bwcon embarks on a journey to find a new form of collaboration
In the beginning was conviction. That the company, your own company, would be more successful if everyone worked together beyond individual teams, if they were familiar with the skills and know-how of their co-workers, and if they built on the synergies created by different topics. It was this conviction that inspired the two managing directors of bwcon, Alexandra Rudl and Dr.-Ing. Jürgen Jähnert, to step back from traditional, hierarchical forms of organization and establish a matrix-based organization. One key observation they made: The new world of work is not a top-down endeavor. Alexandra Rudl explains to TRANSFER magazine how the journey has been.
In early 2022, we asked ourselves as a management team if we could create a structure for our organization that would support or even require closer collaboration. That was eighteen months ago and now we have fundamentally changed our organization. We have moved away from a classic, hierarchical form of organization to an organizational structure based on matrix principles. People now work together along functional, project-based lines rather than according to rigid team structures. We’re still in the middle of our transformation process, but we’d like to share our thoughts on the journey so far. And even if it’s up to every company to discover which journey they need to undertake, as an innovation network, at bwcon it’s in our DNA to share what we know with other people and organizations – sooner rather than later.
First steps and first indications of disillusionment
Taking our core field of business as a starting point – which is about enabling companies to undergo (digital) transformation and supporting them in the process – we developed a concept of aligning future collaboration with our core competences. This initially gave rise to the idea of setting up agile competence teams. Our underlying idea was that everyone at the company, including senior management, should work in at least two agile teams to allow us to establish relationships of interaction, which change continuously. Depending on people’s interests, skills, and development aims, everyone should decide for themselves which areas they want to be involved in. These agile teams should also appoint a person themselves to act as a coordinator and first point of contact for management, although they should not assume a supervisory role, because the model would no longer allow for the role of team lead. Instead, we came up with the idea of personal leads – a person responsible for several people on a 1-to-1 basis, for whom they assume the role of a coach, also providing them with support in their personal development.
Feedback from staff after the new concept was unveiled was ambivalent. We received a lot of different feedback and it became clear to us that it would be impossible to reconcile the sometimes even contradictory opinions within one and the same concept. At the same time, we deemed it important to ensure everyone at the company was on board with the change process.
This aspiration led to us working with a colleague with many years of experience in organizational development, which in turn spawned the idea of core teams. One person was chosen from each team in the previous setup to join this core team. Their mandate was to consider together with the other core team members how the concept we had presented from a management perspective should actually be implemented.
Staff members get to know each other again
For several months, the core team worked together as part of an intensive process to determine, among other things, what form the structure would take, as well as the modus operandi of the competence teams. In addition, the agile teams were given a new name; we now call them homebases.
It was interesting to observe how long the core team took with this process, even though we were fully aware that transformation processes take time. One reason why the process took so long was that the core team first had to gain an understanding of who does what at the company and who is involved in which topics. This has galvanized our initial motivation in senior management: People working in the old teams knew little about each other until now and made insufficient use of synergies among themselves. Too many things were being worked on in silos and although this instilled a sense of security, it did nothing to help us work in the best possible way towards a shared corporate goal.
A new approach to learning together
People have now been working in the homebases for about a year. Even though before the transformation process, we already had a number of instruments in place to allow people to exchange views, we’re now increasingly seeing people show genuine interest in the work being carried out by others. Thinking about the things your colleagues are working on is a necessity when it comes to your own work.
This is partly reflected in our weekly knowledge-sharing meetings, which have been in place for a number of years and allow one person to make a short presentation on a current issue. In the past, these meetings often only consisted of a presentation in front of an audience and a Q&A session afterward, which was extremely brief; now we’re seeing a sharp rise in exchange and dialogue after presentations, with people also looking for synergies. The quality of presentations has also improved in recent months and we attribute this to the fact that people now place greater value on exchanging views with their colleagues. Moreover, this approach to collaboration not only promotes synergistic working practices, it also helps educate people. Now, everyone engages regularly with new topics, also developing and discovering new interests and capabilities.
Of course, some homebases worked out an effective modus operandi more quickly than others. This was because in many cases the people who coordinate their homebase had no previous experience in a supervisory role. As a result, many of the coordinators had to familiarize themselves with the task of facilitating and aligning with a group of people. To help with this, we now offer regular in-house training on the skills our colleagues need to prepare and facilitate alignment processes. Here, too, the team continues to develop.
The entire bwcon team is currently working on a model for awarding company bonuses. This is because the current approach to awarding individual bonuses is no longer compatible with our new organizational structure. An important aspect with the model presently being discussed is the development of a culture of feedback. This is because company bonuses would be awarded through the homebases in the future, and no longer awarded by bosses along the lines of a hierarchy-based organization. It then becomes even more important to offer feedback not only on a top-down basis, but also between all people within the company, irrespective of the roles they play within the organization.
Everybody in the organization is conscious of the fact that we still have some way to go. It’s tremendously important with the new structure that everyone knows they can rely on each other, that we all have our eyes set on success as an enterprise, and that this requires a strong degree of self-management. Such skills are not so important in organizations managed along hierarchical lines.
