Hotline to ambidexterity

The world is changing. Deutsche Telekom got ahead of the curve, write Liz Mellon and Marieluise Maiwald.

Do you recall the YouTube video – a company advertisement – launched nine years ago, of a plane being built in the air, while in flight and full of passengers? It’s still out there if you look for it (‘airplane’). If anything, change has only accelerated since then, leaving us with the breathless feeling that we are simultaneously building and changing business, two opposing ideas that are hard to reconcile. This challenge was keenly felt by Deutsche Telekom AG (DT), which is facing severe challenges from digital disruption in the market. The company offers telecommunications services; a full range of fixed-line telephone services, mobile communications services, internet access, and combined information technology and telecommunications services for businesses. It needs to adapt quickly to new technology or risk becoming obsolete. For DT, the answer lies in ambidexterity; the capability to balance exploiting current business (blue) with exploring new opportunities and business models (green). The success of blue business models is measured through indicators, such as efficiency and provides money for investment in new green business areas. Green opportunities are run with different performance indicators, such as the number of ideas generated.

Be the change you wish to see in the world

Actually, Gandhi said something more akin to, if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change, but the sentiment is clear. The HR function in DT decided that it needed to establish more effective ways of dealing with complexity and ambiguity. As Christina Schulte-Kutsch, VP leadership development and culture at DT, says: “Current business models change dramatically. We at DT want to shape digitization and the business world of the future. Our leaders are in the driving seat of shaping our digital future and we want to support them in building the leadership capabilities needed.”

Hence, LevelUP! was born. The LevelUP! programme has three streams delivered over ten months. The first stream is Educate, the mandatory component. Delivered virtually, it takes one day per term (four days total) to complete and is the programme foundation. It is primarily designed to inform participants about ambidexterity and to make the concept come alive through current and ongoing industry case studies or future scenarios. The second stream is Inspire, intended to foster innovative thinking and can be delivered virtually or face-to-face, using mechanisms such as ‘Leaders in Cars’, interviews with DT leaders while on the move (based on the ‘Carpool Karaoke’ YouTube videos). The third stream is Transfer, again with a variety of different delivery mechanisms and intended to enable the learning to transfer to daily practice at work. As we all know, this is the critical and most challenging phase in the learning cycle – importing new ideas and practices into the workplace. The transfer stage deploys a variety of methods, including reverse mentoring, design-thinking workshops and team consulting on ambidexterity.

How is LevelUP! different? 

The first difference is that no-one was nominated to, or sent on, the programme – it was advertised internally to the top 2,500 executives in the business. Some 700 places were offered on a first come, first served basis; all participants register themselves. The slots were filled in three days, with an immediate waiting list of 300 people. Already this programme distinguishes itself from more standard HR offerings. More usual qualifying processes would include nomination by a line manager; or talent identified by HR; or mandatory programmes upon promotion; or transfer to a new geography.

The second difference is that participation and completion of assignments are not tracked centrally. Just as registration is delegated to the participants, task completion is certified by a buddy. Participants work in pods of eight, with four buddy pairs and an external mentor. Each pod creates its own rulebook for how the pairs, the pod and the mentor interact.

Britta Posner is the founder and chief executive of Berlin-based Collaboration Practice consultancy and, as one of the external mentors, has seen the participants change as they go through the experience. “Deutsche Telekom is a large organization where seemingly hierarchy and following rules can sometimes prevent things from getting done,” she says. “This was a common observation from participants. But while at first this felt like an insurmountable barrier, the programme helped participants to reflect, leading to a change of perspective and questions, such as: I understand ambidexterity, so surely this means we have to work together differently? The Educate programme has allowed participants to go on an individual journey, finding their own questions and reflecting deeply on key topics such as identity, vision and their personal contribution.

“Those who fully engage with the process own the challenges and the remedies; they share the ideas with their teams and put them into practice. They define targets to track outcomes, for example defining a specific collaboration target, or changing the way they work with their peers from other functions. This experience fosters true ownership and accountability in a way that really feels new.”

The third difference is that participants, with the exception of the year-long Educate stream, design their own learning pathways – each participant is empowered to pursue exactly the learning they find most relevant.

As they work in their pods and encourage each other to explore, they also experiment. For example, one participant was inspired by Neil Harbisson (the first person in the world with an antenna planted in his skull and officially recognized as a cyborg by a government) to have a chip implanted under the skin to pay for goods. How many times does that happen on a standard training programme?

