Do artists have to like people to make them the subject of their work? Does art have to have a message? And why do modern people in a digitalised world need culture to be optimistic about the future? These are the questions we put to internationally renowned sculptor Stephan Balkenhol when we visited him at his studio in the Nordstadt district of Kassel.

FLORIAN HALLER: Your figures often appear devoid of emotion. Why do you always give them the same stoical expression?

STEPHAN BALKENHOL: I prefer to give them an ambivalent expression rather than an extreme emotion such as laughing or crying. If I carved those expressions in wood, they would look frozen, but when I show an indifferent expression, it’s a lot more open. This leaves it to the audience to join the emotional dots, as it were. In this case, the expression is undeniably more alive.

Every time I look at one of your figures, I feel as though I can see right inside the person. But I can’t explain it…

SB: When giving a presentation on my work, one of my wife’s students once said they were like wooden mirrors. I feel they are a cross between a mirror and a projection surface. With a figure, you can ask yourself what kind of person it is, what they do, what they are thinking, where they come from and where they are going? Or you can imagine that you are this person. You and your feelings are mirrored in them. Both are possible.

If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re not exactly the extrovert entertainer type…

SB: No.

Do you like people?

SB: I have nothing against people, but I don’t always like having them around me. I also like being alone. In fact, when I’m working, I need to be alone – apart from my wife, who I don’t mind having around me all the time. But take my children for instance – as much as I love them, how much of them I can take really depends on what kind of a mood they are in that day, and what kind of mood I’m in. It’s impossible to like everyone but I’m not a misanthrope.

You once said that your work involves being in a constant dialogue with the sculpture. What do you mean by that exactly?

SB: I think I can express myself through my sculptures. It’s how I communicate with the world and, at the same time, how I explore the world.

KATHRIN BALKENHOL: If I can just chime in here: I feel that Stephan’s work allows him to understand himself better. Sometimes I have the feeling that something indeterminate is working within him and that he will only be able to understand it once he has carved his way to it.

So working on art has a therapeutic effect?

SB: Artistic work can be healing and beneficial – just like any other kind of work. Not primarily but secondarily. Of course, it does me good to work. And looking at a sculpture can also have therapeutic effects. I once had an experience in Rome where a large sculpture of mine called ‘Sempre più’ was on display in the Roman Forum. An Italian woman came up to me and said that her day had got off to a terrible start – because of a divorce or tax audit or something unpleasant like that, I can’t remember exactly – but that she felt a lot better now she was at the exhibition.

KB: Looking at art can open up the mind to new kinds of reflection and cognisance. I have no doubt that, deep inside, we all have fears, shame, guilt and other things we have no words or images for and that we give a wide berth to. Art can help to ward off dangers and dispel fears by visualising them. I see this is being more of a magical, ritual effect than a therapeutic one.

SB: Yes, but these existential questions are not illustrated in the sculptures directly but rather indirectly and metaphorically. That’s a fairly common misconception about art – some people set out right away to detect something or decipher a message. And, with my work, this often causes confusion. The Bojen-Mann (Buoy Man) on the Outer Alster in Hamburg, for example, doesn’t have any message to convey and rejects this expectation. We have been conditioned to believe that monuments in public spaces should automatically represent an important person. But when it’s just a man in a white shirt and black trousers, some people can take a while to realise that it could just as well be you or me.

Why do you work primarily with wood?

SB: Out of a personal affinity and because it affords me a kind of freedom. I can process wood myself and don’t need anyone else to help me. If I were to create a bronze casting, I would need two or three other people to help me at various stages. But with wood, I can do it all myself. I could even go into the woods, cut down a tree and make a sculpture out of it. As well as this, wood is relatively quick to process and there is no transformation process. While clay or plaster involve an element of transformation, with wood you have the result in front of you throughout the entire process.

What is the process involved in working on one of your sculptures?

