Agility, Innovation, and Leadership with Jurgen Appelo

Agility, Innovation, and Leadership or how to improve management, so your company succeeds in the 21st century.
Jurgen Appelo is a serial founder, successful entrepreneur, author, and speaker. Jurgen is pioneering management to help creative organizations survive and thrive.

What a pleasure to have a chat with Jurgen! In the episode, Jurgen shares the stories behind his successful books and venture. He provides valuable insights to people who want to foster innovation and agility in their organization. He also gives his perspective on leadership, and what to do to develop yourself as a leader.

Here are a few links to get to know Jurgen better:

  • Management 3.0. His first book, and also a community of practitioners.
  • How to Change the World. A very colorful practical guide to changing the world (available for free).
  • Managing for Happiness. Jurgen’s third book is a book full of tips covering all the aspects of management when you care to manage the system with the people.
  • You definitely want to see Jurgen on stage. He is an incredibly good “infotainer” providing the content that support the growth of the audience with good humor.
  • Jurgen founded Happy Melly and other ventures!

Listen to the episode here:

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Here is the transcript of the episode

Alexis

Hey Jurgen, what is your role, and how would you describe it to someone you just met?

Jurgen

Ah, my role I usually describe that as I am an author and speaker and also an entrepreneur on the side.

Alexis

Excellent, What was the pivotal moment that led you on that trajectory?

Jurgen

Well I think the pivotal moment would be the release of my book Management 3.0. I have been a manager for a good number of years. In my younger days, originally a software engineer, I studied at the University in Delft, but my interests were much broader than just programming. I was never really a geek or nerd, if you could say that. I was interested in marketing and finance and lots of different stuff.

Jurgen

So it was sort of obvious that I became manager, team leader, manager etc… And then the chief information officer. In that role, I introduced agile practices in the organization where I worked, I introduced scrum and had to figure out what is the role of the manager in an agile organization because at the time this was not really addressed. It was mostly team practices I’m talking 2001 to 2010 here. So I sort of claimed that as my niche and I wrote a book on it: Management 3.0 and that became a bestseller. Even before it came out, I quit my job because I already got requests for events workshops that I started to develop. From that moment on I have been acting independently doing lots of things cool stuff and first for seven years focus on Management 3.0 and licensing around it and then I went in other directions experimenting with other ideas.

Alexis

So it’s it’s really interesting to me I feel that in the twenty first century there’s a lot of things that changed and are changing and we continue to change. What do you think is the main leadership traits people should care to develop.

Jurgen

Well this is the typical question. What is the 1 best thing while the actual answer is always. There is no one most important thing because we’re working with complex systems and social systems. They are too too complex to to just summarize everything in one sentence. But, that being said, a couple of things come to mind. First of all, experimentation, fast feedback loops, that also applies to management and I would say this is perhaps the core of agile thinking: fast feedback loops so you learn quickly and with small experiments figuring out what the customer wants, what the customer needs, how they respond to ideas. Exactly the same applies to managers and leaders when they want to create better organizations. The customers often for them are employees they need to make sure that people don’t leave and this has become more and more important nowadays.

Alexis

Excellent. Thank you for that! I was lucky enough to meet with you in person during the first ALE event in in Berlin. I guess it was more than ten years ago

Jurgen

Oh cool. Yeah, that was a special one. The very first one. It is always nice to have memories of the very first time an edition of the event takes place.

Alexis

Yeah, the feel of the event was really of community and friendship. I would like to ask you what is the place of communities in your life in your work.

Jurgen

Wow good question. At the time I was sort of responsible for that event Agile Lean Europe. At least I came up with the name, I even came up with a logo of Agile Lean Europe and then other people took over and started organizing the event in Berlin that you refer to.  Of course I very much felt at the center of that community and still do. I’m happy that there’s a new event being organized this year in Toulouse apparently. It’s especially for someone like me who’s actually an introvert and loves being on his own day after day thinking and reading and writing and creating stuff. It is important to feel part of something, to have a sense of belonging. For me, that is the agile lean community in Europe. I know so many people because I have attended hundreds of events across the continent in almost every country I think. I follow people and they follow me online so we can chat on Twitter or Linkedin or Facebook or whatever. There’s always these weak connections that no matter what the distance is across Europe you feel connected with each other. That’s a good feeling, especially as I said for people such as me who do a lot of things on their own remotely. It feels like homecoming when I am at an event and I see friends and followers and people that I know from across ah Europe. I feel okay this is the place I belong these are the cool people that I want to hang out with. That is I think the purpose of of community to to give you that place of belonging even when most of the time you travel around the world and you sit alone in coffee bars or hotel lobbies.

