UID goes agile: "UID is a totally different company now than 10 months ago."
"Let’s go & grow" has been UID’s motto since last August. Since then, we have been employing agile methods and an agile mindset not only in our projects but in our entire company. Now’s the time to take stock: What has changed since then – for customers, staff, management and our daily work? What have we learned from the process? Our Managing Director Claus Görner and our Lead Software Engineering Daniel Kurz report about their experiences. Both were part of an 11-member team that prepared the agile transformation for more than 6 months and has accompanied the process since.
A lot has changed at UID in the past months. What changes were there exactly?
Claus: UID is a different company now than it was last summer. The new organizational structure is actually the best example for the change. No more team or department leads, instead there are self-organized, largely autonomous teams. This is a major transformation for us.
What gave you the idea? Was there a catalyst?
Claus: Actually, the idea came from within the team. The management had initiated a workshop to prompt changes and improvements in the company. This revealed a strong need from the team members’ side to advance the mindset in the company based on the New Work approach. At first, my fellow Managing Director and I thought: What a crazy idea! But then we started to dig deeper into the subject, we did a lot of research and looked for successful examples. Little by little, an idea about how this approach could work for UID unfolded. And then we were keen to try it out. Up to now, I have no regrets.
What were the main stumbling blocks? What challenges did you have to face?
Daniel: In our old structure, there were set responsibilities. Now, we have done away with the positions of team and department leads. But, of course, the tasks they were responsible for are still the same and need to be properly addressed. We rely on personal initiative, personal responsibility and self-management of the teams. The theory behind this approach is that employees volunteer to take on responsibilities when they have the opportunity to do what they feel qualified and competent for. However, this is still a challenge. But we have identified the problems and are trying to address them with coachings.
Now that you are taking stock: What effects did the changes have? What has improved?
Claus: It is our aim to increase the satisfaction of our staff and our customers. The changes for our customers become obvious little by little. The teams form centers of competence, focus on specific markets and offer our customers new or optimized services. The agility and increased autonomy allow them to react more quickly to changes in the customers’ requirements, trends, markets or technologies.
This has become especially evident in the current crisis: Additional transparency, autonomy and flexibility help us address the challenges posed by corona. And the fact that we have firmly established working from home and collaboration tools in our work processes since last fall also proved to be helpful during these times.
Daniel: A lot has changed for our staff. We notice this above all because we are now communicating and exchanging ideas on a totally different level. One of the most obvious changes is the increased transparency. Information and decisions are documented and communicated so that they are transparent for everyone, and the senior management discusses everything that is currently going on in the company in Q&A sessions. Team members are increasingly involved in tender preparations and are informed about upcoming projects at an earlier stage. Thanks to this exchange of ideas, the transparency and the mutual feedback the team members now not only talk about projects but also about other things that are going on in the company. Moreover, the teams are now more heterogenous. People who had little to do with each other before are now working closely together across different sites. This brings the company even closer together.
What did you learn? What could have been done better?
Daniel: The changes we have gone through were quite drastic. It might have been better to go on about them step by step. For example, we could have done away with the position of the unit manager while keeping on the team managers for a while. This could have helped us to address problems better. On the other hand, the team wouldn’t have accepted the transformation just as well.
Claus: I think it is important for a company of our size to follow through with such a transformation in one go. We could have started with one small team but that might not have harmonized with the rest. We could have dealt with the question of how to support leadership without leaders more intensively. The way we went on about it, there was the feeling of a leadership vacuum at the start. Even though responsibilities had been defined, this was the hardest change for the teams.
Daniel: Yes, we did indeed neglect that. But even without hierarchies, there needs to be leadership. Even though team members with little experience now take on responsibility for themselves, they may lack insights into the tasks within the team.
Claus: This also includes that, in traditional hierarchies, the bosses decide for the team. The employees are sometimes unaware of the information and criteria that the managers need to consider in order to make a rational decision. Now the team members decide for themselves. First, they have to learn what they need and how they can get the necessary information to make an informed choice.
So, in short, the changes for the staff members involve more freedom combined with more responsibilities. How can employees be convinced of such transformations?
Claus: Transparent communication is key. We involved our employees in decisions as soon as possible. We did not devise ideas behind closed doors, instead we communicated our plans at an early stage, presented different variants and discussed them together. In my opinion, this is the best way to gain acceptance.
What advice do you have for companies that are planning an agile transformation?
Claus: Looking back I think we should have coached the teams more at the start. This would have made the first time smoother. But I have heard similar opinions from other companies that went the same direction.
Daniel: At the start, we often lacked appropriate approaches. It is often hard to know in what direction to coach the teams. As time goes by, you realize what the biggest stumbling blocks are and wonder why you haven’t seen them from the start and trained the team accordingly. Apart from that, my only advice for companies is: Just do it! There is no blueprint anyway. Just because something is in a book doesn’t mean it fits your company. You have to find your way and pursue it.