SB: It’s all about communicating with the material. After all, I could cut into it once with a chainsaw and say: “Okay, it’s done.” The interesting thing is deciding when to stop. Some sculptures are more like sketches, half finished and relatively rough, while others are finer. This communication, deliberation, examining it from different angles – that’s what makes working on a sculpture exciting. There’s a joke about a sculptor and a lion, where a visitor asks the sculptor: “Is it difficult to carve a lion out of marble?” To which the sculptor replies: “It’s quite simple, really – all you have to do is carve away everything that doesn’t look like a lion.”

KB: Another point is that Stephan can only carve as fast as he thinks. With stone or clay, it’s different. He once made a bronze sculpture of Richard Wagner for Leipzig. The clay model for the cast was ready to be collected and we were due to get married two days later. So there was a lot to be done. And then Stephan went to the studio at five in the morning and gave the Wagner statue an entirely new face. Because clay modelling is so fast and each movement of your fingers produces a different facial expression. This additive technique leads to another decision- making process. Carving a sculpture from a block and removing all the extraneous elements is somehow a better fit for Stephan.

SB: When I’m carving and get the feeling that I can’t see where it’s going, I take a break. And once I know where it’s going again, I carry on. This is rather baffling for visitors to the studio, because I spend most of the time running around the sculpture with a cigarette in my mouth.

© Stephan Balkenhol / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Does it make a difference what type of wood you use?

SB: I know from experience what wood is most suitable for each purpose. The reliefs for Serviceplan, for instance, are made of poplar wood, because I know that the colour doesn’t change over time. With softwood, the resin would cause it to get darker over time and small cracks would form. But I generally use the wood that I happen to have or that I am being offered at the time. I have probably carved sculptures out of 20 different types of wood. It’s not all that important. After all, I’m not making a wooden sculpture to show how great wood is – I’m using the material as a means to an end.

Unlike stone, wood is an organic, living material. Is that a relevant factor for you?

SB: Yes, wood is a living material and is always working – and will continue to do so even in a hundred years’ time. I would also describe stone as a living material, but steel and plastic are rather lifeless.

The term ‘sculpture’ makes most people think of the masterpieces of antiquity. Is this period a source of inspiration for you?

SB: Yes, absolutely. I’ve always loved going to museums that have a collection of antique works. The Glyptothek in Munich, for instance, is fantastic.

I was really impressed by the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. Those giant statues have such power.

SB: Those ancient myths are great narratives. The beauty of these images is that there is always an element of intricacy and mystery – there is nothing direct or ‘in your face’ about them. And even though the stories are about divine beings, they always hold a mirror up to us humans.

On that note, is your own personal history reflected in your works?

SB: Certainly, there’s no way of avoiding that. I come from a very specific cultural setting in Central Europe, Germany, so it goes without saying that I’m going to be shaped by certain influences I grew up with. My parents were Catholic and I had to go to church every Sunday. I was often bored there but always found the holy statues fascinating. At some point, I realised that these figures were supposed to represent Saint Anthony, Saint Elizabeth and others, but in fact it was the sculptor from the 14th or 17th century who had immortalised himself and the time he lived in. When you look at figures like these, you get a sense of their time and a sense of the eternal as well. I’ve always found that exciting.

Do you have a favourite among your own works?

SB: It’s always the one I’m working on. Otherwise I couldn’t do anything else – my work would be done and I could shut up shop.

What is art?

SB: I haven’t the faintest idea (laughing)! The beauty of art is that it has no use – it doesn’t have to be useful. And the value is only contrived when it is there and reveals itself. At which point you realise that you can no longer do without it. But everyone has their own individual reasons for this and they need to find them out for themselves.

Does art have anything to do with the zeitgeist?

SB: No, I find that too short-sighted. The function of art is not to mirror some zeitgeist phenomena. Of course, art is influenced by certain elements – there’s no question about that. This is perfectly legitimate and, in any case, probably can’t be prevented either. But I don’t agree with the expectation that art has a duty to comment on these elements – let alone to make the world a better or more just place.

© Stephan Balkenhol / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Can a work of art be viewed in isolation, or does it always have to be seen in a human context?

SB: Art always has a human connection because it is made by people. And because people look at it and are influenced by it. It expands people’s horizon of knowledge and experience and that is part of the artwork.

