"Starting Agile Change with Solution Focus"
Case Study - Using SF in an Agile transformation
Nov 2, 2022
Ralph Miarka, Veronika Jungwirth
Introduced by John Brooker
In this case study article, experienced Agile and Solution Focus practitioners Ralph and Veronika relate how they used a Solution Focus approach to help a department in the automotive industry become Agile.
This article describes a thorough and beneficial piece of work, with useful learning for both SF practitioners and those who are interested in using SF to effect agile change. As well it provides a valuable template for those who may wish to carry out a piece of consulting work with SF.
The authors relate the stages they went through, provide details of the tools they used, explain the outcomes and relate some of the issues faced.
As I edited the article, I was impressed by several factors:
- The thoroughness of using SF when they clarified the assignment
- How they had the team adapt the “Agile Manifesto” for their needs
- The elegant way in which they do an Impact Analysis as a way to build the Platform
- Their ‘checklist for change projects’, one bullet point of which stood out for me:
We always work as a consulting team, so that we can continuously reflect together and can adapt the approach quickly. Besides, we are braver in pairs than alone.
This latter point prompted the idea of having a ‘project buddy’, someone we can speak to about a project, even if the client’s budget does not run to two consultants.
Ralph and Veronika have written a clear, stimulating and inspiring article, one which many InterAction readers will find beneficial, for many types of projects.
A young, ambitious department head of a major German group in the automotive sector decided that his department should now become agile because the Board of Directors has declared this goal for the entire group. He wants to take on a pioneering role. The group manager sees advantages in this, because the large amount and variety of projects coupled with a small number of employees, requires new approaches. Scepticism and even fear prevail among the team members. We tell the story of the solution-focused steps and measures with which we successfully supported the readiness for change. The entire assignment involves:
- An assignment clarification meeting
- The participation of the group leader in an SF training
- Individual discussions with the employees
- A team workshop and the subsequent support of the team and the relevant leaders.
We will report on some of these stages here.
Time frame: April to September
Organisation: Automotive industry
Solution-focused practitioners: Dr. Ralph Miarka, Veronika Jungwirth
Solution Focused assumptions:
- Everyone is an expert for his or her situation!
- Change takes place all the time – it is about recognising useful differences!
- It is helpful to have as few assumptions about the customers as possible!
- Every case is unique – therefore, every approach and every solution are unique and must be worked out together through interaction!
- Small steps can cause big changes!
Solution Focused tools:
- Solution Focused interviews: Scaling question, questions about the best hopes and the desired future
- Impact Analysis
Change projects, organisational development, leadership, cooperation
1. The call of the interested party – the clarification of the contract
It was a sunny afternoon in April when the mobile phone rang, and a team leader from a major German corporation asked for our support. The top management had proclaimed “agility” and the Head of Department – a young, ambitious and strategically brilliant man – wanted to be the first to respond to this call with his department. The organisation had hired an Agile coach a few months earlier to hold a Scrum training. However, he was not able to offer further support to the department due to lack of time – and so he recommended us.
Already in the contract clarification discussion, solution-focused questions served us well:
- Assuming it turned out that you had found the very best partners in us, partners you could only wish for, how would you know?
- Who else would notice that? And by what?
- What would be different after we have worked together than it is now?
- And what else?
- On a scale from 0 to 10, where ten means that you already lead an agile team according to your ideas and 0 is the opposite. Where on the scale do you currently rate the team?
- What is already working or what have you already done and achieved so that you are already at X and no longer at 0?
- Assuming that everything will change through our cooperation – what should definitely remain as it is now?
We learned a lot of important details using these questions in a phone call. For example, we learned that:
- the team consisted of 16 people who were working on about 45 projects at that time,
- these people were working in the field of technical pre-development in the mobility sector,
- most of them were under 30 years old and already had doctorates,
- some were not enthusiastic about the idea of agile development.