Alexis

Yeah I feel in your different businesses or in in the the work that you are doing that communities are always really present like with management 3.0 or with the Happy Melly we can see a lot of people gathering with each other to achieve a greater purpose. Is it really something that is real or is it my perception of it.

Jurgen

No, that’s just people gathering together around a specific topic like indeed there is a Management 3.0 Community. Of course there are other communities that I am either responsible for or involved In. But for me, they’re all part of a larger community out there as I said which is agile and lean oriented people. They sort of gather together in these subcommunities in different constellations. So you keep running into the same people and basically and which subcommunity you find yourself in and that’s nice and I think that’s important to have that.

Alexis

You mentioned already the management 3.0 book. You wrote several books. How to change the world was already a nice small one that you offer for free on your website. I will put the link to that and. The experience with Managing for Happiness was probably an interesting one. And the latest Startup, Scaleup, Screwup. What is that experience of writing books. You’ve said you want you like to be on your own thinking, writing, reading. What are the different experiences you had with those books.

Jurgen

Well, it’s a cliche but it’s true. Every book is like a different baby  in a sense. They’re all different kids with different personalities and different histories. So Management 3.0 took me several years to write. A lot of research went into that, a lot of reading of popular science books and articles etc. That was a very different project compared to the last one for example, startup scaleup screw up where basically the publisher said can you please write another book doesn’t matter much about what it is but we want to sell another one that was sort of a compliment of course because when publishers want another book. It means that they earned money with your previous one.

Alexis

Um, yeah.

Jurgen

I thought at the time. Okay, well, if I were going to write another book I want it to be about the stuff I’m doing now which was I was leading a startup at the time and trying to make that work so that seemed like a good combination. In that case, the creation of the book took me, I think, about eight, nine or ten months. It had to be done within a year and I traveled a lot. I spoke with a lot of people across Europe startups and scale-ups so I did quite a quite a few interviews. There were very different process for that one a very different kind of book. But I enjoy each of one of them. Indeed as you said how to change the world was a very small one that was a self-publishing experiment. And managing for happiness is again different. It is horizontal book, not vertical, very colorful. That was my requirement with a publisher at the time that I wanted a full color book so they’re all different and the the fifth one is going to be a novel so that’s again, a completely different book that I am working on now and that’s and that’s fun I’m I mean always trying something new that I haven’t done before.

Alexis

I’m glad that you’re working on the next one. I will be interested in reading that novel. That’s excellent. You’ve been recognized by Inc.com in the top 50 management and leadership authors. And I know there’s a story behind that. There’s probably hundreds of writers in the field of leadership and Management. What makes some of them more successful than others is is it their expertise as practitioners or what?

Jurgen

Interesting that you say that, I just published the blog post today actually with my learnings of the last three years of running a lot of experiments and one thing that I realized is that I’m a much better writer and speaker than practitioner when it comes to management and leadership. This sounds weird, but if you compare it with other disciplines – for example, the best teachers of music are not necessarily themselves the best musicians and vice versa, the best musicians are not necessarily good teachers of making music. It’s the same as sports if you have great sports coaches. The best in the world. It doesn’t really mean that they themselves are really good in the field as athletes and also great athletes are not necessarily good coaches. So there’s a difference between being a teacher of something and being the practitioner of something there. Actually different talents and that’s something that I have noticed myself I love the teaching aspect of it I like creating workshops. I like writing about things. I like talking about stuff and yes I am also as I said an entrepreneur on the side because I also like the practical experience. But it doesn’t mean that I’m the best manager or leader out there. In fact, I would say I’m a mediocre one for sure. Don’t hire me as a manager because I happen to write books on the topic. That’s it’s very different like. The top rated Nobel winning economists are probably really bad at running companies because it’s something different observing and writing about it really understanding how field works is very different from operating in that field and being successful as a practitioner that’s something that I had to realize in the last three years where I sort of found out. Well actually I suck in some areas but then I have great insights because of my learnings and I’m able to write about it and then I inspire other people who are practitioners and they can use my input and so that’s win-win I suppose. That’s why I say first I am a writer and speaker and I do some entrepreneuring on the side because it’s fun to have practical experience and to fail and sometimes succeed. I will never be the best entrepreneur out there but the best entrepreneurs out there are actually pretty bad speakers and writers so we all have our own roles I suppose.

