A Question of Attitude

Efficient, cross-functional and innovative – the world of work is characterized by a dynamic which is forcing established businesses to adapt to and adopt the agility of start-ups. A decisive factor in this is corporate culture.

Successful companies often have agile working models. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

Successful companies often have agile working models. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

Silicon Valley has become a synonym for the tech industry. Within this entrepreneurial biosphere in San Francisco’s Bay Area, start-ups sprout and flourish at breathtaking speed, while the big players such as Google and Facebook develop and reinforce their domination of the market. What makes these companies so successful? What makes them so fast? Within a year of its foundation, US business Evelozcity has been able to convince investors from the USA, Germany and China to invest one billion US dollars for the development of the firm’s electric cars, which are projected to roll off the production line and onto our roads by 2021. Surely a contributing factor to this success is the company’s leadership team, consisting of experienced automotive executives: Stefan Krause, ex Finance Director of brands such as BMW; Karl-Thomas Neumann, the former CEO of Opel; as well as Ulrich Kranz, former developer at BMW. Krause states that Eveloz­city is trying to emulate Apple: “We believe that engineering and design ability will be the core skills, not production.” For this side of things, partners are being sought in places such as China.

However, becoming the successor of Apple, Facebook and the like requires much more than just outsourcing production to the Far East; an agile corporate culture that knows no or few hierarchies is key. This is a culture that is entirely foreign to silo-mentality and one-person offices, and one that does not first look for someone to blame if there is a mistake. “In fact, it is the readiness to view mistakes as opportunities that is one of the drivers for the success of so many Valley start-ups,” explains Dr. Antje Helpup from the Ostfalia University in Wolfsburg. She has recently visited over a dozen businesses on the US West Coast and managed to boil the recipe for success down to a single common denominator: “The enterprises ‘live’ agile working models. They don’t need to learn it, it has just developed naturally!”

 

Dr. Antje Helpup, Professor at Ostfalia University, Wolfsburg. Photo: Roman Brodel

Dr. Antje Helpup, Professor at Ostfalia University, Wolfsburg. Photo: Roman Brodel

“Agility is exemplified by leadership; in small businesses, agile role models are more direct and authentic in their communications”, Dr. Antje Helpup, Professor at Ostfalia University, Wolfsburg, says.

 

Transparent communication

This is true of the start-up ‘Chanje.’ The company designs e-transporters for the last mile of courier and parcel delivery services, manufacturing these in China. “Imagine a corporate culture that is like a family, in which every member cares intensely about the others. People are considered as developing beings and are determined to grow and expand.” This is how the former management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and today’s Chanje President Ian Gardner describes the spirit within his business. “Another key requirement to being able to work in an agile manner,” states management expert Helpup, who visited the company in Los Angeles, “is that there must be an open, respectful and trustworthy environment, which enables a transparent culture of information and communication to develop. This allows a business to react quickly to change.”

In order to work agile, a transparent information and communication culture must be guaranteed. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

In order to work agile, a transparent information and communication culture must be guaranteed. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

Agility is an attitude

Indeed, Walter Shewhart and William Deming, two US physicists and pioneers of quality management, laid the foundations for systemic process control in business in 1939 with their ‘Plan, Do, Check, Act’ (PDCA) approach. But the new era of occupational agility on the West Coast of the USA began on November 13, 2001. This time, however, it was in the mountains of Utah. Here, 17 software developers from the West Coast convened for a ski vacation and formulated the ‘Agile Manifesto.’ Frustrated by the large-scale and documentation-driven approach to software development, these proponents of alternatives such as Xtreme Programming and other software development instruments including Scrum wrote down the twelve principles of software development.

In a Scrum project, the team is always open to new requirements. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

In a Scrum project, the team is always open to new requirements. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

These principles became the Bible of agile project development. Scrum has established itself as the most popular model for agile work, and not just in the IT sector. This is followed by Kanban, an evolution of the approach to improving production efficiency, developed by Toyota in Japan in the 1950s. In both methods, whiteboards play an important role, with cards and sticky-notes documenting tasks and workflows in vertical columns.

 

Principles of Scrum

The term ‘Scrum’ originally comes from the sport of Rugby. At the beginning of an agile Scrum project, not all requirements are known, and the team is always open to new additions. Other principles include:
• teams predominantly organize themselves – different from classic project management;
• a Product Owner sets the task, and delegates responsibility to the team;
• a Scrum Master ensures compliance with the rules, acts as an intermediary between teams, and is an interface with the Product Owner;
• small mixed teams (fields/developers) work together on the user stories (requirements) and tasks;
• the project is broken down into short ‘sprints,’ which are completed iteratively and in no longer than four-week periods, and their results communicated to the whole team in a ‘sprint review;’
• daily stand-up meetings – or ‘daily scrums’ – for all team members, which last no longer than 15 minutes;
• each team details solely the key points for the comprehension of all participants.
The list can be extended to cater for different tasks and demands, but one thing is clear: The high flexibility afforded by individual sprints and the strong cross-functional team mentality allow for a direct and continuous improvement process.

