Kate Clark, a Practice Lead | Ārahi Wāhi Mahi at MartinJenkins, looks at how public-sector teams can set goals and work productively even in times of change and uncertainty.

Here we are … on the other side of the pre-election pause that tends to happen across government work programmes. We can now be certain that change is coming, and can feel the foot resting on the accelerator and about to press down. 

There has been a lot of media coverage focussed on what this may mean for the public service and on what policy and legislative change we could see. It’s clear that government agencies are going to be challenged to reprioritise their work programmes.

Based on election promises, we know that various work programmes are likely to change direction, or be reduced in scope – or be cancelled altogether.

Change can trigger creativity and innovation

It’s times like these that can force organisations and teams to be at their most creative and innovative, and to work together in ways they haven’t had to before. Change can trigger an environment where innovation thrives, helping us to answer questions of how to do better with less, how to find new solutions, how to reimagine and reshape the status quo.

But creativity, innovation, and collaboration will only be possible if we create the right conditions for them. In times of rapid change, it’s useful to think about how we can get our teams to work differently so they can adapt quickly to the change and make rapid progress in a new direction. There are some great approaches that can help with this, so you don’t feel like you’re trying to take a sharp turn in a super-tanker.

A good starting point can be refreshing our short-term work plans.

Set a new short-term course

In times of significant change, we can move our work programmes along more quickly by having shorter-term horizons, breaking down complex or large change into more manageable, more incremental goals.

90-day plans can be one of our most important tools here. They don’t have to be perfect and so can be developed quickly, but at the same time they offer some focus and structure as we adapt amidst uncertainty.

Put simply, 90-day plans can help us get moving – even when we don’t have a complete roadmap for where we’re going. They can be regularly assessed and adjusted as circumstances change.

Integrated 90-day planning across portfolios or functions

Even better, developing a 90-day plan across multiple portfolios or multiple connected functions can make all the difference.

Through times of change, when you’re working out how things need to fit back together, integrated planning helps you stay connected with other teams. It gives you a better understanding of how to support each other, and it also helps you hold one another accountable. You can bounce ideas off each other, share your progress, and help each other stay on track.

That kind of integrated planning and all-hands-on-deck approach can also help keep people engaged and foster a sense of team spirit. The foundation for a strong culture is a clear understanding of where you’re heading. Working on that across groups means your team will feel connected with other groups and better understand the inter-dependencies with them. This adds to your team’s sense of purpose.

Flexibility to adapt to a changing, uncertain course

In an environment of change, what you want to avoid is setting people off in a new direction without them checking back in regularly – you could find that 90 days later the work has gone in a weird direction or perhaps just progressively morphed into something else.

“Agile” approaches can help here. Agile has got a mixed reputation – often used in tech environments, it can seem a bit cultish or faddish, and the approach has perhaps sometimes been applied a little too rigidly. But in fact you can be “Agile ish” and simply adopt and adapt the best bits. The approach is flexible, and well-suited to in-person, hybrid, or all-online ways of working.

Here’s how it works: Agile teams break their work into small chunks. They also don't set things in stone right at the start and instead keep an open mind. If something needs changing, either because it’s not working or because requirements have changed, it can be changed without too much fuss.

This approach also means that adaptive change can become the pervading culture, rather than resistance to change. The project can evolve as the change agenda becomes clearer or new context is provided. Teams that are adaptive to change can be more resilient, more responsive, and get more things done faster.

More visibility of progress and hazards, and more accountability

Using a “sprint” approach to break down the work programme provides managers with regular check-ins to make sure the team’s work stays on track and within scope, as well as the opportunity for the manager to provide regular input and feedback.

Regularly scheduled meetings like daily stand-ups and “retrospectives” provide visibility of how the project is progressing. They enable teams to identify problems and barriers early, and to bring others along on the journey.

Check-ins through “showcases” also allow the team to present their work to senior leaders and get immediate feedback and recognition, which is great for getting your team fully engaged in their work. Senior leaders get greater visibility as the project develops – they can see progress being made or the reasons why progress might be slow. They can also help remove barriers and give feedback.

These approaches also emphasise the discipline of continuous improvement. Through retrospectives and feedback loops, teams reflect regularly on their processes and can refine the work in a safe way, testing early and often.

Empowered and engaged workers, and greater collaboration

Agile teams are typically self-organising, allowing people to have a greater sense of autonomy and ownership over their work.

At the same time, Agile methods encourage cross-functional teams to work together closely, fostering effective communication and knowledge sharing. With cross-functional teams you can also get really divergent thinking and skills, which is great for innovation.

Making the process right for you and your team

There can be some hesitancy to using Agile approaches – or to trying any new way of working for that matter. You may even have already tried Agile and thought it wasn’t for you. I’d encourage you to think again – especially if the context you are working in requires fast change.

Think of Agile ways of working as being like your favourite pair of comfy jeans – they’re super-flexible, and all about staying adaptable and relaxed. They also provide plenty of ways to include a healthy dose of your own team culture and to have some fun.

There’s lots of space to celebrate small wins, get creative with retrospectives, rotate roles, and challenge people to inject creativity. We’ve seen teams play round with, for example, the timing of meetings, who to invite to showcases, and whether to involve stakeholders.

And if you make a start and find the process isn’t working for you, each sprint there is a chance to reset and adjust your process to suit the team’s needs and preferences.

Keeping up the pace

Sitting here as we are at the start of a new government cycle with significant change ahead, people working in the government sector may feel a wide range of emotions.

But the tools and processes I’ve been discussing can help you formulate some clear plans for keeping up your momentum – and your heads – in the face of uncertainty. They can also keep you and your team connected to and moving with others who are changing at the same time.

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