For us, these competences now form the basis of collaboration with one another and we still need some training in this area. As someone involved in endurance sports, I like to compare transformation processes with running a marathon. It takes a lot of training and when you’re running the marathon you go through a lot of different stages: Sometimes you feel euphoric, at others you go through a bad patch and doubt yourself. The main thing is, you must always believe you can do it and not give up when things don’t feel right. The same applies to changes in corporate culture.
More Understanding for Each Other and Close Cooperation in Agile Teams
An interview with bwcon employee Yasmin Lesar
Hello Ms. Lesar. If you think back to your first presentation of the new organization concept, what went through your mind at the time?
Lots of things, all at the same time. I’m from the communication department at bwcon. It’s an area with lots of overlaps with other areas, and I already noticed some time ago that we weren’t realizing our full potential yet. We regularly had the same issues cropping up again, and we were coming up with ideas but didn’t know other teams were already working on the same topic. This resulted in inefficient work processes and other challenges. And then there was the lack of transparency; we didn’t know enough about things the other departments were working on in order to report back on them.
So, the prospect of a new concept held much promise. Our hope was that it would help streamline our workflows and improve collaboration between the teams. But we were also a bit worried that our “small” service unit would be overlooked with the big transformation processes going on around it. Units are where the core services are coordinated, like communications and admin. Unlike the homebases, which work along agile lines, the constellation of the service units is fixed.
Looking back, I think we were less worried about change and more anxious about the unknown. Organizations are intrinsically complex, so we couldn’t even guess how factors that were still unknown were going to affect our work. So it was a huge relief when we heard that our managers were not presenting us with a fait accompli, but were offering us a chance to submit our own suggestions, express our concerns and wishes, and even more: We were allowed to come up with a concept that was entirely our own.
You were a member of the core team that fleshed out the initial concept based on feedback from all your colleagues. Could you offer us one or two insights into how that work went within the core team?
From a current perspective, there’s no huge difference between the concept we came up with and the one from management. But it was important to us as a core team to have a new starting point and play an active role in shaping our organization.
To do that, it was important to understand our own processes. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we knew little about the tasks and skills of our colleagues. It still astonishes me that we had to create profiles of departments and individual employees just to understand the full scope of our own potential. The ideas and plans we came up with took a long time, but I believe they were crucial and indispensable.
Once we had a clearer picture of who we were as a team and the services we brought to the table, the rest of the concept we came up with could evolve of its own accord. We looked at our customers and thought about what would be best for them. In retrospect, from that moment on the core team went through its own transformation process. At the beginning, it was mainly about being an advocate for the things our “old” teams needed. Now we could discuss things as a core team without thinking about the old structures. So in a general sense, when you feel you’re being noticed and listened to, it allows you to expand your horizons.
We then attempted to develop a model for bwcon, one that was perfect in every respect. At one point management intervened and suggested we just start doing things iteratively. Now that I look back, I think it was important that the pressure was taken off us and we didn’t have to present something that was absolutely perfect. We could do a trial run as an organization and learn continually as we progressed.
It was a unique experience for me to be part of the core team. It was challenging, because the team meetings took up a lot of time and required extra work. But despite that, to me it always felt like the core team was very much aware of the responsibility it had and it knew it was working together on achieving a common goal. The many intensive discussions we had allowed me to get to know my colleagues from a completely different angle.
What’s been different about your work in recent months as a result of the transformation process?
Once we’d set up the homebases, it was really exciting to get to know the different topics better and have the chance to develop in new areas. The interdisciplinary nature of the setup has allowed me to work with people I normally had little contact with before – if at all. This has made it possible for us to get to know each other – and our tasks – on a different level. I have the feeling we now have a better understanding for one another, and working together more closely allows us to spot synergies and pull together more quickly as agile teams.
That said, at the beginning the transformation process wasn’t without its challenges. The homebases opened up a whole host of new ways for us to participate in things and it really stoked my curiosity; maybe I took on too much. Though from conversations with colleagues, I know others felt the same way. We had to refocus and restrict ourselves to certain topics of interest or homebases to make sure we’d be able to offer genuine value to the groups.
Another challenge was performing the two new roles a lot of us had to assume. In addition to being part of the communications team, I’m now also a member of a homebase, which has very few overlaps with my original role. That brings up a whole host of new tasks and responsibilities. I’m the coordinator of a homebase, and as the number of tasks and the scope of the new role expanded I began to realize I wouldn’t be able to cope with it all at first. Around that time I also received feedback that more structure was needed when it came to planning and managing timings. The facilitation training I was offered allowed me to learn a lot and grow in my new role.
I’m grateful that we were given the opportunity to share our concerns and play an active role in improving the work processes. It was a valuable experience and it highlighted that to deal with difficulties and bring about positive change, it’s important to talk and work together openly. I feel optimistic and I’m looking forward to future developments at bwcon.