How to kill a great organisation?:
Agility with totalitarian pretensions: Always and constantly changing everything for everyone until no one can find their way around!
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How complexity and agile working are connected and what to do if not everyone wants to work in a self-determined way.
Benjamin Mayr is Head of Expertise & Product Range Development at Del Fabro Kolarik GmbH. Elisabeth Leyser spoke with the wine and flavour specialist about his experiences with agile teams: about the need for mindfulness and reflectiveness as a leader, how wine tastings can promote receptivity to different perceptions and what it takes to become a learning organisation.
Make decisions where the most knowledge is available
For Mayr, the basic idea for introducing agile working methods was to make decisions where there is the most knowledge. The central challenge was to know the needs of many different customers, as well as a better form of knowledge transfer: „How do you manage to know 1000 items and sell them authentically?“ Another important aspect was to recognise trends early and thus be faster, more individualised and more innovative. This led to the introduction of agile teams and agile forms of cooperation.
Mayr explains the basic considerations that led him to introduce agile settings without overusing the „buzzword“ agility. These were making the best possible use of employees‘ skills, spreading expertise widely, building a learning organisation, changing role models – from salespeople to consulting experts and brand ambassadors – and a new self-image: „We are the home of the people who really know the most about the industry“. This means that employees can develop in the areas they are passionate about.
Driven by the original idea of introducing completely self-organised teams, in the course of the project there was more and more focus on interfaces and work on the question of where separation between agile structure and linear structure makes sense and is necessary.
Mayr then goes into the requirements for agile working and mentions a high degree of feedback, dealing with uncertainty and vagueness, and reducing complexity. Above all, however, the consideration of the different needs of the employees.
Agility lived undogmatically
„There must be no dogmas, you have to adapt quickly and you may calmly accept when you find things that are capable of optimisation. And agility is not right for not every area. Where the complexity is higher, we will work more agilely because the solutions are simply better, because you can make much faster progress there. And where a single individual can come to a good decision quickly based on their experience, you reduce uncertainty and move forward faster.“
Leading without dogmas, staying in motion, mindfulness and resilience are the core points of Mayr’s understanding of leadership: „Moving from constantly doing to being… and if you are more self-reflective, you can understand much more precisely what the demands of the environment are at that moment. And when I understand myself better, I have a millisecond more to regulate myself, to use my skills in a situation in the best possible way.“
Mayr cites understanding and readiness in the organisation for change as an essential basic requirement for any change project. Specifically, he recommends:
„get into action quickly, test quickly, hypothesise and test, if something works, keep it, if something doesn’t work, drop it again. Quick small steps…“
How to kill a great organization:
- Working self-directedly makes everyone happier people!
- Rely on the fact that you and other (top) leaders will already know everything that supports the organisation’s progress.
- Agility is THE solution – just impose new methods like Kanban and Scrum and your people will already become more innovative and solution-oriented.
- Isolate yourself from other influences – this will make it all the more visible how successful you are.
- Assume that everyone in the room has a similar view of things.
Agility, knowledge transfer and continuous learning as criteria for sustainable business success
- Every decision should serve to reduce complexity. But not every issue needs it.
- Put agility in the context of a clear and concrete objective – this will make it easier to decide which forms of cooperation are most useful in which areas of the company.
- Invest attention and time in clear interface agreements (especially between „agile“ and classically organised work areas).
- Distribute knowledge among as many heads as possible and ensure good connections between people – this will ensure quick decisions and meaningful responses to new demands.
- Say goodbye to the desire for stability – focus on continuous learning and remain attentive to new dynamics.
- Get a broad picture of the situation by talking to as many people as possible or finding a more time-efficient way (e.g. highly structured workshops in large groups) to understand what makes people tick.
