What is Henrik Kniberg most proud of? “Improving people’s lives!” Something he’s been dedicated to for more than 10 years as an Agile and Lean Coach -mostly for Spotify and Lego- and more recently as a citizen, building a community around environmental issues. Meet Henrik Kniberg!
No, methodologies are boring! My interest is successful product development, happy teams, happy customers, things like that. I’ve just noticed that some ways of working increase the odds of success, while others reduce these odds. I noticed how sometimes small changes can make a huge difference.
I used that knowledge in my own teams and startups, and somehow word got around and I started getting consulting engagements around effective product development and organizational design. I learned a lot of interesting stuff from that work, and spread the knowledge through books and videos and talks. But the methodology stuff is just tools, and I’m much more interested in the results!
Aren’t methodologists changing their role, from animators to facilitators? What do you think?
Yes. Because of complexity. Anyone trying to be a “animator”, whether they are a methodologist or a manager, are going to fail in a complex environment. Facilitation is a way of mobilizing everyone’s capabilities to solve a problem. That way the solution isn’t limited to the capability of one single leader (however experienced and talented he/she may be).
Self-development, methodology, change management books etc. are best-sellers, but reality always turns out to be quite different. How can we find the right balance between reading books about methodologies, and learning “from the trenches”?
“In theory, practice and theory are the same. In practice, they’re not” (quote from some famous guy!).
I’m mostly a practitioner. But I have spent some time on theory, reading books, attending courses, talking to experts. The more I learn, the more I see common patterns behind things like Scrum, Lean, Getting Things Done, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Pomodoro Technique, 4-Hour Workweek, etc. Much of what they’re saying is based on the same timeless principles – but packaged for different contexts. Do one thing at a time. Create slack in your system. Stop to reflect. Have clear priorities. Be responsive to change. Learn from failures. Things that sound kind of obvious, but are sometimes hard to apply in practice (otherwise we wouldn’t need the books).
For me, books and theory are inspiration. And they expand my toolkit. But at the end of the day, reality always wins out. The real learning happens in the field. Things never work out quite as nice and clean as in the books. Case studies and anecdotes are almost exaggerated and simplified—they have to be, or they don’t fit in a book. My videos about Spotify engineering culture are a good example. After seeing my videos people often think Spotify is some kind of Agile nirvana. It’s not. I had to simplify things to explain it in the video, and then viewers add some fantasy and wishful thinking, and then suddenly it became “The Spotify Method” and now it’s being applied as some kind of gospel in hundreds of companies around the world.
I don’t see that as negative though. A dose of inspiration can get you far. I’ve found that even when we apply only a fraction of the ideas of any well-established productivity method, that puts us in a better position than where we were before.
To what extent is this Agile way of working a revolution in which every organization should engage? Do you see agile as the final destination or the “end-all be-all”?
No way, agile is not a one-size-fits-all thing, and it’s DEFINITELY not a final destination.
Agile is about taming complexity. The more complex your work is, the more agile fits. Product development, innovation, and multi-team collaboration are inherently complex endeavors. That’s where agile has become a revolution. Not because agile is some kind of silver bullet, but because the alternatives (like waterfall) have failed over and over, especially as the world moves faster and faster, and competition gets more and more global. I’ve lost count of the number of execs at large organizations that have told that going agile is critical for their long-term survival. I’ve seen this happen mostly within product companies (especially software), but now I’m seeing it spread to completely different industries. Very interesting!
However agile is a direction, not a place. It’s all about continuous improvement, and you’re never ”finished” with that.
“Agile is not a one-size-fits-all thing, and it’s DEFINITELY not a final destination.”@henrikkniberg
Can you share a personal experience of a time where you were able to influence a company or a group of people to change the way they work—in moving toward agile—beyond getting over the initial resistance? What were the key factors that allowed for this transformation?
I worked with game company that took 2 years to develop new games. They knew they had to get faster, or they’d go out of business. I was quite junior as a coach at the time, but I had a pretty amazing experience there. They had known about the problem for years and not managed to change it. When I came in, I tried a technique that I had learned about only recently—value stream mapping. I got together a diverse group representing different parts of their process—a development manager, designer, project lead, tester, developer, etc. We mapped out all the steps involved in building a game, including queues and handoffs and such. The resulting picture showed that, during the 2 years of development, a project was effectively stuck in queues for about 18 months. So 80-90% of the time was waste. This picture became a tipping point—people looked at it, talked about it, and said ”we have to DO something!”. And they did. They ended up with small cross-functional, self-organizing, co-located game teams, each doing one game at a time with 2 week cycles. Pretty much Scrum. The difference was dramatic. New games could consistently be developed in only 3-4 months—7 times faster! The games were better and more commercially successful, the teams and customers were happier.
I’ve thought a lot about this. What triggered the change? First of all, a clear understanding of the current situation. That was the value stream map. Second, a way out. In this case, I proposed an “experiment”. Organizational change is always a hard sell. Experiments are a lot easier to sell. So they agreed to do the “experiment” of putting together a cross-functional team and seeing how long it takes to build a game when they skip the whole departments and handoffs thing. Once they saw the effect of this, the organizational change happened almost automatically. So I didn’t need to convince anyone of anything, I just helped them see their current situation more clearly, and through experiments I helped them see that a different world is possible.
