Value outcome, not hours

In social media, I am always amazed to see that simple and unreflective appeals achieve high click rates. Some of them are already ancient, but they are re-posted every few weeks and get thousands of clicks. These platitudes are annoying and boring for me, but the attention economy of the social media loves exactly such calendar slogans.

One of the phrases is: “Employers, value performance, not attendance”. A great appeal, a wonderful topic to discuss. Furthermore, it is also very value-creating when companies take a serious look at it. For most companies, this means a profound change, which is not that easy.

When I see this prompt on my timeline every 14 days, I always have to think of many corporations and chuckle. I remember a conversation with a slightly younger unit manager. At the time, my team was known for its high efficiency partly thanks to Lean, Agile and Diversity, and I was often asked what was behind it all.

After such a talk, this colleague took me aside and explained to me how to achieve something in a corporation. It was a very great conversation, she has a very different perspective on the world than I do, but I really appreciate that she openly explained her approach to me. Here are the main methods of her “presence” strategy.

Always stay late, find a place in an open-plan office that is well visible to everyone. When the lights are shut off in the evening, don’t switch them on again, only light up your own workstation. Two LED desk lamps are ideal.

Always seek to get attention. Visit the executive floor, ask about appointments and attendance, take the lift exactly when the last executive meeting took place in the evening, mention in the lift that you are taking a short break and just get a drink from the vending machine on the ground floor.

When going somewhere, always have things under your arm, a booklet on which you can write something down with a pen is ideal. Against being bored, spread out a lot of documents on the desk, in between which you can hide some private reads. Even the private tablet doesn’t catch the eye in the midst of all the stuff.

She had a dozen more tips of this kind. Such methods were very successful in her company and I think this also applies to many other companies. As I said, not my world at all, but a very sympathetic conversation, I had to smile a lot and I have seen a different world view.

Now let’s evaluate the strategy “presence” and the alternative “performance”:

Imagine that in the next reorganisation, her name is tossed into the ring. The reorganisation is discussed by a small group of people who have access to hundreds of candidates. Her name comes up and most of the board doesn’t know her very well, but have a positive impression: “Oh, that’s the one who always stays so late”. In this fashion, the “presence” strategy conveniently finds many supporters across the board.

This is much easier than a matching assessment on the performance of hundreds of candidates. These performances must be transparent to the same decision-making body. Think about how many conditions have to be fulfilled for such a body to say by a vast majority: “Oh, that’s the one who always performs so well”.

One requirement is the mutual recognition and reference to each other’s achievements. “I could never have done it without the co-worker” or “The team was on fire towards success, I barely had to assist” and many more statements like this.

So, now we have something tangible for the people in team “performance”. Not just the hard-to-implement generic phrase “Employers, value performance, not attendance”. How about the appeal: “Give praise to a colleague in front of the whole team today!”

This can be practised in any company, regardless of whether it is a member of the “presence” team or the “performance” team. Even if the subject of “performance” is very well managed in your company, a little praise never hurts.


No knowledge, no criticisms

In the social media, people often complain about unjustified criticism or condescending remarks based on gender, origin, clothing, etc. Such complaints are then often garnished with the statement that other social groups do not have to suffer from wrongful comments. In my experience, marginalising criticism is very common and likes to abuse external things like irrelevant characteristics or hobbies. The main thing is that it is a low-cost vehicle to discredit the person being attacked.

I am and have been involved in many change processes, and you hear these sayings very often in the tea room. Some leaders who drive change really get tons of blame. These insults are often driven by the Laggards, the people who are the very last to take over the changes. As an external consultant, I am seldom affected.

But it did happen to me once: A company badly needed to make its decentralised, inhomogeneous IT more efficient because it was writing red figures. After a few months of initial progress, there was a big project meeting to discuss alternatives. A business unit had joined at short notice and sent a representative. I was only a guest and seated at the very back of the room.

This representative took the opportunity of a small break in the programme, went to the front, grabbed the microphone and insulted me as a person. ” Do you want to be told what to do by that jerk German” was the more harmless version. I was very caught off guard, adrinaline shot through my bloodstream, yet I was able to use the period of name-calling to collect myself.

Slowly I went forward, placed myself next to him, looked at him and indicated with my hand that I wanted the microphone. He was very puzzled, kept talking, but I gestured with my hand without saying anything. He gave me the microphone and went back to his seat. I resumed quickly that we were all here to discuss alternatives, asked him to be constructive and forbade him to attack me personally. However, constructive criticism of my work was always welcome. He shouted something incomprehensible from his seat, then there was peace.

For me, it is important to briefly counter the attack. Not to the content, because such an attack has no content. It can be as low-level as a slow blink I threw at two ladies I didn’t let cut in front of me at a concert, who then had to settle for two rows behind me and then condescendingly insulted me with externalities and alleged qualities.