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: Yes. Afternoon. Welcome to our MetaShift Transformation podcast „How to Kill a Great Company?“. In our podcast, we look at what really determines the long-term success of companies. Among other things, we hear from experienced leaders about what they think is particularly important for sustainable business success and also how they came to these insights, these perspectives. Today, Benjamin Mayrr is our guest. He is a wine and flavour specialist and head of „expertise and product range development „2 at a large Austrian beverage wholesaler. Welcome, Benjamin. Would you please introduce yourself briefly?
Benjamin Mayr: Yes, with pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. Yes, my name is Benjamin Mayr. At Del Fabro Kolarik, I am responsible for the development of the product range and its expertise. I/ My passion is for wine is actually what brought me here. Along the way, I worked in gastronomy, among other things at Wein und Co. I also continued my education in this direction and then did a wine academy and was always driven by curiosity. And my job actually revolves around the quality of the assortment and the resulting knowledge for my colleagues in the company, because the assortment is the business card for a beverage retailer. So even before we have the chance to convince a potential customer of our services and service capabilities, he already knows what we offer and who we are. And in this respect it is a very exciting and meaningful task for me.
Elisabeth Leyser: Thank you. It’s really obvious that you enjoy what you’re doing. And you have been in the industry for some time now, as you just mentioned, and also now in a leadership position and have started to work with agility in your teams and have dealt with the topic of agility very profoundly. What prompted you to do that?
Benjamin Mayr: It was that we. We merged a few years ago and there were two companies with different product ranges and at that time I was an expert in this work package where we looked at, okay, what should our product range be like? And as a beverage trader we have this central challenge that we want to meet the needs of different customer segments, from more or less the sausage stand to the five-star gastronomy or hotel business. And as a result, we need a fairly large assortment. And that is actually the key point. We have tens of thousands of articles and the industry is changing. If you say that ten years ago good logistics and a wide assortment were a competitive advantage, today it’s more about being able to sell authentically, so that people know what it is. That is actually the core of my task. How do you manage to know 9,000 articles and sell them authentically? And yes, within the framework of this merger project, it quickly became clear that we had to find a better form of knowledge transfer so that we could remain fit for the demands of the market.
Elisabeth Leyser: Okay. That’s interesting.
Benjamin Mayr: And so that/
Elisabeth Leyser: Not. Because you actually said that it’s about distributing knowledge to as many people as possible, but that it can also be accessed. Is that right?
Benjamin Mayr: That is correct. So that’s exactly what it’s about. It’s about the fact that actually. Actually, it’s about remaining responsive. If we want to try an agile term now. Because the point is that we have a proper. So the idea that we wanted to pursue is actually also a basic idea of agility, where we say, okay, we’ll give the decisions to where the greatest knowledge is. Yes, and then we quickly found out for ourselves: Our, our consultants, they know our customers and if they are good, then they think for them and they know our range and possible weaknesses. And in reality, if they are good, they also know what our competitors have and what the market offers. And if they are just that much more advanced, but maybe also have a passion for it and a reason why you like to work with beverages, then maybe they also look beyond the borders of our market and recognise trends early on. And we might be able to be faster, more individualised and more innovative as a result. Yes.
Elisabeth Leyser: I find that very interesting because you are active in a special field and there are not that many beverage retailers, I would say, of that size in Austria. And at the same time, what you just said is so important for many companies today. Because knowledge is becoming more and more complex. More and more knowledge is needed to be able to manage companies. And it is becoming more and more difficult for this to be gathered in one or a few heads of managers. In my view, this is the main reason why people are starting to think about agile teams and agile forms of cooperation. And that is what you have just started with your teams. And I would like to know a little bit about how that was from the beginning? How was the support from the organisation, from the owner? And how did you get on, how did you try to work together?
