Governments have a deservedly bad reputation when it comes to new thinking. They are slow, set in their ways, and tend to over-complicate things.

Yet Britain's Government Digital Service (GDS) seems to have done the impossible by centralizing systems and delivering better services along with a unified customer experience. They've also saved the government boatloads of money along the way.

GDS did all this not only by applying the best digital technology to the problem, but also by applying the best thinking about how to build organizations.

In their remarkable book, "Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale", Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky, and Barry O'Reilly point out that there were three things the British did that made this program work. They'll work for your company too:

Starting Small

Noted systems theorist John Gall said that "a complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked." And this is how the Brits started -- with a single, small cross functional team that was capable of immediately delivering value. Once this team began to produce results they made further investment, and started to grow the team.

Tip: Don't try to design a big organization from scratch -- start with one team and grow from there.

Incremental Change

GDS used something Humble, Molesky, and O'Reilly call a "strangler application pattern" to incrementally replaced both computer systems and organizational processes. This kept the risk of each change low, and avoided the activation of "organizational antibodies" that inevitably attack any change -- even good ones.

Tip: Have your first team, and all subsequent teams, deliver their product or process changes in small valuable chunks, not as a "big bang" release -- Google, Amazon, Spotify, and Neflix do this too.

Principle-Based Management   

The leadership team at GDS does not operate in a "command and control" way or hand out marching orders to be blindly followed. Instead they empower and enable people on the front-lines of each project to make their own decisions -- this means teams move faster and are more engaged. As "Lean Enterprise" explains:  

"The leadership team at GDS does not tell every person what to do but provides a set of guiding principles for people to make decisions aligned to the objectives of the organization."

This kind of management works best when you've hired fully-formed adults who are skilled and self-responsible. To make sure it had the right people the GDS also created a generous compensation modeled based on the private sector instead of other government agencies.

Tip: Follow the Agile Manifesto and "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Two years ago, following multiple problems in the rollout of the HealthCare.gov the US Government also set up  18F -- a centralized software function operating on the same principles as GDS.

Starting small, changing incrementally, and trusting people, may all seem counterintuitive if what you want to do is make big changes. But just like compounding interest is magic for financial returns, compounding small changes are like rocket fuel for your business or organization.

Published on: Jul 30, 2016