Alexis

Yeah, exactly and I really like the fact that you are looking into that and you are still doing Experimentation. You’re still working on different projects. So You can also test Idea yourself um and not only inspire people I think the 2 things are already useful and I’m I’m always always a little bit worried about the people that are only doing the teaching part.

Jurgen

Yeah, for sure I agree there sorry to interrupt but, and and my approach is slightly different from others because there there are plenty of authors and speakers out there who are coaches or consultants. They go into companies and they help managers and leaders or or other kinds of employees doing their stuff and that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s just a different approach and I am not like that. I have a different role I often say I operate at a thirty thousand feet view. I have more of an abstract understanding, I see patterns across the world that also makes it easier for me to come up with new models and new insights. On the one hand, that’s a benefit. On the other hand, the drawback is that I do not have the deep experience of observing what happens inpecific companies on the inside. So I don’t really stand with my feet in the mud so to speak, except for my own little companies where I run experiments and that sort of compensates for me for the lack of direct experience I have with large corporates or whatever because I’m not very interested in coaching in consulting, I would not be there. Definitely not be the best person to do that.

Alexis

Thank you. You’re already a very successful speaker. How would you describe what you bring as a speaker and what are the key to success for a really great speech.

Jurgen

It is infotainment. You need to make sure that you have a message that there are takeaways. You need to understand the audience. So I always ask my clients: what kind of people are there in the room? Is it only engineers, or is it across the company, or is it mostly management and things like that. How many? So I usually have an intake before an event so that I know what kind of audience I Encounter. You need to entertain people. You need to make them laugh and tell interesting stories and experiences and not just show models or bullet points. Definitely no bullet points. That’s basically it. Tell stories, be funny and make sure you understand what the situation is that the audience finds themselves in so you can relate and make the right connection because I have a vast library of content stuff I can talk for hours. Literally I’ve done that a few weeks ago when I recorded a course for a client in Brazil. The recordings were in London and I just used my existing materials. I thought, my god, I have so much I talked for 5 hours and I was still by far, not through everything that I had.

Alexis

Whoa.

Jurgen

Ah, so I have quite a bit of stuff that I can make selections from. Understand the audience, be funny, share stories, and that will take you 80% towards success, I suppose.

Alexis

Thank you. Do the pandemic and that shift to a hybrid world of work affect your work as a speaker? Will you go back to events or will you do everything from your home?

Jurgen

Well, first of all the pandemic was terrible of course for my line of business. I just looked it up yesterday I had my last trip home from Melbourne Australia where I had done a workshop on the fourth of March of 2020. So exactly seven days later the world health organization named the Covid Virus a pandemic officially. So, I was home just in time and then all events in my calendar were being canceled one after the other it was like dominoes they were falling over and I was like oh my god what is happening here. All my income for the rest of the year was evaporating basically. Never waste a good crisis as they say so I experimented I came up with alternative ideas I ran online meetups and and workshops and it became other business models. I actually learned from that experience that I don’t want to go back fully like the way things were because in 2019 I travel I think about maybe two hundred and fifty days per year and that was absurd that was a lot, and I don’t want to be away from home that often anymore I have a wonderful house. We bought a house two months before the covid pandemic hit coincidentally. Just in time, interestingly enough and that was a great coincidence. The house needed quite a bit of painting, so I developed a new skill I am now really good at painting walls and painting doors and everything and it turns out I enjoy that I enjoy being able to do something with my hands and make the space that I live in look beautiful that is so satisfying and I would never have experienced that if if there hadn’t been the pandemic. I would just have paid a professional painter and that would not have been the same thing now I sit in my chair and look around me and I think cool I did that and I’m I’m very happy with that. I want to be home more in the house that I, to a large extent, painted myself. So for me also it it is a case of I will be in a hybrid situation I do want to go back to travel because I miss the coffee bars in Stockholm and the people in Warsaw and etc etc. But yeah, not two hundred and fifty days per year anymore a bit less.

