Hackathons at bol.com

This article was originally published on the bol.com blog, and is also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

"You hack it, you love it, you run it" is printed on a big sign above the canteen at bol.com's office in Utrecht. It's time for the hackathon, which is held three times a year.

Today, about 90 engineers are completely free to decide what to work on. "When you sign up for the hackathon, you mention what you're planning to do so you can form a team, but no manager has to approve it," says Maarten Dirkse, who started organizing the hackathons three years ago.

bolhackathon

The hackers are all relieved from their duties; nobody will bother them today with regular work. The hackathon starts at 09:00 and lasts until 20:00. Lunch and pizzas are arranged, and at 17:00 the bar opens (just like every Friday).

"It's a really fun event in which you can build anything you've always wanted to build, but couldn't find the time for. It doesn't necessarily needs to be something useful for bol.com, although we do take suggestions from the business." Maarten continues. "People tackle a problem that bothers or motivates them. My favorite is an internal dashboard that shows beautiful statistics on today's revenue. It also plots new customer orders real-time on a map of Holland."

 

denglish

Hacker Mary Gouseti is a big fan of the hackathons: "it's a great way to learn new skills and experiment with new technology. It's also nice to work together with engineers from other teams that you normally don't work with. Everybody helps each other out. My favorite project is the "Translate to English" button, which allows non-Dutch speakers like me to browse bol.com in English."

"Several projects resulted in visible improvements and innovations for our website or mobile app. But even if an initiative can't directly be translated into business value, it does inspire and motivate the engineers, which is just as valuable" says Menno Vis, IT Director Software Development. 

"After the hackathon, we organize an award ceremony for which we invite the whole company. The hackers present their results in a 3-minute pitch. We have prizes for the coolest project, the project which has the most value for bol.com and for the project which is the most 'out of the box' or funny. Real working demos usually score more points than PowerPoint slides" Menno continues.

Another noteworthy event is the yearly "polish night". During this event, about 500 colleagues voluntarily work until late at night to get the site ready for the holiday season. They clean up a whole bunch of glitches in the product content to improve the shopping experience. Of course, music and drinks are provided.

The hackathon is just one of the things that defines bol.com's engineering culture. Management supports and encourages bottom-up initiatives and regularly asks employees to pitch ideas for new projects. Menno: "our philosophy for sustaining a high performing IT department is quite simple. Get the right people on board and give them the right assignment. Encourage them to take ownership and ensure autonomy at the lowest level in the organization. Provide freedom within a framework, high autonomy and high alignment. Just like our services: loosely coupled but also highly cohesive!"

Hackathons are a great way to inspire innovation and motivation by reinforcing autonomy, mastery and purpose. Bol.com gets this, just like Facebook, Spotify and Uber who conduct hackathons at regular intervals.

13 kenmerken van agile organisaties

Interview in BaaS magazine - boardroom as a service (in Dutch). Download as PDF, or see below.

Agile? Besturingsmodel aanpassen!

Veel organisaties worstelen met hun schaalgrootte en complexiteit. Dat maakt het moeilijk om bij te blijven in de snel veranderende digitale wereld. Alleen zij die snel kunnen reageren, innoveren en leren kunnen overleven. Door over te stappen op een agile operating-model wordt het mogelijk dit te bereiken. Echt overstappen naar Agile betekent wel een verschuiving in de principes waarop de organisatie gebouwd is, zo betoogt Jurriaan Kamer, verandermanager on oprichter van Agile CIO.

Agile is bepaald geen quick-fix, maar een totaal andere manier van werken. De boardroom moet meeveranderen, anders gaat het niet vliegen. “Agile gaat verder dan het neerzetten van een paar Scrumteams op de IT-afdeling”, zo stelt Kamer. “De werkwijze moet ook niet slechts gezien worden als een alternatief voor Prince II. Het is een fundamentele herziening van 20e eeuws Tayloriaans managementdenken (massaproductie, economies of scale, efficiency, planning, control, hiërarchie en vaste rollen, red.) naar een systeem dat geschikt is voor de uitdagingen van het huidige tijdperk: innoveren door te experimenteren, excellente klantervaring, organiseren rond gemotiveerde autonome vakmensen. De omstandigheden van vandaag vragen om een andere aanpak, en de bestaande processen, structuren en gedragingen moeten op de schop.”

