To become agile, people are more important than processes

  • Agility

By Dr. Robert Krottenthaler

German SMEs face a dilemma, that might sound familiar to companies in other European countries as well: the candidates and younger employees now flooding onto the job market have very different values and work attitudes than their superiors. This regularly leads to misunderstandings and conflicts. But without the next generation, no company has a future. More agility can help to integrate the younger employees and at the same time become more innovative and customer-oriented. But agility cannot be implemented at the push of a button but must be introduced step by step.

The Corona crisis and its consequences easily obscure the view of a development that is at least as important for the many medium-sized companies in Germany. The millennials, i.e. the generation born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, are about to enter their careers or are thinking about career plans and job changes in their mid-thirties. Their attitudes to life and work, especially with regard to the questions of when, where, how, what and, above all, for whom they want to work, are becoming a real game-changer with significant effects on the way of working in numerous companies and industries. In addition to the idea of new work, it is above all the increasing demand for a sense of purpose in their work that makes this generation a challenge for companies as employees. With their values, which also include the topic of sustainability, they vehemently question some business models and demand new ones. However, innovations can only be developed by employees whose skills and creative potential are fully utilised. However, rigid structures and processes often stand in the way.

Agility originally established itself as a concept for software development. With its iterative steps of continuous product and work process improvement, it is considered a model for shorter cycles of innovation to market-ready products and services. Smaller companies are usually agile per se. The larger the company and the more established the processes and structures, the less agile an organisation is. Agile does not necessarily mean faster but above all more customer-oriented. Thinking in terms of customer value and user-friendliness is the true paradigm shift behind agility. It is reinforced by the millennials and their search for a sense of purpose in their work. Whereby not only the customer but if possible also the environment and society should benefit from the company's products and services in terms of sustainability.

In a conversation with Dr Helmut Scherer, CTO at Erbe Elektromedizin GmbH, he gave me a deep insight into the introduction of agile methods in his company. The experiences made there can also be transferred to other companies. Agility for the entire company, according to one result of our conversation, is not a practicable goal. Not all areas of a company have to or can become agile in the same way, because the respective requirements are too different. There are areas where strict adherence to agreed standards is important, where deviation from the rules must be corrected and returned to the standard. Good examples of this are accounting or the precise work of machines in production. But man is not a machine, but a creative being that permanently strives for change and improvement. For Scherer, agility therefore also means that all those involved, both specialists and managers, accept changes as positive and adopt and integrate them into the projects. Agile methods are very project-oriented and are therefore easiest to implement in the research and development division, which is why Erbe Elektromedizin GmbH also introduced agile working in this division first.

Establish small teams as pioneers in the company

Every change in a company initially encounters some sort of resistance. Therefore, it is advisable to start with open-minded employees who voluntarily join together in a team. They can choose the right tools for their project from the toolbox of agile tools. The more departments and areas switch to agile methods, the more important it becomes to anchor agility as a management issue in the company.

  • Rethink your leadership style
    Today, innovations can usually only be achieved by a team of specialists. Leading these teams on a long leash and asking employees for advice instead of giving instructions is an important component of a learning organisation. When selecting project leaders, it is therefore important to focus not only on organisational talent but also on teamwork and social skills. It is not necessarily the person with the best expertise who leads, but the one who can best coordinate the many experts and motivate them to work together.
  • Select, develop or recruit leaders with an agile mindset
    Every project can be managed agilely, but not every employee can handle agility. For an agile project team, complete transparency is essential. This means that there are no “secret carriers” who keep their knowledge to themselves in order to be indispensable. Some people have a problem with this. With aptitude diagnostic procedures, companies can check which of their leaders are most likely to be suitable for leading agile teams. Where competencies and skills are lacking, gaps can be closed through training and education. Or recruit from outside through targeted selection procedures.
  • Share and increase knowledge and experience within the company by networking
    With every development project in which agile working methods are established in the company, important experiences and insights are gained. To avoid repeating mistakes, companies must document projects and disseminate important lessons learned within the company. Organising this is also a management task.


Agility must be embraced and exemplified by the management because it is not based on a top-down approach, but on handing over decisions. Agile working cannot thrive in rigid hierarchical structures. Agility does not mean “laissez-faire”, but on the contrary demands absolute discipline, commitment and acceptance of responsibility from those involved. This increases the impact of the individual employee and thus the awareness of having made a significant personal contribution to the whole. As a result, higher employee satisfaction is a significant additional benefit of agile methods. Further advantages from the company's point of view are the improvement of product fit and thus customer satisfaction as well as faster responsiveness to market changes.

Agile companies and structures are currently still the exception in most medium-sized companies in Germany. Traditional, hierarchical organisational structures mostly prevail. In addition to the consequences of the Corona pandemic, it is above all the upcoming generation change in many SMEs that will ensure that more and more agile working methods will find their way into company management.

If you would like to know more about this topic or would like to be contacted personally, please feel free to contact us:

Dr. Robert Krottenthaler

Mobil: +49 151 25 067 638  |  Office: +89 769 000 0


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