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Interview with Jan de Baere about the Rise and Fall of an Agile Company

Posted by Ben Linders on Feb 03, 2014 |

What happens when a director of a consulting company decides to drastically change the culture? At the Agile Tour Brussels conference Jan de Baere presented the why and how of a company that adopted agile, the journey that they went through, and how it came to a sudden end. 

InfoQ covers the Agile Tour with news and interviews. This is an interview with Jan about an agile change approach, culture and trust, and the lessons learned from an agile journey.

InfoQ: Welcome Jan de Baere and thank you for doing this interview with InfoQ.

Jan: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.

InfoQ: At the Agile Tour Brussels you talked about the rise and fall of an Agile company. Can you tell us something about this company, what kind of business and how big is it?

Jan: It’s an IT consultancy company. When the changes started to take place it was about 70 people at the time. They provided consultancy services in project management, system engineers, programmers, and other IT profiles to work at the client side.

InfoQ: As you mentioned in your presentation, it started with the director of the company deciding to change the culture. What made the director take this decision?

Jan: Well, actually, three different signals came to him. The first one was that when the company took off in 2000, it started very fast. Then after a couple of years it slowed down. The growth rate was slowing down and he had no idea why.

Second signal was that an external person who was giving training to the sales people at the company visited the director and he said “I’m sorry, but with the information I’ve got in my training, I think we should have a talk, because something is wrong with this company and it will wall soon”. He noticed something very peculiar about the company and wanted to inform the director about that. But the director actually kicked him out because he didn’t like that kind of messages.

And the third and most significant probably, the fact that there were social elections coming on and the director thought there was no need for union in his company because nobody had problems. A group of people then started a union and he thought those guys were in it for the money; when you are elected you cannot get fired and if you get fired you get a lot of money. He started his own group of people and said they are the real representatives of the consultants. And there were social elections, and he thought the real union guys would never have a vote, but he was clearly mistaken because the guys from the union had a huge victory. At that moment he realized his vision of the world was not the correct one, all the things he thought to be correct didn’t seem to be coming true. He decided change was needed.

InfoQ: Adding up the three signals made him aware there was a real need for change?

Jan: Yes. At that moment in time he didn’t know where to go, he just knew he had a big issue, so he called the trainer that said this was going to happen, a little bit shy of course because he knew he kicked out the guy. He said “I’m sorry, I kicked you out, I was wrong and you were right; could you please come back and explain what you meant when you said my company was going to hit the wall?” That’s how the change process started.

InfoQ: What did he get out of that conversation with the trainer, which insights?

Jan: The trainer said it was all about organizational structure. He explained: you started a company on your own, with 5 people and then you grew very fast until about 70. The way you did it is: you are the father of the company, in the organizational structure according to Mintzberg that’s a simple structure. You try to control everything because you are the big boss and everybody listens to you and respects you. Everybody always says yes to you, nobody will say no to you. That’s ok, as long as you have less than 70 people, that’s about the number where this organizational type starts to break down. You now have two possibilities. One is to keep on growing and start to structure your organization, and put process and procedures and KPIs in place. If you go that path, then you become a bureaucracy: you organize and have a standard ways of doing stuff. The way to manage that is command-and-control.

That’s not something the director liked, so he asked if there are any other possibilities. The trainer explained that the other possibility is to go for a company that is project oriented, that puts people in the center. Such a company is result driven; it is all about flexibility and adding value. This is where you recognize, of course, what Agile is all about: collaborative, people-centric, and result-driven. The management style that goes with it is supportive, collaborative. And that’s something that the director appreciated very much, he said “well, that’s the kind of company I want to have, the company I always wanted to have, only I didn’t know how to create a company like that.” That was the start into Agile. Of course it wasn’t called Agile, in Mintzberg’s words it’s called an adhocracy, but the values underlying it are the same as the Agile values.

InfoQ: I recognize that. So, basically, he decided he wants to change from being the father of the company using a command-and-control style to an Agile style of managing the company. Why Agile, what did he expect to get out of Agile?

Jan: Each sales process and each project is always different, you need flexibility. You need to add value rather than standardization. There were basically the two choices he was given: go for standardization or go for flexibility. And he said “flexibility is what I want”. Also, on a personal level, having people collaborating together, engineers with soft skills, that’s what he wanted to do, that’s what he wanted to realize. Only he never knew how to do that.

InfoQ: I can imagine that this was quite a change in the company. How did they approach the change to Agile and why did they choose this way to approach it?

Jan: The approach was not a planned approach but an emergent one; there was no road map or something like that. We had four building blocks that we used.

The first building block was events: big town hall kinds of meetings where everybody would come together and something would be announced or we would have some training together. All the people get together, to give messages to the company and let the people from the company think together. Usually this was done when something important had happened and a global communication needed to do be given. For example the first event was to announce the start of adhocracy. This event took place in Casablanca – Morocco - and took two days. This way people knew the change was serious.

Second building block was a lot of training. Training for the internal people (it was a consultancy company, so the sales guys, the administration) and also the guys from consultancy that were interested could follow those trainings. Training was for example on organizational structure from Mintzberg to let people know where they would be going to. We talked a lot about leadership and management, and attitudes like how to give feedback, receiving feedback, being active, passive, what’s the difference between a leader and a leader of leaders, that kind of stuff. Also on motivation, inspiration, Mayo, Herzberg, Schein. We also had a lot of training around communication, and about creativity, drawing techniques like Disney, Leonardo, Moshe, on how to draw a problem.

InfoQ: These kinds of training are more about the background, ideas, theories and concepts than about giving direction. It’s about giving the people and the company information that they can use to find their direction, right?