Er wordt heel veel over Agile gesproken, maar het wordt vaak verkeerd begrepen of verkeerd uitgelegd. Kamer: “Het is niet zomaar wat aanklooien zonder regels. Het is zorgvuldig gekaderde vrijheid. Op veel IT-afdelingen wordt aan ‘fake agile’ gedaan. Vaak lukt het niet om de beoogde voordelen eruit te halen omdat agile wordt geplakt bovenop het bestaande systeem van bureaucratie en corporate hiërarchie. In werkelijkheid verandert er dan niet zoveel, of ontstaat juist een slechtere situatie dan voor de Agile-implementatie.”

Kenmerken

In Silicon Valley ging Jurriaan Kamer op zoek naar de verschillen in het ‘organisatie-DNA’ tussen traditionele corporates en ‘digital-first’ agile bedrijven. Na zijn bezoek aan Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Airbnb en Spotify concludeerde hij dat een rijtje van dertien zaken het verschil maakt:

  1. Door het beste product te maken voor de klant volgt geld verdienen vanzelf. De focus ligt op 'product excellence’ in plaats van op de business case en het maximaliseren van aandeelhouderswaarde.
  2. Het management faciliteert in plaats van dat het top-down stuurt: de manager is niet de baas, maar heeft als taak om de juiste context te creëren zodat de medewerkers en teams kunnen leren en groeien.
  3. Managers blijven op de hoogte door direct met de vakmensen te praten die het werk uitvoeren, in plaats van dat ze gedetailleerde rapportages eisen.
  4. Mensen communiceren rechtstreeks in plaats van via escalaties en managementlagen, problemen worden door mensen zelf opgelost, managers zijn alleen bezig met het oplossen van problemen die hun medewerkers echt zelf niet kunnen oplossen.
  5. Managers zijn zelf ook inhoudelijke vakmensen, zodat de kans op verkeerde beslissingen afneemt; er zijn geen middle management lagen die alleen een proces managen maar weinig van de inhoud weten.
  6. Het hogere management is volledig transparant over strategische doelen, resultaten en uitdagingen, zodat de medewerkers beschikken over informatie die nodig is om te kunnen bepalen wat goed is voor het bedrijf.
  7. Teams hebben autonomie om zélf te bedenken wat de beste aanpak is om het doel te bereiken waarvoor ze  verantwoordelijk zijn; de autonomie wordt bereikt doordat ze zo min mogelijk om toestemming hoeven te vragen.
  8. Fouten maken wordt getolereerd en zelfs gestimuleerd; het management snapt dat teams sterker worden door (gecontroleerd) op hun bek te gaan.
  9. Er zijn geen projecten en projectmanagers meer, want het werk wordt naar mensen gebracht in plaats van mensen naar werk; waarde wordt gerealiseerd door continu meetbaar te optimaliseren, in plaats van door een project te doen met een kop en staart. Budgetteren gebeurt op basis van vaste constante teams die hun eigen waarde aantonen.
  10. Nieuwe businessmodellen worden al experimenterend ontdekt samen met de klant, aannames worden getoetst en initiatieven worden niet gestart op basis van ‘gut feeling’ van het management.
  11. De agile-bedrijfscultuur is sterk en zorgt voor het juiste gedrag: vertrouwen, samenwerking, openheid, transparantie, respect en waardering in plaats van hiërarchie, compliance, controle en rigide processen.
  12. Elk bedrijf heeft z’n eigen structuur die ontstaan is door deze iteratief te verbeteren; de structuur wordt niet bepaald door een extern framework (zoals bijvoorbeeld SAFe).
  13. Vakmanschap en werkplezier staan centraal, bedrijven zijn hierdoor in staat om de nieuwe generatie toptalenten aan te trekken en te behouden.

Kanteling

Om deze kanteling te maken is het noodzakelijk dat het topmanagement deze verschuiving begrijpt, doorleeft en omarmt. Vervolgens kunnen ze de organisatie in staat stellen om deze verschuiving door te maken. Als dit niet gebeurd is blijft het voor bottom-up agile initiatieven onmogelijk om door de organisatiebarrières heen te breken en te gaan vliegen.

 

Do we still need managers?

Below are my slides from my presentation at Scrum Day Europe.

Slides from the presentation at Scrum Day Europe, 7th of July 2016 in Amsterdam.

Text from the booklet:

Many companies have implemented Scrum and are “doing agile.” However, many companies struggle to achieve the expected benefits. The management team has implemented scrum and then expects a miracle to happen. However, often they have failed to embrace the true nature of scrum and especially forgot the part that talks about creating self-organizing autonomous teams. Agility isn’t a gem that can be bought; transforming your operating model to become future-proof is a difficult task. It’s not just a small update, it’s a major overhaul of how your organization operates. Agile is not just a framework used in the IT department; becoming truly agile requires a digital transformation of the business and other departments like HR, finance, and operations. You also have to overcome organizational impediments like anti-agile company culture, top-down leadership behaviour, counter-productive organization structure, and approval processes. Only top management can enable this shift. If we look at some the Silicon Valley-style digital first organizations, we discover that these companies still heavily rely on managers. However these managers do something completely different than the ones we find in traditional enterprises. In my presentation we’ll dive into some of the learnings from how management works in these companies.

