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Jorgen Hesselberg: Spread the Luck Surface and Increase Your Chance for Success

In this episode, Richard interviews Jorgen Hesselberg, a co-founder of Comparative Agility and the author of Unlocking Agility: An Insiders’ Guide to Agile Enterprise Transformation. He tells us how luck is not necessarily a product of coincidence and how your team can truly become an architect of its own luck.

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Richard 00:11
Hi, friends. Welcome back to With Great People, the podcast for high-performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski. Our special guest today is Jorgen Hesselberg. Jorgen is an old friend. He’s the author of the book Unlocking Agility: An Insider’s Guide To Agile Enterprise Transformation, and he’s the co-founder of Comparative Agility. To support this podcast, visit my website, kasperowski.com.

Richard:

Hey, Jorgen. How is it going?

Jorgen:
Hey, how is it going, Richard?

Richard:
I’m fine. It’s so good to see you. I’m so glad we can catch up. I think it’s been 13 months since the last time we actually saw each other face to face. How are you doing?

Jorgen:
I have been I would imagine like everyone else, holed up in my home office. It’s been one of those weird scenarios where I’ve probably been more places than I’ve ever been in some sense, because I’ve been all over the place, calling into people from Africa and Asia and Europe and North America. At the same point, everybody were-

Richard:
I said this to you, today I’m in Oslo. Today you’re in Boston. When I come downstairs I’m like, “Hey, Molly,” my wife, “Hey, Molly. I’m going to Oslo.”

Jorgen:
Yeah, exactly. It’s so weird. But of course, you don’t get the tastes and the food and the smells and all those things with those cultures so you’d miss something. But hey, at least you get a chance to visit a lot of different contexts, so that’s cool.

Richard:
Yeah, totally. Let’s see. So I introduced you as the author of that great book. It really is a good book, Unlocking Agility, and co-founder of Comparative Agility. Is there anything else you want to share by way of introduction?

Jorgen:
I think that sums up most of it. I am one of those agile nerds. I mean, I really believe in this stuff and I have for 20 years. So for me, this is not a thing that something I do for a living. It’s something I do because I live it. I don’t do it for a living. I do it because I live it and I believe deeply in agile ways of working. So this is fascinating with me. You are one of those people that we connected early on. I think it’s been almost 10 years ago since we first met. I could tell that I had met a soulmate in that sense. You have the same… We talked about agility way before agility was the thing. This was really early days of scaling anything. You and I had that same connection, which was really inspiring for me because there wasn’t that many people out there who was talking like that. Yeah. I’m really, really thrilled to be on your show.

Richard:
I’m humbled and honored by the word soulmates. Oh, thanks.

Jorgen:
But you know how it is when you’re looking at your soulmate.

Richard:
Actually, I totally feel it. I totally feel that connection. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. We met something like 10 years ago. We were both working for this giant and at that time successful company called Nokia. You have a really funny story about joining the company, Nokia. How did that story go?

Jorgen:
Oh, there’s so many stories around them. I mean, you talk about the-

Richard:
Yeah. You signed up for a job at some company.

Jorgen:
Yes, NAVTEQ. Is that what you’re thinking of?

Richard:
Yeah.

Jorgen:
Yeah. I signed up for NAVTEQ, and it didn’t take too long before they were acquired by Nokia. I think it was a couple of months later and suddenly your paycheck had a different logo, and suddenly now your Nokia. I think that happens to a lot of people. It’s funny how that works out and just like, “Oh, okay. That’s funny. I guess it’s Nokia now.” But hey, that was a great experience. That company, I think, if you think about agile alumni, I mean talk about a legacy that Nokia has left. Sometimes I go back to my LinkedIn profile and look at the people that I worked with at that time. You go back and you think of things like less scaled agile framework, like the Nokia testing, all those things that we take for granted that has been there now for many years, those have their origins to Nokia. So, for good and bad. But yeah, Nokia is definitely a pioneer in the agile space and very fortunate to have been working there.

Richard:
To remind myself about Nokia, I’ve got this cup. This is my pilfered coffee cup from the Helsinki office. It has the Nokia name on the back of it.

Jorgen:
Oh, that’s awesome. Nokia House, remember that?

Richard:
Yeah.

Jorgen:
That was such a great place.

Richard:
Listen, I worked in the Helsinki office, which was hipper. Well, let’s see the Espoo office, the design people up on the higher floor is overlooking the lake or whatever that was. That was pretty sweet office space.

Jorgen:
That look [crosstalk 00:04:38].

