It is clear to most companies that digitisation is not just about technology. But learning agility is particularly difficult for those companies that have been successful with a traditional corporate culture. Five case studies shed light on a special and still little understood process In many companies and public institutions, the question is no longer whether we need to become more agile. The question is: how do we do it? Which intervention strategies help us to react more quickly and flexibly to changing conditions? To answer these questions, five cases were examined in depth and presented as case studies.
- TheMatterhorn-Gotthard Railway (approx. 640 employees) is characterised first of all by the fact that it has to deal with long-lasting infrastructure and high safety requirements and is therefore also dependent on employees with a high sense of duty. And at the same time, the international tourism flows demand a rapid adaptation of the offers. Their strategy involved not hiring an external advertising agency, but working on projects with their own staff according to new rules and structural compositions, while the rest of the operation ran along familiar lines.
- Stadtwerke Konstanz (approx. 700 employees) stands out because they have radically thought about and implemented agility: Hierarchical management was abolished and replaced by a holocratic system of self-management. In 2002, the Stadtwerke had detached itself from the city administration and organised itself as a GmbH (limited liability company), but still had administration-like, hierarchical structures. This made the change very radical. What was special about the approach was its primary focus on the external structures, with the existing functions being transferred to the district structure. This was first done on a pilot basis in one department and then extended to all other departments – in the hope that the internal dimension would develop on its own.
- At Swissom, the transformation of the DevOps department (approx. 140 employees) was looked at. What was special about this change was that it took place within a group that already had a lot of experience with agilisation. The EAS transformation was also the last outstanding tribe transformation of DevOps@Software and could therefore draw on a large network and know-how.
- At theHeidelberg city administration (approx. 2,700 employees), it is not only the size that is striking, but also the heterogeneity of the tasks. The project was triggered by the Lord Mayor, who internally commissioned the agilisation of the administration within the existing structures in 2017. The change strategy included six fields of action that had to be implemented within one year – without changing the external structures.
- The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) launched a bottom-up project on agile IT product management, which enabled agile cooperation between IT and HRM to implement the HR cluster (approx. 100 employees). The special feature of this project was on the one hand the strong focus on “agilisation through technology” and on the other hand its realisation within a clear and rigid hierarchy system, which could continue to exist alongside.
Technology does not decide
Agilisation is often perceived as a requirement in the context of the Digital Revolution. In many places, therefore, a close reference is made to the technological environment, be it in the customer relationship or in team communication. However, technology did not emerge as particularly critical in the case studies. It was neither a bottleneck factor nor a decisive driver of the observed projects. This suggests that technology is indeed important in the economy as a whole, but it is also so available and ubiquitous today that it is not particularly important for the success of operational agilisation. The real challenges are not in the technology, but in the people.
During the analysis, numerous aspects emerged that hindered success. There is not enough data to determine exactly how critical each factor is to success or what it might depend on. However, the following aspects led to problems in more than one of the cases:
- During the change project, smouldering conflicts came to light and had to be dealt with before the project could continue.
- The trainings conducted with the staff were too abstract and led to more knowledge but not to a change in behaviour.
- Key persons were stuck in an old mindset and consequently could not properly fulfil their function as identification figures for a new mindset.
- It was not possible to quickly create a uniform understanding of the term. However, it would have been necessary to clarify what exactly the new thing was that was now demanded of the employees.
Agilisation is a soft factor
Four factors turned out to be crucial for success: project set-up as well as leadership understanding, participation and “inner work”. While the project structure with manageable interfaces can be thought of separately, the other three factors are closely interrelated. Keeping them separate serves above all to shed light on them comprehensively. Project structure means that the need for the project, the vision and goals have been well clarified and convincingly communicated to the staff, and that thought has been given to how the higher levels (governance structure) are to be involved. This may seem trivial at first. However, there is a real danger that a few enthusiasts, who know the zeitgeist is behind them, start an agility project without operational necessity and begin more with acquiescence rather than support from higher up. So these basics of change management apply here too. In retrospect, the managers concerned describe the common understanding of leadership as crucial. It emerges as the greatest overarching challenge of all the case studies. It is all the more surprising that in almost none of the cases was an agile understanding of leadership particularly promoted. Active interventions to improve the understanding of different leadership directions were hardly implemented. Self-leadership, for example, was treated as time management. This points to a central dilemma of establishing a more agile mindset: On the one hand, leaders become more important because they now have to be role models for something new in addition to the day-to-day business. They have to carry and represent the vision to the outside world as multipliers in order to move the employees also on a cultural level. On the other hand, they become less important because they relinquish their formal power at least partially, otherwise no real agilisation takes place in terms of content. – Some managers, depending on their personality, have only limited interest in relinquishing power. Resistance, even sabotage, cannot be ruled out. What they can gain from this is not automatically clear to everyone, and it is probably also different things depending on their point of view. In other words, leaders first need an extra portion of power in order to be able to relinquish their power afterwards, whereby the second step is not equally easy for everyone. In the cases observed, there is surprisingly little professional preparation for this critical and actually predictable problem.
Independence must unfold itself
Another point follows on from this: the participation of those affected. This is really nothing new. It seems obvious that agilisation will hardly succeed in any other way. Nevertheless, this aspect is not lapidary, because managers have to implement agilisation, which means that they have to leave their own role and behaviour patterns at the same time. Especially under pressure, it is challenging not to fall back into old patterns. The paradox is that the independence of employees cannot be ordered by managers. Independence can only be introduced and then allowed and supported. This brings us to the last factor: “Inner Work”. This refers to “work on the individual and on the team culture” and aims at a “human maturation in the course of which employees become inwardly stronger and more self-confident”. (Breidenbach and Rollow 2019). Measures are therefore needed that contribute to the development of a new mindset. On the one hand, this concerns the individual employees, and on the other hand, it concerns the team level, for example, the commonly shared idea of which behaviours are normal, which are tolerable and which are not. It is remarkable that in all cases this factor was underestimated and had to be improved afterwards. On the one hand, it speaks for the managers who noticed this absence and reacted; on the other hand, this consistently committed mistake seems avoidable by taking these experiences into account.
The analysis of the case studies has shown that the attention in an agilisation project must be directed to four aspects: Project set-up, leadership understanding, participation and “inner work”. For the successful agilisation of a company or department, it is important that these factors are well understood and recognised as significant individually, but also in their interaction. The projects studied initially underestimated these factors. Detours, tensions and stresses could have been avoided with the knowledge now available. It is also important that the project itself is agile in the sense that errors are quickly recognised and corrected.
- Breidenbach, Joana; Rollow, Bettina (2019): New Work needs Inner Work. A handbook for companies on the way to self-organisation. 2. Edition. Munich: Verlag Franz Vahlen.
- Hofert, Svenja (2018): The agile mindset: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.
This article is based on the results of the master’s thesis by BFH graduate Carole Steiner.
Practice partners wanted
We want to investigate the effect of short mindfulness interventions on psychological safety in teams. This is a core element of the “inner work” mentioned in the article and thus highly relevant in the context of agilisation projects. However, the investigation of the correlations could also take place in other contexts. Partner companies would have to be willing to work on the project and contribute financially. They will receive professionally executed interventions and relevant results at first hand. If you are interested, please contact email@example.com.