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.

Just ask how you can improve

Following the principles of lean management, we have discussed with many customers over the last few weeks. By asking them what they personally feel about the work we do. Their opinion of how we work as a presales team, not about the company’s performance as a whole or the level of customer satisfaction at the present time. And who could answer this question better than any line manager? Our customers!

Fortunately, we’ve had quite a bit of practice at this now. Doing this for the first time takes some arm-twisting and it feels daft on both sides. Customer surveys on products or services are familiar to us.  Consultants asking to be criticised feels rather strange.

After some initial irritation, customers realise that we as a team are concerned with improving. This understanding is enhanced by a method based on Lean. Time again, all the conversations were great. There was compliments, but also some insights that are hurting, which is precisely why we are doing this.

This year, I have to say, I’ve been amazed at how rapidly our business is changing. We started an agile presales approach “Agile Business Accelerator” in 2018 with the expectation that about 25% of the market would demand iterative approaches. However, during the customer interviews, we discovered that all the customers we interviewed required an iterative, business-generating approach.

Customers presented this in their style and the culture of the companies rather differently. Oftentimes, they don’t even use the word “agile”. I consider this to be very valuable, business values are needed, and we find a suitable methodology together.

Thank you for your commitment and openness!


About transparency

Some years ago, I attended an inaugural lecture by a division head in which she analysed current figures from her reports, identified discrepancies and resumed. She concluded that these discrepancies indicated deliberate cover-ups. A circumstance that she will change. Because only a transparent system is able to provide people with the opportunity to act in a purposeful way.

I endorse the last sentence with all the knowledge and experience I have. Cheating, estimated figures or sloppiness combined with an 80s “management by objective” apparatus are the best possible nursery ground for mismanagement. At the very best, they cause frustration in individual areas, when everything fits according to the specifications, but the overall result is poor.

My own example above, by the way, did not end well; a new system was created that was consistent above all. This could be observed closely in the defects that were subsequently closed. I cannot say whether the original intransparent system was created intentionally. But I am very sure that the new system which was created aimed at concealment.

Now, there are certain areas where transparency is not permitted. Reasons for designated restrictions on transparency are, in my experience, Almost always fabricated. “We can’t give you the current figures, as you know one of our parts of the company is listed on the stock exchange.” When systems strive for transparency, it usually has a very different ring to it: “We want to better understand how our services are viewed by customers, so we compare x-and-y. The listed part of the group can only be included in the analysis in such-and-such way. But we are continuing to work on possibilities here as well.”

It’s about what you want to measure and what you can measure. People who understand Lean or Agile know that it’s a journey. Establish metrics which really move you forward, and in the best case these are lead-measures. Not forgetting to use the existing possibilities of “what you can measure” creatively and to create better chances.

In my experience, real good transparency is always a journey, not something you can finally achieve or even set by decree.


Why I like visions

Often, visions come with a bad name. Some even see them as irrelevant decoration. This is true for many visions. You can find global-galactic versions, all-encompassing more-beautiful-further-faster editions to preposterous visions that are essentially meant as a kind of misleading advertising.

In my experience, managers who don’t think much of vision can very rarely say in a nutshell what direction they want to take. When asked about the direction, they typically say something about making money in the industry in which they work. But customers don’t buy from me so that I can make money. Money is the compensation for something that is worthwhile.

Having visions can be a particularly good North Star. In programmes or projects, a half-day vision workshop is definitely rewarding, especially if the project is under time pressure. The people involved then know where they stand and have fewer wrinkles on their foreheads. They decide more often in a concerted direction. When problems arise, the alternative options for solving them are usually properly pre-sorted.

Visions are directional for every kind of team. Newly formed teams find themselves together more quickly. Teamwork has fewer friction points. Especially when the business is in transformation, people find anchor points.
Even visions that are too specific and too near prove to be helpful. Especially because dealing with the destination together contributes to team-building. With some guidance and time, dealing with vision, mission, company purpose, values, etc. becomes more and more professional.

For practice, it’s best to think about yourself: What do you want to achieve? How do you want to succeed? Why do you want exactly that? Just like above, the first answer to such questions will be a solid “Um, uh”. And that’s a start!

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