Constant documentation

On the surface, Kanban functions similarly to Scrum. On the so-called ‘­Kanban board,’ the individual tasks (stories) are written on cards (Japanese: Kanban). However, different to Scrum, in which the sprints dictate a clear timing for the ­project, Kanban ensures a constant workflow and is designed to prevent teams from losing themselves in their tasks. It employs the motto “no new task may begin before another is completed.” In Kanban therefore, at each stage of work, the number of incomplete subtasks is clearly limited to those displayed on the board. ‘WIP 3’ in the product testing column, for example, means that there may only be three open tasks (work in progress) at any one time for the testing team. Tasks are not simply ‘pushed’ to the next team to work on, but are rather ‘pulled’ by them, once they have completed their current task. For this reason, Kanban boards often have two columns for each step in the process: ‘Work in Progress’ and ‘Completed.’

Digitization creates new occupational fields. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

Digitization creates new occupational fields. Graphics: Fabia Matveev / kombinatrotweiss

While it is already deeply entrenched in the DNA of successful companies on the US West Coast, agile work is spreading slowly but surely through many of the more traditional firms in Germany. Within the scope of a wider study, Professor Helpup devised an ‘Agility Check,’ in which 121 managers from across the German automotive industry participated. As part of this, they evaluated their own businesses against the agility-relevant indicators of self-organization, leadership, transparency, corporate culture and mindfulness. In the lead are IT firms, business consultancies and the research sector, with an average score of 7.86 on a scale from 0 to 10, in which 10 equates to ‘very agile.’ Among OEMs, dealerships and service providers, employees rated their own firms’ agility at 5.32. The investigations also showed that young businesses and those with less than 5,000 employees have a clear lead in terms of agility. This is no mystery to marketing and management expert Helpup: “A small dinghy is far more maneuverable than a big container ship. The smaller the business, the shorter the decision-making paths and thereby smaller the fear of losing control.”

10 Jobs that didn’t exist ten years ago

Digitalization creates new professions and changes the requirements of established professions. Primarily the Internet and associated new technologies have given rise to new job profiles. From 1999, the Internet spread like wildfire. Facebook was founded in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006 and ­Instagram in 2010 – businesses that have created many new jobs and job types.

1. Big Data Engineer: Professional with a mastery of business data analysis technology, and organizes the flood of data generated every day.
2. Blogger: Online personality, writing in first person on topics such as travel or cooking and monetizing this expertise with advertising, marketing cooperations and self-branded product lines.
3. Cloud Architect: Planning specialist within the IT department, responsible for creating a safe and adaptable business network.
4. Chief Happiness Officer: The CHO designs all interactions between employer and employee to be positive, thus making the workforce happier and improving
their motivation.
5. Influencer: In the pre-Internet era, they were known as Testimonials. Influencers congregate on YouTube, Insta­gram and Twitter, and use personality and profile to land marketing partnerships.
6. IOS- or Android Developer: The introduction of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android platform in 2007 gave rise to demand for development staff of software for mobile devices.
7. YouTuber: Produce relevant video content for YouTube, acquire high numbers of followers, and generate advertising income. The most successful areas are music, comedy and gaming.
8. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Manager: Optimize your online presence, not with marketing spend but with a keen sense for the keywords picked up by search engines. Everything is done to ensure the site appears on the first page of search results.
9. Social Media Manager: The newcomer in the online marketing team, the Social Media Manager has intimate knowledge of Facebook, Twitter et al. and generates awareness by sharing corporate content.
10. UX (User Experience) Designer: This, the customer service agent of the virtual world develops intuitive user interfaces and tests applications and systems for their user-friendliness.

3 Questions for Ashley Hunt

Ashley Hunt ia Senior Project Management Instructor for Stormwind Studios in Arizona and author of the PMI-ACP Exam Study Guide (Project Management Professional – Agile Certified Practitioner). With her guidance, tens of thousands of project managers across the USA have gained their certification for agile work.
Ashley Hunt ia Senior Project Management Instructor for Stormwind Studios in Arizona and author of the PMI-ACP Exam Study Guide. Photo: Ashley Hunt

Ashley Hunt ia Senior Project Management Instructor for Stormwind Studios in Arizona and author of the PMI-ACP Exam Study Guide. Photo: Ashley Hunt

Which method is best? Iterative and agile work, or the linear classic ‘waterfall,’ in which tasks are delegated from top to bottom?

Hunt: Both methods have their advantages, and if you want to build a bridge or a skyscraper as a long-term project, then the waterfall method is certainly the right one. But if you don’t know exactly what the goal is in a project or don’t want to anticipate it, if you have to react flexibly to changes, then you should choose an agile approach and give the team the greatest possible freedom for its work.

What skills do employees need to have in order to work well in agile structures?

Hunt: Openness to change, effective communication skills and the ability to work both as a team and independently, without a project manager delegating the work. Other skills, outside of technical ability, would include empirical learning and continuous improvement to truly practice agility.

Do we still need bosses, and if yes, what is their role?

Hunt: Yes, but in a different context. A boss would instead be a facilitator, a coach, and a buffer between the team and key stakeholders or customers. Their role is still that of senior management, but their day-to-day responsibilities would be geared toward supporting the team and perpetuating the vision of the results to the organization.

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