What are your feelings on the art market? Artists always claim not to care but then when you’re talking to them, they soon mention that some other artist’s work had reached a higher price than theirs. If the market is so unimportant, then artists wouldn’t use it as a yardstick, would they?

SB: I am part of the art scene and, as I make my living from it, am thankful that the art market exists. Otherwise I couldn’t work the way I work. And it’s part for the course that the market hyperventilates every now and then. Jonathan Meese put it very nicely: “Being famous is all well and good but the most important thing for an artist is being able to work in their studio”. That is happiness indeed.

So art does have a therapeutic side after all…

SB: Happiness is always therapeutic.

What role can culture play in our modern-day society?

SB: Lots of things that used to give people safety and stability no longer exist or have lost all meaning. All we can do is hope that the state or policymakers manage everything in a way that allows us to lead a halfway decent life. I believe the function of culture is to preserve an immaterial level in society that creates another kind of security. By this I mean that the insecurity doesn’t come across as being threatening but rather as natural – conveying to people that they can be happy despite being aware of death and all the difficulties associated with life.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

This interview first appeared in TWELVE, Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the eighth issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “A human-driven future: How humans are shaping the digital world of tomorrow”. The e-paper is available here.

Serviceplan and NYC-based entrepreneur and fitness influencer Brian Mazza discuss how at-home fitness can help employees stay healthy (and sane) while working remotely.

New York, April 2020 – integrate fitness into your daily routine while working from home

As we all adjust to a new reality of social distancing and remote work, it’s important to find ways to protect our mental health and maintain productivity. While it would be easier to slide into a routine of pajamas and take-out, making fitness a part of your daily routine will certainly have a more positive impact on your well-being.

It’s no surprise that screen time has skyrocketed in recent weeks, along with new offers for streaming entertainment and at-home workouts. Companies from Nike to NEOU are offering live, on-demand fitness programs available on any device. Instagram, with over a billion active monthly users, has become a go-to source for health and fitness inspiration.

Brian Mazza, entrepreneur, fitness influencer and founder of High Performance Lifestyle Training (HPLT*), sat down with Serviceplan to talk about how fitness can transform employee productivity. Companies that prioritize wellness will have a healthier workforce that produces a better ROI. The below interview has been edited for clarity.

Courtesy of Men's Health Magazine

Tell us about yourself and High Performance Lifestyle Training*.

I am a husband and a father of two amazing young boys. I am an athlete and someone who really strives to be the greatest version of myself every single day. Creating HPLT has been a dream come true for many different reasons, but mainly because of the positive impact I am able to have on others. My [HPLT] summit allows an individual to understand their full potential in a group setting of like-minded people.

Can you explain why being mentally engaged and creating a lifestyle that’s centered around good health is important?

I always looked at fitness as just working out or just getting the job done when I was playing soccer. It wasn’t until I truly understood that fitness was a lifestyle choice, that I realized all the positive effects it had on my life. Working out is a small part of the formula, but a very important one. It sets the tone for your life and creates discipline which results in mental clarity.

What is the relationship between physical exercise and success in a corporate environment?

It’s very easy in today’s world to become lazy and soft. We need everyone to understand that being a High Performer can positively impact every facet of your life. Imagine the benefits of working alongside people that challenge you to be your best every single day.

What is your recommendation for employers?

Office spaces need to change, amenities for employees need to be health and wellness tailored, and more companies need to understand wellness in order  to get a healthy workforce that produces a better ROI.

How important are team workouts for corporate culture?

I like this question! I think corporate culture is very stale – it needs to be more fluid and transparent. Companies are teams, and if an employee doesn’t do their job because they aren’t dialed in, they need to be replaced. Employees will better understand this if they are put into uncomfortable situations through fitness and team building together. There is something special about people sweating together.

KEEP MOVING by following along on Instagram @brianmazza  and download his spreadsheet of at-home-workouts.

To learn more about High Performance Lifestyle Training, visit or follow along on Instagram @hpltraining The experience is offered several times a year in selected cities in the USA. It will be expanding to Europe 2020/2021.