Richard:
I really loved working in the city versus just outside the city, right? It was really fun. It was really fun.

Jorgen:
You were always more urban than me. I never went to the Helsinki office. I was in the Espoo office. Nokia House was such a marvel of architecture, so much wood and light-

Richard:
That’s really beautiful.

Jorgen:
… and lots of windows, just natural light everywhere. Gorgeous, gorgeous place.

Richard:
Yeah, it was a really nice place to be. We still had… We’ll pronounce it like this. We had sauna. Even in the office in the city, we had sauna.

Jorgen:
Yes. You know what, I think that was like a mandate, every single Nokia office. I mean, in Chicago even, they had a sauna.

Richard:
I think we had sauna, but the way you said is, “We have sauna.”

Jorgen:
Yeah, we have sauna.

Richard:
In American English, we had a sauna. We had a sauna in the Boston office as well. Yeah. Yeah.

Jorgen:
That one, I never really adopted that tradition.

Richard:
That was totally different.

Jorgen:
It was so different. The whole idea of sitting there more or less buck naked with your boss just seemed awkward to me, so I never really did that thing. I mean, sauna at work, I mean, yeah, you have to be Finnish, I think, to really appreciate that part.

Richard:
I used to say… I’m going to say it. I was thinking about whether I should say this out loud or not. I used to say things to friends who weren’t Finnish or weren’t from Nokia, I’d be like, “Yeah. We just had an offsite meeting. It was me and 20 other naked guys.”

Jorgen:
And where do you work?

Richard:
Yeah. It sounds weird from an American perspective, but it was totally normal. Actually, it was pretty great.

Jorgen:
It was a lot of fun. After that, we went into the snow and just joined the cold shower. Yeah, it’s an interesting tradition. Apparently, it gets your mind thinking. That’s for sure. Your blood definitely gets pumping.

Richard:
Definitely.

Jorgen:
So yeah, it does have its therapeutic reasons.

Richard:
Funny cultural things. You’re Norwegian, so apparently this is different between even the Northern countries.

Jorgen:
Yes. Yeah. The Finnish people, they’re wonderful people, but they’re definitely a little different from the rest of the Scandinavians. I think the Swedes will say the same thing and the Danes. But yeah, they’re sort of like their own special kind.

Richard:
Yeah, that it’s awesome, right?

Jorgen:
They’re awesome. There’s a certain personality. There’s a good friend of mine from Ericsson, Henrik Esser. He has this joke. He works with a lot of people from Finland and they will not be offended when I say this. Since this is a webcast, I can show you. He says, “Here’s how a Finnish person looks when he’s happy. Here’s how a Finnish person looks when he’s sad.”

Richard:
Yeah, we got all the Finnish jokes about emoting, right?

Jorgen:
Emoting. Really, there is no difference and that’s okay. They’re proud of it too. If you think about the pandemic-

Richard:
Dear Finnish friends, I hope you’re not offended by this. In fact, I heard most of these jokes from you, my dear Finnish friends.

Jorgen:
Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s where they come from. They’re not easily offended. Hey, and they have a proud history too, where they have been able to fight back very quickly as well. So these guys are not someone who will be easily offended by any means.

Richard:
All right, Jorgen. So talking about some old times, some old teams we’ve been around together. This is the podcast about great teams. So, what I’d like to ask, and you saw this little outline, maybe you’ve heard one of these episodes before, what’s the best team of your life, best team that you have ever been a member of?

Jorgen:
That is such a fascinating question because you go through and you think of all the teams you’ve been in and there’s many. I like the way you also define teams. It’s more than just the work stuff. It can also be your wife and your kids and your family and those kinds of things, but I went a little more on the professional side just to keep it on that end. I actually ended up going way back to 1999 when I was an intern, and later on in 2000, where I was joining a company called Hewitt Associates. I joined a team called RevCast, which was short for revenue forecasting. It was a team of five people. We were developing products, software in Microsoft Access using VBA. I got to say, that was probably the most fun and I would say objectively the best team I’ve ever been on. So, it was a wonderful experience.

Richard:
Fun and objectively the best. When you take yourself back to that team, this is kind of funny because you’re so smiley and happy. You have the smiley face. I love looking at your face. I don’t want to tell you to close your eyes. I never tell anybody to do anything. Sometimes people take themselves back to this team. I can see that you’ve already taken yourself back to this team. When you re-experience the team, and I can tell by your face that you are re-experiencing the team, what’s the one word that you could use to summarize to that feeling of that team?