Jan: Absolutely. For example trainings on Scrum are mostly about process, roles etc. and a little bit on values. Here it’s completely the other way around, we started with the values, because that is the only thing we had. What is the right attitude to work in an Agile company, which kind of leadership you should have. From there we developed tools and processes that fitted our needs. It’s completely the other way around compared to how most companies would introduce Agile today.

The third building block was workshops. We were split up in a couple of groups and each group would come together once a month to do group coaching. It was a cross-functional team, everybody could just state an issue they wanted to discuss or a question they wanted to discuss. With the help of the change agent we would have a discussion about that and solve the problem. Sometimes we ran into some issues and we could discuss them during the monthly group coaching. For me that was the heartbeat of the change as we learnt to apply the techniques from the training.

The fourth and last building block was individual coaching. Group coaching is great for some stuff, but sometimes you need individual support and then you could go to a professional coach who would guide you through the problem. That was also something that we wanted to offer the whole company. We had 2 professional coaches and at the highest point in our cultural change we had about 40 internal coaches. The coaches coached each other and the more experienced coaches would get coached by professionals.

InfoQ: How did you see this approach working in the organization, how could you sense that the company was actually becoming more Agile?

Jan: There were a couple of signs. For example, when somebody new would come into the company he would say “hey, guys, you work in a strange way, whenever I go into a meeting with you, the first thing you do is to draw the problem”. I would say “yes, that’s normal; we are convinced that if you cannot draw the problem you don’t understand the problem well enough”. When the problem was drawn there would be a lot of silence. Most meetings would seem very slow for an outsider because there were not a lot of things that were said, especially in the beginning since people were thinking. That’s different from most meetings where people are anxious to tell what comes up in their head. We would be silent, thinking which would be the correct techniques, which are the correct questions I could ask. In the end the result was impressively fast. The level of energy is beyond anything I have seen anywhere else, when you came into the company you could just feel the level of energy was incredible.

Another sign was that when I was at conferences talking with somebody who would ask “which company are you from?” and I would say what my company was, he would say “hey, that’s strange; I can recognize all the guys at your company”. “Normally consultants are all the same, but the guys from your company, they just stand out in one way or another, I can’t tell how or why, but you can just tell they come from your company”. So the change was seen from guys that were new in the company, but was even seen from guys that were outside the company. It was clear that something was different.

InfoQ: Can you tell how the adoption of Agile in the company worked out? What were the highlights and lowlights?

Jan: What I started is what we call corporate governance: all the team leads came together once a month and discussed what’s going to be done the next month in the company. It was actually a cross-functional team. First of all we discussed the company objectives and whether we would reach them, yes or no. Then we would go over each individual team and discuss how they contribute to the whole company. For example, we had a situation where we had not enough projects and too many consultants. I remember the guy from recruitment said “Recruitment has four people, but I can do with one person for the moment; so three people can support the guys from sales, because clearly they are having a hard time”. “I will not get my personal targets for my service, but at least we’ll have better performance at company level.” That’s something that guy told without being pushed by or by being said by the director. That was a clear sign that said “ok, this is what collaboration is all about.”

InfoQ: They were working more or less like a multidisciplinary team handling the problems?

Jan: Yes. That was just an example of how things went inside of the company. On the other hand, the mother company, because we were part of a larger group, didn’t like our way of working very much. They had the feeling there wasn’t a lot of control, there were just results. At that moment the market was going very bad, so the mother company demanded action.

InfoQ: The mother company was demanding a reorganization of your company?

Jan: Not as much a reorganization. Remember it is a consultancy organization so we had to lower the number of people on the bench a lot and fast. The director did not do this and got fired.

InfoQ: Guess that was a surprise for the company and the director?

Jan: Well, we saw it coming, because the pressure was gradually building up. And we knew this would end the story of adhocracy and Agile, we would go back to command-and-control style again.

The consequence was that the people that were already engaged in the company and were very much into the new culture all left. That’s a real danger for companies, when you go that path and then you return: the people that are most into the new culture will leave. And that’s also what happened here.

InfoQ: What this shows is that it has taken long to build this new culture in the company and it takes so little to break it down?

Jan: Absolutely. I was told that cultural change was very difficult and would take extremely long time, and it turns out it’s not the case. Two changes, one building up the new company culture which took years and then it actually only took one day to change back to the command-and-control style again. I was puzzled and I thought about it. What I came up with is that building up is all about trust. If you want to build up trust, you don’t do that in a couple of days, it takes weeks, months, years. To break trust is something that can be done very easily, that’s what has happened with our company. To break trust, you can do it in five minutes.

InfoQ: Building and breaking trust is an important thing that you learnt from this. Are there other learnings that you took out of this?

Jan: What I learnt also is that not only companies changed but also people. The mother company was able to break down the culture, but all the people that were very active during that period, I still know them and they are still combining the engineering side with the soft/human side. Some started studying psychology, some started their own businesses. The individual people, they changed, not the company

InfoQ: If a company wants to change their culture, what is the advice you can give them?

Jan: Make sure you know what you want, which culture is of value for you. Changing the culture is a long and bumpy road so make sure you know why you want to change and above all make sure you have professional help to do it. I don’t think we could have managed it without the help of professional change agents.

InfoQ: I heard you say that a professional change agent supported the people in the company and enabled them to take things up themselves, as a process of internal coaching and mentoring?

Jan: Absolutely. What he did is support the fundamentals. He never assisted in taking decisions. He was taking care of the process, how to build up something, how to come to a decision. He never got into the internals, into the content side of the company. And that’s something I appreciated very much.

InfoQ: Thank you very much for this interview, Jan!

Jan: My pleasure.

About the Interviewee

Within Cegeka Jan de Baere is a member of the agile transition department which helps companies making the transition towards agile. Currently he is helping ING to set up Agile Release Trains. In the agile community he is active as Chair of Agile Consortium Belgium.

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