#WeSport is key pillar of Serviceplan’s company culture

In the Serviceplan Group, over 4,000+ employees around the world are encouraged to excercise (e.g. Yoga with Serviceplan’s own Julia V.). Employees can use the intranet to find local health clubs and offers to boot camps or find Accountability Buddies for their health and wellness goals. The Munich office even has its own climbing wall that will be waiting for the employees to use, after the current Covid-19 crisis.

#WeSport is key pillar of Serviceplan’s company culture.

Without a deep understanding of local culture and myths, hardly anything works in the major growth markets, even if the rest of the preparations are perfect. Whether it´s about gods, festivals and colors in India, Chinese legends and Confucianism, or infectious joie de vivre and folk tales in Brazil: those who do not internalize the cultural DNA of the target markets and coordinate their own marketing accordingly will run into a wall. From Chinese philosophy to Hindu mythology, the extremely diverse future markets offer endless analogies to link a brand with the prevailing symbols, beliefs, tastes and myths. Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group) explain the four factors that are especially important for this undertaking. All details can be found in our new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets”, written in German.

1. Referencing local worldviews: Reincarnation is a telling example

Each region has its own beliefs, religious convictions and myths. They express themselves in colorful rituals and festivals, in serious processions, or in traditional narratives. Western companies and brands have imaginatively used local myths and beliefs in many target markets. Volkswagen in India is a great example. For a while, the car manufacturer drove an ad alluding to the topic of reincarnation. Reincarnation is very important in Hinduism. The ad showed an old VW Polo, which was highly appreciated by its owner. Even in old age the man still took care of the vehicle. But he died when his daughter was expecting a child. The daughter and her husband buy a new Polo and discover that their grandson appreciates the car as much as his late grandfather. The analogy here is that the grandfather must have reincarnated himself in his grandson and thereby also transferred the love for the vehicle. The advertising spot culminates in the slogan: “The new Polo – so good that you will come back for it”.

2. Use local festivities: How to make effective connections

Religious and other traditional festivals in some countries initiate massive migration of peoples. Hundreds of millions of Chinese return home to their families to celebrate Chinese New Year. The whole country is on its feet for these emotional celebrations. They are wonderful occasions for brands to establish or expand connections with their target groups. Starbucks used the Chinese calendar in a clever advertising campaign to increase sales. The Seattle-based coffee chain developed a 30-day calendar around the annual Spring Festival, when all of China is on its feet and all Chinese give their loved ones red envelopes with gifts of money. The Spring Festival is often used in China for weddings, travel or other important events. One day in the Starbucks calendar was declared to be good for visiting relatives. Another day was reserved for blind dates. The calendar was distributed on social media platforms and the various days were linked to special offers in the coffee chain stores. Once, customers were asked to hug their parents in a shop to take advantage of an “order three, pay two” offer. On another day the drinks were free and customer cards were offered. With relatively little investment, Starbucks made its “Campaign of Daily Friendliness” a huge success. It is said to have increased sales revenues tenfold compared to other advertising campaigns.

3. Local research: Identifying future global trends at the source

Global trends usually emerge from the largest, most agile and creative markets. The large growth markets are therefore increasingly becoming the source of new standards and trends. For this reason, Western brands have been strengthening their local research and development in the markets of the future for some years now. Mercedes-Benz was one of the trendsetters in China. The car manufacturer opened a center for advanced design in Beijing in the first half of the decade. The reason was the farsighted assumption that the preferences of Chinese consumers will set global trends in the future. In addition to adjustments to infotainment and driver assistance systems, the R&D center is also researching the vehicle design of the future and the specific preferences of local consumers. Parallel to the opening of the R&D center, Mercedes presented its first local concept car, an SUV coupé crossover called “G-Code”. The car features numerous adaptations that serve the special taste of the local target group. In addition to borrowings from traditional national architecture, fashion and calligraphy, the design was also influenced by specific tastes of modern customers. The Chinese prefer an expressive and dominant design to demonstrate their individual social rise. This even includes striking gimmicks such as a radiator grille that can change its color.

