Interview – Self-organization at Zühlke Group

Table of Contents

Lisa is a usability engineer with a focus on user research. She has been with Zühlke since August 2018. She is mostly concerned with gathering and analyzing user needs as well as constantly communicating the results to the interdisciplinary project team and stakeholders. Lisa optimizes the usability of existing systems and develops intuitive concepts for improved usability in interdisciplinary teams.

Stefan has been with Zühlke since March 2012 and usually works as an architect, coach and consultant in enterprise software projects. His passion lies in developing motivated teams and architectures that meet technical as well as business requirements. Stefan's work follows lean principles and he actively engages with the topics of NewWork. Since January 2019 the two have been members of a self-organized team at Zühlke in Hamburg. With the Workpath Magazine they talked about the challenges of self-organization.

Hello Lisa, hello Stefan: Last year you decided to got for a big change at the Zühlke Group in Hamburg. What made you do it?

The Hamburg location grew so much that the management started looking for a second department head. This made some colleagues* think about taking over the leadership role as a collective. New head of department? No, we can do it ourselves! We were motivated by the desire to help shape our daily work routine and, in the course of this, to be given more freedom, but also more responsibility. This "collective" is now called the Self-organized Competence Unit (SCU).

Who or what is this collective exactly and how do you act?

The SCU was founded in January 2019 and currently consists of 16 colleagues* who have come together voluntarily. In founding the SCU, we were guided by the following principles:The idea to found SCU came from within the team, which means we are all intrinsically motivated. We are organized in working groups to cover the relevant management tasks. In doing so, we act in an agile manner by first covering the operationally critical tasks. The SCU is embedded in a traditional organization and benefits from its existing processes and interfaces.Once a week we meet in the so-called SCU-Weekly, where we exchange information about SCU-relevant topics. Our effort target for management activities is below that of a full-time equivalent (FTE), i.e. the efforts of a full-time position. Our actions and the way we deal with each other are based on values that we have written down in a manifesto.The manifesto states, for example, that we want to deal with our wishes and expectations in a transparent manner and that we jointly bear the consequences of decisions made together. Every SCU member must sign this manifesto. The agreement shapes our cooperation and is decisive for our actions.

Were there any doubts about the decision? How did you assert yourselves?

The greatest fears actually came from within the SCU. At the beginning we thought that we lacked the experience for some important management tasks or that nobody would be interested in the tasks. We were also skeptical regarding the topic "salary" and feared intense conflicts within SCU. Moreover, we were worried that we would not be able to meet the expectations of the management.

We expected from ourselves to be able to handle all tasks as a team without exception and thus to equal a full-fledged alternative model to the CU with a department head.

We had to learn to put less pressure on ourselves at the beginning. Our head of department, the management and the organization gave us active support in this. We always received support for our experiment ("What could go wrong?"), there were hardly any strict rules, but a lot of trust.

What have been your expectations, what would be changed by your decision?

We expected from ourselves to be able to handle all tasks as a team without exception and thus to equal a full-fledged alternative model to the CU with a department head.We wanted to get closer to topics relevant to the organization and decision-making processes. As a team, we wanted to share responsibilities and expected this to have a positive effect on our satisfaction and cooperation. From today's perspective, these expectations have been fulfilled.

As a first step, you asked your leadership about tasks and responsibilities and created working groups based on these findings. How did you ensure that all topics were covered and that not too much was initiated at once?

We had many discussions with our and other site managers in advance and had all the tasks described to us. We then derived working groups and roles from these individual tasks and documented them in a concept. In the next step, the working groups were presented in the plenum and then each member could join the working group, either as an interested party or as a responsible for the working group.We were agile in the distribution – there was no pressure to have each task covered by one person. Rather, it was important to us that the really necessary operational tasks were filled by one person taking over responsibility. Interestingly, we immediately had a responsible for all relevant topics.

The key question when developing a salary process was not "How much more? – but "What is a fair process?"

