Agility Enables Employees to Act
Clear Communication and a Common Goal Determine the Success of Agile Cooperation
Many companies want to become agile. But what are concrete benefits of agile work methods? What are necessary preconditions? And in what scenarios are they most beneficial? Andrea Gruß discussed these questions with software entrepreneur Florian Wolf, CEO at Mergeflow, and speaker at the GDCh conference “Tanker or Speedboat? Agile Management in the Chemical Industry”, organized by the Association for Chemistry and Economics.
CHEManager: Mr. Wolf, what is your understanding of agility? What does agility not mean?
Florian Wolf: ‘Agile’ does not mean ‘doing the same things faster’, or ‘cutting corners’. Nor do I agree with ‘Let’s move fast and break things’. We should not break things because usually this means destroying something, and it may even cause harm to people. To me, ‘agile’ means ‘focus, determination, and clarity, combined with a goal’. Agility is a way of enabling people to act in their environment.
What advantages do agile methods provide to companies?
F. Wolf: Employees are what makes up a company. If employees can’t do anything because they are not involved, then something is going wrong. Agility is a way of enabling employees to make meaningful contributions. This is what makes a company successful.
What kind of environment enables employees to contribute?
F. Wolf: It is crucial how a company considers their employees. Does a company consider their employees individuals who want to contribute, or do they think that their employees need to be controlled because otherwise they would only fool around? If a company has the latter concept of their employees, working agile becomes very difficult.
What advice do you have for teams who want to use an agile approach to work?
F. Wolf: Many projects in companies fail due to lack of communication, or because people were not heard. The right communication helps avoid misunderstandings. What is most important: Write things down before you work on them. Writing things down enforces precision, and it helps reduce complexity because things have to be broken down into smaller units, as well as defined more clearly. It is amazing to see what difference it makes whether something is written down as opposed to just discussed in a meeting.
What is the role of methods and tools in agile collaboration?
F. Wolf: Not all methods and tools fit all teams or tasks. They have to be combined individually. But I would not recommend obsessing over what tools to use. I’d rather recommend buying standard products and getting started.
You have introduced agile methods in your company. What is your advice for entrepreneurs?
F. Wolf: I would recommend reading a lot on the topic, and then developing a concept that fits your company. Not simply copying, but understanding. I would also recommend the following books: ‘Principles’ by hedge fund manager Ray Dalio; ‘Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World’ by General Stanley McChrystal; and ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ by Cal Newport.
Where do you see limitations for agile methods in companies?
F. Wolf: I see limitations in high risk environments. For example, in production or quality control, standards and processes should be adhered to, independent of who exactly is involved. In such environments it can be dangerous to enable every individual to contribute or to change the course of things.
Where do agile methods shine?
F. Wolf: Agile methods shine at the front of the value chain, for example in innovation. In this area, things have changed a lot. Whereas in the past, many people had the image of an inventor working alone in their lab, now innovation has become a team sport. On top of that, we now have software that can support, for example, more effective materials discovery and testing. You can not organize innovation in rigid processes anymore. Instead, it is key now to bring together the right people. Because of these changes, agile methods provide huge advantages.
Provided there is good communication in a team…
F. Wolf: Yes. In order to enable good communication in a team, the team should not be too big, perhaps 20 people maximum. Information has to be shared and available to everyone on the team. Collaboration in such a team is not a question of elaborate processes but of trust that each team member will contribute.
How should you handle mistakes in order to make ‘agile’ work?
F. Wolf: You should not sweep mistakes under the rug. Nobody should be pillorized. But you should talk about mistakes because otherwise you cannot learn from them. In order to create such an environment, it is best for management to lead by example and talk about the mistakes they have made.
This does not come easy to a lot of managers in German companies. What experiences did you make in this regard during your time in the US?
F. Wolf: In Germany, you are taught very early on, in school, that it is bad to admit a mistake, or that you don’t know something. So when I was at MIT, in the beginning I was very surprised to often hear people say ‘I don’t know’. Until I realized that this shows a willingness to learn.
Insisting on one correct solution is a phenomenon that stands in the way of agile work among scientists. Do you agree?
F. Wolf: I think this is more a question of ego than of a scientific mindset. Many people find it hard to admit that others may have good, or even better, ideas. But a change of mindset helps. Somebody else’s idea might be better than my own idea, but this enables me to work with this other person’s idea and improve on it.
Companies often face difficulties when teams from this ‘new, agile world’ should collaborate with teams from the ‘old world’. What can remedy this?
F. Wolf: This is a difficult question, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It is my impression that communication is the main culprit in such scenarios as well, where different worlds collide. Very often, there are prejudices, and there is no shared understanding of what ‘agile’ means. And this is particularly difficult when you want to bring together two groups from these two worlds. It often works better to bring together two representatives from each group. Typically, each group will select their most capable member as their representative, a person who is willing and able to form a balanced opinion of the other group’s work. By the way, diplomacy often uses such an approach with extreme groups: Bring together two reasonable people, and let them discuss how to work together toward a common goal.
You just mentioned prejudices in the context of working agile. Many people associate ‘agile’ with ‘higher speed’, others with ‘superficiality’. What is your take on this?
F. Wolf: In the aerospace industry, there is a saying that ‘slow is fast’. This implies that in order to make progress, you have to be thoughtful. You can transfer this to agility: ‘Agile’ does not mean fast, but if I do it right, one of the benefits is that I also become faster.
Agile methods do not go with a superficial, ‘never mind’ type of mentality. To the contrary: Very often I have to dig deeper into a topic, in order to really understand something. Because, to quote the Italian author Italo Calvino, the lightness that results from agile done right ‘goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard’.
Florian Wolf is founder and CEO of Mergeflow, a software company headquartered in Munich. Mergeflow builds and operates a technology and innovation analytics software platform. Wolf has a PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT, and he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, in Genetics and Computer Science. He is a Member of the Global Panel of MIT Technology Review.