Often you only discover something like that through a second person, and I always bring it up there, too. I never raise suspicions, but rather talk about the content. “I heard you don’t like the upcoming changes”, the reactions are manifold, from “Yes, yes, it’s all good” to constructive criticism to “Yes, Miller is an blockhead, look at what a pimps car he rides”.

Such condescending criticism can really strike you. Maybe because you’re having a weak moment, because you’re struggling with other things in the project, because the criticism has subtly hit a sore spot.

When something like that has happened to me, I process it. I look for reasons why it has affected me and try to conclude it for myself. An important checkpoint is: Would I ask that particular person for criticism? If not, the criticism is not for me, but instead says quite a lot more about the other person.

Critics of nose lengths are annoying and don’t deserve any attention. You don’t know me or the content, then you have no right to criticise.

Finally, a quick thought on good criticism. If it is a mentor-mentee relationship or a supervisor-employee relationship and you are asked for criticism for improvement. From an observer’s perspective, you can highlight strengths and offer weaknesses as alternatives. Instead of saying, “You still have to learn how to talk to customers, but you are already very proficient in accounting and technology,” you can say what you appreciate: “When we are both at the customer’s, I love that you take the technology and the numbers off my hands. That way I can concentrate fully on the customer. This way, as an start to a meaningful conversation, a lot of ideas for improvement can be discussed, the mentee has maximum freedom to take alternatives and talk about the future.

Slow Blink
Slow Blink

Agile kicks managers out?

I think there is probably no greater nonsense out there than the narrative “Agile is eliminating management”. In the social networks, I often read advertisements for consultancies and seminars such as: First slowly introduce agile and self-organisation so that you don’t have to abolish management straight away. Managers beware, you won’t have your job much longer!

All agile organisations I know still have a management, even the biggest and oldest agile pioneers in the banking sector. Agile organisations or parts of organisations on the way to self-organisation distribute management tasks differently than usual. This new kind of management is often much more meaningful and valuable than the conventional.

Let’s take a look at some of my experiences and the differences between before and after.

Before: The supervisor draws up a training plan at the beginning of the business year with monthly reports. Of course, there is discussion, but it usually stays with industry-typical trainings that don’t exactly fit the job. The training status is reviewed quarterly.

After: Service champions from the team set the trainings in the learning groups, have short feedback loops, create ad hoc trainings, everything is visually managed. The team leaders’ job is to encourage people, to nudge learning groups at times. Strengthening strengths works almost by itself in agile teams, but reducing weaknesses usually needs coaching from the team leader.

Before: In the case of customer escalations, large groups of senior managers sit together, daily reports are prepared and 60-minute jour fixes are conducted. Only 10% of the reports are really relevant, the meetings tie up resources unnecessarily. Some decisions are made on the basis of second- or third-hand information.

After: Relevant stakeholders incl. customer representatives focus on the most important values, supported by someone who knows Lean/Agile methods. The situation is visualised, everyone can see the current status. The team leader moderates, takes care of tasks that go beyond the team. The team leader often also ensures that decisions once made are maintained, some solutions do not work on the first day.

Well, I think I could fill a whole book with examples like that. In my experience, the different assignment of responsibility and decision-making creates a much better acceptance of the desire for continuous improvement. Management systems like Objectives and Key Results (OKR) almost kick into gear by themselves in such environments, whereas in hierarchical environments they stop at any political traffic light as soon as it is as low as yellow.

Leaders are challenged in their most important role when introducing agile or hybrid-agile working methods: as a protective function for the team. Also as a corrective, so that the newly shared responsibilities are well anchored and lived. If the team moves towards self-organisation, the team leader remains the most important interface and an essential coach. Both for the holistic view of the development of the individual and for the next development step of the team. Not to mention the resolution of conflicts.

I don’t understand why they scare people with the threat “soon no one will need you any more”. Changes are already causing many people to break out in a cold sweat, because the working environment will change. If I think about how I worked 10 years ago and imagine I’m in 2013 and now I’m looking at 2023. So without any prior knowledge now to look at agile presales and sales.

I would find many things great, for example the high efficiency in the team. Some things I wouldn’t understand, for example why visual management is so useful if it sounds like bureaucracy. And some things I would have a lot of respect for, e.g. the example above of putting out a fire together with customers in a room.

By the way, the idea for this article came to me when a co-worker asked for a job reference and I thought: OK, then you write me one too. That’s what we did. Unthinkable in a 60s hierarchy. In a self-organised team, it was a matter of course and a great experience.

I would like to take away your fears if you are thinking in the direction of lean/agile, we agile coaches are there for you. I would be happy to tell you about my first steps.

Blick ein Tal herunter

Agile dreamers vs. industry fake actors

I am always surprised to read postings where agile or “new work” approaches are opposed to other methods or organisational forms. Preferably in overstating phrases like “What the agile dreamers can’t imagine…” or “What will take the new-work generation by surprise…”. The other way round, of course, in articles that prophesy an almost certain collapse of a company in the case of hierarchical leadership cultures or patriarchal leadership figures. The intention here is to create frontiers that are not actually there.