4. Well translated is half integrated: When BMW turns into a “precious horse”

A local adaptation can be really tricky when it comes to the language. There are pitfalls lurking here. They can prove expensive if something goes wrong, especially when it comes to translating the brand name. Names are very important, for example, in the Chinese culture. Before the Cultural Revolution, it was a widespread custom to add a pseudonym to the family name and first name when you reached adulthood. From this self-chosen name one could deduce characteristics and activities of the name bearer. The same applies to brand names. From the point of view of Chinese consumers, the brand name is a manifestation of the culture and values of the product advertised. But with about 50,000 characters and hundreds of dialects, negligence in translation can end in disaster. Some German companies have succeeded in making successful transfers with the help of experts. The name for Siemens – “Xi-men-zi” – means “Gateway to the West”. In Chinese, the name BMW is “Bao-ma” – “Precious Horse”. And “Ben-chi” as a transmission from Mercedes-Benz is translated as “galloping fast”.

Authors: Florian Haller, CEO Serviceplan Group, and Niklas Schaffmeister, Managing Partner Globeone

The rapid changes of our time lead to conflicts between cultural traditions and new ways of life. Career advancers spend more time in the office, they often go on business trips, they have less time for themselves and their families. The lack of time changes everything from eating habits to family orientation, the way of communicating and consumer behavior. And in many international markets, foreign influences, industrialization or massive urbanization are turning even ancient traditions upside down. Individualization is increasing and consumer behavior is spreading, particularly in the middle classes around the globe, which is intended to showcase the newly acquired status.

There can be no question: culture is and remains a decisive factor for consumer behavior and thus also for brand positioning. Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group) therefore explain why an intensive examination of the culture and cultural values in the target markets is indispensable for successful brand development or repositioning. Read more in detail in our new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets”, written in German, by Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group).

Powerful factors: culture and cultural values

The definitions for the term culture have become as diverse as the cultures of this world. Things may become clearer if the term culture is separated from cultural values: Culture then refers to the totality of human behavior in a society, while cultural values refer to a series of beliefs about certain behaviors that are considered particularly desirable in a society. In marketing, the conviction has therefore developed that cultural values are a powerful factor that has a decisive influence on the motives of consumers. This applies to their lifestyle as well as their product selection.

In the jungle of values: What is decisive for brand development

Foreign brands that want to address these different cultural preferences must therefore familiarize themselves well with the cultural environment in the local target market. In view of the diversity of values and moral concepts, however, this is easier said than done – brand managers are often faced with the challenge of identifying the consumer-relevant value dimensions for brand development. In such cases, so-called catalogues of values have proven to be a helpful instrument. Sociologist Shalom Schwartz, for example, has developed a catalogue of values that identifies seven important cultural value dimensions on the basis of data from 73 countries. On the basis of these dimensions, it is not only possible to differentiate between the essence of cultures worldwide, but also to record individual, culturally specific and consumer-relevant value dimensions.

According to Schwartz, the most important dimensions of value include:

  • Harmony (harmony with the environment)
  • Social embedding (social order, obedience, respect for tradition)
  • Hierarchy (authority, social power, orientation towards wealth)
  • Ability (ambition, daring, success)
  • Intellectual autonomy (open-mindedness, curiosity, freedom)
  • Affective autonomy (joy of life, pleasure, tension)
  • Egalitarianism (social justice and responsibility, equality)

Infographic cultural values

It quickly becomes apparent that there are enormous differences along these value dimensions, for example between European countries and the major emerging markets such as China and India. While in China and India hierarchical values are given high priority (e.g. in the form of the caste system), in Europe the focus is on egalitarian values and intellectual autonomy. Put simply: people want to enjoy their freedom, work creatively and realize their full potentials.

Significance for brand communication: cultural values and consumer motives

Besides the family, society, religion and educational institutions, the mass media – not least digital and social media – have developed into important carriers and mediators of cultural values in the post-industrial age. However, it has been shown time and again that advertising also has a great influence on the representation and communication of cultural values. Advertising is based on linguistically powerful images and metaphors. These, in turn, are strongly influenced by cultural values which have an influence on culture, insofar as they are received by a broad circle.