Benjamin Mayr: Of course, through the merger of these two companies/through this merger we had this project where we simply looked at various work packages, who do we want to be and how are we? And of course there was a one hundred percent commitment from the ownership side, which I think is also one of the basic prerequisites if you want to start agile projects. We have not actually used the buzzword „agility“ for this process that we have gone through. And yet we went into a very agile setting. And I think one of the basic considerations was: we recognised that we have extreme competences in these teams. And the question was, how can we make the best possible use of that? And at the beginning, I think there were about six points where we said, okay, these are actually only advantages if we manage to do it, because then we can become a learning organisation. We have the expertise spread widely, we have the customers who then talk to experts and insiders instead of, in inverted commas, „salespeople“. If we do this really well, we will also get our advisors there so that they are perceived in the market as experts and as brand ambassadors. And finally, it’s also about training completely different standards, because it becomes clear: We are the home of the people who really know the industry best.
Benjamin Mayr: And finally, and this is where it gets really nice, it is also about the employee being able to develop in the area that he or she perhaps finds inspiring. And that’s how it actually started, that we/ I think the first step for me was really to talk on a very broad basis with everyone who worked in sales with us, and I think that’s 70 people in total with the managers, simply how do you imagine it? And I stretched this arc very broadly and then it came out more or less. Everyone has a core issue that drives them. Where you say okay, he’s not here because he thinks selling is so cool, but there’s something else, there’s more to him. He likes beer, he likes wine, he likes drinks – there’s something you can build on. And then for me it was also a question of: how do I manage to get the people together in such a way that they are in groups according to their abilities and interests, but where they then also take on this task of product range management and knowledge distribution. And that was – we are already in the middle of the project.
Elisabeth Leyser: And in the end the project was very, very exciting. We will hear more about that. What fascinated me was that you said you really talked to everyone. (Just a second, I need a sip of water.) And you discovered a theme, a passion in each of them. I think that is inside almost all people, and it is actually only very rarely brought to the surface and then also visible and perceptible in the sense of a company, of working together. So there is, I think, a very big resource still hidden in what you initiated right at the beginning. What happened next? As far as I know, you imagined it to be a little bit different than it is now. How did you get there? And what was the moment when you understood that you might have to adjust your approach?
Benjamin Mayr: Yes, I think that in the beginning you always have opportunities to develop further through improvements. And then I was/ The first steps were such that we had these meetings within the individual product groups and then at some later point we worked very hard on the interfaces and said, where is the separation between agile structure and linear? And somewhere I realised for myself that I had put most of my work into the stability of the whole and had drifted away from the core task a bit. And we have. Somewhere, the challenge got to me. I was actually totally driven by the idea that we would empower completely self-organised teams, but then they would really grow this task. And I have on the way. We have, we have a/ We have got this culture in that we have brought this into every product group. But it is always difficult to keep these interfaces clean. And finally, that also brought me to the study that Birgit Feldhusen, who was also a guest of yours, initiated two or three years ago. Agile Organisations and Collegial Leadership.
Benjamin Mayr: I was somehow looking for ways to do it better. And for me it was a turning point in the course Organisation Story where we talked about agile companies and the content was something like: It also demands a lot from the people who are in it, because the provisionality in agile groups demands a high degree of feedback and also creates less security and therefore higher uncertainty. And the individual is more challenged to deal with vagueness and to regulate himself. And that’s when I became aware of it for the first time. Not everyone wants to work in a self-determined way, or not everyone needs that, or not everyone wants that. And the key sentence was actually: every decision served to reduce complexity. And if you create a system that is very complex, it might also be able to deal with complex answers, with complex questions. But not every question needs that. And in this respect, my learning was to go back a step and only use it where it is really needed.
Elisabeth Leyser: That means you have actually recognised that your teams or the people in your teams have very different needs. But at the same time, at least that’s what I understood, that the complexity in the individual teams is different because of the different product groups or tasks. Is that correct?
