Is agility the solution to all problems?

Guest contribution by | 25.04.2019

Our goals:

We need to develop more customer/business focus.
We need to become faster.
We need to work better together.
We need to make faster decisions.

The solution:

Let’s be “agile”. Introducing agile organizational structures, simply introducing “New Work”. “Kanban” and “Scrum” will help, and let’s definitely do this DevOps. Then everything will be better, faster and more customer oriented! For sure! Or is it not?

The problems are recognized and the goals well formulated? But before we go into implementation, it might make sense to pause for a moment and reflect together on where the problems actually come from.

What’s the real problem?

Companies need processes. Clearly defined and infinitely repeatable and efficient. This is a competitive advantage in many areas. Why reinvent the wheel every time? These processes make us fast! Decisions are defined and nobody needs to wait. Cooperation is defined and I know who does what and whom I have to address. And in case of doubt, we also have managers or steering committees who can make decisions.

And then there are the projects in which we develop something new. Finding new solutions that the (internal and external) customer needs. We have also understood that these projects are not carried out separately from day-to-day business, which is why we involve the employees who are in contact with the custormers and who know the current processes, and build cross-functional and international teams, because then the result will be better.

Wait a minute. You work in a highly efficient process, in your department with your own goals and you do such projects on the side? One? Two? Three? What percentage of your time do you spend on this?

Of course there is a project portfolio management. This is where projects are tracked, where budgets are allocated, where business cases and added value are defined. And then, when all participants agree, only 50% of the projects are started. It would be too much to do them all. In addition, we want to be “agile” and be able to make adjustments.

That’s when I remember my time as a juggler. Throwing a ball and catching it? Simple. Two balls? Works well, too. Three? Ok, needs time but you can learn quickly. Four or five balls? Let’s put it this way, I can also juggle three clubs or three rings, but five? That’s too many and I would need a lot of time to learn it.

Back to the problem, from my experience and observation, projects and new customer solutions take so long, above all because, firstly, you work on many things simultaneously and, secondly, you have long waiting times because someone else has to deliver something. And if it’s just waiting for decisions, because you can’t get key decision-makers together quickly enough for an appointment, and then at best only four weeks are up again.

Our goals – a closer look

So before we start introducing agile working methods right away, it might make sense to think about the real problem first.

We need to develop more customer/business focus

Do we really understand what the customer / business wants? Is the customer / business involved in the process? Has the customer/business prioritized what they find most important? Have we ever really questioned all projects and what added value they create and whether someone would really pay for them (regardless of the budget allocation)?

Methods such as design thinking can help to integrate the customer into the processes, but above all it is the joint discussion and prioritisation with the customer based on concrete needs and concrete description of the added value.

We need to get faster

What needs to be faster? All at once? Or would it be better to think about what exactly has to become faster? One process, one project (of many)? Derive from the customer discussion and also prioritize here.

Is it important that all ten projects run faster, or do we better focus on three projects and only start the rest when these three are completed?

We need to work better together

Who are we? And what does better mean? Is it about making information available better and faster? Is it about incorporating more diverse perspectives and feedback loops? Do we need expertise from different areas and people who work together in a focused way? Or is it about shortening waiting times in projects?

Perhaps better cooperation is more a question of mindsets, available capacities and, above all, a shared vision.

We need to make faster decisions

Faster decisions from whom? Does the Steering Committee need to make decisions or just inform everyone and make good stakeholder management? Which decisions actually need to be made at which level? How strong is the trust in the employees in the project? Instead of “delegating” decisions or having them confirmed again, it might make sense to really “empower” people in the processes and projects.

Aren’t these the questions we should answer first before we start turning everything on “agile”?

A new approach

Instead of immediately turning everything on “agile”, start at the top of the hierarchy and introduce a better portfolio management based on the new answers.

It’s not about approving business cases and budget in a flexible and focussed way, it’s about beginning to prioritize the projects after real value and then to plan the available resources decidedly. Then you only have to initiate individual selected projects and put the others in the backlog and don’t start at all.

In a second step, assign the right employees to these projects (or better yet, ask the people who have not only the expertise but also the enthusiasm).

A clear division between day-to-day business (urgent) and project (important) is certainly not a bad approach.

And then, in the spirit of trust, please enable the project team to actually make all essential decisions, if necessary and possible directly with the client and not in steering committees.

Are the decisions so important that the management must be involved? If so, then it is not only symbolic, but also necessary to take time directly instead of waiting four weeks for the next meeting.

Distribute the budget now, because only those projects that have enough employees actually need a budget now.

The third step is to give the team the time to decide how it wants to work together (mindset) and which new working methods (toolset) can help. And don’t forget to provide the time and money to ensure that there is sufficient empowerment and learning (skillset).

Do you need methods like Scrum, Kanban, Design Thinking etc.? First of all the team should decide that. It is certain is that new tools such as the digital workplace will be helpful. And then, yes, then you can tell if “agility” and “new work” are good answers to your problem.

Agility can be a solution

Agility can be a solution to certain problems if the decision makers ask themselves the right questions, define the real goals and then enable the teams to develop the solution independently!

But especially with such holistic changes, please press the pause button after the first considerations, ask yourself as a manager and decision maker:

Can I give up my “decision-making power” and go from being a manager to an executive? And are my peers willing to do the same?

Am I aware that this kind of change is a real cultural change and do I support it with the same resources and budget as the introduction of the “tools” and “methodology”?

Am I willing to really question all projects, reassess the value and stop or move part of it to make individual projects faster?

Is that what my customer actually wants and have I looked at all the interfaces?

And perhaps the most important question: Do my employees also want that?

A Concluding Observation

Personally, I have the feeling that “agility” is turning the whole Pyramid of Change around! There is no need for sponsorship “from above”, in order for something to happen at the bottom, but at the beginning it needs “sponsorship” and “support” from the employees, so that something new can emerge at the top!



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Sebastian Kolberg
Sebastian Kolberg

Sebastian Kolberg works as Change Manager Digital Transformation for Bayer AG. In this role he supports people and teams on their journey to shape the Digital Transformation. One focus is to understand business transformation, promote collaboration, build trustworthy networks and question the status quo with regard to the customer. It begins by reflecting on one’s own behavior, experimenting, learning from experiences in the network and focusing on one’s own development of the digital mindset.