The “Agile Journey” at the World Bank
Background. The case study summarized below is the latest in a series of cases available at the NAPA Agile Government Center. The mission of the Agile Government Center is three-fold:
- Determine Agile Government Principles
- Identify cases of Agile Government
- Assist in implementing Agile Government
The purpose of these case studies is to provide real life examples of how Agile is used in government programs and to assist other governments in implementing more Agile Government Programs.
The case study was developed with the assistance and major authorship by the Institute for Successful Societies (ISS) of Princeton University. ISS’ Director Jennifer Widner was instrumental in guiding the development of the case study. The case study was drafted by Tyler McBrien, also of ISS. Alyssa Denzer, researcher for the Agile Government Center, assisted with interviews and provided invaluable insight and support.
Summary Insights. The World Bank Journey provides important insights into how agile can be used. These insights can be summarized as follows:
- The mission of the agency drives behavior, and listening to staff about problems can lead to effective change – but only if top management undertakes a coherent plan of action based on Agile Principles and the demonstration of evidence based results.
- Customers are at the heart of agile efforts and innovation is a core principle in achieving success.
- The Bank effectively used cross-functional teams and displayed diversity of thought.
- Continued persistence with agile efforts should yield additional results but how this will go forward is unclear.
Case Study: Adopting Agile Principles at the World Bank , 2016-2020. The World Bank’s mission is “Ending Extreme Poverty.” This mission resonates with the staff at the Bank and provides a strong direction for their work. The Bank is comprised of 189 countries and operates in 130 locations around the world.
In 2015, an engagement survey found that 86 percent of the roughly 17,000 staff were proud to work at the Bank but only 26 percent believed that the Bank made decisions in a timely manner. This concern by staff was reflected in the fact that projects were slow to reach the board from initial conceptualization - redundant reviews slowed implementation, documents were overly long and complicated, there was little collaboration, large ineffective meetings proliferated, and the managerial span of control was too great.
To deal with these concerns, senior management at the Bank instituted the “Agile Bank Program.” Both the Bank’s clients and its leaders recognized the need for faster responses and quicker execution, more flexibility, and responsiveness.
The model for the Bank’s Agile Journey was the 2001 “Agile Manifesto” developed for software development. The Manifesto distilled the approach into four values:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
The leadership of the Bank was heavily engaged in developing the Agile Bank program. Chief Operating Officer Kyle Peters and his senior advisor Qahir Dahani worked to develop a version of Agile suited to the Bank’s own operations. They created a group of “Agile Fellows” to launch three pilots and serve as champions within the Bank. A steering committee of Bank directors and vice-presidents provided top management assistance.
While the Bank’s senior leaders wanted to see some fast, specific wins, they knew that it would take much longer to generate real cultural change and improve delegation and collaboration. The techniques used to create these wins were:
- Value mapping
- Cross functional teams
- Pulse Surveys
According to an analysis prepared by Peters and the Boston Consulting Group, early results of the Agile Bank Program were promising. Positive outcomes included:
- Decreases in ‘Moderately Unsuccessful’ ratings
- An increase in time redeployed to higher value-added activities
- A reduction in project preparation time
- An estimated $8 million in cost savings per year.
Continuing to measure impact remained difficult. Were positive results from the new ways of working? The positive changes could have been caused by increased resources, attention to the pilots, or leadership involvement. The Agile Bank Program was not without its sceptics. Linking the program to direct results on the ground was difficult and rewards for participants were not always clear.
The internal debate about the Agile Bank Program was seen as a good thing. Tension meant that the initiative was still alive and positive initial results held promise.
Comparison of the Agile Government Center’s Principles to the World Bank’s Agile Principles. Each case study published by the Agile Government Center provides an opportunity to match the actions of the organization involved with the Agile Government Principles to see if the Principles fit well with actions on the ground. Below we summarize this fit.
Agile Government Center’s Principles
World Bank’s Agile Principles
Mission. Mission should be extremely clear, and the organizational unit/team laser-focused on achieving it.
As noted above, the mission of the Bank is compelling and well recognized by its staff. This mission was the driver for the Agile Bank Program.
Metrics for Success. Metrics will be widely agreed upon, outcome-focused, evidence-based, and easily tracked.
Here the fit was good, but continued development of additional evidence that can be attributed to the Program should be undertaken.
Customer-Driven Behavior. Customers should be part of the teams that design and implement agile programs.
There will be continuous iteration and improvement based on customer feedback. It is not clear from the case study that customers were involved in the initial design of the program but they were involved in its implementation.
Speed. Appropriate speed should be encouraged in order to produce quality outcomes and regulatory consistency and a clear focus on managing risks.
The “sprints” that were undertaken and the rapid move to deployment of new processes indicate that speed was at the center of the program.
Empowered, Highly-Skilled, Cross-Functional Team. Team members should engage in continual face-to-face communication, replacing siloed bureaucratic systems and sectoral isolation.
The Agile Fellows program is evidence of the commitment to cross-functional teams. These Fellows were then designated as Champions to expand the cross-functional nature of the program.
Innovation. Innovation should be rewarded, and rules and regulations that hinder problem solving should be examined and changed as necessary.
This was visible throughout the program. Rules that hindered innovation were eliminated.
Persistence. Persistence requires continuous experimentation, evaluation, and improvement in order to learn from both success and failure.
It is not yet demonstrated. While there is continued commitment to Agile at the Bank, it is not clear what form this will take.
Evidence- informed solutions. Solid evidence should form the foundation for designing and implementing policy and program options.
This is a core value at the Bank and is well reflected in the implementation of the program.
Organizational leaders. Leaders should eliminate roadblocks, aggregate and assume risks, empower teams to make decisions and hold them accountable, and reward good outcomes.
This is perhaps the most salient and important factor in the success of the program. It was launched by the Chief Operating Officer and has had senior management support throughout.
Diversity of thought. Different viewpoints should be engaged in both identifying problems and crafting their solutions.
There was an effort to solicit different points of view across the Bank. The use of the pulse surveys and organized method reflects this.