The “similarity acceptance hypothesis” is regarded as a rough compass for successful brand communication in the local target market. Its message: The more similar the values communicated by a certain brand are to the values of a certain social class, the higher the probability that the brand is attractive for this grouping.

Conclusion: culture has a strong influence on consumption. In marketing you have to find the most effective levers to use this influence. This requires a profound knowledge of local cultural values.

Clear out the management myths!

The management theorists have discovered a new wonder weapon: New Work. Pretty much everything to do with agility, the meeting of equals and self-organisation in the widest sense is subsumed under this term. The hope is that this will generate greater innovative energy and enhance companies’ ability to create value, or to put it in a nutshell: New Work is supposed to cure all the painful symptoms of a dysfunctional organisation at a stroke. All the time- and energy-sapping meetings, the corporate policy that devours your creative spark, the never-ending decision-making processes, the silo mentality cemented into people’s heads. The deeper the pain an organisation feels, the more hopeful the New Work promise of being the solution for the digitised, disruption-friendly VUCA age sounds. All the employees are highly motivated to work with each other, focusing on the customer and for the benefit of the enterprise, self-organised, collaborative and in blissfully agile coexistence.

Peace and love and harmony? As if!

There could be no greater error as this level of expectation conceals several fallacies. And whenever a fundamentally good approach runs the risk of turning into a hype, and overblown or even false expectations are invested in it, disappointment is sure to follow.

There are numerous examples showing that New Work offers the potential to have a positive effect on a company’s ability to create value and on it’s vitality. Whether it’s Upstalsboom, a North German hotel chain with over 600 employees, or Semco, a Brazilian industrial heavyweight that introduced unconventional management practices as early as 30 years ago. Or Sparda Bank München with its 290,000 members and 700 staff or Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processor based in California and with sales of 600 million dollars. As different as the New Work philosophies and practices are — these are all highly successful companies and highly attractive employer brands.

And precisely because New Work contains the seed of a wonderful idea, it is so important to take a close look at what it can achieve and how it has to be embraced to unlock its full potential. It’s time to reveal the biggest New Work misconceptions — raise the curtain!

Misconception No. 1: New Work is like a pill you swallow that makes everything better

Firstly: There is no one single New Work. The avenues leading to the world of New Work are as diverse as the people and organisations that populate them. Whether project management approaches such as scrum, innovative organisational systems such as holacracy or a managerial mission statement that puts the focus on keeping employees happy — there is no right or wrong. Every organisation is invited to find the right approach and the right route for itself.

This requires a very precise diagnosis of the problem. What are the perceived dysfunctionalities of the organisation? What attitudes and behaviour patterns are exhibited by managers and employees? What are the unspoken dogmas that pervade the organisation? And also: What role do the perceived dysfunctional behaviour patterns play?

Does that sound like hard work? That’s because it is! At the same time, this analysis is an important factor in the success of New Work. Because in the long run, superficial treatment of the symptoms helps nobody. To enable New Work to be successful, we must not lose sight of the causes of dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, and for this a collective process of reflection is required. This often automatically provides the answer to the question of what the next step on the way should be because the process as such activates the collective intelligence of the organisation.

New Work is therefore no quick “down pill and all better” approach. Rather the process resembles that of a physiotherapist who supports the self-healing process of the organism with patience, precise observation and constant intervention.

Misconception No. 2: New Work is quick and easy to learn

Misconception No. 1: New Work is like a pill you swallow that makes everything betterNew Work is much more than just working from home from time to time, sticking a few multi-coloured post-its on the wall in a meeting, deploying collaboration software or working in colourfully painted offices. New Work is also more than just applying new meeting formats. New Work expresses itself primarily in a new attitude. An attitude marked by the belief that people are responsible and that they have more potential in them than they normally are able (or want) to show in the organisation. And that the act of giving up supervision and conventional displays of authority on the part of managers, coupled with the self-organisation and assumption of responsibility on the part of employees, activates additional potential for creating value. And that organisations gain substantially in resilience and adaptability as a result.