Benjamin Mayr: That is correct. So I think what we have learned is that. Yes, there should be no dogmas and you have to adapt quickly and you can calmly accept if you, if you find things that are capable of optimisation. And agility is not right for every area. And we are right now, at this moment, we are just back to finding the best possible format. And for me it’s clear: where the complexity is higher, we will work more agilely, because the solutions are simply better, because you can get much further much faster there. And where a single individual quickly comes to a good decision based on his or her experience, it’s good to have that because it reduces the uncertainties and makes us faster overall.
Elisabeth Leyser: Okay, I think to myself that especially in a role where you are supposed to lead these teams together and also do that, it is obviously not very easy when you work with these big differences and when you are supposed to give common direction. How did this realisation that different people, different tasks, also need different degrees of agility or different ways of working together – how did that challenge you as a manager and what could you possibly have learned and developed in yourself?
Benjamin Mayr: Of course I have. On the one hand, I am extremely happy and grateful for the task, because I was able to really grow with it and it was simply not boring. And it’s also something like. I’m like that as a person, I always need something that simply challenges me personally; where I see a challenge. And I’m basically curious and in that sense it was a good fit because it was a big challenge. I think the big learning is to keep moving and simply try to understand even better what is required at that moment. So the topic of mindfulness and the topic of resilience are two topics that I certainly felt were new to me. And the topic of constantly adapting to – that is, trying to understand where what is required and then coming into it accordingly. And what I have found again is certainly this theme: to have no dogmas myself, so to speak. I think that’s the thing. Two years ago, I tried very hard to make my teams more agile and to stay out of decisions, saying: You have to now, you have to get in now and you have to build this capacity so that we have a mass in sum. Today I am no longer so narrow-minded. Instead, if I am able to make a good decision more quickly, then I will do it. And in this respect. I think this topic, this staying in motion and the correct assessment of the situation have been the great lessons for me.
Elisabeth Leyser: Thank you. What I particularly liked was your statement that leadership without dogma requires mindfulness and resilience. As a leader, you have to constantly reposition yourself, not to say reinvent yourself. Is that understood correctly?
Benjamin Mayr: Yes, absolutely. I also believe that somewhere along the way you have to move from this permanent doing to being. And that is also something I was able to learn through my studies. That if you are simply more self-reflective, you can understand much more precisely what the demands of my environment are at that moment. And when I understand myself better, I have one millisecond more to regulate myself, to use my abilities in a situation in the best possible way.
Elisabeth Leyser: The way you say it now, one almost wishes one had you as a leader.
Benjamin Mayr: It’s not possible. It is. It’s often the case that you only find out afterwards: Ah yes, that’s the way I have it now. And then you don’t always have the possibility to consciously act in the right way in the situation. But it does make sense to think about where you use what.
Elisabeth Leyser: Absolutely, absolutely. What also interested me very much in our preliminary discussion was that you mentioned that as a wine expert you have dealt very intensively with different aromas and at some point you said to me that it was supportive for you that it was so clear to you that one cannot discuss aromas. That may have made it easier for you to understand people in their differences and above all in their different perceptions. Did I understand that correctly?
Benjamin Mayr: Yes, that was. That was so, so that’s so, so when I, when I, when I. I think a huge skill for a leader is to understand that when I’m in a meeting and something happens, not everyone may have the same understanding of what just happened, because everyone observes it from their own perspective. For one person it’s good, for another person it’s not so good. And in so far as this constructivist way of thinking entails. I always think only from my own abilities. And what I just. What I’ve become aware of is that you – when you consume wine, you totally have! – Now, when I say apple, for example, maybe one listener thinks of a red one and the other thinks of a green one. But it’s not that he’s wrong. He is ultimately right. And anyone who has ever argued about a wine, which can be done exquisitely, also knows that taste is subjective. And that actually the basic skills, the ones you also need to become a good leader.
