Alexander Bockelmann talks about agility at Baloise and its impact on corporate culture.
To me, agility is not so much a method, but a way of thinking and a kind of behaviour; it also refers to an outcome. The ultimate objective is to anchor this new way of thinking and behaviour within the company as a whole and in the various teams. Specifically, this involves boosting customer focus, transparency, self-determination, adaptability and cooperation as well as introducing learning systems, people and organisations. In practice, agility can take different forms when it comes to achieving results in different areas. As such, agility is an umbrella term used to refer to the interaction between the results that we want to achieve within our company as a whole or in our respective teams.
Prepare to be disappointed. Agility goes far beyond a simple methodology. Agility cannot be equated with working practices like kanban or Scrum. It is a topic that concerns attitude and culture. If you don’t follow through with change on this level, then the usual methods won’t help either. Methodologies serve as a means of achieving a result, but without the right mindset and corporate culture this will prove difficult. One aspect of agility for instance is the special emphasis it places on the continuous and effective implementation of tasks. This means focussing on the task at hand and minimising any parallel activities. This helps to avoid the mentally taxing process of continually having to switch contexts from one task to another. Often this is not the case at the outset, where employees are contracted to work on a number of different issues at once, only to see the number of outstanding issues grow at a rate faster than that of the completion of these.
«Agility involves a paradigm shift as far as the role of the manager is concerned.»
To me, agility goes hand in hand with decentralised responsibility and transparency. It’s about making information accessible to everyone – about as far removed from using information asymmetry as a means of control as you can get. That means empowering employees who are specialists in a specific area. After all, it makes sense for decisions to be made where the knowledge and expertise are. In classic hierarchical systems it is high-ranking executives that make the decisions because they are the first to learn the information that comes out of departmental silos. There is often a lack of overarching information transparency at the working levels, especially between functions. Agile systems adopt the principle of openness of information, especially between functions and ideally on all levels. This allows specialists access to all the relevant information and common contact points to allow them to make decisions at this level, thus switching the decision-making level to the specialist departmental level and changing the role of the manager significantly. In agile systems, managers are no longer seen as task managers and hierarchical decision-makers, but as a supportive force that creates the necessary framework conditions to allow teams and experts to work in a targeted, effective manner and make operational decisions at their level.
Agility involves a paradigm shift as far as the role of the manager is concerned. It requires a shift from management – in the sense of micromanagement or distributing tasks – to leadership and inspiring thought. A leader should have a vision and be able to convey this, they should give direction, provide people and budgets, set out priorities, empower teams and create the right framework conditions. Leaders empower their employees and form part of the solution. In the beginning it’s not always easy to let go. After all, this means letting go of certain decision-making powers; it also means redefining your own role.
«Agile forms of working must be experienced and practised.»
Change in general, i.e. changing roles and tasks. You have to get to grips with a new way of working and communicating. This transformation is a challenge. Another challenge are the different interpretations of agility. People have to understand that agility is an approach to solutions, not a cure-all to be used as and when it suits, nor is it a specific working method. It involves a change in corporate culture in areas like communication, cooperation and leadership, etc. Furthermore, agility often requires a change of perspective and culture. Developing and establishing all of this takes time.
Absolutely – it’s clear that agile cross-disciplinary teams cannot operate in a vacuum. When working with the use of an agile approach you see just how much discipline and process is involved. Agile doesn’t mean unplanned or “free-flowing”. Even coordinating agile teams in a network requires some form of structure to replace hierarchical control. Furthermore, individual agile teams often do not function ideally in the beginning because other framework conditions in the company have not yet been adapted for this. Budgetary processes, capacity scheduling, approval workflows and other issues in areas like finance, HR, regulatory and compliance must be adapted to provide the teams with the necessary framework conditions. All of this forms the structure within which agile teams can work.
This will allow all sorts of departments to work on an agile basis, not just IT departments. Even line functions like call centres, product development or actuary teams for example can adopt different forms of agile working. The important thing to bear in mind here is that there is no cure-all methodology. Different areas may for instance have to address their problems and challenges with different methods and approaches as part of a wider agile mindset. Just because something works for one task area does not mean it is automatically transferable to all other areas.
Agility is not something that can be demonstrated using a Power Point presentation or a course. Agile forms of working must be experienced and practised. This is the only way to gain an understanding of them and see their effect. Here at Baloise, we provide you with opportunities to work in an environment like this, aimed specifically at gaining experience and learning from successes and setbacks in an individual learning curve. Here, the hype around agility is quite different from the reality. Agility often involves more structure and discipline than other ways of working. With the increased adaptability and flexibility involved and often greater customer focus, I see an agile mindset and the associated approach to work as a key success factor for our future – and something that may even be fun.