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Hendrik Esser on Leadership in a Large Scale Agile Transition
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Interview with Hendrik Esser by Shane Hastie on Dec 10, 2012 |
18:03

Bio Hendrik has worked as a developer, project manager and in a variety of management roles at Ericsson since 1994.He was a key contributor to the agile transition of the 2000 person group he works in. He supports the enterprise transition to lean and agile. He is an active speaker at agile conferences, is a member of the Agile Alliance’s Supporting Agile Adoption work group.

The Agile Alliance organizes the Agile series conference, which bring together all the key people in the Agile space to talk about techniques and technologies, attitudes and policies, research and experience, and the management and development sides of agile software development.

   

1. Good afternoon I’m Shane Hastie with InfoQ, we are here at Agile 2012 and I’m talking with Hendrik Esser. Hendrik is the Director and Head of Portfolio and Technology Management in the Product Development Unit (Middle core) for Ericsson. Hendrik that is a great title, what it means?

I’ve been really working long to get such a long title. When we started to change into an Agile organization or start to move into an Agile setup, we really were thinking how to do this in a good way, and what we pretty well understood is that there is different dimensions that you need to work on. There is the cultural dimension you need to work on, there is practices and processes you need to work on and there is organizational structure. So all three need to come together to really make a sustainable change, it’s an ecosystem so to speak, and as part of this one we change, as I said, the organization and I’m now head of a sort of Agile project office, if you want to put it like this, we are not running projects anymore. We have features, every feature that we developed is a sort of mini project but without a project manager, and my organization is overseeing the backlog of all features that we need to develop and that makes me and my organization a sort of product owner role for the whole unit.

   

2. What sort of skills does a mega-product owner-need to have and what makes up this team?

When I started the team I was thinking, we need to understand really what is coming out of the development, we need to be able to translate business priorities into really what features should be kicked off and therefore we thought, we also need to be a cross functional organization, so I have recruited people from different disciplines, from technology management so I have system and solution experts there, people dealing with system architecture, I have people who have a very strong project management background, although I don’t want them to act as traditional project managers anymore and I have people from development, from former development I have to say, and from certification and verification.

Shane: So you are running as a cross functional team?

We are running as a cross functional team and that makes us pretty strong because we can look at situations from all different aspects.

   

3. You’ve given a couple of talks here at the conference, one of them was at the Executive Forum on Monday, it was Insights from your Transition Experiences, you want to tell us a little bit about that please?

That talk was pretty much focused on executives not so much looking into the details of Scrum Teams and so on; executives are more interested in what does it mean for my corporate culture and what does it mean to the organization and am I still really in control of what is happening, so I was talking pretty much about these aspects of culture, in essence the message there is that the foundation of an agile culture is trust and transparency, then practices and processes there the messages is pretty much that we need to, apart from Scrum, start to create a flow of planning and follow up that enables us to have still control although we are delegating a lot of things into the organization, so this flow of planning and follow up have been representing and then organizational structure, that I already talk about, that we restarted to optimize it to support the setup.

   

4. How do you get that flow and that feedback mechanism in place, how do you make an executive comfortable?

The first thing, connects very much to the culture aspect, Trust and Transparency, if you want to have the right results you need to have the right actions and decisions, and if you want to have the right actions and decisions, what do you need? Information, you need to have information and transparency, because one of the aspects of agility is that you need to deal with uncertainly, you need to simply face the fact that uncertainly is there all the time and instead of, I’ve seen this in many organizations, you just shut your eyes and you think uncertainly I don’t like and I just pretend is not there. So we are really facing uncertainly now and we actively work with this one, so what we actually did was, we now have, instead of getting one precisely wrong figure for example, for cost estimations like, this feature will costs us 365.2$ or something like this, we now always work with ranges: it will cost minimum this likely that maximum that and we are doing a follow up on this range all the time while the feature development is ongoing.

So in the planning we first plan and plan resources and those kind of things according to early estimates fully embracing that there is an uncertainly and while we get along we get the feedback from development by finishing the sprints, at the finish of the sprint you get an update on your burn down chart, you see how many sorry points are left, you can project the entity and this projection always shows you again a minimum likely and a maximum ready date and this I get every three weeks, every three weeks I’m able to fine-tune the plan and that makes us extremely well controlled, in control of the situation, it’s a perfect mechanism for us.

So in the past, in the traditional projects we always had very late, very bad surprises, usually when you have a delivery date end of the year usually shortly before the summer vacation break, the whole thing blew up, was a typical thing and now it's more that we very early see: “Ok this doesn’t look good”, if this is really needed from a value point of view in this time frame, then we need to act and we really sit together with the feature team, with the business management to think about how can we make it happen anyhow.

   

5. How easy was it to change or to move into that culture, Transparency is hard in many organizations?

My standard slogan is: "it starts with a leaders "; so we had a bit unusual way maybe to move into it, it’s started with a leadership team, the leadership team become aware that we have no control what so ever of what is going on, because all of our projects were delayed and we thought: “Ok, this is not sustainable and this cannot continue like this”. Plus we were in a situation where the business situation was very good so we thought when is a better point in time to change than now. So we said now is going fine and we start looking at this one. The leadership team had six months of pretty intensive discussions on where we want to go, and in this timeframe - usually leadership teams look eighty percent into operations and maybe ten to twenty percent into people management and all these other issues. We turned this around, for all this period we were really fully focused to eighty percent on where we want to go, what we want to have, the culture and only twenty percent on operations and that helped to us to converge on a leadership level on where do we want to go, and that was a very solid foundation because when we kick off the change there was a supportive leadership to the guys who are then implementing Agile Practices at Scrum and also the Agile Mindset via trainings.

