Agility plays an important role in more and more companies. We spoke to Bettina Oebbeke about her experiences as an agile coach. What changes through agile working methods? Does agile management have an impact on corporate culture and leadership style? We look forward to an exciting interview!
Anne Weigand, communicode Dear Bettina, you have been working as a coach since 2013 and previously led several of your own teams as a department head in a corporation. What makes an agile company for you?
Bettina Oebbeke > An agile company – if one really speaks of an agile company and not just of a department – is completely geared towards customer benefits. This means that the customer is the focus. The classic waterfall method takes a long time to develop and in the end the customer feedback is often subdued. With the agile approach, the customer is brought closer. The team keeps asking themselves: Are we still on the track with development? In classic companies there is a hierarchical structure. In agile companies, this hierarchical triangle is at its peak: the developers are suddenly in contact with the customer and the management only provides the framework.
Anne Weigand, communicode What conditions must be met in any case for a company to engage in agility?
Bettina Oebbeke > This is a culture question! I keep finding that the processes are being converted to agile, but the company structure remains hierarchical. Decisions are made that the team does not support. However, an agile mindset promotes the decision-making of the teams. A culture must therefore be created in which mistakes are seen as learning tips and the other person is seen as an adult. Agility questions the structure of conventional companies: Fixed targets and the search for a guilty party are counterproductive. This new self-organization must be accepted, even if it is not the opinion of the management. In addition, self-organization takes time. Of course, mistakes happen again and again during this development, but it is precisely through this that a new culture of the learning organization can develop. An essential point is that companies have to learn to deal with the new transparency: There is no longer any development in the quiet little room that lasts half a year and nobody gives feedback on it. Suddenly, feedback is collected after every sprint, which can also be negative. You have to be able to deal with this permanent feedback process.
Anne Weigand, communicode Why does a rethinking of the management style in companies have to take place? What effects does agile management have on leadership culture And what needs to change in the management style?
Bettina Oebbeke > This is a very important factor! Because agile management means a complete change in management culture. Away from leadership based on the principle of clear specifications towards leadership that creates a framework. Today, managers are coaches for their employees and that only works at eye level. While tasks such as controlling and identifying improvements used to be the responsibility of the manager, they are now distributed among the team. The Scrum Master cleans up impediments, the Product Owner takes care of the business value, the team is responsible for quality. Management merely creates the framework for the team to work. The motto of the new manager is empowerment: I give power to the team and I can stand it. However, I like to distinguish between two modes: In crisis mode, it can be helpful that someone takes the lead to give the team security. In general, however, one has to say that there is actually no such thing as agile leadership, only good or bad leadership. So-called agile leadership is a positive leadership culture with adults. People must be able to develop creativity, but this requires a structure that the manager creates. He holds up a mirror to his employees: Am I still on the right path? Am I still in agreement with the company goals? His task is to see everything from a helicopter view and to suggest course corrections. My approach to this is "Ask the team": The best solutions always come from the team itself.
Anne Weigand, communicode In your experience, when do problems arise when introducing agile methods?
Bettina Oebbeke > Personal responsibility and self-organization must be practiced, because neither at school nor at university do people learn how to organize themselves. You have to introduce the team first. But when the team then develops its own ideas, management often gets scared: will we still be needed now? Scrum is not a panacea when a classic waterfall project gets into trouble. Because Scrum only makes the existing problems transparent, they actually exist. This transparency is often not endured. The worst thing is the misconception that agility means going faster. Working agile does not mean being faster, it means developing the right product for the customer. In addition, companies have to move away from the idea of resource utilization and towards the idea of value creation. In cross-functional teams, one person has less to do than the other. There will be other times for that.
Anne Weigand, communicode You have already experienced both: small agencies and large corporations. Are there differences between the two?
Bettina Oebbeke > Yes of course! In small agencies, the structures are flatter and the decision-making paths are shorter. You have much quicker contact with management and decision-makers. A small agency also has a completely different mindset. To put it bluntly, it's often a bunch of creative people who have ideas and want to realize them. For corporations - especially those with a long history - cultural change is a long road and extremely difficult. When I'm working with a big monolith, it's much harder to be agile. An exception are large companies such as Google, Zalando or Amazon. They were only founded in the digital age and are clearly geared towards customer benefit. Small experiments are often started, such as the product rating at Amazon back then. It was only put online for a small part of the range and tested to see how well it was received.
Anne Weigand, communicode In your experience, how are the employees reacting to the changes?
Bettina Oebbeke > Totally different. Generation Y demands agility. You want to work independently. And defend self-organization. Employees who have worked in a traditional context for a long time, on the other hand, find it difficult: Being transparent is perceived as a threat. Suddenly they are supposed to say every day in the Daily what they have achieved and perhaps not achieved. Here it is important that these employees are relieved of their worries. The daily is not used for control and is not a status report to the manager, but a planning meeting. There is no punishment for incorrect work. What many also underestimate is the discipline that agile working requires: Yes, you always have to be prepared for the meeting on the same day and at the same time. And yes, the developer now presents his results directly to the customer. This point in particular is uncomfortable for many employees. Close customer contact was often unusual in the past and must therefore be practiced. Of course, there are always employees who cannot cope with agility. Then they leave the team. In my experience, however, the really good developers gratefully accept the agile methods. After all, the Scrum approach was developed to give experts the freedom to work creatively.
Anne Weigand, communicode Where can a coach help and for how long? Do some companies keep asking you for advice?
Bettina Oebbeke > An agile coach should always be used when you start with agile methods and have no experience. He is like a pilot who knows where the shallows are. He brings the experience into the teams and of course also imparts basic specialist knowledge. As a coach, I know from experience what works and what doesn't, and where a fresh start is worthwhile. The coach should generally also be involved in the group processes. This is where conflicts often arise that need to be accompanied and managed. In addition, a coach accompanies stormy phases and serves to reflect the position determination again and again. The length of the coaching phases varies greatly. I always recommend having professional support for at least the first three months. Just reading a book about agile methods and then introducing them to the team is a classic that can only go wrong. There are companies that always call me when there is a problem and that's a good thing. Because coaching is not a disgrace, on the contrary. The change processes are much smoother this way.
About Bettina Oebbeke Bettina Oebbeke is at home in the agile world: After she introduced Scrum as a department head at a large corporation and led several teams, she decided to pass on her diverse knowledge as a coach. Today she works as a freelance Agile Coach and Scrum Master for various industries.