Squad Thinking: The Better Way To Deliver Digital Projects

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Logistical and legislative complexities can slow progress with almost any project, but there’s no doubt that in the public sector, they can cause them to move at a snail’s pace. The structure of government and the nature of departmental funding mean organisational processes are often cumbersome; burdened by bureaucracy and hindered by restrictive governance.

This is unfortunately the nature of the beast – to an extent. However, over the past ten years, government digital has evolved and honed ways to streamline and speed up projects within the sector, despite the obstacles (and potentially even save some money along the way). At the heart of this is the digital unit of delivery, the squad. Assembling the optimal squad to deliver against a project brief is one of the most impactful ways to assure success.

The power of squads for the public sector

So what do we mean by squads? Squads are multidisciplinary, agile teams that pool together skilled individuals with different specialisations to achieve a specific goal. Squads are everywhere, throughout history and pop culture in different contexts: from sporting all-star teams to crime-fighting police units, by way of Marvel’s Avengers and even the formation of the British SAS. The important thing about all of them is that they have a mission, a goal that they need to achieve, and only by thinking as a squad can they hope to achieve it.

In a business context, assembling teams of people with different backgrounds and skill sets means that all the necessary expertise is in the same place at the same time, focussed on the same problem. It makes it possible to streamline processes, reduce waste and improve efficiency – all of which are of particular importance in the public sector where the electorate’s finite resources must be allocated wisely. The conventional and apparently logical approach to group people in departments based on similarities of their job functions, can lead to siloed thinking and ineffectual collaboration across the organisation as a whole. Bringing together varied experts cuts through any barriers and makes the unimaginable possible.

Squads can function outside of traditional rules. Relevant laws and regulations must still be adhered to in the public sector of course, but in a squad it’s far easier to ask ‘why’? and to surface and challenge entrenched thinking, outdated working methods and unhelpful habits.

Assembling the right squad composition helps meet challenges posed by public sector governance. For example, if your project needs to meet the government service standard (a 14-point list that describes the requirements that a government service must adhere to in order to be permitted to go live) bringing together the right skillsets will naturally mean your project focuses on the right things from the start, significantly increasing its chances of success.

Designing a team

To assemble a squad within the public sector you need to understand the specific purpose or problem that it needs to address. Sometimes the problem to be solved isn’t the same as the one in the minds of the people commissioning the project and therefore it’s necessary to dig under the surface. As an external project management consultant working with the public sector, it’s essential to develop a truly accurate understanding of the client’s context and drivers to be able to design an effective squad.

You also need to get a feeling for the capabilities of your client’s people and their specific skills so you can balance subject matter and business expertise, combined with the requisite capability levels needed to complete a project successfully. Plus, it’s vital that the squad is allocated a readily available and empowered point of contact within the client organisation who squad members can direct questions to immediately, rather than having to waste valuable time waiting for a response. Squads act independently far more effectively if they are steered in the right direction.

Establishing squad harmony

Implementing squad-based working is highly effective, but it’s not a magic bullet for public sector project management. As with building any team, cultivating a sense of harmony within a squad is integral to its success. While a squad’s biggest asset is its diversity – divergence is its greatest potential weakness. Harmony can be more difficult to achieve when people have widely differing areas of expertise and working methods.

Project managers, or delivery managers as they are widely referred to across government digital, must get to know people as humans – not just for their skills – right from project inception and all the way through to its end. Every human is different, every combination of humans has a different dynamic, and nurturing squad harmony can involve entirely different things.

For example, one of our delivery leads found that people in one of her squads craved personal contact and allowing and ring-fencing ten minutes for people to chat at the beginning of their meetings led to far greater productivity in the ensuing session, and the squad functioning better overall. When she tried this on one of her other squads, they politely asked if they could just get on with the matter in hand. As mentioned previously, people are different…

Managing diverse skill sets can also be complex. Assembling these diverse squads and welcoming client people into them means, for example, that some squad members might have little to no knowledge of agile delivery or digital, for others it could be a core competence. This is particularly true in the public sector, where you see a mix of digital natives and civil servant subject experts. So, not only does a delivery manager have to actually deliver the project, they may also have to take on a mentoring or even training coordination role, rapidly upskilling team members in certain areas. This additional effort is worth it, though, as it means that all squad members become able to contribute to the end goal optimally.

Understanding squads as collections of diverse humans can also help with determining how the actual work is done. Understanding how the people within the squad work best makes it possible to establish working practices for them to be as productive as possible. Ensuring that all squad members are fully briefed on the ‘why’ behind a project as well as the ‘what’ can also pay productivity dividends both due to the additional motivational boost that it can provide, but also because they can add their own input into the collective squad brain, enabling it to better focus on how to make it work.

Long term squad management

Squads can deliver the best results for public sector project management when they become ingrained in the organisation’s culture. The holy grail for many management consultants is sustainable capability long after the project finishes, allowing for the squad-building blueprint to become established and replicated more efficiently as new projects arise. Project management consultants should always ensure they upskill at least one person within their client’s organisation to give them the knowledge to continue the working methodology after the project has ended. In doing so, the initial educational requirements and cultural change involved will pay greater dividends over the long term.

The prospect of pivoting to squad-based working might initially seem daunting, but the example set by government digital over the last decade makes a compelling case for its consideration. As employees adapt to it and external parties can be integrated into the organisation seamlessly, the case for its merits is hard to overstate.

Emma Charles is Director of Public Sector Delivery, Kin + Carta

Emma Charles
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