 

Old-Style Project Management Is Broken — Here’s How to Fix It

This article was originally published on Switch and Shift, and is also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

In fast-moving industries, innovation hinges on a company’s ability to move quickly on new ideas, meaning hierarchical corporate structure is on the road to extinction. Project managers are in the passenger’s seat, traveling on the endangered list.

Businesses typically organize themselves into siloed departments responsible for executing specific, repeatable tasks, but when the business needs to undertake a change or improvement, it creates a project. The project manager gathers a temporary team with members from different departments who work together to successfully deliver the project.

These specialists are already assigned to multiple projects, so department heads are reluctant to assign these scarce resources to yet another. Time is micromanaged in order to maximize productivity. The result is a project that mostly consists of coordinating and waiting for specialists to align. This confusion can lead to a slow, bloated mess.

When ING Bank started its transition toward agile management, it used a small project of only 1,500 man-days to baseline its performance. In all, the undertaking lasted 11 months, and no fewer than 47 employees across 25 departments were involved. Delivery planning was seen as unreliable, while expertise, infrastructure, and specialization were all perceived as fractured. The cost of delivery of even something small turned out to be highly uncompetitive.

This example painfully illustrates that the old model of project management, still prevalent in many large organizations, is broken. Agile organizations use a different model that renders project managers obsolete.

The Project Management Revolution

Digital-born companies in Silicon Valley such as Facebook, Spotify, and Airbnb don’t employ project managers. Why? Because they understand change is continuous, and they have built it into their DNA.

Instead of assigning specialists to time slots and batches of work, these corporations rely on self-organizing teams composed of people with multiple disciplines. Rather than move people to work, they let work flow to fixed teams.

Without irrelevant deadlines and sprawling oversight, the teams are free to innovate and collaborate. This not only gives the company stability rarely seen in more structured organizations, but it also empowers employees and conveys trust in their abilities.

As opposed to temporary project teams in which members tag in and out, stable agile teams can mature through continuous improvement to unlock the group’s full potential. Strong teams can attack any problem. While Twitter’s senior vice president of engineering, Chris Fry put it this way: “Build strong teams first; assign them problems later.”

Moving Away from Project Management

So what does this concept look like in action? Do you just put current project managers out to pasture? Not necessarily. Former project managers can take on several new roles, including:

  • Scrum master/agile coach: The scrum approach favors collaboration and self-organization over traditional project hierarchy. The scrum master facilitates the team in its agile way of working and focuses on improving collaboration.
  • Product owner: The product owner keeps his or her team focused on the overall vision and is responsible for guiding the team in the right direction, toward building the right product with the right features.
  • Manager: Self-organizing teams plan their own work, manage their stakeholders, and optimize their workflows based on need. Units don’t need someone watching over their shoulder to make sure they’re working correctly. Therefore, in an agile context, the manager mainly takes a hands-off human resources role.

He or she uses a coaching leadership style to develop and retain the team’s talent and craftsmanship. As opposed to traditional companies, agile companies require their managers to have hands-on experience with the specialism they’re managing. Airbnb even goes so far to require newly hired managers to contribute code for six months before they can start on their managerial roles.

Many people think companies with self-organizing teams don’t need managers anymore, but that’s a misconception. Managers at Spotify, known as chapter or tribe leads, have no more than five direct reports. They see their people as top athletes, and to best aid their development, each coach can focus on only five athletes at a time.

Making the Transition

Of course, not everyone will be pleased with an organizational shift. Middle managers who built their careers by solving problems through micromanagement will struggle especially.

In “Coaching Agile Teams,” author Lyssa Adkins writes that managers must learn to let go of “command-and-controlism.” This “deprogramming” of the mind is tough, just like any behavior change.

But the advantages of transitioning to agile management far outweigh employees’ growing pains. The focus on craftsmanship and mastery will spur professional growth and fulfillment, and employees will take ownership of their work. Moving up the hierarchy should no longer be the preferred path because agile companies have created alternative ways to define career growth.

Agile companies are organized to minimize projects, but sometimes a project is unavoidable when an endeavor requires coordination effort across the organization. Project management skills are still needed, but their days as a full-time role are numbered.

