The challenge of agile transformation - an interview of Workpath founder Johannes Müller with Boris Gloger

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This article arose out of a conversation of Workpath-founder Johannes Müller with Boris Gloger.

As founder and general manager of borisgloger consulting, Boris Gloger guides companies on their way to an agile future and supports them with the structure and realisation of transformation and innovation processes. In the Workpath Magazine, he talks with Johannes Müller about the biggest challenges and developments of agile transformation as well as about different approaches regarding the collaboration in organizations. Since 2001, Boris Gloger is profoundly engaged in Scrum and became “Certified Scrum Trainer“ in 2004. His first major implementation of Scrum took place at in 2005; in 2008 he implemented the process at the Scout Group. In the first place, Gloger worked in the e-commerce sector making agile projects more quickly and more effectively – in a time where few suspected that these were the beginnings of digitalisation.

Johannes Müller: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges companies have to face in the context of agile transformation? Do you have examples of what especially stands in the way of the agilization of established organizations?  

Boris Gloger: Based on my experiences of the last ten to 15 years, I can say that agility has always been required to do something that classic management wasn‘t able to reach. The demands to agility were very high right from the beginning. It should ensure that – worldwide – employees work effectively and well coordinated. Without ever being pronounced, however, there was always the thesis that the classic management and project management approach could also do that. Until I noticed: The high demands came up because exactly this approach never solves the problem – otherwise there wouldn‘t be that many projects failing. For me, that was the aha-experience. I experience a lot of consultants and managers in companies, who consider agile principles as useful, but don‘t really implement Scrum and similar methods. After the start, they rather slow them down again, just to go back to traditional approaches at the end. This is comprehensible, however, without the direct practical implementation, there won‘t be a great change in these companies. You don’t learn to ride a bike only by thinking about theoretical principles. Or a musical instrument by researching only the principles that go along with it (for example, the correct hand posture). Rather, one learns playing an instrument by dealing with it practically until one has mastered it and understands how music and the instrument work.

Johannes Müller: That‘s a nice mental picture. Sure, nowadays many put agility and agile methods on their agenda. These keywords are used to find and buy service providers. In the conversation with companies, however, we noticed that it‘s important to free oneself from these buzzwords and cumbersome terms in order to look behind them and achieve success. Agile still has various and often unclear meanings for many companies. One can interpret and weight this differently. For me, the core question is and remains: What do you want to achieve? What are the main ideas that are standing behind frameworks like the OKR framework. And this is exactly how we try to reach the appropriate managers. From our point of view, the main challenge is to overcome the established thinking of efficiency and to get to the core of the entrepreneurial problems. Many times, people directly want to know how much gain in efficiency can be reached with a new process.

Here it‘s essential to first clarify that it‘s a lot more fundamental than that – namely that it‘s rather about effectivity, adaptability, and velocity than about efficiency.

Efficiency is not a competitive advantage anymore and for the new competitive advantages of today‘s markets, the correct metrics for a useful ROI-calculation still need to be found. But to go back to your mental image of the musical instrument, I totally agree with you that apart from a shared awareness and comprehension of the problems on a structural level, quick practical action and “just doing it“ are necessary for success. It‘s important to remove the barriers for the company and its teams to entry into new work processes, in order to quickly identify relevant gaps between the way the company wants to work in the future and the way the organization behaves and is culturally polarized today. Therefore, in the first year we see Workpath more like a diagnostic tool that shows the delta between the actual and the target state and makes it as tangible and repeatable as possible. This is where consulting comes in, combined with ongoing internal empowerment through training and coaching.Whenever resistance arises, that doesn‘t mean that the new process, for example with OKRs, don‘t fit the organization.

It is rather the case that whenever doubts and arguments like “Scrum doesn‘t fit to us“ occur, it is worth it having a closer look, because exactly at this point there is a mismatch between the existing culture, the existing guiding principles, and the newly strived principles.

What do you think about that?

Boris Gloger: I agree with you. We always used to say: Scrum is a diagnostic tool. Whenever something crashes, one has to have a look and figure out the reason. That means, if it doesn‘t work that good, one shouldn‘t question whether the tool is poor, but think about the reason for the resistance. That's why at borisgloger consulting, we saw the importance of teaching ourselves how to work really agilely from the very beginning. People who don‘t experience it in practice cannot use it correctly and support its implementation in other companies.

People who cannot use agile work in the context of their normal environment don‘t benefit.

As a consultant, you can't go into an organization without building a frame of reference before that shows you how it is “correctly”. In an environment that is already agile and digital, you can create such a reference. That is the hidden agenda behind our organization. I don't know if you still say it like that, but in the past it was always “eat your own dogfood”. And that's exactly what's important to us in our company. We try to apply to ourselves the principles that we communicate to our customers and that we sometimes cannot yet fully understand ourselves, because we are all just people and are still developing in this area.