The time pressure at the beginning forced us to take a very lean approach – we really had to push the operationally necessary things with high priority. We have maintained this approach and only work on topics that are relevant or very likely to become relevant.

Were there any difficulties working in this new setup? If yes, how did you solve them?  

One challenge was the decision-making process. It was not clear at the beginning how we wanted to make decisions in the SCU, so we took a closer look at it. In the meantime, three approaches have proven to be successful: "Roman-Vote" procedures for quick decisions in smaller groups; "consultative individual decisions" for work in the working groups; "plenary meetings" for important decisions in the whole SCU.But here too, we are always open to new ideas such as liberating structures, for example, in order to appreciate the different characters. It is a persistent challenge to openly question the established processes in order to adapt them to the changing conditions – just like in a project.The same tools that we use in our agile everyday project work help us in this. Through our end of the year retrospective, for example, we discovered that we had failed to sufficiently involve the stakeholders/contact persons for the respective areas of responsibility. We then take this as a task and try to improve continuously.

You have also developed your own salary process. How does this process work?  

The key question when developing a salary process was not "How much more? – but "What is a fair process?" Our process consists of four steps:

  1. In the first step, the colleague discusses with his or her career coach and reflects on the achievement of his or her annual goals. Then, the colleague looks at the salary range to see which position reflects his or her level of development. In addition, the feedback that the colleague and his or her career coach have received from various colleagues* is used.
  2. Next, the colleague fills out a one-page document showing his or her development goals and desired salary increase.
  3. In a subsequent meeting with all SCU members, all documents are hung up and inspected. Afterwards, questions can be asked.
  4. As soon as all open points have been clarified, a SCU member is appointed to present our proposals to the management circle and answer questions. Due to the ongoing transparency, many SCU members found the process to be very fair.

And how do you go about setting organizational and team goals now?  

We want to promote the topic of self-organization in Hamburg and exchange ideas with the existing "New Work" network. In the course of this, we have already held two Meetups on the topic of self-organization and invited speakers from different areas and companies.

There is no blueprint for self-organization

We find it exciting to learn about the challenges other self-organized units are facing and, above all, what approaches they are developing and pursuing. On the organization level we are involved in the overarching OKR process with the SCU. We are committed to a goal defined therein aiming to provide employees with an environment in which they can work to their satisfaction and in which flexibility and responsibility are left to them.

If you could summarize it briefly: What have you achieved?  

Self-organization continues to exist. We have thus clearly achieved one of our greatest goals. We have introduced lean, effective processes and still understand each other very well.In addition, other locations have become aware of our self-organization and are revising some of their processes towards more self-organization. We think that's great. It is important to us that our processes are not blueprints that other units can simply adopt without asking questions. Self-organization must always be designed individually for the team in the respective environment.

What advice do you want to pass on?  

That the foundation of a self-organized unit must be initiated by the colleagues themselves. And that this change needs the support of the organization and the management. Besides that, there is no blueprint for self-organization, because it depends mainly on the people who create and form this unit. Have the courage, it is worth it!

How does it go on now, which next steps are planned? Which challenges are still to be solved?

After 1.5 years in SCU, we have gained a lot of experience. We want to carry what we have learned more strongly into the company. We believe that this experience will help us to further improve the conditions for self-determined work and satisfaction in the everyday working life at Zühlke. We are currently planning a workshop in the Location Strategy Group in which we will develop a strategy for the SCU.It is about the question of in which direction the SCU wants to develop itself, what vision we have in our minds and what we still want to achieve. A workshop is currently being developed in the Außenwirkungs-AG to offer our experience in the area of "New Work" to the market and to work together with our customers on their organizational structure.With the background of the current crisis, however, the biggest challenge is to secure the current business as best we can. Here, too, we have to adjust quickly to a completely new situation. This will demand a lot from us. However, we are confident that we can meet this challenge together.

Do you also want to take the next step with your organization towards the organization of the future? Then take a look at our Whitepaper "Achieving adaptability through OKRs" and find out what it takes to be the market leader of the future.