September 21, 2020
Bert Voorbraak started in 2007 to realize one of the first Agile work environments. Partly because of necessity, partly driven by conviction and with a little outside help he turned ASR Nederland into an Agile organization. An important success factor was his effort to involve all people from the start on the way to his goal.
The in-house developed core application for consultants gave ASR an important competitive advantage for a long time. But the world changed and other staffing companies developed similar advanced systems. “Innovation was needed, and preferably on the short term”, explains the former IT manager. “We didn't have years to work on this.”
This time pressure required a new development method, in which concrete functionality was gradually delivered in a kind of joint venture with the business and with a product owner ‘avant la lettre’. To be able to quickly adapt this software to changing insights, requirements and circumstances. “The advantages of this new method were clear to everyone, especially within the business”, says Bert Voorbraak, who currently holds the position of Manager Operations and CIO at the Raad voor Rechtsbijstand.
Voorbraak realized early on that this new way of working required broad behavioral adjustment. “Agile is much more than just a new development method and a different allocation of responsibilities, it mainly involves an organizational change.” Although everyone within ASR recognized its importance at the time, the realization presented him with some challenges.
“I was searching for a way to make it happen. The advantage was that the business, as the most important stakeholder, was convinced of the need to work differently. There was simply no alternative. Continuing with the waterfall method was not an option for both IT and the business”, he says. Voorbraak opted for a holistic, integrated approach based on people, processes and leadership.
“In terms of leadership, I mainly used my enthusiasm to get people on board. I also decided to discover it along the way and especially not to be afraid of making mistakes. The strength of Agile largely lies in the step-by-step approach, where you can also take a step back. That is sometimes difficult for leaders, but it works much better than the traditional way.”
Bert Voorbraak immediately shared all results. Not just stories of glory. Sometimes a trajectory simply did not deliver what was expected of it. For example, because the ambition level was too high, or something just didn't work. “As a leader you have to dare to question your own ideas and vision and those of others. Discuss the pain points, listen, delve into the human factor.”
The change strategy was aimed at showing everyone within ASR that the new approach worked. In addition to the business and IT organization, the results should also inspire the board. “We succeeded, partly thanks to our partner Xebia. We showed that we were able to realize innovation very quickly. From an idea to a prototype or an early version of a new product. This combination of speed and maneuverability has greatly increased internal support."
Voorbraak then saw that expectations were getting higher. “Agile was also embraced outside IT, more widely in the organization. This created challenges in terms of manageability. You want to do it thoroughly and in a controlled manner. Otherwise, the process will eventually degenerate into disappointment.” In any case, he says, there is also a risk that you will end up in a dip after six months or more. "You only have to ask one question to people who are struggling: what do you need?"
In retrospect, he would have preferred to anticipate a little more eagerness for the changes. “We were now sometimes a little behind the facts. At the beginning of the process I would have liked to have had a little more expertise, supervisors and Scrum masters in house.”
As stated, part of the strategy was to involve the entire IT organization, including the middle management, in the developments. “What helped is that we had not formulated too clearly defined goals, which we as a team gradually made more concrete. That made it something for all of us – we have drawn up our roadmap together.”
By working Agile, Voorbraak and his colleagues actually skipped two management layers. “I have sometimes encouraged redundant project leaders to take on a different role, such as Scrum master or coordinating Scrum master – a role that I came up with myself. The great thing is that this enabled people to grow with the developments within the organization.”
“It is great and it fills me with pride to get closer and closer to the intended goals with a group of people”, he continues. “Thereby I prefer to make myself redundant as soon as possible. I like changes and complex challenges. But at a certain point the organization starts moving automatically and people do it all by themselves. Then I’m actually done.”
Gradually Bert Voorbraak developed a leadership style in which he thinks more in scenarios. According to him, this is a logical perfection of Agile management. For example, what happens if things change or something new is implemented? How to act when something fails? Being able to respond flexibly to scenarios also plays a role in his current role at the Raad voor Rechtsbijstand.
“The world of legal counsel is also changing rapidly and has to deal with increasing uncertainty – things that happen to us from outside. Just like at ASR I have to respond to that as a leader. Here again, the introduction of Agile plays an important role, in order to be able to anticipate changing circumstances as well as possible. That is what scenario thinking is all about.”
Scrum and Agile traditionally come from the IT world, but Voorbraak sees that these concepts increasingly stand for agility in general. “Nowadays it is no longer just about IT, it’s about the entire business and operational management. Especially now, in times of the corona pandemic, you see how important this agility is.”
By taking small steps and adjusting things quickly, organizations can deal adequately with a variety of changes. “Covid-19 is forcing the Raad voor Rechtsbijstand to become Agile. It takes a while to find out, but enthusiasm does arise. We have to stick to this in order to determine together which good elements we want to keep for the future, and what to say goodbye to. Insight into the good things, but also into the pain points and pitfalls is crucial.”