Agility and good judgment
24 FEB 2019
Whether Scrum, Design Thinking, Lean Start-up or Job Crafting – countless approaches and methods promise more agile project management, more creativity and more efficient development of products.
More than a fad
The concept of agility and the related working methods are meanwhile firmly established in the discussions about the future world of work. More and more companies are experimenting with approaches such as Scrum and Design Thinking. Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is already successfully applying agile methods as well. Prospects for more efficient processes and greater innovative strength are at the fore. In addition, young talented employees expect a modern company to have modern working methods. There’s good reason why, when it comes to digital education, the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) and the German Employers’ Federation of the Chemical Industry (BAVC) advocate the teaching of Design Thinking in addition to practice-relevant IT skills to those studying STEM subjects.
Agile working should definitely not be dismissed as a fad. In the world of work, well-proven processes and paradigms have always been called into question and replaced by new ones. And that is a good thing. The world would probably look a lot different today if Henry Ford had not revolutionized industry in the early 20th century by introducing the assembly line. And since time immemorial, the business world has been trying to learn how to raise efficiency by simply designing work wisely and without having to purchase expensive new technologies.
Unlike in Henry Ford’s day, today’s concepts for reorganizing human work are no longer dedicated primarily to industrial production. Now, the focus is mainly on process automation. The latest approaches towards agile working are primarily targeted today to tasks such as product development and project management.
From the start-up to the corporate group
It is characteristic of today's service and knowledge society that many of the current concepts originate from the start-up context and were developed by programmers or designers.
Scrum is a popular example. The approach originated in software development and is meanwhile one of the most favored frameworks in agile project management. Self-organized teams of developers who handle their work without a project leader are at the center of Scrum. As the method expert, the Scrum master ensures that the Scrum process is adhered to, but without having anything to do with the actual product. The development team is expected to create a usable, and potentially releasable product within a time period of consistent duration and no more than a one-month horizon. These so-called sprints are repeated until the final product is ultimately delivered.
Are you already familiar with Job Crafting? The approach derives from positive organizational psychology and its aim is to enable individuals to proactively and personally reframe their own work. At the beginning of a project, all the tasks needed to achieve the objective are defined. At first glance, this is nothing new. With Job Crafting, however, tasks are not subsequently delegated. Instead, employees autonomously choose the tasks that correspond best to their preferences. The aim is for everyone to take on the work that they are best suited for. The add-on? Greater decision-making freedom is expected to lead to higher levels of employee engagement and motivation.
The work underway in our Innovation Center also shows that the various methods can meaningfully complement one another. For instance, at the beginning of an innovation project, the Design Thinking approach is applied in order to develop a deeper understanding of customer needs. In a later phase of development, the focus will then mainly be on effective learning in order to lessen the high degree of uncertainty that is typical of innovation processes. Normally, individual sub-methods from various agile approaches such as Scrum or Lean Start-up are combined. At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, these methods are used not only in our Innovation Center, but increasingly in further departments and business sectors of the company as well.
Avoiding cookie-cutter solutions
Initially, these approaches of course sound very innovative and promising. And in many cases they certainly lead to more creativity and efficiency in practice. But when introducing new working methods, companies should not rely on cookie-cutter solutions. Classic project management approaches also continue to play an important role. Tailor-made approaches are called for depending on sector, company, activity and project. This is how hybrid approaches result from classic and agile work.
On the one hand, it’s necessary to carefully examine whether a concept developed for small project teams in start-ups can even be applied in a corporate group. What will happen to existing reporting lines and processes? And what will cooperation with other departments be like if an entirely new working method suddenly replaces the old one you’ve been using in your department? Should the new system therefore simply be introduced in all departments?
Here in particular there are major differences that need to be taken into account. In creative areas such as Marketing and Product Development, agile working methods can certainly be implemented more smoothly and with fewer adaptations than for instance in Controlling or Production. At the same time, individual departments should not be neglected since this could be understood as a lack of appreciation or could even lead to the formation of “camps”.
Therefore, as a company we should always be open to new ways of working yet always use good judgment when deciding to embrace them. After all, one-size-fits-all solutions have long ceased to exist in our complex economy with its highly specialized division of labor. When it comes to introducing new agile work methods, it’s crucial to include all departments in an open dialogue.