The IR is a mandate for adaptive working: here’s how to achieve it

By Alex Richards

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the Integrated Review) marks a realisation that an adaptive approach – where organisations rely on the stability of a strong strategic centre while enabling small, experimental teams to innovate – is central to achieving the UK’s new and demanding national security and international policy ambitions.

Today’s complex, highly contested and interconnected global context demands an approach that allows Government to respond in tempo with the strategic environment. Yet the institutions that protect us are struggling to match the current speed of change, let alone pre-empt future threats. It’s difficult to keep pace with the volume, variety, velocity and veracity of data while maintaining legal, regulatory, policy and ethical compliance. And harder still when you factor in cumbersome legacy systems and scarce specialist expertise.

These challenges call for an adaptive approach: a dynamic, integrated operating model that is highly responsive to change, and where evolution is treated as a key capability in its own right. It’s a system designed for constant change, focusing on assets, organisational structure and people to implement the strategy. It means getting commodity capabilities to do the heavy-lifting and ensuring that value is created in the right place with the right resources, allowing public servants to focus on high-value activities.

Achieving this state across integrated Government calls for three key actions:

  1. Accelerate insight-led decision-making by placing people front and centre, enabling them to derive the right insight by putting context-rich data at their fingertips
  2. Instil a permanent, positive restlessness by combining a stable core with small, self-organising, multi-skilled teams that are free to evolve and self-determine the best course of action.
  3. Step up the pace for capability development and delivery by shortening decision-making and planning cycles from years to weeks, if not days, by moving to agile delivery approaches.

This means significant change, not least to workforce skill sets. It calls for a diverse mix of multi-functional teams and people empowered to apply a broad range of skill sets to the most pressing challenges. Their fluid, adaptable approach must be underpinned by a strong strategic centre that makes evidence-based decisions on resource allocation in line with the organisation’s overarching goals and ambition.

Success means nothing less than an enterprise-level transformation of analysis, knowledge management and data governance to enable cross-government integration. So, it’s vital that Government understands the existing balance across two key axes, data dexterity and organisational agility.

Public sector organisations have traditionally managed their approach to technology and data capabilities using four siloed approach across these axes, each happening separately, and each with its own entrenched hierarchies:

  • Mass production – the traditional model for delivery using repeatable processes at scale.
  • Customisation at scale – where those in the same organisation try to adapt and evolve more quickly by taking down structural barriers and empowering self-organising teams.
  • Experimentation – which characterises research and development organisations, innovation hubs and capability development centres that design for pace and agility.
  • Specialisation – teams that typically operate within fixed structures around specific types or classes of problems.

These approaches have individual merit. But to be able to adapt at pace, where timeliness provides the decisive advantage, adaptive Government must adopt a model that brings the best of all four together in harmony. The entrenched hierarchies are removed by being anchored on a platform that is constantly assessing how to best face-off to today, and tomorrow’s, challenges. This approach switches data from a challenge to an enabler. It enables organisations to apply the right solutions to the right problems at a point in time, gaining insight that can improve operational performance, better inform their future strategy and planning, and, in some cases, improve the way they counter external threats.

This process of moving away from old ways of working and embracing new ideas will create tension. But with bold ambitions, Government cannot risk falling behind when the public sector is under more demand than ever before, and when we can ill afford to fail. With the right transferable skills and adaptive mindsets, and a desire to let go of legacy approaches and scale new ways of working, Government can respond to the challenges of today, deliver on the bold ambitions of the Integrated Review and face an uncertain future with confidence.

About the authors

Alex Richards PA defence & security expert Alex leads Adaptive transformation in Defence, helping organisations respond to an increasingly complex and evolving world.

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