2. Small steps – solution-focused individual interviews
As solution-focused consultants, we know that each person is an expert in their situation and that we would only be able to make successful progress in small steps. So, we decided to start by having individual meetings with all team members who were willing to do so. We booked a flight and visited the client on-site. In the one-on-one sessions – we naturally also asked for a meeting with the Head of Department – we used our questions again to clarify the assignment (see above).
Our findings were that some of the interviewed people had already dealt intensively with the topic of agility and others had significant concerns about the future:
- They didn’t want to lose the diversity of projects and tasks.
- They wanted to avoid too many meetings.
- One person wanted to be allowed to continue working on his own – and not always as a team.
In a conversation with the Head of Department we got to know his ideas, and also the group language, which was foreign to us, e.g. new projects were “dumped” onto the team or employees were called “resources”.
3. The team leader visits us in Vienna
As a next step, we invited the team leader to Vienna to attend our training “Leading and Coaching of Agile Teams”. He accepted this invitation and got to know many new perspectives on the topic of communication and leadership, which are still rarely known or even common in large corporations. Highly motivated and almost euphoric, he returned to his team and tried to apply much of what he had learned directly in practice.
4. Involving all concerned from the very beginning – The Workshop, Day 1
The third step of our trip together was a two-day workshop in a hotel, i.e. outside the company. We first introduced the group to our understanding of agility.
Our understanding of agility
For us, agility means that a company can adapt to rapidly changing conditions in the environment and to use these changes for the benefit of customers and themselves. To do this, it is helpful to generate more value for customers in small steps (iterative) (incremental) and to adapt goals and methods according to the new knowledge (empirical). Agility is always needed when a complex problem is to be solved, and learning takes place while doing it. A high degree of cooperation between all participants characterises Agile approaches.
We also introduced them to the Agile Manifesto (Beck et al. 2001) and then invited the team members to adapt the Manifesto’s values and principles to the practice and needs of the team. After all, they were not developing software. The team then gave their manifesto a suitable name.
In Solution Focus, we always build on what is working already. Therefore, we next collected examples of where the team members lived and fulfilled their Agile values and principles in their work. The team learned that it was quite far along on its Agile scale, and this gave everyone a lot of confidence and motivation for a new shared path.
In the evening of Day 1of the workshop, everyone worked in the Open Space format. The team leader, who had already learned Solution Focus a little in Vienna, offered an Impact Analysis for his colleagues. For this purpose, every participant considered what impact agility would have on:
- him or her
- the team
- the department
- the relevant customers.
During this work, they collected critical points. This exercise enabled a dialogue on these issues, and it stimulated a discussion on how to deal with them. For example, one person said that he fears that there will be no time to work concentrated on his own. Others said they love the diversity in their job and fear that focus on single projects might destroy that. So, the revised goal became, “We work in an agile way with room to focus alone and with the possibility to remain diverse and to focus on projects.”
The Impact Analysis
The only thing that really motivates people is when they find meaning in what they have to do. Only when goals are meaningful for the team members, i.e. when they fully support them, is it realistic for them to achieve the goals.
This tool is wonderfully suited to focus on the desired future (Jungwirth/Miarka, 2019, p.204f). From different perspectives, participants illuminate the target scenario. This exercise gives clarity and makes it more tangible for all parties involved, which increases the probability of achieving the goal.
Of course, the expected effects are not always positive. Feared adverse effects become visible here, and therefore people can take these into account and carefully consider them in the goal definition. You can use Impact Analysis with individuals, teams and large groups in this way:
- Gather all those concerned or involved in a large room. Once the goal or vision (depending on the assignment) is clear to everyone, place four flipcharts on the four walls of the room. Also, put pens in several colours within easy reach.
- On each flipchart, place the task to be carried out there with only one word: I, TEAM, ORGANISATION, CUSTOMER
- Those present now move from poster to poster in any order. They write the expected effects of the desired future, for the person concerned, for the team, for the organisation and finally for their customers.
- At each of the four points, the participants have about five minutes to put their thoughts on paper. Anything already written serves as an inspiration, and people can underline if they agree. After five minutes, you give the signal to change to the next poster.