Every paradigm shift requires time. New Work is therefore not something that can be learned on the run. This process is laborious and at times painful. You may lose an employee or two along the way. And those who stay will find themselves being drawn out of their comfort zone on more than one occasion. Honest peer-to-peer feedback — however appreciatively it may be couched — doesn’t always feel so comfortable as some truths don’t really fit with the way we see ourselves. It requires a high degree of reflective capacity to deal with such criticism constructively. At the same time, New Work facilitates major leaps in personal growth in an appreciative environment and genuine person-to-person encounters — if the individual is willing to admit them.

That is why people who jump on the bandwagon (“We’ll adopt New Work too because it’s trendy”) don’t stand a chance. Because New Work practices can only develop their full potential if the underlying world view is internalised and embraced by everybody — including the managers. Anyone not deeply convinced by it and who does not feel a serious need to tread a new path towards a more effective, soulful organisation (and who does not have a genuine interest in their own learning curve), shouldn’t touch it. Otherwise, this will only end in disaster for all concerned for want of authenticity.

Misconception No. 3: New Work can be prescribed

New Work is different from classic change programmes in many respects.

First and foremost, New Work can only be successful if the top manager in the organisation (or department or team) is unconditionally behind it and is also prepared to live out the paradigm shifts and behavioural changes themselves. With all the successes and failures that go with them. New Work cannot be prescribed, therefore, but you can embody it by example — and advocate it through discussion.

But with a certain degree of New Work maturity, the organisation makes significant gains in its skill at initiating change. It then basically finds itself in a permanent change mode. Traditional change programmes are then superfluous.

And there is another difference from traditional change programmes: there is no end date. There may be dates for certain milestones but New Work is by definition a journey which never ends. Anyone familiar with system theory knows that every problem contains its solution and at the same time, every solution contains a new problem. And the world around us also does not stand still. So there will always be grounds and potential for refinements — both on a human and organisational level.

New Work: Panacea or hype?

Now that the most important misconceptions and myths surrounding New Work have been revealed, if you still feel the inner urge to embark on the journey, I must congratulate you. I myself am embroiled in the middle of this process with my team, and as strenuous as it may sometimes be: I have not regretted this decision for even one day. Because ultimately, New Work is nothing more than authentic encounters — with yourself and others, i.e. your fellow employees and customers. New Work is thus neither a panacea nor hype. It is a natural evolutionary step for mankind and a process leading to a better world. No more and no less.

“Being able to adapt quickly, flexibly, and proactively to new situations” – the significance of agility is not disputed. But how to achieve an agile digital agency definitely is. In the middle of the transformation of hmmh, we take a break and look back: what are the most valuable experiences from our change process with 300 employees up to this point and what questions should agencies ask when they move in the direction of agility?

Independent of industry, many employees today expect being able to realize themselves in the company and being able to show off their skills in interdisciplinary and exciting projects. Questions like “Why do we go to work in the morning” and “What is our mission?” demand clear answers. The objectives of companies are also clearly defined: finding creative solutions for the ever-changing needs of customers quickly, to keep up, and thus growing the company’s success and consequently their own. Achieving this while staying competitive requires more autonomous working methods and an agile structure. In addition to the will to change something, one must also raise internal awareness for the subject in order to be able to get all employees on board. And it requires a company structure with as few hierarchies as possible. However, the whole thing will only work within predefined boundaries for the entire team which leave enough room for creativity and autonomy for each individual and provide mutual trust. Once the change has been decided and the general direction laid out, the right strategy for the agile transformation must be found.

