In some companies there are Kanban boards, a Product Owner and a Scrum Master. But what is it all for? How do agile working methods function, and can I integrate them into my working day? A study entitled “Agile Working 2019 – Organisation, leadership and working methods in a digitalised world” shows that an overwhelming majority of respondents (97.11 per cent) consider agile working to be essential for the future. Ewa Scherwinsky is an Agile Coach and explains in an interview why agile working necessitates new structures and breaks down classic hierarchies.
Hi Ewa! Agility – what is that exactly? Companies today are tasked with finding their own definition of the word ‘agility’, the one that is right for them. What is your definition?
EWA SCHWERWINSKY: I don’t have a fixed definition and I don’t really think about that kind of thing either. I find it very difficult to pass on constructs to others. It is a flexible term that is viewed differently by everyone. For me, agility means the freedom to enable someone different, whether that is an individual or a team, to do the right thing at the right time.
This word is often branded as a buzzword in the sector. How do you deal with it as an Agile Coach?
I am completely unaffected by it and I don’t leave myself open to criticism because I can well understand these positions and this perspective. Particularly for employees who have already been at the company for a long time, it is just ‘the latest bandwagon’, to put it succinctly. I understand that completely. I believe that agility has three significant benefits: firstly, it helps to structure work, including in my personal sphere. Arranged procedures make many things easier and provide a fixed framework which I would not have set for myself in the past. If I have to organise my work alone, it might still go well, but in a team one will certainly fail. Secondly it gives the team a bond, because everyone knows what they have to do. And thirdly, employees may and must try out news things and ideas may also be discarded again. That is the main principle of agility, and only in this way does it become easier to deal with mistakes.
So Agile Coaches primarily support transformation processes?
For the most part. At OTTO, we as Agile Coaches provide support alongside a transition team and the organisational developers. The transition team has decided on a strategic approach. At OTTO, it is first and foremost about the development into the new business model, called a platform. We as Agile Coaches are guides who operate on the sidelines. Where do we need to enable, irritate, prod, act? What strikes us most, where do we need to provide support? Agility is a tool for obtaining a structure in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty. That is why I would always advise companies that are coming from an old model and venturing into new territory to accept help, to allow us to advise them.
What exactly does this coaching look like in practice?
Take our Business Capabilities, for example. These teams are involved in the implementation of the platform and we support them very closely with scrum settings. We enable the teams to pose questions about cooperation and provide them with methods and tools. What do they need so that they can reach their goals? In this process we follow theoretical strategies for one thing, but primarily take a playful approach in training mode. As a coach, I am closely involved in the process, watching it and providing support. That’s because this is the only way for me to know what exactly the team needs in the moment in order to develop successfully.
How significant is the issue of a lack of communication in departments, teams and companies?
Very significant. Communication is one of the biggest keys. In my view it is too often neglected, because in truth it is of pivotal importance. We are always part of relationships, we have to communicate, and that is often neglected professionally. Communication is an extremely important lever.
Do you have an example of how communication can be encouraged?
There is a tool for improvement – a retrospective meeting. These involve stopping to reflect at regular intervals. Any conflicts and challenges, but also praise, can be brought to the table. In this way the teams learn to open up, to address issues and to reflect on themselves. At the retrospective meetings there is a moderator who arranges the whole thing and provides a set structure. The most important thing is that employees leave at the end with a to-do list which was compiled as a group. In the past people have talked and talked and have usually left without a clear outcome. Today, agility also expects decisions – it always requires a commitment! I can’t wander around aimlessly without a goal in mind, because things don’t solve themselves on their own.
Which groups does agile working start with? Leadership teams or employees?
I prefer to start with the company management. If I don’t have the management behind me, and if they have not yet understood why certain things are necessary in order to change an organisation, then there is no point in me even starting. The bottom-up approach is tougher. From my experience, I would say that one must get the management on board first.
Is it more difficult to get older employees to embrace agile working?
I wouldn’t attribute it to age, but to personality. Some have always engaged in agile working, others need hierarchical structures or need the management to decide things or designate tasks. For these people, agile working isn’t easy to start with. But for both employers and employees it is becoming increasing importantly to be open to new prospects. Agile working is the ticket to a competitive future.
In the past people have talked and talked and have usually left without a clear outcome. Today, agility also expects decisions.
Do you think that the internal process leading up to agile working is noticed by customers?
It doesn’t matter to the customers whether a company engages in agile working or not. What the customer should notice is that the company is changing. They should notice that the company is addressing them more. The customers notice that we take them all seriously and focus on them.
Are there any tips that you can give to all teams?
The question that I would always ask myself is, “Is what you are doing now really the right thing? And why exactly are we doing what we are doing?” If I start to ask myself the question about wanting to work differently, then it always starts with each individual. We often rely on others, letting them assign us tasks instead of looking ourselves at what we want to work on and how we want to do it. It’s about personal responsibility. This means that at work we ourselves need to think, what would we like to put into the company and what wouldn’t we? We can and should get back to trusting ourselves more, become more curious and more daring and show an interest in the work of others. Work can be a lot of fun if we get back to doing the thing that we set out to do: once upon a time that was to do something good for the company.Agility helps us to once again refocus, and in doing so, to concentrate on the most important things and at the same time work attentively with the available resources and potentials.