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Think big, start small, move fast: lessons in successful transformation

Kenny MacIver — August 2018

How can a public service group become agile, entrepreneurial and citizen-centric? Singapore government CIO, Chan Cheow Hoe, outlines a cultural shift at the city-state’s IT organization.

After 23 years in the private sector, my transition to government in 2014 ago was both daunting — and a little weird. I was only too aware of the ‘bad reputation’ that public sector IT had for layers of bureaucracy and an inability to get things done quickly. But I was specifically asked to join as CIO of Singapore because they wanted a very different point of view, in terms of how to transform government and change the technology status quo.

What I quickly realized is that the institutions of government and their people can be very entrenched and that to make a transformational change would be a huge task.  

From across the government technology organization, I picked out a bunch of technologists — only seven initially. The concept we adopted was ‘think big, start small and move fast.’ Think big because we wanted the program to ultimately become a digital transformation of the entire government. But rather than spending years planning we needed to just act quickly and prove credibility. And by identifying specific problems and building directly against those, we started delivering things very quickly.
Building credibility

Rather than the 50 million dollars and three years that a classic public sector IT project would need, we gave ourselves a few hundred thousand dollars and six to nine months. Once that became a reality, our public service colleagues started to take notice. Our credibility was built and people wanted more.

That was because the projects we delivered on were impactful; they did benefit the citizen directly and very quickly (see video Q&A, From saving lives to life event services: Smart nation applications in action).

Using that momentum we created a new internal organization, something akin to a captive start up or software factory that we call the Hive. Distinct from the core GovTech Singapore group, the Hive team was given a lot of freedom to innovate, try new things and essentially fail fast.

In fact, I learnt something very quickly about the nature of government IT: the reason it is rarely willing to innovate and fail fast is because the stakes are so high. First, you’re using taxpayers’ money. Second, if you’re investing tens of million dollars in a project, then the chances of it failing are actually pretty much zero. That is because when there is so much at stake nobody’s going to allow it to fail — or at least to be deemed a failure. On the other hand if you’re investing $100,000 and six months, then you are cut more slack if a project is not an outstanding success.
Mixing it up

To drive Hive’s agenda, I brought in people from all kinds of backgrounds: designers, agile and scrum masters, data scientists, geospatial experts. I got my CTO from DreamWorks. He brought in a whole bunch of game developers from Ubisoft, Blizzard and King. The director of engineering for IoT came from Apple and he brought in lots of similar people. The guys in this community are very innovative and really passionate about what they do.

That was the inflection point for our growth. Today, we have more than 300 people and the demand for their services is probably five or six times the supply we have.

So the crux lies in showing that this new kind of IT can be done and done quickly but with a vision of what you are building towards. In essence, start small, think big — but just get it done.

• Photography: Jon Enoch

First published
August 2018
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About: Chan Cheow Hoe
With a direct reporting line to the Prime Minister of Singapore’s office, Chan Cheow Hoe is CIO for the city-state and deputy chief executive of GovTech Singapore — the agency driving the smart nation and public sector digital transformation. Before returning to his native-Singapore in April 2014, Chan spent 23 years in commercial IT, holding senior positions at Citibank, Barclays, ABN AMRO and CT Corporation.

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