Jurgen Appelo: "Seek to understand before trying to be understood"

Jurgen Appelo: "Seek to understand before trying to be understood"

Jurgen Appelo: "Seek to understand before trying to be understood"

Maya Klevtsova
Jurgen, you interact with different companies on a daily basis – either as an inspirational speaker, a consultant, or a coach. Have you noticed any global changes in project management practices during the last year?

Well, first of all, I am not a coach or consultant. I have my own companies that I manage. I am only available for other companies as a speaker and (remote) workshop facilitator. That means I don’t get to see the inside of the projects that happen at other companies. I only hear things about other projects when people tell me at events or workshops.

But what I’ve heard is that there is still a long way to go in terms of organizational transformation. Most companies just adopt some superficial agile changes, but they are not really transforming. For example, I just heard one hour ago about a company ordering agile leadership courses, but the top managers don’t want to be in the same room as the “lower” middle managers, so they probably get their own exclusive class. This would not happen in a truly transformed organization. But I always say, the glass is half full, not half empty. At least they want to get started. That’s a beginning.

Fortunately, the environment forces companies to change. COVID-19 played an important role last year, in good and bad ways. More digital transformation also requires more agile transformation.

Nowadays, everyone wants to be seen as innovative and agile, and these two words seem to be over-exploited by companies to an extent that people don’t take them so seriously anymore – or worse, have interpret them as they suit best. To you, what qualifies an organization as ‘agile’ and ‘innovative’? 

A company is agile when it survives and thrives in an environment that is changing fast. When the company has trouble keeping up with change, then it is not agile enough. For example, companies that, at this point, still struggle with remote working, are not agile. They already had a year to adapt to the new situation. If they haven’t fully adapted, they’re not agile.

A company is innovative when it, repeatedly, offers something new (that others don’t offer) which appears to be valuable to clients. Innovation = creativity + revenue. Show me which new products and services your customers are paying for (and that your competitors don’t have) and I’ll tell you that you’re innovative.

Jurgen Appelo

Where should innovations start from? Who should lead the process?

There needs to be a sponsor at the executive team, otherwise it won’t really happen. Someone needs to protect the innovative part of the organization (which needs to have a focus on exploration) from the other part of the organization (which must focus on execution). There can be a separate innovation board managing the innovation portfolio (and I would recommend that). But at the least, you need an executive sponsor or else the part of the company that is making money will kill any innovative initiative by not giving it enough time and money.

How will remote work influence agility in organizations? What is crucial to take into consideration?

The benefit of remote work is that it’s much harder to control people. You cannot really see them working! So there is a bigger need among managers to focus on output instead of activity, and that’s a good thing. What matters is what people achieve, not which hours of the day they worked on what things.

Where do we start from, when speaking about change management?

I believe we need to take a Design Thinking and Lean Startup approach to change management. There is not much difference between changing the behavior of a customer versus changing the behavior of an employee. Employee engagement is just as important as customer engagement. So, nearly everything that applies to customers can also apply to employees.

That means you need an iterative approach: empathize with workers, define what they need, come up with hypotheses about what would improve their work-lives, run tests to see if you’re correct, and reflect on the results. And then the circle starts again.

How can a ‘regular’ employee influence change management, in case the organization doesn’t have a clear change management strategy? 

Nobody needs to influence change. You can just start by yourself without anyone’s permission. Begin with the low-hanging fruit. Organize employee meetups, book clubs, brown bag lunch sessions, cooking with colleagues… There are many things people can do to increase motivation and learning and that don’t need permission or cooperation from others. When you have the first results of enthusiastic colleagues who joined your initiatives, that’s a good starting point for a conversation with others in the company when you need their help.

Most importantly, “seek to understand before trying to be understood”. Always begin by understanding the problems that other people are struggling with. When they “resist change” you have the responsibility of finding out what their needs are. It means their needs are probably different from yours. You need to empathize with them to get them onboard. Always be able to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Our impression from the many companies we interact with is that their leadership teams and employees are often struggling with too many projects running simultaneously, and feel overwhelmed by the workload. You have also shared that you are experiencing this issue at times. What advice would you share for a better organization of work?

People do what motivates them. I run every day because I have motivated myself with personal challenges and things like that. If something is important to you, and you need to get things done, figure out how to gamify it for yourself so that you motivate yourself. The less important things (like watching Netflix) automatically drop away.


What would you like to know about your Bulgarian audience, prior to your event this Thursday @ Launchee? Would you like to address any specific topic or question?

Is there anything in which agile and innovation in Bulgaria are different from other countries?