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Q&A with Henrik Zätterman

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Henrik Zätterman, Agile Coach.

How could you describe your career path in a few words?

My career I think reflects how I have grown as a person. I started out close to 30 years ago as a software developer because computers were easy and predictable. Today I have had almost every role in a development organisation; Developer, architect, project manager, process developer, Scrum master, product manager, and line manager.

What I discovered during my journey is that top down, command and control doesn’t work and is even harmful when we work with product development. The most impactful experience I’ve had, that really changed my perspective on work life, was when I worked as an architect for a consultancy company. The higher management got a massive order for a change to the system we were working on with a delivery timeline that didn’t match the capacity of the team. With traditional carrots and sticks the delivery was pushed through but the human cost was massive. Several individuals of the team suffered severe consequences from the stress and that’s the point in time where I decided to uncover better ways of developing products and leading organisations.

Today I work as an agile coach trying to create a better world by making workplaces more humane, more involving, and more fun.

How do you think agile practices have transformed companies over thepast two years?

Humans are often driven by fear. However, in today's context, merely imitating others due to the fear of missing out is insufficient. Simply sticking to familiar routines out of apprehension about exploring new territories is no longer enough. In a world that is rapidly evolving, it becomes increasingly evident that stepping out of one's comfort zone is the only way to remain relevant in the future.

Large companies, which were once highly agile, constantly learning, experimenting, and venturing into unexplored business realms, have now become rigid, bureaucratic, and resistant to agility due to the fear of losing their existing business. This shift has resulted in them losing their dominance in the market. Their desperate attempts to stay relevant are gradually leading to their demise.

However, there have been positive developments in recent years. An increasing number of large companies are moving away from agile frameworks and pre-packaged solutions. When doing so, they assert that agility didn't work for them, and now they aim to forge their own path. I think this is a positive change, indicating a better understanding of what true agility entails—uncovering better ways to develop products (software). The demand for such agility remains high, perhaps higher than ever. Agility that is built upon the organisation’s specific needs. However, relying on a 4,500-page framework won't guide organisations on how to navigate their specific situations with their unique customers, employees, products, culture, etc.

True agility involves establishing a learning, explorative, and daring organisation that seeks to understand the genuine needs of users, explore solutions to meet those needs, and experiment to discover the most effective ways of working together. Companies we've collaborated with have achieved success by adhering to the following, simple principles: maximising learning about needs, solutions, and collaboration methods. The final key to success is that it's crucial not to force agility where it's not necessary.

What successful cases of agile transformations have you had the opportunity to observe that have particularly stood out to you?

Two organisations that have managed to turn up their agility stand out.

The first is a food company that produces products you can find in your ordinary grocery store. Their goal was to increase the innovation rate. This organisation was one of the most courageous ones I’ve ever met. The leaders trusted the team and us coaches to do whatever was necessary to increase innovation as long as we kept them updated on the result.

The traditional way of developing products in the company was quite sequential with a gated process. The team looked at the gates, identified the purpose of each gate and found faster ways of meeting the needs behind the steps. The team also involved consumers earlier, they found easy and cheap ways of validating their assumptions of what a good product was and adjusted the product goals accordingly. The result was products ready for the market after ⅕ of the time with higher confidence of success.

The second one is a governmental organisation where a group of managers came to one of our agile coaching classes. After the training the top manager said: “Now I know what to do; I need to be out there working in the middle of the teams”. That insight is probably the most important insight an agile coach can guide a manager to. How can you support the team and provide them with what they need unless you meet and understand the individuals in theam where they are right now?

Will agile practices continue to generate interest? What challenges do you see in the context of deploying these practices?

I think agility is more important than ever. Uncovering better ways of developing products will

never be outdated. Every generation of technology automates more of the lower levels of implementation letting us humans focus more and more on the real problems to be solved. AI is a very good example of this. If we can describe our problem well, AI will provide a solution. If you go further back in time we received high level programming languages that automated the implementation of what earlier was done in assembler. You can find analog examples in other areas as well. Instead of buying nails, bricks, and planks you can now buy houses in IKEA-like flat packs. Even letting you easily design and explore your house in a digital environment ensuring it meets your needs without even using a hammer.

With humans focusing more and more on the needs and problems we move deeper into the VUCA world where we can’t analyse and plan our way to the best possible solution, the world where empiricism and agility is key to learn about about needs. The challenges I see is how we can help leaders see that this is not a production problem but an innovation problem. Far too often theories that work in production are assumed to work when exploring problems/needs and solutions. This results in ideas like flow, speed optimisation, and utilisation. When working with innovation these ideas are counter productive. What we need is collaboration and curiosity in what we can do as leaders to support innovation and help our teams produce the best value they can to customers they communicate with directly.

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