I can tell you from my own experience with my PreSales team what immense potential Lean and Agile have. What a wonderful self-managed working environment is created. What great efficiency potential agile has. Measured in hard business figures, it means more revenue and profit. For me, agile working is an absolutely important factor for modern companies.

However, Agile is not a universal answer to all problems. No agile coach or trainer I know claims that either. Agile has the most potential in complex environments. For example, in the development of future technologies or business ideas. Even with problems whose cause is unknown for a long time because all the variables seem chaotic, an agile approach is more powerful than all linear analysis methods.

Nevertheless, if you have all the data under control and find yourself in complicated or simple areas, it is not worthwhile to tinker with Agile obsessively. Methods are most useful where they come from, here is a typical time evolution:

  1. agile development of a visionary product or service
  2. lean to adapt and optimise the efficiency of this product or service
  3. Six Sigma (or similar) to streamline the quality and cost of the mature product or service.

I hope we now agree that agile is not competing against other methods on the level of methods. Agile is a part of your portfolio if it is done well.

Now briefly about organisations. Companies that have almost completely embraced New Work are still scarce. If you are interested, Frederic Laloux tells you about some of them in his book “Reinventing Organizations”. In initial agile projects, trying things out and getting oriented is the crucial goal. It is not always about the way to a fully agile organisation. A good mix of existing culture with freedom for agile culture is the golden path.

How much agile freedom is needed can vary greatly. A company that is highly efficient in producing certain products may need less agile value creation producing new technologies in a highly competitive market.

Finally, let’s look at leadership style. A classic hierarchy in which superiors are always wiser than their subordinates. Who essentially define all the resolutions and are making all the decisions. Such social systems, according to Asby’s law, are disadvantaged. Whether such companies all end bad by this management style, is quite another question. As their competitor, I would use this disadvantage.

Yet as an example of a form of hierarchy that is not pervasive, let’s take patriarchal leaders who run their shop alone. Such people usually have a strong focus, i.e. promising ideas are sponsored with a lot of resources, projects with little outcome are quickly abandoned.

By the way, agile units are often found in these companies. A hierarchical system and agility are not contradictory. Whether you want to work there is a separate question entirely. For one thing is clear: whether your project is a promising idea and develops well is decided by the company boss alone.

In other words, there is no conflict here either. One thing that strikes me, however, is that employees who have understood agile and work in this spirit may also work in a traditional project. The reverse is not true. Agile work needs a lot of experience.

One article comes to mind which statistically proved it is a great advantage to have a classic elbow mentality if you want to get into (German) management. And the author believed that this evidence would sweep away the naïve dreams of New Work supporters.

Most people in the agile community are pretty skilled at assessing and dealing with such industry actors. Also, many can accept hybrid environments very well, because often the motivating force is to have a fulfilling workplace. As long as that’s there, it’s not a conflict.

I would love to see people on social media trying less to argue against each other. There is room for all concepts. Just pick and choose what suits you.

The organisation and not the individual

I usually recommend books face to face. But here I’d like to do it here in public. Perhaps the everlasting focus on the individuum is also bothering you at the moment. The following book offers a mirror and hence a centre of thought. Warning, this book is currently available in German language only. Maybe you auto-translate a eBook-Version.

The individual as the father of successful projects, as the rotten egg in the basket, as the upcoming hero or as the personified failure are nothing but stories. Why certain people have been able to achieve success has many roots. Current market events, a bit of luck, and certainly the people involved themselves, no doubt about it. What is discussed far too seldom for me is the organisation. Organisation can make the greatest things possible, or it can also be the guarantor that the simplest transformations always end in nothing.

“Die Humanisierung der Organisation” translated “The Humanisation of the Organisation” by Kai Matthiesen, Judith Muster and Peter Laudenbach looks at organisations as observers in the spirit of and with reference to Niklas Luhmann. In some sections, this creates a very harsh picture of organisations. But that is fine, because it creates a touchstone for one’s own preconceptions of organisations.

The book is born out of consultant practice and is full of wonderful quotes. “There is a belief amongst people that working well together as a team means that everyone in the team must always agree with each other and have identical opinions. This is a misconception. Working well together means rendering the different opinions and interests productive.” p. 161f (translated by me for the Original quote switch to German).

“Visiting this parallel universe, one understands that the possibility of insolvency is one of the greatest assets of the market economy. It enforces a certain rationality in the interest of survival.” p. 239 (translated).

After 240 pages of showing organisations the mirror down to the last bone, the book ends with a wonderful call to action: humanisation as the effect of good organisation that is enlightened about itself. S. 248.

Well written, I can only recommend this fresh look in a book form.

Book "Die Humanisierung der Organisation"
Book “Die Humanisierung der Organisation”