Jorgen:
That one word, I’m torn between two words actually, because there’s… Maybe those are a little bit related, but I’m torn between pride and fun. Those are the two words that pop up. Maybe pride if anything else, because part of this was probably because I was very young. This was my first job out of college, so to be on a team like this was something I was very proud of, but we had a lot of fun too. It didn’t feel like work. It was just a very inspiring time to be doing this kind of stuff, because you were working with other people that you really, I want to use the word love. I love those people. They were my brothers and sisters in arms. We felt we were doing something that truly made an impact. So there was a lot of pride, but we had a ton of fun too.

Richard:
When you say pride, what do you mean?

Jorgen:
There was this ownership that we got, because what this was… So originally, I think our group was called ad hoc development, which is a strange name for a group. But I think what we were supposed to be was basically that let’s say you had some technical issue and you needed some sort of custom solution to it, they would throw us at it and we would help business people to solve a problem. Usually, it would be maybe making a macro or maybe a quick integration or something like this. But the thing is this revenue forecasting program started off as a glorified spreadsheet and ended up being a Microsoft Access application. It was never supposed to be an enterprise-wide application. I mean, it’s Microsoft Access. The problem was it was so darn good that the business people loved it and they said, “I want this thing.”

Jorgen:
So we ended up distributing this out. I think at the most, we had over a thousand users and we were handing over $3 billion worth of revenue. On the other hand, we had PeopleSoft, which is really supposed to do this kind of stuff, who had a staff of 25 people, lots of consultants, lots of budget. The business people didn’t want to use PeopleSoft because PeopleSoft had a process that says, “Hey, this is how you do revenue forecasting.” But we just did it the way people wanted it. So they would say, “Hey, can you do this? or “Can you make this report?” or “Can you make sure it can have this view?” And we would say, “Give me 10 days and we’ll see what we can do.”

Jorgen:
We worked in iterations of five to 10 days, depending on how big the thing was. And then we delivered it and the guys will say, “That’s perfect. Now, can you do this thing?” And then we did that. We just kept working like this. Ultimately, the users love the application so much. So when the technical folks said, “Oh, you can not use Microsoft Access because it’s not the enterprise server application and blah, blah, blah,” they would say, “You know what, do you know who actually pays the bills here? It’s me. I’m the business guy. I want that.” And then it didn’t take long before we basically dominated that particular area of the business. I think PeopleSoft didn’t like it. We were very proud of it because we felt it was kind of like a rebel group against the mothership. So yeah, I think that was part of what made that such a special experience.

Richard:
Very cool. Very cool. You’re talking about some of the ways that you know this was a great team, these objective ideas, first of all, that, wow, you had a thousand users, over a thousand users. It’s probably the largest scale, I don’t know, for sure. It’s the largest scale access app I’ve ever heard of, right? It’s supposed to be a one-user system.

Jorgen:
Yes, I know exactly what you mean. If you’re interested in some of the technical stuff, I could tell you about how we handled replication, for instance, which was a massive system. You know what, we’ve had discussions around this. Apparently, there are really, really large access systems out there. So we would probably not by any means the largest, but we were among the largest. This was Access 97 that we built this thing in. It wasn’t even 2000, which was a NT built systems. So that was a much more advanced system. We were really built on a desktop solution that we were able to make work really well. I think part of what made me objectively know that this was something people liked was A, people wanted it. They asked for it. This was before the consumer really mattered too much in internal software.

Jorgen:
I think you can see now that if you look at Robin Hood or even TurboTax or other applications that you can consider are a little bit more on the business side, they’re now more consumer-friendly. But back in the day, if you think of… I mean, I won’t speak ill of enterprise applications, but if you think of SAP and PeopleSoft and those things, they were clearly not customer-focused at all. They said, “Here’s how the process work. It is your job as a consumer to learn the process, not the other way around.” We were not built like that. We were custom-built from scratch. So we said, “Hey, whatever works for these people is what we’re going to do.” Part of the reason I know this was successful is that when we did… This is probably something I couldn’t have told you, unless this was 20 years ago. When we did annual reporting and SEC reports, they were using data that came straight out of Microsoft Access 97, which I’m sure that people don’t want to say loud, but they use that data to report on external metrics. Clearly then, they trusted us and clearly users liked us.

Jorgen:
I think the biggest sense of pride I had was when the PeopleSoft group invited us over and asked us our approach design. They was like, “How did you come up with your GUI?” We had no formal design background at all. We just talked to customers. But that was really exciting to hear PeopleSoft folks that we really looked up to as sort of like the real engineers tell us or ask us how we did that. But anyway, yeah, sorry. This meant a lot to me. That was a really, really important-

Richard:
Yeah, totally.