On the flip side, if they had been happy with their current situation, or unaware of the problems with their current approach, I would not have been able to change anything.
You recently embraced the environmental cause. Is sustainability the next methodology you want to explore?
I’m not sure what “methodology” means in this case. But I’ve come to realize that global warming is the biggest problem in the world. The more I study up on it, the more apparent it is that climate change is a disaster on an epic, biblical scale—humanity has never been in deeper trouble. Hundreds of years in the future, people (or whatever remains of humanity) will look back at us, our generation, and say “THIS was when humans realized they were sinking their own boat”. And what did we do?
We can’t “solve” this problem, but we can certainly make an impact. We know the main cause—CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. So we just need to stop doing that, and fast! It’s already happening, but it needs to happen faster!
I realized that I’ve built up a pretty powerful set of tools for helping organizations improve, and helping people solve problems. And a big network of other people with similar skills. So I decided to try to mobilize all this to tackle global warming. I’m hoping to influence a lot of people to make small changes, and a few people to make big changes. I don’t know how much impact it will make in terms of CO2 reduction, but it doesn’t matter—it all adds up. My mantra is “every ton counts”.
“The more I study up on it, the more apparent it is that climate change is a disaster on an epic, biblical scale” @henrikkniberg
Can you describe your routine that allows you to do so much? Do you have any rituals?
I have awesome rituals. They work great when I follow them. But I mostly don’t. Darned human nature gets in the way. So I could talk about things like zero-inbox (which I suck at), and clear priority lists (which I’m OK at). But I won’t. Because mindset is MUCH more important than ritual. Here are some mindsets that I have embedded pretty deeply. Some I’ve always carried, others I’ve trained-up over many years.
- Have a single, clear mission (or purpose, or focus area, whatever you want to call it). It can change at any time, but it should be clear at any given moment. For example, for years mine was “Help the good guys win” (as in help companies that I like—this brought me to Spotify and LEGO and other super-interesting companies). Now for the past six months it has been “Reduce global warming”.
- Be clear about your values. Life is not only about fulfilling the mission. I schedule long breaks from time to time—sometimes several months long—in which I keep my calendar empty and just try to observe what I end up doing. I sometimes end up doing a lot of stuff that some might call “work”—writing books, articles or whatever. But in doing so, I discover what truly motivates me. I learned that I love to create, that I’m addicted to flow and focus.
- Time is free, and abundant. There is no such thing as “lack of time”. Everyone has the same 24hrs per day. So it’s just a matter of deciding what to do with it. First step is to be conscious about what you are doing with your current time, and why. Next step is to adjust it to match your mission and values. You are what you do, and you own your time. So figure out what you do, and think about if that is who you want to be. If not, change it.
- Put slack in your system. Schedule “empty” timeslots on a regular basis to provide space for creativity, reflection. If you spend 100% of your time running in the hamster wheel, you’re less likely to notice that you are in a hamster wheel or do something about it. Step out of the hamster wheel, look at it, and think about if that is what you want to be doing.
- Don’t worry. If you have a problem, either accept it, or do something about it. Worrying or complaining is completely pointless. You will never be able to solve all problems, so pick the one that you do want to solve right now, act on it, and simply ignore and accept the rest.
- Focus. When you start doing something, don’t start the next thing until you are done. Don’t start something until you are willing and able to complete it. This mindset has an amazing impact on productivity and well-being. It also frees up a lot of time. Multitasking and busyness creates a false sense of productivity, but it’s really just a lose-lose proposition for both you and your stakeholders.
- Continuous improvement. You can always improve. Think about the next thing you want to improve, make it clear in your head. And don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t making progress—some things take patience and persistence.
- Balance between Past, Present, and Future focus. Spend some attention thinking about the past, learning from it. Spend some attention thinking about the present, enjoying The Now, paying attention to what has your attention, etc. Spend some attention on the future, making plans, setting goals, painting visions, etc. All three perspectives are important. It’s a balance—if you overemphasize or underemphasize any one of these, you get in trouble.
I could keep going….
“Mindset is MUCH more important than ritual” @henrikkniberg
What is last book that influenced you? Why?
I’m reading one right now called Food Pharmacy (a Swedish book). It’s about the food we eat. I’ve actually been reading a lot about that lately, so that book is just one of several. I’m exploring ways to reduce the amount of meat in my diet, both for health reasons and climate reasons. I’ve read the research papers and learned that beef production is the second biggest cause of global warming (surprisingly to many), so I figure a good starting point would be to stop (or at least significantly reduce) my own beef consumption.
But I’d say the biggest influencer for me the past few years was the Elon Musk article series on waitbutwhy.com (http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/05/elon-musk-the-worlds-raddest-man.html). I read it a couple of years ago, and that was the seed that ultimately led me to shift focus. Before that I didn’t know much about Musk, but now I’m a huge fan of his “hey let’s solve this problem” attitude.
You’re a musician, cartoonist, writer, speaker … is there anything you can’t do?
Dance. I suck at dancing. Please don’t make me dance. If you see me at a party I’ll be much more likely to be on stage with an instrument in my hand, as an excuse not to have to dance :o)
Although I think anyone can learn to do anything if they really want. So in my case it’s not “can’t do”, it’s “won’t do”…