How can Agile Working Make a Difference in Terms of Our Ability to Respond to Rapidly Changing Markets?

"Agile working" is on everyone's lips. Many companies are engaging with this concept. But what does it mean to be agile? And is success guaranteed if we work agile? Agile coach Jeff Gothelf hints to humbleness in leadership style and explains why he thinks founders of start-ups should engage in a continuous conversation with their customers.

Mr Gothelf, "agile working" is on everyone's lips. What exactly does that mean?

The term "agile" was coined in IT around 17 years ago. The idea was to develop software in a more customer-centric way by working in shorter cycles with less waste.expedient and less spendthrift way. The method is now used in many areas, from IT to marketing, finance, legal or human resources departments. But it only works if the philosophies and principles behind the agility concept are understood and applied throughout the entire company.

What are these principles?

An agile company has the capacity to learn quickly and respond to that newly acquired knowledge in an agile way. We ask agile teams to learn and continuously evaluate whether they are consistently directing their focus to what matters at any given point in time. If that's not the case, it's the team's responsibility to adjust their course.

Many companies in Germany have a hierarchical structure, many are tradition-focused companies. Can agile working also help these companies?

It is difficult to implement agility in a company with a silo mentality. Problems arise when managers have a set opinion of what the team should be working on and at the same time ignore what the team is learning. This is where conflicts can arise. The teams say: "You said we are supposed to work agile. We are doing that, but we think it makes no sense this way. We think it should be done differently."

The challenge lies in transforming a traditional management into an environment that´s characterised by ongoing learning an constant progressive development

Jeff Gothelf, Agile Coach

So this is the point where the manager should trust the team's experience, right?

That's correct. An agile manager in an agile company will accept the result the team has arrived at under the condition that it is based on facts and not just an opinion. And if the findings align with the strategic direction of the company, The the manager will permit the team to adjust course. The golden rule in a tradition-focused company is: The boss is always right. His word is the law, what he says will be done. The challenge lies in transforming a traditional management into an environment that's characterised by ongoing learning and constant progressive development. That is indeed a difficult task. It requires building a new corporate culture from scratch.

That sounds like flat hierarchies are the solution - something many people will agree with.

I am not sure if people really want flat hierarchies. People want to know who is ultimately responsible for certain decisions. They need to know who's in charge. I believe it's rather a question of humbleness in leadership style, which is not to be confused with a dithering leadership style. It's quite the opposite: I believe good managers must have a clear opinion on what the team should be doing and how it is supposed to approach its tasks. But it all has to be based on facts. Facts that were ascertained from the market. Facts that were learned from customer feedback. It's not about asking managers to cede power or to cease being managers altogether, but to be open and willing to change their opinion based on the facts available to them. That's the key to bridging the chasm between management and agility.

What can the wholesale industry learn from you?

 Whether it's B2B or B2C - what matters at the end of the day is that people use our products and services. You need to keep asking yourself: How can I contribute to improving the life of my customers? How can I contribute to the success of those who buy my products and services? Once you have really understood that and are able to add to your customers' success with your products, you will start to instil loyalty in your customers and turn them into repeat customers.

Is this also useful for start-ups during the first years of building up their business?

Founders of start-ups must continuously test their ideas, visions and strategies on the market. My advice for them is: Talk to your customers, not once, not twice, but on an ongoing basis, at least weekly. Founders should make sure that they do not fall victim to the typical "entrepreneur arrogance" that stands in the way of a continuous customer research and customer development. Most of them think they know exactly how the product is supposed to look like. But I can guarantee them that they will be wrong in a number of aspects. And the earlier start-ups understand that, the easier it becomes to chart a new course and improve the product for a more successful re-launch.

Jeff Gothelf, US-based Agile Coach

Jeff Gothelf is an US-based executive coach and consultant for product strategy and management skills. Jeff can show you how continuous learning, product discovery methods and a user-focused approach in product development can allow your company to create better products. Products your customers will fall in love with. He is the co-author of Sense and Respond, Lean UX and Lean vs Agile vs Design Thinking. www.jeffgothelf.com