Alexis

Yeah, that’s good to find that balance but I’m glad that you’re back to events because I’m eager to hear you speak again. So it’s perfect!.

Jurgen

Yeah, it would be awesome! I have a trip to Prague upcoming and then from may I have quite a few trips scheduled across Europe mostly and I very much look forward to that to be on stage again.

Alexis

Perfect I think a lot of people are waiting for that to! You worked with many leaders and among those you admire? What’s the the one treat that stands out to you. And how is that treat is important to you in the way you see leadership.

Jurgen

So well, that’s interesting. Actually, you’re the second person who asked that question this week, and I was also not able to answer it last time because I read many articles, I listen to many podcasts, lots of books. There are many sources where I draw my inspiration from, and to be honest, there is not one single person who inspires me most. There are dozens if not hundreds for different reasons. I could name one random person. Richard Branson I admire him for the way he manages his companies and and the message he gets across: Be there for your people first, the people come first and then they will take care of your customer. They make sure that the customer comes first I totally agree with that message and it’s amazing that he built like 400 virgin companies all under one umbrella. But that’s completely different from others who I don’t know who have been active in complexity science or something where I admire the likes of I don’t know, Stuart Kaufman who wrote amazing books on explaining how life evolves and I have drawn inspiration from that for complex systems such as organizations. And yeah, so the many people I’m not able to come up with with one name. Also, I don’t think it would be fair to come up with the one person that I admire the most. It’s is heavily context dependent on what kind of topic we are talking about and. So if you narrow it down to a very specific topic then it would be easier to come up with names.

Alexis

Yeah, it’s and it’s ah it’s interesting and I love that you picked something that I think is important for leadership that idea of people first is something that is important. So you picked one thing there. Ah yes I know it’s random, but it’s an interesting one. What’s one action you’ve taken in the past to develop yourself as a leader and what did you learn from that.

Jurgen

I listen to podcasts, as I said. Just today as well, I think an hour or something because I had a long walk through the city from my home to a coffee bar that I enjoy and back. Ah, and I tried to use that time of walking around and sitting in public transport and I amlooking forward to the traveling then I can do even more podcast listening and those moments that you stand in a security line or sit in a taxi on the way to the hotel and things like that. For me, that’s a great way to encounter new ideas that I have not heard before or just being inspired by thoughts from very different domains I listened to a Nobel prize-winning economist today who got his nobel prize for the very agile idea of running experiments, field experiments because he said that most of economy was a lot of theorizing coming up with theoretical models of how the world is supposed to work. But he said very few actually went out of their offices into real life just running experiments on businesses and people to see how they behave in response to which interventions and that was very new for economy and perfectly obvious in Medicine,  for example, you do controlled trials you have random blind tests and everything but that was a new idea in the economy. You got a nobel prize for that and that what I listened to was it sounded really agile. So I thought that was super cool. Super interesting and that’s what I do to be inspired I watched the podcast and there were obviously a lot of reading but that is one tip that I can give people just subscribe yourself to lots of fascinating podcasts out there and being inspired by what happens in completely different domains because you can learn from Economy. You can learn from Health Care. You can learn from design or whatnot.

Alexis

Excellent I love the advice. Thank you very much.
Jurgen Appelo is a serial founder, successful entrepreneur, author, and speaker.

Thank you for having joined me on the podcast today.

Jurgen

It was a great pleasure. Thank you Alexis.

Photo by Afta Putta Gunawan from Pexels

Author

  • Alexis Monville worked in multicultural and distributed environments for years, coming back from the US and now based in the southwest of France. When asked if he misses the work in the office, he usually answers that he spent half of his 30 years of management experience in diverse sectors outside of the office and a lot of that working from home. Alexis is Chief of Staff to the CTO at Red Hat, a long-time hybrid open-source software company with more than 100 office locations in 40 countries, where half of the 20,000 people work remotely. Alexis is a firm believer that change starts with the self. He is the author of two books: Changing Your Team From The Inside and I am a Software Engineer and I am in Charge. Alexis facilitates successful playful collaborations. He designs and builds sustainable and high-impact teams and organizations.

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