VON Kersten A. Riechers ZU Aktuelles | 18.09.2018

Better projects through

external sparrings

„Agencies are closed systems”, says Prof. Dr. Thomas Pleil. However: We live in an age where we need connected systems. That is why, since late 2016, Thomas is regularly meeting with quäntchen + glück to have an external look at concepts and problems – to spar with us.

An hour per week where we look out of the box together, play idea ping pong and profit from the experience and independent evaluations. Since then, we have not only refined the format, but have also recruited our long-time companion Jacob Chromy (co-founder of the German-language KPKP podcast) as a recurring biweekly sparring partner. In the interview with both of them, we were originally planning to talk about their experiences. Instead, we further worked on the format – a sparring about sparring!

Kersten A. Riechers: What are we doing here?

Jacob Chromy: We are playing strategic ping pong. And one plus one equals three, hopefully. My experience with sparrings is that in concepting phases or for strategic questions, it often helps just to put the thoughts into words. The other party picks the idea up, it goes back and a new thought emerges that none of the parties had by themselves. I am convinced that strategic work can become more valuable when two or more heads are doing it.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Pleil: I agree. Our role is to be the outsiders, the ones who ask the stupid questions. Because you do not know the previous agreements, the preceding thoughts. That is why a new quality comes into the ping pong play. It is a heterogenous group that discusses things. Sometimes you already have a straight line in your head and sketch it during the sparring. Talking about it, we can come up with other aspects.

Break out of the closed system

Jacob: That is one of the great benefits of sparrings. You cannot make that possible from the inside. Of course, you can also do sparrings internally with your colleagues. However, they are part of the system and will, if only marginally, get some information and sentiment about projects. We externals have an unbiased view.

Thomas: I think this is a very fitting description, Jacob. The classic agency is self-contained and a system. Sorry about the rather academic way to phrase it, but we are just not living in an age anymore where we would need self-contained systems. We live in interconnected times.

Kersten: Aren’t we running the risk of you two slowly becoming part of the system?

Jacob: That can happen. However, our sparrings are every two weeks for an hour. The system would have to have a very strong pull. Over a long period of several years, this effect will presumably develop.

Kersten: We started out with ad hoc sparrings. As of now, you get a briefing from us in advance. That probably creates the line Thomas just mentioned. What do you prefer: with or without a briefing?

Thomas: I like a briefing simply for the reason that we are not creative on the spot. Me personally, I can work well with a problem stuck in the back of my head for a few days. When I go out for a walk with my dog and think about the briefing, new questions often come to mind.

Jacob: I think the briefing is a key point. It accounts for 50 percent of the format, because it forces the person who calls the sparring to put things in a nutshell. I’ve had sparrings with you where the briefing arrived very late or almost didn’t. I cannot recommend that. One week ahead is not necessary, but it would be nice to have a briefing by Friday if Monday is supposed to be sparring day.

Kersten: Wikipedia says: „The aim of the sparring format is to improve the skills of participants, while in a contest a winner is to be found.“ Are you improving your skills through our problems?

Jacob: Oh yes, definitely! I always take note of what the topic of our sparring is. Recently, our mutual friend Michael Schumacher asked me: How is the sparring thing with quäntchen + glück working out? And then I checked my list and could tell him: Here, it was a strategy question, there it was about a quote, another time it was a content-related brainwriting. Looking at that mixture of problems, I saw that I am getting a lot out of the sparrings.

Sparring quäntchen + glück adds to teaching at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences

Thomas: I am definitely also profiting from it. For me, the application is different though: I can put a lot of atmospheric things from the sparrings into my classes. For example when I talk about how people in companies are dealing with digitalisation. Of course, that will not make me blurt out the topics of our sparrings. It is of nobody’s concern what we talk about here. But how you can deal with the people, what approaches there are, what you should look out for – those are things that I can pass on to the students.

Kersten: That was the birth of the sparring, that you can make use of it for your teaching.

Thomas: Exactly. It was an important motivator for me that I have been out of hands-on practice for so long. I have been teaching at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences since 2004. Before, I worked practically for over 10 years. It is extremely pleasant for me to gain a different and new perspective onto practical tasks and projects through the sparrings – namely the agency perspective.

Kersten: What were the reactions when you announced this additional business?

Thomas: Our goal here is exchanging knowledge. With that goal, I was preaching to the choir. We are a University for Applied Sciences. I had an intensive discussion about it with a member of the presidency, and they thought it was a wonderful idea. They reassured me that cooperations like this one assure the quality of our teaching.

Kersten: Your work here is run via the Steinbeis Institute.

Thomas: The sparring came first. In summer 2017 I founded the Steinbeis Transferzentrum flux with my colleague Pia Helferich. Our topics are lifelong learning, organisational development and communication, so basically everything that is associated with digitalisation.

Sparring could trigger fears

Kersten: Would sparring as a format be suitable for any kind of company?