According to Adkins, leaders need to change our fundamental beliefs about projects because we’re moving from the Industrial Age to the Age of Complexity. Planning the work and working the plan doesn’t work anymore. We need instead to embrace complexity by accepting that plans become accurate over time through constant revision.

Delivering on time, within budget, and on scope no longer equals success. Instead, the only measure is clients receiving the business value they need. Throw out the old project management system, and embrace the era of agility.

Four Ways to Create a Culture Where Innovation Will Thrive

This article was originally published on CEO.com, and is also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

At Spotify, failure calls for cake. Rewarding those results might sound unorthodox to the executive of the past, but it’s exactly the mindset an agile company should adopt.

Agile companies are the future of business. Notable names such as Airbnb, Facebook, Uber, and Netflix all began as agile startups. Adopting that agile mindset allowed them to mature into today’s industry leaders by delivering innovative, exciting products and services for their customers.

Their cultures have a lot in common: They are anchored by three core ideas — trust, autonomy, and collaboration. This philosophy isn’t just carried out in software development, but also across the entire organization. This enabled those companies to adapt to change and explore new approaches without fear of failure, which made them hugely successful.

The shift toward an agile culture starts with management. Only the executive leadership of a company can foster surroundings where failure is not only accepted, but even encouraged.

What does an agile culture look like?

After visiting many of the digital innovators in Silicon Valley, I learned that their cultures had a lot in common:

  • A clear purpose: People at these companies take ownership because they are united around shared ideas and clear, (transformational) purposes.
  • Leadership that trusts and empowers its employees: Executives create a safe environment to fail and learn. They allow employees to take on new initiatives and give them the freedom to autonomously pursue ideas, which can lead to unexpected innovations.
  • No ego culture: Mutual respect is a must, and every member of a team should be valued. Internal politics have no place in an agile culture.
  • Data-driven experimentation: Agile companies provide experiment-friendly environments. Teammates don’t spend hours arguing about what option is best. Instead, they test different variations, learn from each attempt, and let the data decide the best course of action. At Google, it’s common to never trust HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), but rely on data instead.

What are the benefits of an agile culture?

Today’s marketplace moves faster than ever, and it’s only by staying agile that a company can adapt to these changing conditions. Even larger legacy companies now recognize the benefits. ING Bank — one of the largest banks in the world — recently transitioned toward an agile organization to keep up with the increasing digital expectations of its customers, and with good reason. A Hewlett Packard survey revealed 49 percent of customers report a rise in satisfaction following a shift to agile.

But the agile methodology doesn’t just help a business react to client needs. By encouraging traits such as creativity, teamwork, craftsmanship, and personal growth, it will make an employer more attractive to potential hires.

How can I make my company more agile?

An organization that adopts an agile culture can offer a lot of opportunities, but it isn’t an easy process. For this change to take shape, senior executives need to develop a clear vision of where their companies needs to go, why a culture change is needed, and how this translates into new behavior.

Some leaders decide to take a radical approach. For instance, one client we worked with removed all the senior executives who didn’t believe in the agile transition to ensure full alignment. Not every business will require such a sweeping measure, but here are four simple steps most can adopt to ensure a successful cultural transition:

1. Define ‘awesome’

Start by defining and communicating the culture you’d like to have. Some great examples are BufferSpotify, and Airbnb. These companies post their culture statements throughout the building to remind employees what is expected of them and to help them to challenge each other.

As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, “You have to be deliberate about creating and investing in culture.” Clear examples and storytelling will boost comprehension, as will engaging employees by framing changes in the “Instead of that, we expect this” model.

2. Recruit agile minds

Hiring people already versed in agile culture allows a company to get its new initiative up and running quicker and easier. We created an agile mindset assessment for one client to use in interviews to ensure candidates would fit with the culture. Strategies such as this quicken and simplify the whole process.

And be prepared to let some of your best people go, too. If somebody doesn’t fit the new company mindset, he or she should be let go so the culture change isn’t too easily undermined.

3. Have a team dedicated to reinforcing cultural values

Companies like Spotify, for instance, have dedicated people who reinforce the agile culture. They do this through agile coaches and “people operations” teams, which work daily with people and teams to improve company performance and employee engagement.

4. Embrace agile at the executive level

This new culture cannot be introduced from the bottom. It needs to come from the top, and that means executives must also embrace agile and model the behavior they want to see.

Change your leadership style by showing you trust your people to discern how the work should be done, and encourage collaboration between people instead of handing down orders. Be open and transparent about your challenges to teams, start cutting through red tape and listening to their needs to help them grow.

