Organisational development in a municipality within a framework set by the municipal council is not new. However, a local authority can still be innovative in how it designs such development and the role employees play in it. In Nijkerk (approx. 43,000 inhabitants), this has led to an organisation made up of 28 self-managing teams that come directly under the authority of the municipal clerk. Nijkerk went through a process where employees and the development of their talent came first.
The target for the organisational development was to balance the budget and create different ways to engage and collaborate with the local community. In doing so, an explicit choice was made to have the municipal council, municipal executive, and organisation work together and take the expertise and professionalism of employees as the starting point. The underlying idea was that employees are the ones who can actually shape the change in their day-to-day practices.
This is the story of a financially sound organisation that rethinks the way it interacts with society, enabled by professional and motivated employees who work in self-managing teams.
At the start of the process, a group of employees organised a kick-off event for the entire civil service organisation, including the municipal council and executive. This event produced a large number of initiatives that were subsequently set in motion. One of these employee initiatives was to set up a bulletin board for pending jobs, allowing employees to claim certain jobs whenever they have managed to free up some of their time as they organised their work differently, or where they can post tasks whenever they need help. 50 percent of employees subsequently started doing tasks posted on this bulletin board.
Given the fact that most change processes come to nothing, the local authority made a conscious choice to deploy two success factors in its development-based process. They wanted to make the most of employees’ commitment and first implement behavior change before formalizing the new structure. This meant stimulating the development by actually making time and creating scope for developments, different working methods, and ways of working together initiated by employees, and only then making these changes permanent. This allowed the organisation to try out new ideas quickly, making adjustments based on initial experiences and finally anchoring them in the organisation. This also went for the HRM aspects of the change: employees were, while respecting their legal position, given the opportunity to take on other tasks, gain experience, and make choices on their future career path prior to formalisation of the change.
During the process, the idea of putting employees' center stage was also adopted by the managers who decided to resign from their posts because they supported the development towards self-managing teams. The whole change also had consequences for the municipal council and the municipal executive, making it a major step for everyone involved. This did not stand in the way of consistent implementation, which was ensured by various elements. The council and executive were part of the support group, and directly and permanently involved in the change process.
The innovation strategy is not an innovation for the sake of innovation for which specific resources are used, but rather a strengthening of collaboration with society by giving professionals across the organisation space to strike closer community ties. The innovation is, therefore, not a goal or core value within the municipal culture, but a means to realise the change objectives.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Nijkerk local authority has 28 self-managing teams, where each team has its own team plan and renders account on its performance to the municipal clerk. The teams have allocated the roles that used to be fulfilled by the manager to the various team members. The roles of controller, developer, administrator, and networker are compulsory, while teams were free to add further roles. There are a number of ‘playmakers’ who, whenever necessary, establish connections between teams, while there are also ‘team coaches’ that teams can turn to when they get stuck in their mutual collaboration. Neither the playmakers nor the team coaches have any hierarchical authority. The employees come first and decide what kind of support they need.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Nijkerk municipality does not want to go back to its former practices, and will continue to have self-managing teams over the coming years. Self-management enables an organisation to respond quickly and flexibly to issues raised by its environment. People have experienced that it is possible to design a municipal organisation without managers, despite the complexity and variety of tasks that the teams have to fulfill.
That said, Nijkerk does have some improvements lined up in several areas. The local authority wants to significantly bolster the support the teams get and focus more on customisation. It has turned out that some teams need more support than others. The number of team coaches will, therefore, be increased. More human resources are also needed to maintain an organization-wide overall view of operations. The playmaker role has turned out to be very important, as it ensures cohesion between teams.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The support and involvement of the municipal council and municipal executive played a key role. First of all, it embedded the change among employees who experimented with new working methods. Secondly, they were an important link between the organisation and society. For everyone involved, this constituted a drastic overhaul of how they work. Council members now go to civil servants directly whenever they have questions about policy files and political and administrative matters.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Employees autonomously make decisions, ensuring quick responses to needs from society, as well as maximum efficiency in dealing with these needs. This way of working makes it possible to really put the local society first. And it also produces structural savings, thanks to improved efficiency.
Challenges and Failures
Self-management means that teams take care of certain tasks and take joint responsibility for the end result. The transition to the new set of tasks turned out to be easier for some teams than it was for others. There were teams that struggled to fill the various team roles or where it took longer for employees to settle into their new roles.
Those in the playmaker role sometimes experienced their role as a difficult one. Although playmakers do not have any hierarchical authority over teams, they are still responsible for monitoring and supporting the teams. They looked for a mandate to perform their tasks.
The Nijkerk municipal council was eager to see progress, but the process was slow going in the beginning. It took some time for the results of self-management to come to the surface. Until that time, the municipal council had no option but to trust that everyone across the organisation was doing their job.
Conditions for Success
Self-management comes about in a self-managing way, emerging from within the organisation. The local authority opted for a development-oriented approach, with employees driving the process. New ideas and working methods were first tried out by employees. Only when a new working method had proven to be effective in practice was it incorporated into the new structure. Employees retained their old legal position in the organisation, allowing them to experiment with different tasks.
Self-management was not a goal in its own right. The overriding aim was to ignite employee commitment. This prompted the organisation to choose to set up self-managing teams.
The transition to self-management was supported by different sides. Managers voluntarily gave up their managerial positions, showing that they were serious about putting employees first. The municipal council and executive also backed the development. As members of the support group, they were kept involved in the change process.
Inspired by the example set in Nijkerk, various local authorities and other public organisations have adopted the same working method over the past few years. Self-management always requires customisation. Every organisation will have to decide for itself how best to shape self-management within their context. What works well for one organisation may be unwise for another. What is always important, though, is to be meticulous and set up a well-organised change process. Self-management needs to emerge from within the teams and employees. Self-management is a gift. You cannot impose it on an organisation or implement it in a top-down way.
The Nijkerk example shows that it is possible to have a municipal organisation without managers, despite the complexity and wide variety of tasks that the teams have to perform. It is not always easy to create a self-managing organisation, but as soon as it is up and running, the benefits are huge. Self-management enables an organisation to respond quickly and flexibly to questions, queries, and demands from its environment, because employees take ownership, have the decision-making authority to match their responsibilities, are not afraid to act, and are able to liaise with colleagues as and when necessary.
Self-management is not the objective, but rather the outcome of targeting employee commitment.
Self-management requires different coordinating principles, such as team coaches and playmakers who support teams and ensure an organisation-wide helicopter view of operations.
A self-managing organisation is not one without leadership and control. Even at a managerless organisation, you need control and an overall organisational view. The municipal organisation must operate within the frameworks agreed with the municipal council. A certain level of coherence between teams is also needed to ensure a smoothly functioning organisation. At the Nijkerk local authority, managers voluntarily stepped aside to make way for self-managing teams. It was not without risk, especially because not all the enabling conditions (support for the teams, decision-making mandates) had been arranged properly yet. In an organisation with self-managing teams, leadership is fulfilled in different ways. At a traditional organisation, management is one person’s remit, while the teams in a self-managing organisation distribute management duties between them. Again, this is flexible, as it can differ from one team to the next how tasks and roles are allocated.
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
18 November 2019