The agile journey of UWV

The agile journey of UWV

Interview with Fred Hoekstra (UWV), by Henk Venema and Hans van Leeuwen

Fred Hoekstra is director of the department Social Medical Affairs (Sociaal Medische Zaken – SMZ) at UWV. Fred has been working for a while to make the organization more agile. This has accelerated due to the COVID-19 situation. From the start of COVID-19, UWV has contributed to help employees and employers in the Netherlands who ran into problems due to the sudden pandemic. With the foundations that had already been laid, Fred helped to bring out the best in the organization. We had the honor to talk with Fred about this.

Most people do not know UWV as an example of agility. How is it possible that this is now so debunked?

I always regret that we are viewed this way. UWV employs a lot of very motivated and smart people. We make a huge number of changes every year. At times when a pandemic like this occurs, this force manifests itself suddenly.

At the same time, within the unit Information Management (Informatie Voorziening – IV) we have already been working for some time to increase our agility and effectiveness. In doing so, we naturally look at the total landscape of information management. There is a lot to change and improve there. But that is not enough, you also have to look at the way in which we achieve results and which competencies and skills we need for this. The combination of all these elements ultimately yields much more maneuverability.

Many other organizations are bothered by the fact that the organization is working in silos. Does this also play a role at UWV and how is UWV trying to change this?

Just like any large company, UWV has also divided matters into divisions. A natural barrier is easily created in collaboration. SMZ uses information systems provided to the entire UWV and manages part of it itself. This means that without good cooperation we will not deliver good things to our own employees and therefore to the people we provide our services.

We have established 4 important pillars within the IV of SMZ. The first is the “happy employee”. The starting point is that people who can do their work pleasantly, can continue to develop themselves, feel safe, and are also allowed to try things so they achieve much more results and feel much better about it. The second pillar is “satisfied execution”. Our reason-for-being is that people need us: all the customers we support. If we don’t contribute to that, then we are not doing the right things. The way of thinking is therefore outsidein. The third pillar is “cooperation”. The common idea in our organization is that above all we are UWV and then SMZ. Our customers are UWV’s customers and not SMZ’s. We must do service our clients together as much as possible. This is also the core procedure of the connection between all divisions. All IV employees of SMZ propagate this every day to their colleagues within and outside SMZ. The last pillar is “hygiene in place”. You say what you do and do what you say. This also includes the awareness that we spend money from public society, the taxpayers. We should handle this carefully and only spend what actually contributes to society.

So we look for connection and cooperation every day and always from the greater goal: we have an enormously important social function for people who often find themselves in a difficult situation without work or with illness.

If you look within the SMZ division, agile working methods have been used for a while. Is this “the way to go” in the process of becoming more agile?

Agile work formats very often seem to be directed from above from a kind of management thinking. Within SMZ, a need has clearly arisen from within SMZ’s own teams. Teams are also explicitly given the space to learn and develop. Existing systems and processes may also be critically examined and, where necessary, adjusted in practice on the basis of tests.

We see that the agile way of working has really brought us more agility, flexibility. This is not due to agile itself, but mainly due to the mindset in which colleagues deal with this. What can we learn, what can be improved? We stimulate people to be transparent, share experiences and even make mistakes. At the same time, a special situation arises there. A company like UWV cannot afford to make mistakes. This has the potential to lead to public and political disturbance. Unfortunately, there have been a number of examples in the media in recent years that show this disturbance.This means that making mistakes can become a difficult subject. How will you combine learning and development with the maximum limitation of mistakes? This requires good control of your risks. For us, agile working is therefore a daily quest for how we learn and develop without having major incidents causing a social disturbance.

For us, agile thinking goes much further than setting up agile teams and integral management of divisions based on agile principles. It’s also breaking down large complex projects into simple and clear changes. We believe that by doing this we contribute to delivering results with less risk, greater agility and lower cost. The first major changes within SMZ have been set in motion for this purpose. In addition, the further development of the teams to allow this to be completely their own is an essential part of this change process.

Such a change must come from the teams. We have highly motivated and smart employees. It would be special if, as director, I had to tell my people how to do it. I really don’t believe in that and really believe in the power of people and teams. My role is to facilitate and support this and provide direction where necessary. Facilitating leadership so that people are successful, that’s what I stand for.

And it works! In two years, we have seen the SMZ IV team become much happier in their work. We see that we have become much better at almost everything we do. Whether it concerns budgets or information security, or effective cooperation or insight into the use of IV in implementation. And we have only just started. The team continues to take the next steps.

