Departure into the unknown: How a participatory strategy process paves the way into agile working

This article appeared in the journal OrganisationsEntwicklung in January 2023. (Reading sample)

The article by Malte Foegen, Managing Director of wibas GmbH, and Prof. Dr. Clifford Sell, Head of Organization and Culture at E-T-A Elektronische Apparate GmbH, was first published in OrganisationsEntwicklung 1/2023 ( Copyright © Handelsblatt Media Group.

Departure into the unknown

E-T-A Elektrotechnische Apparate, the world market leader for circuit breakers and circuit protectors, revises its corporate strategy every five years. For the regular relaunch, this was to be done with a high degree of participation and with the help of an agile process. This article outlines the procedure, the techniques used, the roles used and the results achieved by this update.

A common strategy gives focus and direction to the diversity of E-T-A Elektrotechnische Apparate. In the past, the company had developed its strategy both internally and had it created externally. The externally created strategy suffered from low acceptance within the company, and the resulting resistance and conflicts were considerable. The most recently internally developed strategy, on the other hand, was quickly and consistently established in the organization and led to excellent business results. Therefore, the regular update of the strategy in 2019/2020 should again be created internally, and many employees worldwide should be involved.

Based on many years of experience in lean manufacturing and systemic organizational development, an agile strategy process seemed to fit the corporate culture and participative creation. The strategy work additionally lent itself as a self-contained project for trying out agility.

After the idea of an internal strategy development with agile techniques had matured, E-T-A and the consulting firm wibas, which specializes in agility, met to jointly design a prototype of the approach. After two hours, it was clear: The outlined agile strategy process will not only work to create the new strategy, but will establish the agile way of working as a whole and will be a lot of fun for those involved. At the same time it was clear: the outlined process is uncharted territory, will be 50 percent wrong wrong and will have to develop emergently.

Strategy work began with a large group workshop, to evaluate the content of the previous strategy from the 2014/15 cycle and to gather new areas of action and ideas. These results were incorporated into an agile development process. development process. Step by step, multidisciplinary teams worked out teams worked out ideas, integrated them or discarded them again - until the the end result was a publishable strategy. In the beginning In the beginning, 24 people worked on the process; in the end, 250 employees employees worldwide were involved. Agile working methods were introduced on an as-needed basis, implemented by the teams and thus learned. In addition, the approach was completely virtualized in 2020 was completely virtualized due to the Corona pandemic.

On the targeted points "strategy created", "agility tried out "eye-level culture implemented", were joined by others during the process. so that E-T-A actually achieved eight results with the agile strategy work. achieved eight results:

1. Vision and strategy.

2. Knowledge and skills of agile work culture and methods.

3. Culture of eye level.

4. Implicit knowledge and commitment to the strategy.

5. Adoption of agile methods in day-to-day business.

6. Executives set an example of agile working methods.

7. Exercise in distributed digital work.

8. Self-management and organization.

The Agile Strategy Process

In addition to classic business management techniques (e.g. SWOT analysis), the process deliberately used procedures from the agile toolbox. from the agile toolbox. The goal was to achieve interdisciplinarity, self-organization, prioritization, early results and associated feedback as well as flow into the strategy work. strategy work. In addition, the company focused on a high level of participation of its employees. The three elements - strategy, agility and participation - were independent of each other, but supported but supported each other.

In the following, we describe how we designed the strategy process in an agile and participatory manner. in an agile and participatory manner. In order for the process to develop along the way three of the seven elements were used for review and adjustment (review Review and adaptation (review, retrospective and cadence).

1. Kanban logic: As a central tool, we used a Kanban system to make the work on the strategy transparent. The Kanban boards represented key independent parts of the strategy such as business areas, business ideas, or strategic advancements. The Kanban board consisted of columns that showed the progress of the strategy parts from idea through several steps to tested, researched, integrated into an overall strategy. A definition of done defined for each column, i.e. for each work step, its result and quality requirement. The cards proceeded through the Kanban and made the progress of the work transparent for everyone. Originally, the demands on the steps were very high, but in several retrospectives they were drastically reduced. In the second year, the number of steps or columns was reduced from eleven to five.

2. Multidisciplinary self-organized teams and pull-Principle: Teams took (pulled) work from Kanban, when they had free capacity. The teams organized and managed themselves. The work results were defined by the Kanban columns and the associated definition of done. The strategy involved employees from different hierarchical levels, departments and countries worked together, brought in different perspectives and provided multidisciplinary thinking. The result was holistic. The original assumption that teams come together in a self-organized manner was confirmed. The assumption that self-organization comes easily had to be corrected: Many teams needed support from the Agile Coaches, and several retrospectives focused on the question, "How can we improve our teamwork?"

3. Co-located, distributed and digital work: Co-located work, i.e., face-to-face collaboration in a physical or virtual space, has been an important element of collaboration.

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About the company E-T-A

E-T-A Elektrotechnische Apparate GmbH is an innovative and owner-managed technology company. The company protects lives and assets with a broad portfolio of equipment circuit breakers and power distribution systems. E-T-A operates worldwide with offices in more than a dozen countries and four production sites. The company works with customers in the plant engineering, telecommunications, chemical, automotive, medical and renewable energy sectors. E-T-A has over 1,300 employees and is present in over 60 countries. 

Your contact person::

Malte Foegen

wibas GmbH

Malte Foegen

Otto-Hesse-Str. 19B

64293 Darmstadt

+49 6151 5033490