Agile working methods always put the customers’ needs centre stage. Our latest Progress Report shows how the Agile@Scale principle makes working together at ista faster and more creative – and what opportunities this also opens up for employees.

Nilüfer Cetinkaya took a risk and has made a fresh start as an agile coach. By her side: agility experts such as Khatereh Tadj. Together, they are shaping the agile transformation at ista. In this article, they tell us what this sets in motion within the company. 

“I jumped in at the deep end,” says Nilüfer Cetinkaya. For some months now, the 43-year-old agile team coach has been supporting colleagues with their work in newly defined workflows and structures. She gave up her job in the IT department to take on a role in the new agile organisational structure. This was not an easy decision for her: “The idea of doing something new appealed to me and the opportunity to further myself.  But I didn't know what to expect. At the beginning, I could not really imagine what ‘agile working methods’ meant.” But the prospect of being able to go back to her old job in case she had second thoughts gave her enough reassurance to take the plunge. 

Teams are now called squads – and what else changes?

Suddenly you are an agile coach – how does such a new start work? “The initial period was very intense,” Nilüfer Cetinkaya recalls. “It took some time for me to understand the processes, the framework, the whole point of it.” After all, agile work is structured differently and involves its own roles and processes. As well as new terminology: teams are suddenly called squads, several squads form a tribe, and the business cards of some colleagues now state they are product owners. “I have not only learned new terminology but also got to know a completely new set of values and principles of collaboration.” 

One of the building blocks of the agile way of working at ista is the scrum method: the focus is on the customers’ needs; interdisciplinary teams or squads derive their goals from these needs and organise themselves largely independently. “This can mean that a business analyst and a programmer or an SAP expert and process manager plan the next steps together and, in doing so, discover unexpected synergies,” Nilüfer Cetinkaya explains. “Our squads are much more diverse than the teams used to be. I support them in their work and refocus them on their actual goal if they should get lost in details.” 

Working together in two-week sprints

ista completely reorganised collaboration at its Essen Head Office as from 1 July 2022. Nearly all departments including Hardware Development, Services, Business and Management, have been using the agile working method since then. Further parts of the company are to follow. The main difference is that work is divided into short timeboxes, so-called sprints, Khatereh Tadj explains. The 41-year-old helped to prepare the change at ista as an agile enterprise coach. “The switch to agile working means taking an iterative approach and dividing complex projects into individual steps,” she explains. “This means that if you have a two-week work cycle, you produce a result every two weeks, regardless of what form that result takes.” 

As a rule, this so-called sprint goal is a respectable interim result on the way to achieving the actual goal. And here the second core element of the agile method comes into play: the central focus on feedback from customers and/or internal users. "Customer centricity is the be-all and end-all,” says Khatereh Tadj. “And how can we be customer-centric? By actively involving the customers in our development process. Every two weeks there is a review meeting to which we invite the customers and/or stakeholders to show them: this is what we have achieved in these two weeks. What do you think of that?” 

Quality time for the team

This feedback loop to the needs of customers and external or internal stakeholders also boosts employees’ motivation, says Nilüfer Cetinkaya. After all, in the best-case scenario, shorter feedback loops also lead more frequently to a sense of achievement: “If you regularly get confirmation that you are on the right track, there is no danger of tinkering away behind closed doors for months on end only to find out in a major review that the customer didn’t want what you have done at all. 

There is also a regular check-up after two weeks for internal purposes. At the end of each sprint, the employees get the opportunity to discuss in a sprint retrospective how well collaboration worked: “As a team we ask ourselves: what went well during the last sprint cycle? What didn’t go well? How can we improve in future? I think it’s great that time and space are regularly given to this. Mutual respect is, after all, one of the most fundamental principles of agile working,” Nilüfer Cetinkaya stresses. “I always say this: the retrospective is the quality time for the team. And it really promotes collaboration within the team. After all, we need to communicate openly and make problems transparent if we are to work together more effectively.” 

Handing over responsibility and learning to let go

ista has trained a total of 15 employees from its own ranks to be agile team coaches. This way they can contribute their experience with the company and, together with their colleagues, grow into the new methods of working. Khatereh Tadj is impressed by the speed with which the change at ista has happened. Some 500 employees in 40 teams switched to the agile structure in one go: the majority of the staff at Head Office. “I had never experienced such a speed and scale of change before,” she says, “it was this challenge that attracted me.“ Before she joined ista in May 2022, she worked for several years as a freelance agile consultant. From her consultancy work at many other companies, she knows what counts when far-reaching changes are imminent, and also knows the typical pain points in such processes. 

“Change always hurts, whether a company is large or small,” says Khatereh Tadj, speaking from her observations. “The introduction of agile working methods is a journey, and it is a rocky road, with ups and downs.” Changes to roles and hierarchies in particular can also be a source of frustration and a lack of understanding. For example, if a head of department becomes a product owner: “That person is responsible for the product but has no disciplinary responsibility. That means he or she can dictate the “WHAT”, but it is the team itself that decides on the “HOW”, the way in which things are implemented.” The fact that everyone can benefit from this needs to be communicated with great tact and sensitivity. “It is a lot about letting go and trusting,” says Khatereh Tadj. 

Nilüfer Cetinkaya also confirms that agile working is just not compatible with the desire to be the person who pulls all the strings: “The scrum framework is not for micromanagers who want to dictate exactly how the goal is to be achieved. Such a person would just not cope with this framework as the way the goal is achieved is always determined by the team.” But precisely this is an opportunity for everyone to develop personally and to grow beyond themselves. Nilüfer Cetinkaya is certain she made the right decision: “Today I am very glad that I ventured into this new field of work.” 

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