Transformation & Change108

IT Branch, City of Edmonton: Building an Agile Organisation

Evan Leybourn

February 1, 2019


IT Branch, City of Edmonton: The IT Branch is responsible for managing, and maintaining, the IT investment across the City of Edmonton. Consisting of 340 people, five sections, and almost $60m in operating budget, the branch works with business units to help them translate business needs into technology solutions. Operating as a shared service, their primary Customers are the internal business units that make up the City functions, such as fire, waste management and public transit.

This case study was originally published in "Directing the Agile Organisation" by Evan Leybourn

In 2008, the IT Branch received feedback from City staff and business leaders that they were not meeting service delivery expectations. To address these issues, and the related underlying causes, an enhanced, and sustainable, service delivery model was created. This model of service delivery, leadership and engagement was built around the following principles; listen, support, encourage and, most of all, deliver.

This new service delivery model was adopted by mid-2009, after significant engagement with all staff. To bring about the cultural changes needed for this new model, the IT Branch has spent the past four years undertaking business transformation, establishing structural change, educating staff, and implementing new processes.

The Problems

The two major problems that originally catalysed the transformation of the IT Branch were identified in the 2008 annual Customer survey and biennial employee survey.

  1. Customers’ needs were not being met.
  2. The staff environment was fostering low morale.

These problems became even more apparent as people came to understand that the current approach to managing IT in local government was no longer working. That is, traditional approaches to building permanent systems no longer aligned with how things were functioning in reality. Ultimately, with the City demanding so much of the branch, there was no other option but to attempt an Agile and flexible solution.

The Causes:

Over time, the City (which is now 107 years old) had become a very hierarchical, command and control organisation. This fostered an environment in which people did not feel encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, and was not suitable to meet the new challenges, and rapid evolution, in IT.

In addition, staff had much greater understanding, and expectation of technology than in the previous five or 10 years. As a result, the IT branch was constantly struggling to keep up with changing demands.

These problems, and their causes, are not unique to Edmonton. They are common across local government, and certainly exist in many other organisations.

The Solution:

Over the last few years, there has been a huge reset in terms of people’s expectations of leaders. People started to ask; ‘How did leaders let it come to this?’. This led to a shift in thinking within the City, towards a new leadership model that encourages co-creation, engages staff, and leverages people’s intrinsic motivations.

City of Edmonton – Pre-transformation organisation chart

The solution was to move away from the concept of a delivery manager (such as a client solution manager, or an infrastructure services manager), as these types of managers were often much better as technical experts, than as effective people managers. Structurally, the IT Branch went from seven directors to five, and from 31 managers, 11 of which managed no people (Figure 7), down to 20 technical managers and six coaches (Figure 8). A key part of the new structure involved taking a group of IT professionals, who could also be people managers, and converting them into coaches, responsible for engaging with staff and driving the cultural change.

In parallel to the structural changes, the branch created a resource management office (RMO) to streamline the management of staff assignments. Operationally, everyone reports to the RMO, and is assigned to work based on their knowledge, skill, ability and availability. This is a very complex and difficult function, and the branch is still working to improve it. Finally, the creation of the RMO means that staff understand that the person they are working with today, might be reassigned to another project with a higher priority.

From a cultural perspective, it was important for the branch to keep using the word ownership. Historically, there hadn’t been the concept of personal ownership; that outcomes weren’t just the manager’s responsibility, but everyone’s responsibility, in different ways.

The final aspect to the new model was to change the way projects were implemented within the branch. Instead of an active Project Management Office (PMO) guiding the delivery of each project, the responsibility for project delivery, and the project resources, was put back into the delivery units. The PMO was retained, but their responsibility was refocused on providing oversight, and managing processes and standards.

The Implementation

As an approach to sustainable service delivery, the IT leadership team came together in March 2009 and proposed, what was then, the Agile Service Delivery (ASD) model. However, the response to the initial presentation of the ASD model to the IT Branch was almost universally underwhelming. People didn’t respond to it, and the consensus was that it would be like all the other ‘re-orgs’, lots of talk, but nothing would change.

City of Edmonton – Current organisation chart

This led to the realisation that, to the staff, it looked like the leadership team had gone into a room, cooked up a solution, and presented it to the branch as a ‘fait accompli’.

In April 2009, it was decided that a new approach was needed. This resulted in a series of 30 town hall meetings, each with 10, randomly selected staff attending. The goal of these town hall meetings was to give staff an opportunity to talk about the current state, and their vision of the future.