Jacob: I would like to say something in advance: As new and innovative as sparring may sound in our context, in other places it is very common: Pair Programming – one person codes, the other watches and gives feedback – has been around for years. There is the design critique, a format where designers get structured feedback from their team. (Note by Kersten: We are in the process of creating a meetup where designers can criticise each other.) I think it is time to create formats in strategy as well where you can play pingpong. Precisely because strategy is so far at the head of the process, it is all the more important and all the weirder that it is only becoming a thing now.

Thomas: I wouldn’t exclude certain types of companies. It depends on the involved people. Maybe not every company has the culture to spar and the format could provoke fears.

Kersten: True, the sparring is not a typical consulting situation. Those, of course, happen a lot in the business: Companies get consultants who are supposed to explain to them how to do things.

Jacob: It is not a coaching either. I do not only ask reflecting questions. Of course, that would be the nicest. I lean back and ask you: How do you think your mom would solve the problem? A bit of circular questioning and you guys do the work. No, that is not how it works. It is not about delivering, either. I do not feel the pressure to come here and know all the answers. It is exactly the blend of consulting and coaching. No, you get temporary comrades. For a specific task that you solve together.

Thomas: I never have the feeling to come here and just dump knowledge. In some situations, I do not actually know that much more. The process works in both situations. We challenge each other. Through creativity and friction, we find a small path that we walk together during the sparring and leave afterwards.

Freed from internal corporate policy

Jacob: It’s an interesting aspect for larger companies, the fact that we leave the path afterwards. It means: There is no policy. As a sparring partner, I go in, exchange opinions, give my feedback – but I do not bear any responsibility for the project or the product.

Kersten: And no hierarchy.

Jacob: Exactly. I do no thave to worry that my input will be judged by my organisation anywhere else. Even if I have another sparring about the same project at a later time, I will not say: I had such a great idea four weeks ago, why has it not been realised?

Kersten: Thomas, with some of our projects you actually already have some history. How does that feel for you in comparison to the „one-hit wonders“?

Thomas: I think the mixture is very exciting. A project that we talked about back in the first sparrings has become one that is going through the roof now. It is interesting to see what has become of the assumptions we made back then.

Kersten: What you said sounded very complimenting for us up until now. What are we not doing so well?

Jacob: I have already addressed the late briefings. I also believe that our sparrings where we simply talk about a problem are not yet efficient enough. The comparison of brainstorming and brainwriting alone shows how different the output can be over the course of an hour. A more methodic approach would be beneficial to the sparrings.

Thomas: Some topics deserve to be dealt with for longer than an hour. But there are also problems where I feel completely empty after an hour. Much longer would not be possible in that intensity.

Kersten: I am asking myself whether we should do a much larger number of sparrings. An hour per week is not really that much.

Jacob: I am a friend of instutionalising things. And you are already pretty good at that. Way too many organisations only conduct retrospectives and certain feedback formats only spontaneously or even out of necessity. When I’m not institutionalising things, I do not get the necessary culture. But of course there will not be the one sparring that can fit everyone’s needs. Maybe we need one walking through the park. The big thinkers solved a lot of problems taking walks, too.

Looking for skilled partners for our sparring pool

Kersten: We are definitely looking to enhance our sparring pool. Who would be good for us?

Jacob: People who walk the rim of the box or even move out of it, but specialists as well. Experience and breadth seem important to me, but we have had sessions where deep knowledge and expertise were key. I am asking myself: Will it work as a remote sparring?

Thomas: We have tried out various constellations already. Some quäntchen + glück employees were remote, but I have been too. When the briefing is done well, remote sparrings work better too. When you know each other a little, you can do remote sparrings, no question about it.

Jacob: So we know now: Video conferences with people we know work out. So the next thing we should test is how remote sparrings work out with people that we do not know as well yet.

Kersten: Deal. We will try it. Thank you both for this talk. It was a combination of both retrospective and …

Jacob: … a sparring about sparrings!

Kersten A. Riechers

Über den Autor

Kersten A. Riechers

Kersten A. Riechers bloggte schon bevor es so genannt wurde (1999) und schrieb später für das Online-Jugendmagazin der ZEIT, das heute keiner mehr kennt (ZÜNDER). Nach weiteren journalistischen Stationen bei Lokalzeitungen, FAZ und als zweiter Mitarbeiter bei Gründerszene co-gründete er 2010 quäntchen + glück.

In Strategie-Mandaten setzt sich Kersten für Innovations-Kultur und neue Geschäftsmodelle ein. In Lehraufträgen der Hochschule Darmstadt und der SAE Frankfurt für Innovationen im Journalismus und New Work in der Medienbranche. In der internationalen Community des Usability-Testessen für eine bessere Fehlerkultur.

Kersten lebt in Darmstadt und Hamburg und verdient sich auf der Bahnstrecke dazwischen immer wieder aufs Neue den von seinen Kolleg*innen verliehenen Titel Außenminister.


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