How to kill a great organisation?:

Watching the grass grow.

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Why it is important to approach change processes with courage and empathy and to implement strategies pragmatically.

In this episode of our podcast series „How to kill a great organisation“ Elisabeth Leyser spoke with Dr. Lara Spendier, Head of Transformation at the Austrian Federal Railways ÖBB. She studied computer science and linguistics and is co-founder of the „Agenda Bahnindustrie Frauen“ and the „Women in Mobility Hub“ in Vienna, both networks to connect women in mobility and generate new ideas. 

Spendier talks about her approach to bringing together even very different things and issues, which is also reflected in her academic and professional career. Especially when it comes to transformation, it is very often necessary to consider conflicting requirements and to focus on what is common. 

Successful change needs a common framework and individual opportunities for people to connect with the change

Spendier then goes into specific detail about the different requirements and interests within ÖBB, citing as examples the three major divisions within ÖBB: Personenverkehrs AG, Rail Cargo and Infrastruktur AG. With regard to these group companies, she is concerned with the following questions: „What unites them with each other? What is the common ground? What is this common vocabulary or framework that they can all find themselves in? That we can all agree on, but that also leaves room for individual possibilities and options to move forward.“ 

In transformation processes, two levels are important to her: on the one hand, the strategic, conceptual level where goals are defined – but on the other hand, it is also important to focus on the concrete and tangible in order to make the practical aspects and results visible and tangible for the staff.  

In connection with corporate culture and leadership, Spendier considers reflectiveness and feedback to be important:

„Communication and change management as accompaniment in large projects is really indispensable from my point of view. And that you also really need stamina and patience, because sometimes you feel like you are watching the grass grow a little bit…“ 

Very important: for WHOM are we actually doing all this?

With every transformation, they focus on the questions: For whom am I actually doing this? Who are the people affected? How can I communicate it to these people? 

„Sometimes very small, attentive solutions for smaller things help to make everyday work easier and also make a big topic like a transformation a bit more understandable and tangible“. 

Courage, pragmatism and empathy

Spendier gives the following advice to people who dare to undertake change projects: „Be courageous, be pragmatic and be empathetic“. Courage means breaking out of predefined frameworks, creating new ideas, and also always listening to your gut feeling. Pragmatism means not always striving for perfection, and empathy is needed to create solutions and products for people. 

We summarise

How to kill a great organisation:

  • Above all, orientate yourself on the figures of the past – it will go on more or less as before. 
  • Don’t specify exactly where you want to go – something might go wrong.
  • It is enough if only the top executives know – this way you keep more options for action open. 
  • It is best to develop your new organisation undisturbed in a small room and draw a new organisation chart. This provides orientation.
  • Communicate as sparingly as possible – people get confused easily. 
  • After a while, people will realise that the current changes make sense – with a little patience, things will work out.

How not to kill a great organisation:

  • Together with your core team, formulate clarity why you need and want the change. 
  • Develop a vision for your change project that includes more than just facts and figures. Articulate how the people in your organisation will feel, what will motivate them, how they will communicate when it is successful…
  • Develop a „design“ for your change process (and be ready to adjust it again and again _ „planning until the next curve (with the target picture in mind)“. 
  • Make sure to plan consistently at all levels: organisation, interaction and individual always in view. Keep the interaction of these aspects in the moment
  • Communicate your goals transparently and keep your staff informed (even if there are changes to the planned path).  
  • Honestly invite active co-creation and create opportunities for open feedback from the organisation to the „change centre“.
  • Think of change as a rippling „movement“ emanating from a centre – the more people who have been convincingly involved and the better oriented they are, the more likely it is to succeed in pulling an urge. 
  • Reduce contradictions on the levels of organisation – interaction – individual behaviour as far as possible (even on a „small“ scale). 

The full length interview:

This text was translated by a machine and clearly shows that we still have a long way to go before we are in danger of being rendered obsolete by A.I.. 

Elisabeth Leyser: Welcome to our MetaShift Transformation Podcast „How to Kill a Great Company?“. This is on our minds! And we are currently looking at what determines the long-term success of companies. We hear from experienced leaders and experts about what they think is most important. We are concerned with sustainable corporate development and which factors support it. We learn from our interviewees how they arrived at their views and insights. Today, Dr. Lara Spendier, Head of Transformation Office at the Austrian Federal Railways, is my guest. I would like to talk to Lara about how change can work in a company as large as ÖBB. There are certainly very special influences and factors that have to be taken into account and where special ways of dealing with them are necessary. Hello, Lara. Welcome. May I ask you to introduce yourself briefly? 