In planning for these meetings, it was decided that what was discussed at each meeting would be posted for ALL to see. That was the first step to being transparent. At the beginning of each meeting, the two goals for the transformation were articulated to the staff, in order to provide context. These were:

  1. To create fulfilment in their work.
  2. To provide them with the freedom to do what they knew needed to be done.

In order to remain Agile and flexible, the original plan for an ASD model was put aside at the beginning of the town hall process. By the conclusion of the town hall meetings, the branch had adopted a model similar to ASD, but developed through co-creation with an engaged workforce. The major difference between the original ASD and the current model, was to move responsibility for project delivery from the PMO to operations staff, in order to retain, and share, experience.

At the conclusion of the town hall process, the entire branch met, to draw together all of the discussions, and chart a way forward. It was at this point that the leadership team sat down with HR, the unions, and other resources, to discuss the implications of the model. Using value management as a framework, the leadership team was then able to map from the values, and the ‘10 Ways of Being’[1], to the business model. From that, developed the mission and vision statement that was circulated to the whole branch for discussion.

In mid-2009, a project manager was engaged to formally manage the process of restructuring the branch, one level at a time. The project manager was responsible for the practical aspects of the transformation, such as the plans, rewriting the manager’s job descriptions, creating the coach positions, moving people around, etc.

The branch restructure also emphasised the need for good governance from the IT leadership group. To ensure that all the directors were on the same page, and common issues were discussed, a regular leadership forum was established.

It wasn’t until early 2011 that the project manager was assigned off the transformation. The change had reached a self-supporting stage, where it had become everybody’s responsibility, not just the project manager, or the leadership team.

The Challenges

Most of the challenges faced during the early stages of the transformation, related to people’s ability to cope with the change, and continue to operate in the new IT Branch.

The continuous change experienced within the branch transformation, led to a sense of instability, or insecurity, for staff. This was further compounded by the anxiety caused by unsubstantiated rumours and general speculation. Communication, and the overall communication strategy, became an integral part of the branch’s ability to be Agile. Changing people’s view from ‘Oh, that didn’t work, so we’re trying something else now’ to ‘This is another aspect of our journey’. It would be incorrect to assume the branch has been 100% successful, but creating, and maintaining, a relationship of trust with staff, has built confidence in the transformation, and with the leadership team.

In addition to managing challenges at a group level, there was also the challenge of managing individuals. Many people had individual issues and concerns that blocked their ability to be successful. This is where the coaches became involved. The coaches were responsible for working closely with people, and addressing their individual concerns. Of course, this had to be balanced with the risk of spending all your time with the high needs people, and losing sight of the mission.

A good example of this is that people, in general, don’t do a good job of holding other people, or themselves, to account. In the past, the hierarchy was the mechanism that held people to account. However, when the transformation moved away from that model, it became each staff member’s personal responsibility to follow up, or recommit.

At the far end of the spectrum were those staff who did not engage. Those that said, ‘I don’t come to work for fulfilment, I come to work for the pay cheque’. This meant that the process of hiring people became very important. New recruitment priorities have been put in place to ensure that new staff don’t just fit with the culture, but are going to help the branch move forward with the culture.

Finally, there have also been structural challenges within the transformation. The roles and responsibilities of the RMO have been widely accepted, and it is understood that without it, the branch doesn’t have the flexibility to move people to where they are needed. However, in many cases, a manager will still ask for a specific person, rather than whomever the RMO sends. For this to be properly resolved, an ongoing, and involved, cultural shift is required.

The Outcomes

As of early 2013, the IT Branch transformation has been in progress for over four years. Though worthwhile, the transformation has not been an easy process. It took several years for the directors and managers to get on board with the changes. Overall, the branch has reached a state where those who don’t understand, and don’t engage, are the odd ones out, responding in a different way to most of the others. This is true of both leaders and staff.

The best evidence for the success of this transformation is shown in the upwards trend, in terms of satisfaction, engagement and understanding, in the 2012 customer and employee surveys.

Over the last few years, in addition to the branch transformation, the entire City has adopted new, co-created, leadership principles. This new corporate approach aligns closely with, and validates, the approach taken by the IT Branch, to the point that the language is similar.

While this transformation has been a success, there is still work to do in some areas. People ask ‘When is the transformation going to be over?’, and our answer is, ‘Once started, it never ends’.

- Chris Moore, CIO, City of Edmonton

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