Transitioning to agile won’t always be a smooth ride, especially when it’s rolled out team by team. Steve Denning compares the difficulties of partially fixing an organization to the way an immune system operates. Each one tends to transform back to its original state when it encounters change — or a virus — that messes with the status quo.

Implementing an agile culture helps businesses stay responsive to employee and customer needs (and helps to set them up for future success). It’s about time more companies start eating cake.

Want To Implement Agile? Cut Through the Red Tape First

This article was originally published on CEOWORLD Magazine, and is also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

Disruption has become almost routine in today’s marketplace, and this almost constant state of transition is a challenge for many organizations. You must now be able to quickly respond to market demands in order to compete, which requires agility.

However, trying to be agile in an established, non-agile organization is a big challenge. Untangling a system of interlocking departments that all have certain ways of working (not to mention their own cultures) is probably one of the hardest things you’ll do when trying to position yourself as a more agile organization.

WHY YOU SHOULD GET RID OF THE RED TAPE

In the past, departments created processes and procedures to ensure predictable outcomes. You knew what to expect, which meant the least amount of risk.

But 100 percent control will lead to 0 percent innovation and agility. In the new digital landscape, this type of bureaucracy is simply too slow.

To be agile, you need to be able to deliver end-to-end business value in short cycles. The best way to do this is by having self-organized, autonomous teams work toward a customer-centric goal in order to deliver this value.

Picture this: You’re responsible for getting an ambitious new product to market, but it’s uncertain what functionality your customers are waiting for.

So you want to start off testing a few assumptions that can ultimately help you build a minimum viable product. However, before you can start, you must get written approval from legal, compliance, finance, risk management, architecture, etc. They demand more paperwork such as a detailed risk analysis and project start architecture.

These departments running antiquated procedures have limited time, and it takes days, if not weeks, to check the input of your work. A few steering committees have to give approval before you can make any progress.

It’s pretty obvious these procedures aren’t remotely close to being compatible with agile. One end of the corporation wants to deliver business value faster, while the other end uses traditional control procedures to resist and slow down these changes.

The constant starting and stopping of the process reminds me of a clever poster that says, “I tried to be innovative once, but I got stuck in meetings.” When managing several agile initiatives within large corporations, I know it’s often not enough to bring these challenges to the CIO and CMO. Only the CEO is able to set things in motion to change the system.

If you want to become a 21st-century organization, you’ll need to reconsider how staff departments work — even the departments necessary for “building the thing right” must change the way they operate to become more agile.

SO HOW EXACTLY DO YOU BREAK DOWN ESTABLISHED ORGANIZATIONAL BARRIERS TO IMPLEMENT AGILITY IN YOUR CORPORATION?

1. Listen to your teams. First, as an executive, take stock of which people in the organization perform tasks that actually add value to customers. From there, ask those employees which procedures could use fixing and what they need in order to be more impactful. Agile won’t solve your problems, but it will make them visible.

2. Rethink your procedures. Go back to the original reasons why the control departments exist, and rethink their practices and procedures. Can they operate in smarter, more agile ways and think from a team perspective?

3. Eliminate or automate unnecessary procedures. If the process is extraneous, get rid of it or decrease its scope so it isn’t used as often. Procedure becomes so entrenched that organizations often forget to eliminate the unnecessary ones.

Remember that agile is actually a great way to reduce risks in projects and eliminate the need for a thick, documented process that controls risk. If a check is still necessary, figure out whether the check can be automated so teams aren’t slowed down by manual approvals.

4. Let them assist instead of approve. Once those department processes have been streamlined, position them to speed up previously time-consuming steps. Instead of going the usual route of document approval, the staff departments should provide teams with the proper knowledge and tools.

Explain why these regulations are needed and how to oversee them. Doing this lets teams come to the right decision themselves without the need for a manual or bureaucratic staff department checks. In the end, every person wants to be successful, and being compliant is a part of that.

Giving employees the power and knowledge to approve checks will significantly increase the speed in which you reach your initiatives. But this requires the staff departments to stop seeing themselves as so important and start seeing the team members as customers who need to be happy when using the process.

I often hear, “It can’t be done here because we’re a large enterprise,” but agile startups like Google and Facebook have become multibillion-dollar money machines operating just like this. The above practices empower their teams to be innovative and agile while remaining compliant and preventing major financial risks.

Becoming agile calls for institutional transformation. You can’t just focus on one or two departments. For a company to become truly agile, you must work toward changing old organizational habits, procedures, and even the culture.

If your agile transformation encounters some organizational red tape, work toward cutting through it. Otherwise, your teams will continue to run into walls, and you will not gain the benefits of truly being agile.