have you supported other areas of the business that have made this transition themselves?

We actually invited other business areas to join us in our experiments, and as such experience our way of working, without ever forcing anyone, or suggesting it is the only good way to get work done. Whenever an opportunity arises for collaboration (typically in a project), we allow their teams to raise awareness of our specific approach, and show how and why we have implemented these improvements in the first place. It has already led to some very interesting experiments and energising initiatives in the organization, for example creating a new organigram for a department after the merger of last year.

And finally, what advice would you give a peer starting his or her own digital journey?

Digital transformation can only succeed if you transform not only IT, but also support and work with the wider business to do likewise. Digital is surely about technology, but also about so much more. Foremost in this is people working together in an environment that combines their skills and creativity.

In my experience, the creation of self-organising agile teams offers the dynamics required in this continuously changing world. By using the digital expertise of your collaborators, in an environment in which they feel empowered, trusted and able to experiment with innovations and improve themselves, you can really leverage the full potential of your workforce.

When confronted with massive changes and disruption on an unprecedented scale, agile self-organising and collaborative teams can offer a serious advantage in tackling the challenges that our IT departments are facing today and tomorrow, while offering a motivating work environment.

Luc Vander Donckt will be speaking about what successful Agile leadership looks like in our upcoming co-located IT & Digital Leaders Dialogue UK and Tech Infrastructure Dialogue UK on the 23-24 April 2018 at Park Inn by Radisson, London Heathrow Airport.

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