The Incremental Approach to transformation in the Public Sector

Every organisation is looking for one big solution, one radical transformation, one silver ukcycle1bullet that will resolve all the financial challenges, improve service efficiency and deliver the perfect customer experience. Inspired by the Freakonomics podcast on incrementalism, which asked the question:

“ What do Renaissance painting, civil-rights movements, and Olympic cycling have in common?  In each case, huge breakthroughs came from taking tiny steps or incrementalism ”

We started thinking about how public sector organisations could apply this approach to delivering successful change. What if there was a better way to address change, a way that brought regular, controlled improvements and was achieved in a much more collaborative way.

Dave Brailsford, Performance Director at British Cycling, was tasked with transforming the team into one capable of winning medals at the London Olympics:

“ Prior to the year 2000, Great Britain was a nation that only won one gold medal in 76 years of trying”

In 2012, Britain won eight gold medals. Brailsford then moved to Team Sky. Their stated goal was to win the Tour de France by 2015. They won three. And once again in 2016 for good measure.

How did this revolution happen (absolutely no pun intended)? Well the thing is, it wasn’t a revolution. It was a properly planned, effectively managed incremental transition. Here are some of the ideas that Brailsford and his team considered seem logical:

“…just literally dropping the head between the shoulders, dropping it down just a centimetre will improve the aerodynamics and for the same power, you’ll go a little bit further”

But some of the steps they implemented sound a little more arcane:

“So we have a forward team that go into the hotels and they have a room protocol. Basically, they lift the bed up, they Hoover under the bed, they clean the room, they have antibacterial protocol which cleans all the room including the television, remote control, the tap handles, etc. We take the shower head off and clean the shower. And then they have their own mattresses, their own pillows specifically for each rider. And so they can sleep in the same posture every night”.

Ok, so the question remains – how can this approach be applied in the public sector? From our experience, a couple of things need to be in place to effectively deliver results:

  1. A clearly stated, desired outcome. For example in councils, this could incorporate a combination of the Medium Term Financial Strategy aligned with the Council Plan. Obviously these documents need to include some detailed objectives, not simply aspirational goals. Winning 5 gold medals in cycling is relatively easy to define and understand – public sector organsations are a bit more complex, so clearly defining and understanding goals becomes even more important.
  2. A baseline. The organisation needs to know how it is currently performing. And once again, this involves specifics. Well-defined measures against existing services and activities are necessary so that at all times there is a quantifiable view of progress. This enables a full 360 view of the organisation – looking back and looking forward. Learn from the organisation’s history but plan for its future. We understand this approach – it’s what we do with our own business – it’s what we do for our clients.

We start out with an exploratory structured meeting to understand the current organisation and what kind of organisation it could be, what are the drivers, what is the ambition – we also to begin to understand the challenges that need to be overcome.

From this, we plan out the small steps that are needed to build a better business or service and do this in a way that involves those in the organisation who are going to be responsible for making it happen. They are the ones that often provide some of the most logical solutions and add to the small steps. We also start to spell out what decisions will need to be made and the consequences of them and how they can be managed.

Upon this foundation, change can be managed in a controlled and measured way, allowing leaders to make informed decisions should new information or unforeseen circumstances arise. No one knows the answers – no one has the magic bullet, all we can do is set the direction, plan and manage.

Our clients often use us for a light touch review of their change programmes so that they can assure themselves that the goals and the tiny steps to achieving them are in place. At 4OC we help the public sector manage change – we’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. We’ve lived and learned. We’re happy to share the experience.

4OC deliver this approach at service or directorate level, but it makes most sense to undertake it at the organisation level. With the rapid evolution in technologies and the prevalence of digital, logic suggests that delivering services in a unified, integrated way across the organisation and indeed across sectors will ensure that the customer, citizen, patient or resident receives the quickest and best service possible delivered by people that are solely focussed on providing the best service possible.

If you are interested in hearing more about this, or indeed any of the other services we provide, contact us at or by phone on 0207 928 3127.


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