Organizations with a proven track record in agility often say that you need to tackle this simultaneously along the axes of structure, process and mindset. Do you recognize this in the approach UWV chooses towards becoming a more agile organization?

Absolutely, that is very recognizable. As an example, the careful building of teams is an important aspect. A team does not exist because you say: you are a team now. A team has a way of working together, needs some form of diversity, and it must also really be allowed to operate as a team. This means that as a team you must know the balance between acting autonomously and the need to connect with other teams. A team that can do this will become very successful and can handle a high degree of responsibility. At the end of the day, this can go so far that a team itself determines how they want to develop further, which persons, competencies and skills are needed, what behavior is expected, and so on. Doing so, it is important that you do not leave a team on its own too quickly. The forming-storming-norming-performing theory of teams is well known. Practice shows that this is correct.

In addition, it is very important for teams to be able to work in a structure and process in which you deliver what is needed together with the rest of the organization. Imagine you have to implement a law that requires multiple divisions and different teams. Then ensuring connection, collaboration, evaluating, learning and adapting in short cycles, and also delivering the necessary value to the organization is important. This is sometimes a complex game in which the balance has to be found between what you do and do not structure and whether or not you capture in processes. It’s always important to consider what helps and what hinders, what drives the decisiveness and autonomy of teams, what slows this down.

If you take that a step further, a lot is about the mindset. Mindset is really essential for change and collaboration. With the right mindset, professionals with very limited structure and processes can produce huge results. Finding that balance is wonderful to consider from a leadership and change management perspective.

Can you interpret that aspect of leadership a little more?

If you really want your people to be successful, then you really have to embrace facilitating leadership. It’s not about you as a leader, it’s about your teams. Your role is to ensure that they can achieve maximum results. And where necessary you give direction or frameworks, but only where necessary. As a leader, you have to look carefully at the maturity level of your teams, and your management. As that develops, you can keep expanding the space you give. To the point that you yourself are no longer needed as a leader. And that’s fine too.

A good example during this COVID-19 period was that SMZ took the lead for the entire UWV to make a certain technology available to employees more quickly. This included webinars, e-learning, and so on. And this had to be done quickly. In a period fewer than 3 months we served the first 3,000 employees and now, less than 9 months later, we are almost ready for all UWV employees. The team that has been formed on this has been given a lot of space, with a very concrete intention. My role was no more than ensuring that I, together with the council and all other stakeholders, realized the preconditions for doing this.

When you do such things, you have to be able to tolerate the turmoil it can cause. If you give teams space, you also have to accept that things may go a little differently than you expected. Correcting is not the way. At most, you could ask yourself whether you should have been clearer in frameworks and direction. It is great that we have now gone through several of these processes, both before and during the COVID-19 period. And every time the result is there and often better than I could have wished for.

As a leader, you must have a somewhat thicker skin when it comes to the system in which the organization is working. As an example: if you split up large projects quickly and flexibly, this can conflict with current agreements about portfolios or financing. You do have to take the time to include people who are part of that system in this way of thinking and working. The easy way is: just go with the system. I would always advise against that if you know that there is room for improvement. But it is necessary to recognize that it’s there. You cannot and should not simply ignore it. A similar story applies to processes. Where you cannot get the system or processes suitable for the necessary change, explain it very clearly: what have you done, where is it stagnating, are there alternatives. And … keep an eye on the ball: if you can do better, make it better.

Do you have an example of that?

A good example of this is the way we were used to work in a program before. We thought it was necessary to first record our requirements very extensively. At the start of the COVID-19 situation, we obviously did not have time for that. We had to learn to think very quickly in terms of features and epics; parts of functionality that we needed very quickly. Because it was new, we applied the agile working methods of delivering something quickly and then evaluating together what the next increment should look like.

In this way we as UWV were able to quickly carry out our task in the COVID-19 crisis in a way that would previously be thought impossible. Not only because of the speed of action, but also in combination with acting completely from home.

That sounds like a “walk in the park”. In reality, it must have been quite hectic. What was the critical success factor in your opinion?

For me important critical success factors were:

  1. trust in people and give them the space they need;
  2. carry your team and as a leader take the challenge to create the conditions so that teams can be successful;
  3. understand systems and processes, and keep focusing on change that will make it better;
  4. make mistakes and learn, also as a leader.

And perhaps most importantly: embrace the uncertainty of what you don’t know, that offers you more certainty than pretending you know.