Lara Spendier: Yes. Hi. Thank you very much for inviting me to talk to you. Exactly. My name is Lara Spendier. And as you said, I’ve been leading the transformation office at ÖBB, the group-wide transformation programme. Before my time at ÖBB, I completed a doctorate in computer science at the TU, worked in consulting, and managed the software architecture in a software company. I am also currently still a co-founder of the „Railway Industry Women“ agenda. This is an association to make women in our industry more visible and to network them, and I am also a co-founder of the Sui Mini Mobility Hub Vienna. This is also a network to connect women in mobility and generate new ideas. Exactly. I am a mum of two little boys. That’s me, in a nutshell, so to speak. 

Elisabeth Leyser: It sounds like you have quite a lot on your plate and at the same time a very interesting life. You obviously have a very broad interest in things. And now I ask myself: What does that mean on the one hand? Or what does it say about you that you have studied so many different things and are doing so many things on the side besides motherhood? How do you approach your professional challenges and transformation and change from this broad availability of resources? 

Lara Spendier: Exactly. Well, besides computer science, which I studied at the TU, I also studied linguistics and Dutch at the University of Vienna. And that sounds like a pretty weird combination or unusual combination. On the one hand, a totally technical degree, and on the other hand, two humanities studies, some of which went into literature. But I think this combination also shows my approach. Namely, that you can bring together different things that at first glance might seem to be fundamentally different, and that you can then recognise commonalities or intersections that connect such topics or such different topics with each other. And yes, I am completely convinced that you can find something in all situations that unites people or issues. And that, I think, is what we always have to find out. Also with; especially with transformation issues. That is something very unifying, and in my opinion we sometimes had to deal with very contradictory requirements. And the challenge and the exciting thing is to find what we have in common, even what divides or separates us, so to speak. And to take that into account and to continue working in that way. Exactly. 

Elisabeth Leyser: That already sounds like a first, very clear indication of what you feel is important when it comes to change. It is often very concrete experiences that enable us to develop new perspectives as people. And now I wanted to ask you: Were there moments when you thought, we have to do this differently, we have to do this differently? We won’t reach our goal if we continue like this. 

Lara Spendier: Yes, it’s quite clear that I’ve already thought that, I think, in about every station of my life so far, I have to say honestly. It started at school with me personally, that I thought things must somehow go better or go differently. Or also that one is confronted with situations where one thinks that things can’t go on like this. Right now, in a different role, I really thought, okay, the way we’re going right now, we’re not going to create a promising product, for example. Where I then actually pulled a lot of levers to change something that didn’t work out. Which is then also to be accepted, so to speak. But also now with such a large company as ÖBB. So you can imagine, if only you look at our structure. With Personenverkehr AG and Rail Cargo, we have two global groups that have completely different customers than we do now, for example our subgroup Infrastruktur AG. On the one hand, there are the two sales groups, so to speak, which sell their products to the men and women out there. For Infrastruktur AG, for example, a major customer is also the Ministry. They are very different, so you can already get an insight into how different the objectives can be. And also between passenger transport and Rail Cargo, i.e. Rail Cargo sells its products to other business customers in passenger transport. 

Lara Spendier: We probably all know this best from our own point of view as passengers who are sitting on the train and perhaps want to book a Nightjet or want to go somewhere for a short time at the weekend or perhaps have now also bought the new climate tickets and now enjoy travelling more by train. Of course, there are different requirements and if you want to implement something on a group-wide level, there are of course many different interests and they can certainly diverge. And in a concrete topic. Where I experienced this myself was when I introduced and developed the topic of data management in our group. There were, of course, or are, the most diverse ideas about what you can do with your own data. Ultimately, because very different data are available. Some of the data is the same, but there are of course very different opinions on what should happen with it and what should happen with this topic. And from my point of view, the most important aspect was to find this unifying factor. That is, what unites these groups and, subsequently, the many sub-societies that we have? Because of course not only the group, but also the individual group companies have different orientations. What unites them? What is the common basis? What is this common vocabulary or this common framework in which everyone can find themselves? We can all agree on it, but it also offers room for individual possibilities and options to move forward. 

Lara Spendier: That was certainly a very, very important point in this area. A second important point was certainly that you don’t just build something on a strategy level. So data management in theory. What do we want to do with it? But that we also do something very concrete, tangible, so to speak, so that the topic, which is very theoretical when you look at it, for example, just a few details. If you think about it, who is responsible for the data and what does it look like when some data overlaps or overlaps? Where are the boundaries there? It’s great when you have agreed on this in theory or have found a common vocabulary. But there is still this practical part missing, and we have managed to do that by introducing the data catalogue throughout the group. And this combination is ultimately extremely important in any transformation process, in my view. On the one hand, it means defining this goal at the conceptual level, but at the same time it means having something that makes it more tangible for the colleagues, that makes it more tangible and where you can really see results. In the end, yes. 

