6 lessons in agile leadership from the Dutch Police

As a police officer, your work is constantly under a magnifying glass and you have to learn to perform under constant pressure. Your caseload leaves you with very little time to think about how you could organize your work better. Nienke and I spoke with Aswin van Veggel, who was teamchef (team chief) in the Arnhem South region. In this position, he was responsible for a team of 113 police officers. His particular case shows us that there is an alternative. By using agile ways of working, the police are able to achieve more in the same timeframe. This does, however, require a new leadership style. In this post we share Aswin’s reflections on the changes he went through with his team.
17 January 2020
Michiel van Gerven
Nienke van de Hoef
Agile Politie

1. Commitment as the most important prerequisite 

Arnhem’s police force is a pioneer within the Dutch Police. By working more cleverly, rather than harder, they have been able to make better use of the scarce capacity they have and deliver great results. Elsewhere, other pioneers within the Dutch Police are also seeking better ways of working. The goal? To stop complaining, take ownership of their situation, and to identify and seize opportunities to deliver better results. Teams cannot do this without support from leadership, because Agile is not just a way of working, it’s a mindset. This means a cultural change is required. What makes this change so special, is that it is being initiated from the workplace. However, without the commitment of senior leadership this change cannot succeed.

Agile is not just a way of working, it’s a mindset.

2. You can’t score, if you don’t shoot

Aswin stumbled upon Scrum four years ago. During a training he attended, someone from ING told him about the transformation the bank was going through. Aswin was inspired and decided to investigate further. He wondered if such a transformation could also work for the police. He took a Scrum course and discussed the issue with another colleague team chef. He also sounded out Bram Zeewald and Ludo Kloppenburg, two colleagues who were working with the Basic Criminal Investigation (VVC) team. Did they also agree that it was time for a new way of working? They shared his frustrations about the massive workload and the constant feeling of being understaffed. Time for an experiment! Aswin was unsure of what would happen, but was convinced something needed to be done: ‘We had already tried several new things. Project plans based on the the best ideas we could come up with, or a Criminal investigation week: they all provided a brief burst of energy but none led to a fundamental change.’

‘I was reminded of Johan Cruijffs famous quote: ‘You can’t score if you don’t shoot’ and decided to simply get going. Bram and Ludo were trained as Scrum Master and Product Owner and we got underway with the VVC team. This team focuses on cases such as assault, shop theft, and destruction of property. I knew it wouldn’t be a quick fix. I expected work to pile up at first, but we were convinced this was a stage we needed to get through to start reaping the benefits and start making a real difference. Not everyone had the stamina for this. Bram and Ludo were afforded a lot of leeway to experiment and develop our way of working gradually, but because of various reasons this didn’t work straight away. I was ready to pull the plug. At the same time, however, I saw job satisfaction increase and eventually the results started to improve to where they got better than we could ever have imagined.’

I was ready to pull the plug. At the same time, however, I saw job satisfaction increase and eventually the results started to improve to where they got better than we could ever have imagined.

‘I shared my dilemma with the VVC team. They responded that they believed in the new approach. This made me realize we were on the right path. This is still the foundation of what we do today. Once you start working in an agile way, you should understand that you will never be done. We always seek for new ways to improve and our citizens deserve it’


3. Connection is needed for change

Accepting such a challenge requires boldness and a strong will. But if both the operation and leadership agree it is the right time to make fundamental changes, you have a strong base to start exploring what works and fits the situation. Aswin: ‘To some Agile and Scrum have become contaminated terms. I do not have the intention to force this upon people. I merely hope that colleagues who run into similar obstacles are willing to have a dialogue with their people. Seek connections, and simply ask: How do you think we could do better together?


Agile police


4. Be the change you want to see

Aswin’s case clearly shows that a cultural change isn’t just about how teams work. The role of leadership is crucial. Many team chefs and sector heads have been trained to lead in an authoritarian way, but this type of leadership is not suitable to an agile organization and culture. ‘This was well suited to the hierarchical organization we used to be, but the police organization of the future requires new behavior. We need to say goodbye to status and egos. The future requires human leadership. An aura of infallibility is not what makes you a good leader. For instance, when working with my team I shared two stories of incidents that put me in mortal peril. By sharing this, and making myself vulnerable I showed I was a human being like them. More importantly, it is not about me, but about how we can do what society needs us to do and do it together. Over the years I have learned it gives more satisfaction to make others shine than to beat your own chest.’

5. Have patience, hang on, and get the support you need

Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. When things get difficult you need to hang on and make sure you don’t refer back  to your old, unproductive, reflexes. This can cause considerable personal discomfort. Unfortunately, these are symptoms of the change you and your organization are going through. It helps to have a sparring partner so you can vent. This can be another leader, but as agile has become more widely adopted throughout the Dutch Police this support can also increasingly be found elsewhere. 


6. Agile transformation requires a tailor made approach

It is important to see the road towards agility as a continuous experiment. Aswin: ’It is not about making Agile succeed. It is about persevering until you have something that works for you. In Arnhem we experienced that what works for one bureau does not necessarily work for another.’ Many change management approaches are based on blueprints; A successful experiment is copied across the entire organization. That doesn’t work. What you need to do is assess what each individual team needs to achieve the organization’s goals and tailor your approach to those needs. This requires inspirational leadership. Leaders need to have a clear vision about where they want to go and inspire their people to jointly move towards that goal. The underlying principles and ambitions may be the same, but each team has its own path to tread. It is the role of leadership to help remove the obstacles the team encounters along that path.


Where do we go from here?

Agile ways of working help turn the Dutch Police into a more effective organization. Teams across the country are enthusiastically adopting this new way of working and thinking. We help teams to work more effectively and support them by training internal agile coaches, scrum masters and product owners. On top of this we coach and advise our leadership on how to proceed in this transformation. The goal is to help police officers do what they want to do most: help make society safer for all of us. 

Agile ways of working help turn the Dutch Police into a more effective organization

Michiel van Gerven

Transformation Lead

Nienke van de Hoef

Co-founder & agile coach
Ik heb de overtuiging dat de publieke sector zoveel beter kan functioneren en zet me daar elke dag vol energie voor in. Complexe vraagstukken vragen om een eigenzinnige oplossingen. Mijn hart voor de publieke sector en ondernemersgeest gebruik ik voor duurzame en, waar nodig, radicale organisatieverbeteringen.