Gap Size and Agility

The credo of the start-up culture, "Fail fast, fail cheap", still has the bland aftertaste of sloppiness for German engineers and their managers. This typical German fixation on gap sizes prevents agility and slows us down.

Many com­pa­nies that have been accus­tomed to suc­cess for years and decades feel that they have to rein­vent them­selves in the face of an ever faster chang­ing and increas­ing­ly dig­i­tal world. They want to become more inno­v­a­tive, faster and more agile. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, one of our undis­put­ed strengths stands in the way of this in Ger­many: our pen­chant for per­fec­tion. The cre­do of the start-up cul­ture, “fail fast, fail cheap,” still has the bland after­taste of slop­pi­ness for Ger­man engi­neers and their man­agers. “gap size fix­a­tion” is what Sascha Lobo very apt­ly called this typ­i­cal Ger­man per­fec­tion­ism that once made us so suc­cess­ful, but now threat­ens to slow us down.

Gap size fix­a­tion reveals the mea­sur­able prod­uct advan­tage, but also the relent­less essence of per­fec­tion: the absence of a fail­ure cul­ture. This has a dis­as­trous effect in a time when soci­ety and tech­nol­o­gy are chang­ing so rapidly.

Sascha Lobo

Our cre­do in engi­neer­ing Ger­many is “first time right”. Errors are bad, fail­ing is syn­ony­mous with dis­as­ter, and exper­i­ments are there­fore car­ried out in a qui­et lit­tle room until it is per­fect. It was this pen­chant for per­fec­tion that led to the suc­cess of our Wirtschaftswun­der after the Sec­ond World War. And yet, in this suc­cess of yes­ter­day lies one of our prob­lems of today. Per­fec­tion pre­vents a pos­i­tive fail­ure cul­ture. So much so that it seems advis­able to avoid the f‑word alto­geth­er and instead speak of a learn­ing cul­ture.

The sixth the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship: A call for courage and orga­ni­za­tion­al ambidexterity.

The path to a learn­ing cul­ture starts with lead­er­ship, because lead­er­ship has a deci­sive influ­ence on what is appre­ci­at­ed, rec­og­nized, praised and pro­mot­ed in the orga­ni­za­tion. This cul­ture change must begin by putting learn­ing — both in suc­cess and fail­ure — in the fore­ground. Satya Nadel­la, as CEO of Microsoft respon­si­ble for a remark­able cul­tur­al change in recent years, referred to Car­ol Dwerck’s con­cept of the Growth Mind­set and spoke of a learn-it-all cul­ture instead of a know-it-all cul­ture. It is pre­cise­ly this cul­ture of curios­i­ty and learn­ing that is the basis of any trans­for­ma­tion of orga­ni­za­tions towards more agili­ty and adaptability.

Agili­ty is essen­tial­ly about short feed­back cycles. Usable prod­uct ver­sions are deliv­ered at short inter­vals and the insights gained from these will then influ­ence the next steps. Agili­ty means learn­ing from failed attempts on uncer­tain ter­rain. You have to be able to endure the fact that a prod­uct that is not per­fect in all aspects by pre­vi­ous stan­dards must be deliv­ered in order to gain deci­sive insights into the needs of cus­tomers and the market.

And that is why the agile trans­for­ma­tion can­not be a change project con­ceived by con­sul­tants and ordered by man­age­ment, as much as some advo­cates of panaceas prop­a­gate. Agile trans­for­ma­tion itself is a joint learn­ing jour­ney. And this jour­ney can only suc­ceed with the right learn­ing culture.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No mat­ter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beck­ett

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