Elisabeth Leyser: I can very well understand that this now too often mentions two levels. One is to create a framework that shows the larger context and makes it possible to create a common framework for different interests in the case and then also to make the individual possibilities visible and again to actually bring two very different qualities, the strategic level and the practical part, into connection with each other. That is, it is transformation in general, but of course specifically in such a complex environment as you are managing. It’s quite a challenging story. And there I ask myself, what have you learned as a person through these experiences? What have you possibly changed in your behaviour over time? 

Lara Spendier: Exactly. So over time certainly one issue is really this combination between: Okay. I now have a totally super-good idea. It’s totally good for me. But also checking it out. Is it also what my colleagues and clients actually need? So this check that you do over and over again, this feedback loop. And the link with something vulnerable. Then the second thing I’ve learned for sure is how important communication is in a change or a change process – but how important it really is is something I’m reminded of again and again. When you get questions on some topics, for example, where people don’t feel they are being listened to. That means: Yes, communication and change management as support in large projects is really indispensable from my point of view. And the third thing is that you really need stamina and patience, because sometimes you feel like you’re watching the grass grow a little bit and you think to yourself, okay, nothing is going on here and suddenly the meadow is green. So sometimes it just takes more time and then you just have to bite through the more difficult phases and wait. But you need the breath and the staying power. Because if you tackle it well, from my point of view, then the prize will bear fruit and then, as I said, you suddenly have a super green, lush meadow in front of you. Maybe still with a bare patch. Everything will be. 

Elisabeth Leyser: But then you can fertilise them. 

Lara Spendier: Exactly. But then you can fertilise. Exactly. 

Elisabeth Leyser: A beautiful picture! If you now then. You talk a lot about communication and the big picture that you hold in your head. And I think that’s where you can get your motivation and your strength to keep at it, because you have an idea of where you want to go. And when you start communicating with the people you describe as particularly important, and I am sure that this is absolutely correct. What is important when dealing with people who often know little about the project or the plans compared to you? What is particularly important so that they come along? 

Lara Spendier: Yes, for me personally it is very important not to lose touch with the ground when dealing with such topics. That means that even when you deal with goals and strategies, which is always a bit abstract for many people who don’t work on a strategic level. It is also something abstract for all people. That you always bring yourself back down to earth and don’t completely take off. On the one hand. And also always have in focus: For whom am I actually doing this? Who are the people or the company? What is the composition? For whom am I doing these issues? And then to make these people understand that? Because at the end of the day, everyone has their own view of certain issues and everyone has a different reality in their everyday working life, in their everyday professional life, which differs from my professional reality simply because of his or her job. And there also to consider: how do I make these issues tangible for people? In fact. So, from my point of view, even if you have a big goal, you don’t just strive to implement this huge goal somehow. And then with a bang everything is great, or I don’t know how you imagine it. Instead, in between, you have to keep doing small things that are relevant for the people in the company or for the customers, depending on my target group. That you implement them, that people get the feeling that you actually hear them, that you listen to them and that you understand what is bothering them, so to speak. And even if you can’t always solve all the problems. But sometimes very small, attentive solutions to smaller things help to make everyday work easier and also to make such a big topic as a transformation a bit more understandable and tangible, from my point of view. 

Elisabeth Leyser: That means that what you are saying in this context is very important to get closer to people and to put yourself in their shoes wherever possible. And I find what you say very exciting. On the one hand, you fly high because you have a broad view of the situation and you consciously keep your feet on the ground and say, okay, flying high is not enough, it won’t get me to my goal. We always think that precisely these qualities that are not so clearly assessable and not so clear-cut, such as good communication, but also an appropriate culture and, of course, the right leadership style, are so important for the success of a company, namely also in financial and value terms. How do you see these aspects in the context of your change projects? 

Lara Spendier: Yes, I also see it as very important, because from my point of view, large projects and it doesn’t even matter whether it’s a transformation project or another project. Such topics are always very relevant and/. The employees are the ones who ultimately have to see that/ These are the people who contribute to the success of a project, the ones who really have a big share in the success of the company. And, of course, you have to offer these people, so to speak the motor of the company, namely your own employees, very positive aspects. Be it in the management style, as you mentioned, but also in the corporate culture. It all has to go hand in hand and be a unified whole. In my opinion. The challenge is certainly what you communicate as a brand to the outside world. That you really remain congruent with what you have within a company. So in my experience, and this is not all related to ÖBB. But in my basic experience I have already seen in some companies where the brand outwardly differs from what is lived inwardly. Perhaps, I don’t know, a totally agile company is portrayed to the outside world, but internally, traditional procedures are still very much in place. 

