Agile Working: Broken Chains?

In today’s turbulent markets, where established companies are battling assaults from start-ups and new competitors, the prospect of a fast-moving, adaptive organization is highly appealing. But as enticing as such a vision is, turning it into a reality is not easy.

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and bestseller author, wrote in his new book "The Inevitable":

Everything is in flux. Nothing is finished. Nothing is done. In the intangible digital realm, nothing is static or fixed. Everything is becoming.

In this perspective, processes – the engines of change – are more important than products. Increasingly, tangible products are turning into services. Accordingly, a product such as a shoe, for example, will no longer just be something finished and static. It will be an endless process, always offering new possibilities. Since everything is in motion, fast motion, organizations have to adapt and convert. In keeping with this logic, the BMW group, for example, plans to evolve from automaker to mobility-service provider, according to the vision of company CEO Harald Krüger.

How do we want to work together?

Understanding technological progress, and accepting it, is the best way to learn to deal with the future, Kelly explains. Kelly is a visionary who many years ago was already predicting the great impact that the internet revolution would have on our societies and economies.

Understanding and accepting such progress includes thinking about how we need to be collaborating in a future "connected world," if we are going to meet the demands of the digital transformation. The solution can seem easy: Work has to become more agile, more transparent and more oriented to individual responsibility, especially in areas in which digitalization is driving fast change – such as the automobile industry, telecommunications, and banking.

Workplace 2028: Radical Human Centricity

In a perfect world, work relies on transparency, trust, dialog, and short-term feedback. Errors are addressed in a constructive manner, so they can be instructive. In traditional hierarchical organizations, by contrast, a culture of rigid rules, standardized regulations, and little decision-making discretion for individual employees predominates. Errors are usually sanctioned. In Work 2028, a new study commissioned by Deutsche Telekom's unit HR Digital & Innovation (D&I) and Detecon, experts predict that companies' success, in the future, will depend on allowing and promoting flexible forms of organization. The experts caution that humans must always remain central to such endeavors, however. The survey speaks of "radical human-centricity" – if the term is not particularly catchy, it still gets the point across.

Which chains must be broken?

It all sounds simple, but in practice it can often involve many hurdles and obstacles. When traditional companies begin to organize themselves in agile ways, tensions with tradition emerge. For the IT sector and young companies, agile methods are common practice. For large companies, however, with their strongly hierarchical thinking and large, routine-oriented workforces, such methods can emerge only via intensive restructuring and change. Staying with our title metaphor, we can ask "what chains do we have to break, from a personal and organizational standpoint, in order to organize our company in an agile way?"

Will to change is neccessary

Again and again, Christian P. Illek emphasizes that an organization's digital transformation can succeed only when the organization's people support it with the right mindsets. One can't simply enforce certain methods and then hope for the best. It all comes down to attitude. This comprises important elements such as a common understanding of aims; a focus on results, and not on processes; openness to new ideas; respect toward all employees; the courage to say what is not working; and a willingness to allow the possibility of failure. That much-acclaimed goal, "cultural change," must be seen as much more than just a phrase. Otherwise, people will treat "agile organization" as little more than a short-lived management fashion. The will for change has to be there.

Forerunner: Spark relies on agile organization

As it is on the part of Simon Moutter, for example. Moutter, CEO and Managing Director of the telecommunications company Spark New Zealand, is moving to change his company, a former monopoly in its sector, from a traditional-style hierarchical organization into an agile organization, with employees organized in multi-functional teams instead of specific business units. Moutter believes this is the only way to convert the corporation – rapidly enough – into a competitive, full-fledged "provider of communication, entertainment, and cloud services."  In a recent communication, Moutter explains that the company's "engine room," comprising core functions such as networks, IT, product development and marketing, has been staffed with agile teams. In addition, says Moutter, the company has started using agile methods throughout the entire organization. He also notes that the extent to which such methods are used depends on the business area concerned.


Telekom Germany: Agile and "Traditional" Teams

Currently, many companies are facing the challenge of developing the opportunities inherent in agile methods. In most cases, the question is not whether agile methods should be integrated within the company's portfolio of methods, but how they might be implemented. In every case, it's necessary to find suitable strategies for becoming an agile company. The experts remind us that strategies for an organization's "agile evolution" have to fit with the organization, and they should not overtax its people. For this reason, many companies opt to phase-in agile methods gradually, in order to gather experience. This is what Telekom Deutschland is doing, for example. Dirk Wössner explains how his company is doing this: "We are thinking carefully about how we can become even better at tailoring our core products to our customers. And we have learned that complicated coordination processes and shared responsibilities tend to hinder clear focusing. As a result, we will soon begin combining responsibility for selected core products within virtual teams. We think this will give us better processes." To begin with, Dirk Wössner notes, the company has selected eight products for this new approach. The focus of the effort, says Dirk Wössner, is on testing new agile methods and tools and on "strengthening cross-functional cooperation."

He is watching carefully for any tensions that may arise between "old" and "new" methods: "Our products can succeed only when we strengthen collaboration between agile teams and groups with "waterfall" methods – because we know we need to use both traditional and agile forms of collaboration." The most important factors that will enable Telekom Deutschland to achieve greater speed and simplicity are a holistic approach and a common culture, he adds.

Greater responsibility on individuals

A properly functioning agile organization can always adapt, quickly and flexibly, to changing conditions in its operating environment – and it can even act to shape-up such conditions. Positive human interaction is all-important, however. By no means is this as trivial as it may sound. More agile structures are conducive to freedom and motivation, but they also place greater responsibility on individuals – in planning, organization, taking the initiative and setting goals. Again – they translate into greater responsibility.

Employees who do not want to accept responsibility, and who are unable to think in terms of solutions, will be unhappy in agile-methods environments. And managers who are unwilling to give their employees more responsibility, and to delegate decisions, will also have great difficulty with agile methods. Members of agile teams are not interested in the theory of their autonomy; they want to be able to exercise their autonomy in their normal work. This means having the opportunity to expand the freedom the self-organization provides.


More freedom, less control

Real freedom has to be learned, however. Martin Bäumler responsible for the development, introduction and optimization of products in the area of artificial intelligence at Deutsche Telekom, and who has been working in agile teams for some time now, emphasizes the resulting opportunities for personal growth:


Every person can assume different roles.

For example, employees with no management status can become leaders and move those projects forward for which they are eminently suited.  "I had a great deal more freedom, and that was great," Martin Bäumler remembers, in looking back on his first experience in an agile team. His role was no longer defined by an organizational chart, he explains. On the other hand, "I had to get used to having less control than I did before."

Clear communication is key

Before introducing agile methods, management needs to define, specifically, how the methods will be used, and to what extent. This helps prevent unrealistic expectations, and thus is important especially in traditional organizations. This recommendation is seconded by Frauke von Polier, Director of Human Resources at Zalando, the fashion platform, and co-sponsor of the company's "Radical Agility" program: "Top management in particular needs to be communicating very clearly and unambiguously – again and again."


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