Your customers are pushing you to deliver complex solutions of products and services in innovative ways. Sounds like the challenge facing many companies today, no? In fact, this is one of the core strategic challenges facing Singapore.

As a visiting fellow to the government, I have made three trips to this city-state of 5.5 million people over the past 18 months. I’ve run workshops with dozens of government leaders, including permanent secretaries, and trained over 100 human resource, organization development, and strategic planning professionals in organization design from across the 85 government agencies that make up the national government.

On each visit, I have been more impressed by the sophistication of agency leaders as they think about how organization design can be used as a lever of strategy execution. I’m not surprised that the World Economic Forum named the Singapore the most competitive nation in 2019.

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The design challenges Singapore is facing – and actively addressing – are fascinating. A few examples:

  • Long a trading port, after independence in 1965 Singapore developed as a manufacturing hub, then as a regional financial center. Today it is repositioned as a high-tech innovation center requiring deep relationships with both global giant and emerging tech companies. Many agencies have an interest in and a contribution to make to these relationships. The design challenge is to coordinate how multiple agencies interface with these companies so that the relationship feels seamless, yet also enables the right conversations and empowered decision making.
  • Hawker centers (traditional food stalls) are a symbol of Singapore. They offer all manner of street food, including local Peranakan favorites. The facilities are built and regulated by the environmental protection agency with a view toward hygiene. But, the centers also play an important community-building role, particularly for older residents, and are a major tourist attraction. The design challenge here is determining which agencies – environment or culture – should be accountable for the oversight of these food courts. New decision mechanisms are needed to balance potentially conflicting objectives of the various agencies.
  • As a tropical island known for one of the highest standards of living in the world, infectious disease control is a priority. 600 dengue fever officers make over one million home inspections a year to check for standing water and other mosquito attractors. For many citizens, these inspectors are the face of the government. For sure, they have a unique view into the life and needs of the population. Agency leaders are exploring how they can be turned into ambassadors for other initiatives and perhaps even serve as a conduit of concerns back to the government.
  • In a nation without any source of fresh water, every drop of rain is collected and reused in Singapore. The water agency has to plan for climate change and security and sustainability scenarios. The country needs to be on the leading edge of new technologies and innovations in this arena. The challenge here is to design jobs and career paths that will attract and retain the highly specialized talent needed to develop the solutions of the future, while also running a highly operational system for today.
  • Finally, a diverse citizenry has been asking for a greater voice in government. Leaders want to provide this opportunity, not just as a nice-to-do, but to genuinely engage people in solving problems and taking accountability for the quality of life in their communities. Every agency is developing its own response, with plenty of energy and good intent. Predictably, efforts aren’t leveraged or coordinated. An existing Permanent Secretary has been given the extra accountability for orchestrating engagement efforts across agencies, but has not been given any direct authority over her peers to do so.

The issues may sound rather unique, but they actually fall into three types of design problems facing many organizations today:

1. Focus and integration: The 85 agencies are functionally organized, and this is the right basic structure to build deep competencies and deliver on-going services. But the challenges of environmental sustainability, a diverse and aging population, and economic competition with Hong Kong and Shanghai don’t always fit neatly into one agency’s purview. Leaders need a shared toolkit for building horizontal connections and deploying teams across agency boundaries.

2. Structured networks: A particular type of integration is needed at the whole-of-government level for issues such as digitization, cybersecurity, and citizen engagement. Ad hoc teamwork won’t be enough to fuel these initiatives. Instead, what is needed are formalized networks, led by the center, harnessing the energy in the field, and powered by clear decision rights and well-designed forums for stakeholders to convene, collaborate, and align.

3. Leadership working at the right level: One of the biggest barriers to agility comes from leaders not focusing on the right issues. The top team needs to be clear on their unique work together, and make the time to set the portfolio and priorities. The next layer then can focus their time together on aligning processes and resolving conflicts. If the members of these two leadership layers only put their energy into their own units and don’t see value in this lateral work, there is no way that cross-disciplinary or agile teams further down in the organization can be empowered appropriately.

What excites me about what I have seen in Singapore is the interest in a true systems-approach to change across the government. It has been so fun to introduce the Star Model and see what a valuable tool it is for engaging in a holistic discussion of organization design. It remains the best framework for thinking about the complex issues facing not just companies, but nations.

Amy Kates, Managing Partner