At the end, everyone can look at the finished pieces again, ask questions and discuss.
We also agreed on a few first experiments, which the team should try out in the next few weeks. At the end of the first workshop day, the atmosphere was noticeably relaxed during the joint dinner. All those present understood that they were allowed to, and should, design their Agile path instead of following a scheme that others give them.
5. Define first steps – The Workshop, Day 2
On the second day, we revised the team’s planning together. Important questions here were:
- “Why are you working on this product – what do you want to achieve?” This question was about the vision.
- Then we looked at the three-month horizon: “How will your customer recognise significant progress?”
- And then it became concrete: “What would be the next (small) step on the way to the intermediate goal?”
- The team also questioned the meaningfulness of all their meetings and rules, and, if necessary, adapted them.
- A central question was: “How is the progress of the project regularly presented to customers?”
After the workshop, the team returned to their workplace with a wealth of ideas for further cooperation, summarised in an action plan.
6. Further support in practice
In the next half year, we were on-site every three weeks for two days each.
- The team worked iteratively, incrementally and empirically, visualising the tasks on pinboards and establishing some meetings to ensure good cooperation.
- Every morning, sub-teams met at their boards to discuss the next day.
- They held review meetings every three weeks, where the sub-teams presented their project successes to each other.
- Hardly anyone worked alone anymore, although this was not specified.
- They also held team retrospectives. The focus here is on how the team works together, i.e., what they could improve o in terms of team communication as well as o the structure of cooperation.
At the subsequent planning meetings, the team leader announced the priority of projects for the next three weeks, and the team members chose where they wanted to make their contribution in the next stage.
They committed themselves to work on one project for three weeks (they defined this period as a ‘stage’), after which they could change projects. In this way, they took in to account the desire for diversity, while still enabling a kind of focus.
The respective new sub-teams then jointly agreed on the course for the next three weeks, so that they had the best chance of achieving the stage goal. Unfortunately, this approach only worked to a limited extent at the beginning, as people pursued projects that had already started but had not been prioritised.
Ralph facilitated these large meetings at the beginning. Gradually, one team member took over the facilitation role, until Ralph ended up as an observer.
At the same time, Veronika worked with the leaders. They held role and task discussions, observed and discussed changes concerning the goal of becoming more “agile” and they clarified issues that were strategic and specific to leadership. From the group leader’s perspective, it was also important to define the way of working and the roles. This work led to discussions that have enabled the participants to take responsibility for their tasks and roles.
7. And if people did not leave, they are still cooperating today
In total, our assignment comprised 16 working days in six months. The team made significant progress and continuously worked to improve and enjoy working together. Only with the focus on solutions was it possible for us to bring this change forward in such a short contact time.
Incidentally, the organisation soon promoted the Head of Department, the team expanded, some people changed jobs. Much of what the team worked on has changed. They have preserved much too; especially the heart for agility.
Solution-focused support for change projects – our checklist
- When launching change projects, we involve as many affected parties as possible from the beginning!
- Voluntariness is an important success factor for us!
- The appreciation and use of what people have achieved so far is, in our view, absolutely relevant!
- As external consultants, we make sure from the very beginning that the customer system can independently and autonomously implement the steps that the team has worked out.
- We always work as a consulting team, so that we can continuously reflect together and can adapt the approach quickly. Besides, we are braver in pairs than alone.
- It needs permanent support in and after the change in everyday life. Therefore, in our experience, it is vital to involve, from the very beginning, internal colleagues who wish to take on this role.
- We see expressed fears or even loud “resistance” as a sign of cooperation!
Questions for reflection
- How do you rely on the expertise of your clients or colleagues to bring about the desired change?
- Think of a moment in the past that you perceived as resistance. What request or call for help could have been behind it?
- For your next desired change, what is the smallest step with which you could start? And with whom?
- Jungwirth, Miarka (2019) Agile Teams lösungsfokussiert coachen. 3rd ed. Heidelberg: dpunkt-verlag.
- Beck et al. (2001) Agile Manifesto (last opened: 20.6.2020)