What do the participants say?

However different this experience may appear from outside, it’s what the customers themselves say that is most important. Soenke Thun joined T-Mobile Deutschland GmbH in 2004 after 12 years in the German Navy. He works in finance on major theoretical projects such as defining DT’s key performance indicators. It is often challenging for executives who ‘run the numbers’ to see the relevance of fluffy subjects like collaboration. Not so here.

“Every step along the programme I came to understand my CEO better,” he says. “Obviously I understood why we do things from a business perspective, but now I have a deeper understanding of why all the steps in the process are necessary. Understanding the why, the reasons behind our decisions, helps me contribute better towards this on a daily basis, rather than just understanding what we are supposed to do.

“I use the same technique with my team so that they too can understand how their daily work contributes. I also understand now why we separated out the innovative part of our company – building the business and changing the business are very different activities and need to be handled differently. I like the programme – it’s new, refreshing and fun.”

Vladan Pekovic is in charge of technology and IT in the Montenegrin affiliate, Crnogorski Telekom. He joined DT in 2009 and has almost 20 years of telecommunications’ experience in Latin America, the US, Africa and Eastern Europe (for Ericsson, Glotel, America Movil and T-Mobile). “I have attended a lot of training programmes, inside and outside DT, but this is the first with a real twist. It’s not intended to make us all the same, executives in one mould. We also look at industry broadly and its need to digitize overall, not just at our own industry. It’s refreshing. I also have experience of Harvard online, but this programme combines academic input, real DT stories, case studies and online.

“Discussion and reflection in our pods has created a real sense of urgency to change; for example, a colleague from Compliance said that the rules should be more flexible if we are to be able to grow! The content is not so new, but it’s not academic and leads easily to application. For example, explore(new ideas) and exploit (create add-on products or services) is obvious and we’ve done it for years. But now there’s a new imperative to explore more – how long can we (and Apple with the iPhone) keep exploiting old ideas? With my team now, I am explicit that we can experiment and fail without blame as we try new ideas and products. I see it as my job to change me, and also to influence others to adapt to this new spirit of leadership, along with the entire class doing the same.”

This process is clearly working. Lest it sound too idyllic, both participants and the external mentor noted that not everyone is active – there are free riders in every pod who drift along without taking much action. However, that has always been true in group work, so while it’s disappointing, it is not at all unusual.

HR transformation

Ambidexterity forms the umbrella theme for this year’s programme content, with DT’s Three Leadership Principles: ‘Collaborate’, ‘Innovate’ and ‘Empower to Perform’ acting as the underlying drivers. HR itself lives these principles through strong collaboration with its external training provider, Duke Corporate Education (DCE), and an innovative design (self-registration, imaginative case studies based on real industry challenges, buddy certification). And participants are empowered to create their own learning pathways – the ultimate in mass customization, literally self-customized by each individual.

But in what ways does designing and delivering training in ambidexterity transform HR into an ambidextrous function itself? HR lives the same principles of ambidexterity, innovating fast for LevelUP!

There was a lot of work required by the highly collaborative DT-DCE team to translate this into a viable and engaging educational experience. They had to identify the most appropriate and useful theoretical underpinnings – tools, concepts and theories – for each term. Learning materials, such as videos, articles, cases and examples, had to be selected and in some cases created from scratch, at speed, before being uploaded to the Educate Promote platform.

The whole offering had to fit together to form a coherent and compelling holistic experience. As Marieluise Maiwald from the Duke team says: “We knew that to keep participants engaged in a purely virtual environment over a year-long programme, we needed different ideas and very different approaches for each term, from simulated future scenarios to personal, innovative experiments.”

The delivery team needed to run the programme efficiently (making sure the materials and experiences were where they needed to be, when they needed to be) as well as offering high levels of innovation, such as the Quest activity, which involves weekly challenges.

“The pressure of producing a new, high-quality educational-experience fast requires intense collaboration – team calls twice a week were common – as well as robust project management using world-class tools like Trello,” says Duke programme lead Dr Ian Turner. “The team was designing on-the-go, often only six to eight weeks ahead of the programme, to meet each need as it arose. You can’t teach ambidexterity without being ambidextrous yourself.”

— Liz Mellon is chair of the Dialogue editorial board. Marieluise Maiwald is project director at Duke CE.