Johannes Müller: The difficulty then is always to convince managers who have been in the company for a long time and who have been very successful using the old principles. That was a self-reinforcing system because on the one hand the organization was set up in a way that one was successful with the traditional-tayloristic management and on the other hand, because 20 years ago the market required something different or even less.What is your opinion, Boris? Before one starts with the big processes, are there ideas how one can fasten this process of realization with small steps? Boris Gloger: That’s something I do a lot in the moment. I work in a large bank with the support of a person from the HR-department, that wants to strengthen agility and to develop a leadership development program on the topic of agility. I realized a three and a half day program for them, that consists of five phases. Actually, we tried to provide classic line managers with a little agile management know-how. I wanted to present some content, that I also mention in my book (Selbstorganisation braucht Führung), in small bits and pieces. The crazy thing about this program, which we are doing for the second time this year, is that the participants suddenly begin to radiate and are able to become multipliers. I wouldn’t say yet that the organization is agile or that in every department where it has been tried, people would work highly agile. But the idea became clear that with more modern methods, another approach or attitude, one can achieve something completely different.

Johannes Müller: Yes, we noticed quite quickly that we need to offer companies something before they are ready for our process and software solution – depending on their current status and if there is a critical mass of managers yet, who are able to create the change. There are different training formats. We have the Pathfinder Community, that stands for our set of principles and tools, but in the end everyone is looking for how to do it right. Within this framework, we are also working with partners on what training formats there can be to make these tools as simple as possible, but also quick to experience. Not through frontal teaching or a book, but exactly as you describe it, through the managers joining a team and trying it out themselves and thus creating germ cells. If you do these workshops, is that a lot of simulation and interactive trying?

Boris Gloger: In my formats, I try to design the training in the same way people are supposed to work later. For example, I don’t talk about Open Space but I let them use Open Space to work on their own topics during this workshop. That means, I explain the principles and then the participants have to do an Open Space so that they have experienced it. That’s the difference to many others: in my trainings, the companies have to work directly with it, instead of just simulating with fictive topics. That works out more or less. Sometimes you just have to pass knowledge consequently for a day or two, because some banalities, certain practices and principles, which are already 30 years old, are not known yet. You can’t expect that everyone is on the same level of knowledge and so every training is always different.

Johannes Müller: Does this mean that there is a certain toolbox, which has always to be adapted to the situation? You have already written a book dealing with this topic. Do you also try to develop some products and workshop formats that others in the company can work with?

Boris Gloger: I think that a starter-kit doesn’t convey the necessary mindset. That might work for someone who has already internalized it and knows how to use the tool. That’s why I still believe in trainers and consultants as initial motivators and mediators.

Johannes Müller: One last question, you have briefly mentioned it before: Companies often say that the preconditions are not yet established to take these steps or to implement this methodology. Do you think that there are certain basic conditions without which it makes no sense to think about agilization, Scrum, OKRs etc.? Or is this the wrong attitude because you have to start and then you can change it?

Boris Gloger: This question isn’t easy to answer. Yes, the last sentence is correct, you really have to start and then something will change. At the same time, you need the willingness of the very highest level of leadership to begin this journey. Everytime we have not paid attention to it, we failed mercilessly. That’s why I would say from the outside, that one should check if there is a fit between one’s own way of functioning and that of the customer. It's exactly the same with us. It can’t be identical, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a problem nor topics to work on together. But you should at least get on well with each other. I’m not talking about friendship, but at least mutual respect, otherwise it won’t work. That has already gone pretty wrong two or three times. I’m not talking about “classical questions of resistance” serving to hide incomprehension, but about massive resistance. By now, I would even go so far as to say:

If the canon of values of your company and that of the customer is not even approximately congruent, a cooperation won’t work.

Classics such as agility, honesty and openness are very important for us. Then you find yourself in an organization in which people are consistently working against each other – something that has nothing to do with our principles. That’s not going to work for long.

Johannes Müller: Thank you very much, Boris. Very interesting. The highest level has to go with it. That’s what we experience more and more. There is an incredible strong pull from the workforce. There are lip services from the top level: “Yes, we will do this”, but you know that they can‘t do or can’t take part in it fast enough. Especially in the context of OKRs we see more and more that it can work with hybrid structures. This means, the classic executive in line responsibility won‘t moderate the OKR workshop, but won‘t lose his or her position. There is someone else in the team who takes over the informal leadership in this context, for example as an OKR Coach. In the same way, these OKR Coaches, who are supposed to support the implementation, can help the management to revise their strategic goals, which are often only financial indicators. The focus should be on customer-oriented goals that employees understand and align themselves with. That doesn‘t come from the managers, but from this hybrid structure and it would be an exciting thought, what can be done with it.