1. What is the right strategy for the transformation?

First of all: There is no “one right” strategy. Depending on industry, business size, and the willingness of the team, we decide whether the culture and structure should change gradually or in a short time. For companies with different service areas, only partially agile customers, and employees who are not yet completely convinced we recommend putting together a small group of promotors. As representatives of the different departments, they collect requirements, wishes, and concerns of the entire company, take care of the framework conditions, and accompany the process. The more varied the opinions, the better. Routines are deconstructed and then new paths found together. In 2015, after interviews and open spaces and after finding a strategy task force consisting of elected representatives for each area who accompanied the process, at hmmh this meant saying goodbye to functional pillar structures and “departments”. As the word already indicates, it is derived from parts (“de-part-ment”), the exact opposite of the objective. In this phase, hmmh formed agile customer teams in order to be able to address customer wishes faster and more flexible.

2. Creating initiative – How does one do that?

The developer, creative conceptioner, consultant, graphic designer, copywriter, HR, or management: each person in the company has different responsibilities and roles which require different skills. Breaking up all structures and redistributing responsibilities requires large-scale T-shaping in the company. This means that for instance developers also need to take on leadership roles for customer projects and internal tasks: either as member of a temporary SIG (Special Interest Group) created for a specific question or of a COP (Community of Practice) which tackles specialized topics across the company. Most of all, one must get adapted to the new spirit in order to focus on the positive aspects of an autonomous working method. Transparency and the involvement of each employee is the main point here in order to achieve the needed acceptance. This also includes education concerning the new possibilities and duties that come with such a change. The management must lead by example, delegate responsibility, and trust in its team and give them space to work. However, this also means that the management should initiate this process, guide it positively, and sometimes provide additional impetus. Courage to change serves as a role model and is contagious. The main foundation and guarantee for a successful transformation is a team that knows the objective.

3. Do the internal systems still fit the structure?

While the type of organization, the thinking, and working methods change it is important to check the internal systems for their fitness. How agile are the tools and programs which are a part of everyday work? Be it for internal information exchange, scheduling, or budgeting. The tools have to fit the organizational structure and permit agile work. No matter whether you use Confluence, Rocket Chat, or Bit Bucket – the decision for or against a tool should be based on the opinions of the internal experts and a reconciliation of all important requirements. One must also consider that compatibility with customers is also important. Tools may vary, but the focus should not: one must always ensure that the customer gets the best solution, the best service, or both. This means that agile work requires the transparent use of software, tools, and systems. Internal working methods can and must be adjusted: whether open spaces, lean coffees, or Kanban boards, the implementation must fit the structure. This also applies to the management.

4. How can you convince less agile customers?

At the moment, digital agencies usually are a lot more agile than its customers. This poses a great challenge in working together, since rigid structures and routines are often firmly anchored in the customer’s procedures. These customers want security and a perfect solution at a fixed price. When dealing with less agile customers it is important to let them know that they not only receive a tailor-made result but also tailor-made service which adapts to all their requirements in order to achieve the best possible result without compromises. Ideally, the price moves within a target range. Transparent processes, a sometimes cheaper but always better solution, and measurably better productivity as well as enjoying your work often also makes customers think twice. Agility is contagious.

5. When is the agile process completed?

Once the strategy and the roles have been found, the first agile projects implemented successfully, and new agile projects are added continually, then the acceptance of those who were not quite convinced of the model also increases. Employees who are unhappy with the new environment will leave, but make room for new ones. This is normal. It is important to reflect, verify, and adjust – as part of everyday work – internally and externally. This path is a permanent process that is never completed. And that is a good thing, since stagnation is boring.


Agile working is not just a method that makes businesses more efficient and flexible in order to achieve better results. Agility is a business philosophy. It requires clear and transparent communication, both with colleagues and with customers. It requires a great deal of initiative, mutual trust, and space for development. A complex process that not only need to be initiated well, but also continually supported, reflected, and adjusted. It is essential to find the right strategy for the respective business, give employees space to develop their own responsibility, adjust internal processes and roles, and get customers excited about the method. Only then can the entire company react flexibly to new challenges. There is no path to becoming an agile business without a change in culture. This piece of wisdom is well-established: “Structure follows strategy but culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

How agile a business really is does not depend on the management but every team member. Agility is not an end in itself and also no cure-all. But it is necessary today and even more in the future in order to be able to act successfully in the market in disruptive times.

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