Elisabeth Leyser: Yes, that means you could actually enrich management seminars with wine tastings, I’m sure some people – I’m sure some people wouldn’t mind. I have the feeling that what you have just said, especially on the topic of leadership, but also your insights in connection with agile and less agile work and how much sense it makes and, above all, how important it is to recognise what different groups and people need. That all of this should ultimately help to secure the long-term future of an organisation, of a company. Namely, that it can develop well and that it also notices through attentiveness when it is time to adapt something, to change something. At MetaShift, we are convinced that it is also very important to focus on non-material aspects in connection with corporate security, namely leadership, corporate culture, but also self-renewal. When you think of your experiences, what comes to mind or what seems particularly important to you in this context?
Benjamin Mayr: I think what you said is absolutely right. Companies are in a state of change. We are dealing with increasing digitalisation, which means that customers are somehow becoming even more central. We are experiencing that markets are changing and our suppliers, that quasi insecurity is increasing and of course we are also experiencing that – I think increasingly with the younger generation, the job seekers – more and more the desire of people for meaningful work is coming as a driver. And in this respect, leadership and corporate culture simply have to develop further and try to meet these demands. And there is the big question: How do you do that? There are a few questions that deal with this. So the integration of the person in the organisation or how do I deal with it/ How can I get continuous change into the core of the company, so that change is no longer a slimmed-down project, but part of a company? How do I manage to maintain this self-renewal capacity and how? How do I create emergent knowledge in projects or in the whole company? How do I manage to act correctly and quickly with extremely complex issues? And in this respect, I think that the companies that get topics like mindfulness or the topic of agility into their company core are the ones that have the most agility. Like partial aspects of agility simply have better chances. And as a manager: Yes, the old role models that we had for leadership are over. I think this command and control is over. So that can’t, can’t really work sustainably or only in partial areas.
Elisabeth Leyser: If you were to give a tip or a recommendation to people who are asking themselves exactly these questions that you have just mentioned. What would that be? What should you pay special attention to when it comes to dealing with people in a new way, to look at the really essential things in leadership in an organisation, no matter what, what seems most important to you now.
Benjamin Mayr: I think yes, first of all identify what is possible and deal with yourself and then ask: do I have the necessary knowledge that I need and then maybe start here. The next step is to clarify to what extent the top managers or owners are able to support this understanding and willingness for change. And then of course the question: What do I need and what is needed? Do I want one? Do I want to bring in an agile principle across the whole company? Or do I want an isolated solution or an experiment? Or is it about the whole organisation? And I think what I want to say is, of course, get into action quickly, rehearse more quickly, set up hypotheses and if something works, keep it and if something doesn’t work. Quickly throw it away again and then take small steps quickly.
Elisabeth Leyser: That actually means going into a project like this right from the start with the intention of wanting to learn and being clear that it is actually a process in which we are constantly learning. Yes, do I understand you there?
Benjamin Mayr: I think so too. I mean, I believe, of course, if. If I really have the desire that I apply agile leadership, then I can. I can always act in my field. But if. It only really makes sense when we can extend it across an organisation or an area. And there is the question: Does my network work? Can I as a leader also work in another area? And do I have this culture that supports me so that we can function in an agile setting? And of course the top managers and also the owners are always asked to support this.
Elisabeth Leyser: You are certainly right about that. Yes. So, if that is not the case, it will be difficult. That is also our experience. Yes, but I have the feeling that a lot is possible if the basic conditions are there, if there is enough commitment to develop the organisational culture. And I’m already very curious to see what else is going on with you. I’ll be happy to hear from you every now and then, and thank you very much for the interview. It was very exciting. I am also sure that our listeners enjoyed it. And if so, we would be delighted if you, dear listeners, would subscribe to us via your favourite podcast app and, of course, even more so if you would give us a five-star rating or recommend us to colleagues, friends, etc.. After all, this helps us to continue to attract exciting guests for our conversations and to be able to further explore new topics around transformation, change, culture, etc. Looking forward to it. See you soon! See you on the next episode. Goodbye.
Benjamin Mayr: Thank you very much. Goodbye.