Lara Spendier: That is simply a break that is not authentic. Employees and co-workers also notice this. And of course, if you address new employees who are new to the company, who perhaps have a completely different requirement or expectation of the company because of the way it looks to the outside world, they can only be disappointed. And of course there are also such tendencies among long-standing employees. And this naturally leads to people no longer working on projects with so much enthusiasm. In other words, these are things that, as you say, are sometimes quite a yes. That are not always mentioned. It’s like change management or communication in projects, because it’s clear that you do it and that it’s important. But maybe you forget about it in the meantime or you really need systems where you still do such checks. Is that what I have in mind as a leadership style, and is it also lived? By my managers, for example. That is extremely important, because ultimately the more motivated my staff are, the more motivated and full of energy they are. The more motivated and full of verve. And the more my employees feel they belong to my company, the more productive they are. 

Elisabeth Leyser: I think you have now highlighted something very important. The individual aspects are already very important and often not sufficiently in focus, I think. But the congruence between these aspects is even more important. And here, I think, one of the big challenges is that many larger companies are still set up in silos and the different areas are ultimately too little connected with each other and therefore sometimes produce non-congruent results, even though this is not the aim. Clearly. But it is actually already inherent in the system that this happens relatively easily. 

Lara Spendier: Yes, it’s also a big challenge now with already existing companies, which can also be smaller ones, although it’s of course easier for them if they are more manageable. Yes, but also from my point of view, if you go this way, we, all of us, are in many areas, have worked for a very long time in certain ways that have become established. The office presence is just one small example. For years, office attendance was very important in most companies and most sectors. Due to the pandemic, a large part of them have of course moved to the home office and the question is, how do we deal with this in the future, for example, and is my management team, are my managers really paying more than lip service to this? Because yes, we know anyway that home office also offers advantages. But are they actually convinced of it, because that then naturally transfers to the team. So that really starts with such small issues, or another example: What is the attitude of my managers towards various teams? We all know that the more diverse the teams, the better the output, even though it may take more effort to get such a team going at the beginning, because there are so many different personalities and people involved. But are my managers really on board with this and how can I check this? And what do I do if many managers are not yet on board? I can’t, I don’t know, suddenly dismiss half of my management team and bring in new people. Because of course they also have knowledge. So we are moving in an area of tension that is very, very challenging, also on the company side, and at the same time can also be frustrating for female employees when things no longer fit together. 

Elisabeth Leyser: Well, I think it is very important to realise, as you have already clearly stated, that managers are extremely important in their role. And that there are a lot of new demands on them and I think it is also necessary and the best way, because you can’t replace them all, to support them as much as possible so that they can take this step in their development as persons and I think there is a lot of personal development involved.  

Lara Spendier: Yes. But exactly, that in turn means for the managers of the executives, and so on, to always develop a certain amount of reflection, a lot of time also for their own executives. And that really is a great challenge and a challenge for a company. If a company can do that, because with a new company it is of course easier. If I’m in a start-up, I can help build up the corporate culture. In the IT sector, too, I know that topics like home office were not an issue even before Corona. It was clear then: it doesn’t matter where you develop your software now in most cases, at least in part. But for many other sectors this is something new. And jumping on this bandwagon is quite a challenge. 

Elisabeth Leyser: In my opinion, it has a lot to do with the image I have of it: What is an organisation? How do I look at people? Do I see it as something that is rather mechanistically interconnected? Or rather an organisation as a web of relationships, an ecosystem, whatever you want to call it? And do I see a human being as a kind of cog in the organisation? Or do I see a human being as a living player who is simply a human being? And that’s where I think there is a very big step towards change, when the image of the meaning of organisation changes. Yes, we are. Actually, quite towards the end of our conversation. And now I would like to ask you again to listen to yourself and say: OK, what is the most important thing I would like to give the listeners when they embark on a change project? What should they keep in focus and what is absolutely important? 

Lara Spendier: Well, for me there are three calls, so to speak: be courageous, be pragmatic and be empathetic. You always need courage in order to break out of the given framework and to tread a beaten track, so to speak, and not just walk on the beaten path. Namely, also to create new ideas, to be really creative for once and to do something where your gut feeling says: it’s right, but maybe it’s not yet so accepted in companies. That also means thinking differently and contradicting other opinions. So I think this courage is super important. Pragmatism. We don’t need to run after perfection, but it’s also important to accept that you can’t always achieve everything or everyone with your actions. And empathy is simply a central point, especially in transformation projects. Always keep in mind that you want to create solutions for people. The products are for people. Your employees and colleagues are people. Listen to these people and make sure that you reach the goal together. 

Elisabeth Leyser: Thank you. That was once a very nice conclusion for me. Creating solutions for people, which is what it always is in the end. Yes. Thank you very much to our listeners. If you enjoyed the episode, we would be very happy if you subscribe to us via your podcast app. We would also be delighted to receive a five-star rating, of course. And if you recommend us to others as well. All of this helps us to continue to attract exciting interviewees and to further deepen and explore the topics around change and transformation. I am already looking forward to the next episode. Goodbye.