Shane: So there is a strong executive support after a lot of self-searching on where to go?

We understood we need to create an ecosystem that really supports the whole thing.

   

6. In the main conference away from the executive forum you gave a much more detailed story about what happened, you want to tell us a little bit about added the transition actually happen closer to the ground?

I’m working for a very huge organization, two thousand people in six locations internationally distributed, so you really need to think how do we do this now. So the leadership team converged already, maybe I have to say a new leadership team was recruited because we change the organization setup and we said, now we need to see that we are really there from a mindset point of view also, and then we had an approach where we said train the trainers, coach the coaches, so we flow from the different locations representatives into one location. For sixteen weeks they got a training with a help of help of some consultants on becoming themselves Agile trainers and coaches. So our goal was to build ourselves internally in Ericsson the capability of training ourselves to make it sustainable. When those people were trained, they went back home to their home organizations, there where still a couple of consulting to support them, to coach them further and in their home organizations they were then deploying it. The good thing with this one is because they have been central first, they were all totally aligned and they started to build a network, they had the relationships and this is a team, an informal group or community that still works today, two years after they went home to their home organization. So that was the foundation and with this we rolled out through the whole organization, step by step.

Shane: And that was a roll out of, how many people came together for that sixteen weeks?

There was about twenty three people or something like this.

Shane: Twenty three teams kicking off around the world?

It was not so fast, because this needs to be an organic growth, I mean chaos breaks out if you this too fast. What we said is first of all we don’t want to destroy our operations, so one part of the strategy was also let’s finish the last ongoing traditionally planed project in this traditional way. We know is not the optimal thing but we are used to doing it and there is reasonable control out of this, and then in parallel as people become available from this project, we started to train them and put them more into this Agile way of implementing functionality.

Shane: And today that transition is complete?

Is completed, it’s took about a year until all people had to training, I mean one thing is to training, people understanding it but only if they have worked for some time in this, they really, really get it, so now after two, two and a half years I think we have reached a very good maturity level and you can really feel this, you also see when we now see what kind of impediments come up, in the beginning was really like everything you can think of, and now as team organization matures that kind of impediments, the quality of them is really changing.

   

7. What are some surprises or interesting things that came out of this transition?

First of all it takes a lot of time and when we started, for myself I can say being part of this leadership team I had an idea maybe of agility but definitely was not Agile, we were starting to something we really didn’t know but we have trusted, we are going there, and the wonderful thing is when you as a leader learn to let go, in the beginning there is a lot of tension because you have a lot of experience and that applies to all leaders of the organization. You have a lot of experience, you know how things could work, you have the answers to a lot of questions that come up but you are not supposed to give the answer because the teams need to grow themselves and in the beginning you get really nervous because you think, OK I see this is not going in the right way, not how I would do it, but OK they need to learn. The challenge is to be with the team, to watch out and then be there when they really need you, and that worked much better actually than we thought, so when you than see how many problems the teams has solved themselves without your intervention, this is amazing. Myself, and I think all the leaders in this organization, are really amazed on the problem solution capabilities of the people. So unleashing potential, I really have seen how that works and it’s impressive.

   

8. At that executive management leadership level, how easy was it to make that culture shift, what needed to happen to allow, to make it safe?

So we ourselves also the leadership team got training and coaching and it took quite a lot of time also for us to really get it and understand it. The good thing is that this is an interaction between us and the team, so we are all learning this somehow and we were all at some point of time converging, of course you read a lot of books, but reading books is one thing and making the experience yourself is another thing, and this experience grew up over time. It was a pretty interesting journey also for the leaders, but with this training, with the coaching we got, and we just starting to do it and accepting some fundamental things like embracing change, accepting living with uncertainly. How do you react as a leader for example, if a team comes back and said it won’t be ready next week, it will be ready in two weeks, what kind of experience do you create to these people. Do you scream at them? No! That was traditionally so we said: “Hey guys are you really sure but this is so important, you are so clever, you should be …”, you create pressure and those kind of reaction patterns we eliminated and we rather teamed up with the guys saying: “Ok, I appreciate that we have a problem, now let’s see how we can solve it all together”, and that was a very strong mindset shift that we needed to go through.

   

9. What advice would you give other leaders in your position about how to tackle this?

The strongest advice is that, it really starts with the leaders and you really need to make the step. On the other hand, you need to respect that even if you have started, you are maybe two, three steps ahead of the organization and one of the most important things maybe is patience, because other people need to follow and that takes time, it takes time until you have really absorbed the idea of agility. Patience is a very, very important skill that you need to develop because as I said before, you see things going in a way where you think now I would really like to interact and jump in and solve the issue, but you need to let go and enable people to learn.

   

10. One of the areas where we often hear of this resistance and trouble in making an Agile transformation is in the middle management layer, what did you do with them?

First of all we reorganized everything and reorganization has one beauty and that is nobody stays on his or her old position. Most of the leaders needed to reapply or apply for their new job and that leads of course, the possibility to now change the recruitment criteria, I mean that is an HR issue actually, agility has a huge impact also on the human resources department because you have different criteria for what is a good Agile leader. And we applied that one and by this we created leadership teams that are more capable to deal with an Agile environment.

   

11. Guessing then that some people didn’t come through that process?

There are people who don’t come through this process, those people we have tried to find other places in the organization, there are people who found that place and they are super happy today and then there is people of course who really don’t find their place, because they are still, they don’t get come out of the command and control spirit or they are super strong on status or whatever. Those people either left the company or try to find another place within the company where we don’t have this kind of structures.

Shane: Hendrik thank you very much for taking the time to talk with InfoQ today, we really appreciated and good luck in you futures adventures!

Thank you!

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