Agility is the Answer to Rapid Transformation

The Agile Principles have become one of the most important foundations for developing and building software. Dr. Stefanie Huber, Head of Data Products and Services at PAYBACK, is convinced that Agile Principles – if they are applied much more universally – can also lead to a new understanding of leadership at all levels

by Natascha Zeljko | 23 May, 2023
Dr. Stefanie Huber PAYBACK

The concept of agility originally comes from software development. In a nutshell, what is so revolutionary about the concept?

Software departments used to be organized according to the waterfall principle. That is, they simply worked through project plans. Then in 2001, the Agile Manifesto (titled “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”) was released. Since then, the entire organization of work and also the perspective on it have changed fundamentally. One of the most important insights is that digital products are never "finished", but subject to a constant development process. Cycles are becoming shorter and shorter, which has resulted in an enormous acceleration. You no longer plan for the long term, but rather test out, correct and adjust again and again along the way, thereby increasing quality. Ideally, the design is already done in the conception phase. In recent years, designers – both UX and service designers – have become involved in the ideation and development process because their problem-solving skills and creativity are extremely valuable.

What is the biggest misconception? What annoys you in the discussion about agility?

It is often confused with chaos and anarchy – whereas the opposite is true. Agile is a highly structured process. It starts with meetings, where the rule is: clear input, clear output, clear agenda. We use frameworks, so we don't just start off running. No manager would just say 'go for it'. It's about teams working together to find the best solution, because that's the core of all formats and rituals. The motivation ultimately is to create value.

How have roles changed as a result, and what does this mean for leadership?

Agile is not something that can be viewed in isolation. A common misconception is that Agile exists exclusively in the software area. Instead, it's about all roles interlocking and everyone working according to the same principle – including, and especially, product managers. In times of transformation and with the speed of technology, there is no other way than to enable people and give them a framework in which they can and should make decisions themselves. Making detailed decisions centrally and controlling implementations no longer works. If employees are struggling to make decisions, it is often because the framework is unclear. That is the responsibility of the manager. As a supervisor, it is my job to give my colleagues the big picture: Where do we want to go and what do we want to achieve? A central idea from the Agile Manifesto is: "putting people over processes." Like designers, leaders should look to create solutions in the form of collaboration spaces. However, I tend to be skeptical when I hear the term Servant Leadership because it's often used incorrectly. No, it's not about bringing coffee to your team and making sure everyone is happy, it's about looking at what's preventing the team from doing well and then addressing it.

In times of transformation and with the speed of technology, there is no other way than to enable people and give them a framework in which they can and should make decisions themselves.

What else has changed over the years  – and what is becoming more important?

For some years now, the big topic has been product and product thinking. That means that now every area in every industry is starting to think in terms of products, users and standardization – or explicitly deciding against it. The challenge here is that there are many different roles contributing to the business value sitting around the table together who don't necessarily speak the same language - on one side, the product managers and tech people, and on the other, the business strategists who are driven by analysis and evaluation. The challenge here is to find the right profiles and then not micromanage from above, true to the Agile motto: leading with outcomes and not with outputs. This is something that companies are still really struggling with – especially those that were not digital before. In essence, it's about changing responsibilities and accountabilities, and even rethinking budget structures.

What challenges do you struggle with on a daily basis?

As with any larger organization, it's a question of: how can you unify the team in a hyper-connected environment and maintain pace in a product landscape that is changing at breakneck speed? Specifically, the question that drives me is: How can I reconfigure teams to deliver what is needed – not necessarily just what best fits the current organization? How can I build staffing structures so that on the one hand they are located within departments, and on the other we have maximum flexibility? That requires institutions that can make that decision and have the peace and superiority to reflect. I control a lot through values, and that includes transparency above all. Establishing a culture where people can bring their own ideas is demanding and takes time, but it pays off in what I find most important: opening up a space where people can act openly and creatively.

Establishing a culture where people can bring their own ideas is demanding and takes time, but it pays off in what I find most important: opening up a space where people can act openly and creatively.

What happens if, for example, you're convinced that a certain way won't work because it's gone wrong before?

That's an interesting question because it's rarely so one-dimensional. Just because something didn't work last time, doesn't mean it won't work now. There will be new people involved, and maybe new technologies are available, or the market has changed.

How important is diversity? There are a lot of women in your team, which is still quite unusual for tech companies. How is that an advantage?

Yes, we have a lot of women – but they are all so different! I don't believe in reducing people to attributes like gender or age, because there are always people who don't fit into these pigeonholes. I, for example, act rather "unfeminine", I've been told that more than once. I also don't know how to multitask, and yet that is supposedly a female superpower. I think that this generalization of women as multitaskers has come about due to the necessities of life. A woman who – as is often the case – looks after the children in addition to her job can keep several balls in the air because she has to, rather than there being any biological reason.

Even though I try not to think in these dimensions myself, it is important to look at a gender or age distribution. If everyone on the team is a 40-year-old man, then you have to ask yourself why that is, because that dictates how people act, and often you don't want to be the only man/woman/older person/younger person in an otherwise homogeneous team.

What criteria do you use to recruit colleagues?

The secret lies in the mix of the team. You need people who want to try out new things and those who want to dive deep into the subject matter, which tend to be the analytical types. You also need people who keep the processes running. There are many things that simply have to be reliably processed. The key is definitely motivation. And otherwise, of course, technical skills. That is very important for us. The basic requirement for my product management team is that they are also willing to dig deep technically. And finally, self-organization is very important to me, because that's essential in such a dynamic environment.

Let's talk about the future. What will become more important, and what should we be preparing ourselves for?

I believe that "productization" will increase and companies will focus on solving problems in a general but more customer focused manner. User research will become even more widespread and refined due to the immense amount of data and by combining it with qualitative analysis. Big changes will be brought about by technologies like ChatGPT and new AI applications. Jobs will change in the medium-term everywhere in the knowledge and content industry, also in software development and product management. Workflows and profiles will also change and sometimes simplify, because individuals with support from technology will be able to cover a broader field. This is a huge opportunity – although I'm leaving aside the ethical implications for society at this point. Often, there are simply too many people involved and it becomes very difficult to build empowered teams to cover every aspect of a business. The effort involved in complicated coordination loops and communication load could be eliminated. Agility will also help here, by the way! Any organization can learn a lot from agile frameworks because you have structured formats to moderate change in responsibilities. I think rigid, classical organizations are having a much harder time with transformation. In software engineering, we are already a bit further ahead. Just look at how massively job titles have changed over the last five or six years! Everything is in a constant state of flux, and people have to constantly reassign themselves to the value chain. And this is just the next stage.

This article is part of a content collaboration between FemaleOneZero and PAYBACK. The marketing & loyalty platform enables consumers to collect points with hundreds of relevant companies offline, online and on the move – with just a single card or the PAYBACK app. 



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