“Keep Trying New Things”

An interview with Michael Kaselow

When it comes to finding the way and charting unknown territory, it certainly helps that Deutsche Telekom’s Michael Kaselow studied geology. He now works as a coach to make help colleagues with agile work. While many companies have just begun to discover new forms of collaboration, methods such as “scrum” have been a fixture at Deutsche Telekom for years.

What exactly is your role as an agile coach for the eLIZA project?

I’m the point of contact for all questions around agile work and support my colleagues so they can really work that way. I teach methods and provide assistance for building an agile team, including how to define values and principles. I help everyone understand the methods and then apply them to generate added value instead of just going along. To be honest, we’re still in the process of finding our role and are constantly looking into what we should do and what can do.

Agile work comprises different methods. Which one do you use?

Our company is big on scrum. We’ve come up with an organizational structure that follows the Spotify model with its tribes, squads and chapters, and have adopted it to our needs. The challenge was that, unlike Spotify, ours didn’t grow organically but was layered on after the fact, so it’s our job as agile coaches to make sure it works. And since there isn’t a lot of literature or research about this type of organization to draw from, it’s also a lot of learning by doing. There are three of us, but with 20 squads agile coaches can’t be everywhere to play the Scrum Master every day. What we can do is help – teach people, accompany them, moderate a workshop or a meeting that’s relevant for the entire project.

Scrum had its start in software development. Why do you use it for your team?

You can adapt it beautifully for any type of work, from planning to online marketing activities to developing a product concept. Scrum lets you define a goal. It helps a team come together and collaborate, plus it lets you plan your to-do list. What’s even more important, it gives you the visibility to see who’s working on what and what the short-term goals of your team are.

Scrum is a method, but agile work also needs a cultural foundation. How do you go about establishing such a culture from scratch?

Starting at least five or six years ago, maybe even longer, we introduced agile methods, which led to a shift in many people’s mindsets. Nevertheless, working in a large enterprise with tightly defined tasks and processes constantly raises a host of questions. What freedoms do individuals and the team have? How do you enable more freedom and independent action? It can be done if you keep explaining again and again what agile work is about, why it works, where it works and how it adds value.

When I handled another project, my IT co-workers often asked me why we were doing scrum, since nothing can be planned ahead and there’s no visibility. But the opposite is true. Many projects can be better planned thanks to scrum. I often use hands-on examples to show the advantages of this method, for instance that employee satisfaction goes up and that teams become more effective. We have the numbers to back up both claims.

How do you measure these metrics?

We run retrospectives with the team to check how people evaluate themselves and their team. How transparent are we? How well do we communicate? What’s the level of collaboration and trust? You rank those things. If you do it a few times a year you can see changes over time. And you can clearly measure the goals you’ve reached, because we work in different phases and present what exactly we get done to our investment committee.

What’s more difficult to accomplish in a large enterprise such as Deutsche Telekom – changing the method, namely agile work, or introducing big innovation themes such as AI?

That’s like comparing apples and oranges. In the end, both things are equally challenging exactly because you need both. You can’t tackle big innovation themes like we do without introducing agile work or an agile mindset. Otherwise you quickly run into obstacles and create resistance along the lines of “We don’t want that. We’ve always done it this way and not that way.” Above all, you have to able to iterate, try ideas and pitch those that don’t work. Trying innovative things in the usual planning cycle of one to three years doesn’t make sense because I don’t find out what the right way is until it’s much too late. Innovation is a gray area because it often goes beyond what’s been researched and empirically proven. There are few use cases out there. That’s why it’s important to have an environment that allows for quick iteration.

It must be a challenge for a manager to trust his coworkers and let go, particularly since he has to create the space and the opportunities to let others succeed.

That’s true, but the bigger challenge lies in the fact that we have to tell our internal funders what we plan to deliver by when so they release the money for a project. That way, we create very tight sets of goals and at the same time aim to work in an agile and autonomous fashion. It’s quite a balancing act.

Are managers crucial for being successful?

The success of a project depends very much on the people involved. I can feel that all are eager to try something new and are open to a new method that enables agile, autonomous work instead of waiting for instructions and solutions. That’s at least as important as technology. If I didn’t have the right people who are in it for the right reasons I wouldn’t get results that customers will love. And that’s our main goal – we want to create something that our customers love and that moves our company forward.

Why should someone who wants to work on AI consider joining Deutsche Telekom?

We don’t do theoretical, academic research and then try to apply AI to some use cases. We use AI for business. That means, AI gets applied in real-life scenarios with all the challenges that come with it. It’s truly uncharted territory – and that’s very intriguing to me.

What motivates your team – and to what extent is it unique within Telekom?

We might be a big company, but we’ve taken the leap to try agile work. You could see the results at the Mobile World Congress last year.  We were the only ones with concrete ideas and implementations, others had nothing to show. After that, the other big players rushed to follow suit, although mostly in the form of announcements. The fact that we’ve gone beyond the planning to the implementation stage make us unique, at least in our industry, just look at T-Mobile Austria and Tinka.

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