Jorgen:
… really important project. Now, in retrospect, I realized that what we were, we’re essentially a very, very agile team. All of those things that we now later on look at as typical agile stuff, we did. We just didn’t have words for it at the time.

Richard:
Right. Right. “How did you come up with the idea for this?” “Well, our users came over and we went over to them or whatever, and we talked to each other.”

Jorgen:
Yeah, individual interactions.

Richard:
“We asked them what they want.”

Jorgen:
Exactly.

Richard:
“How did you come up with the idea?” “We asked them what they want.”

Jorgen:
Exactly. We actually listened to them. We would have a really nice partnership. The customer collaboration idea really did happen because they would come over. They would also be really respectful because it felt like a team of equals in the sense that they wouldn’t just say, “Here’s what I want,” and then that’s it. They looked at us as people who could really help them. So they would say, “Hey, let me tell you first why I’m having some challenges with this or that.” And then once we understood what their problem was, we were like, “Well, I was going to do this thing here, but obviously that doesn’t make sense because ultimately this is probably going to help them more.” So we did these things not based on large requirements, but based on really great conversations with people. And then we tested it extensively with them before we launched it and made it public, so the whole MVP idea, customer collaboration, mobbing.

Jorgen:
I mean, that team was a team of five people and none of them were… There’s probably one person who you could consider a traditional engineer. The rest, it was a philosophy major, a journalism major. One was an ordained pastor, although that wasn’t his full-time job. And then there was someone who had a slight design background. It was in textile design, not in computer design. But we got together and we were in the same room and we were over each other’s shoulders, but not in a controlling way. It was more like, “Hey, how do you figure this one thing out?” It was such a… I don’t know. It was very inspiring. We talked about flow earlier before we recorded here, and that was what that was. We were in flow as we were working and the days just, well, flew by.

Richard:
That’s beautiful. You’re in flow together as this team of five.

Jorgen:
It was a lot of fun.

Richard:
So, what else subjectively? This sensation of flow, I don’t know if that’s objective or subjective, but what else about flow or what else about subjectively knowing or feeling that this is the best team of your life?

Jorgen:
Well, I think some of that feeling when you look forward to going to work, I think that’s a good sign that you enjoy what you’re doing and that you’re probably on a high-performing team. The other thing is, and this is one thing that I don’t think we talk about very often, but we’ve worked really long hours, but not because we had to. We did it because we wanted to. I remember when we were doing this, it was replicated through, I think it was 11 different locations across the U.S. and even Canada. The challenge we would have sometimes is that we would replicate these databases. An access database is not robust enough that we could actually have one database where all 11 locations with access to data. We would have application errors and there would be corruption. So we would actually have to have 11 separate databases that would every night replicate each other and essentially we pushed out to the users.

Jorgen:
This would fail quite frequently. So we would have to go in at night because there was no support other than us. So we would go in at night and fix the stuff. But you know what, it wasn’t like, “Oh, this sucks.” It wasn’t that kind of thing. It was like, “You know what, my baby needs me here. My application is down. I’m going to take care of it. I’m going to fix it.” Yeah. Of course, part of this was that I’m young. I was young. I didn’t have kids and all those kinds of things. But yeah, we put a lot of hours into making this thing, not just the sweat and the tears part, but also in making it better because we learned from that and we said, “Hey, how can we automate this and make sure this doesn’t happen again?” It ended up being a very robust system through pride and grit, but also some long hours, but it didn’t feel like it. I think that’s the difference. It didn’t feel like work. It was just like we’re doing it because it’s something you were very proud of.

Richard:
Yeah. Yeah, that feeling. Before we did the introduction to the podcast, we were chatting and I was saying something about flow and playing piano. And you’re like, “Oh, I’ve never thought of flow that way.” But it’s the sense that you pointed out to me, that you lose track of time, the hours didn’t matter.

Jorgen:
Yes. This is a wonderful place to be because then, suddenly, you’re not working anymore. Yeah, the paycheck is nice, but that’s not at all why you do this. It really isn’t. It’s really about being together with people. Like you say, great work or great performance with great people, and that’s what that’s all about. I like the way you use the word love in these contexts because there is a sense of love that gets established. I guess, similar to what happens when you’re in the army perhaps and you have someone with you there, having your back, because you’re in there and you’re building something and you’re creating something. There’s always going to be conflict and things like this, but you work through it together. Ultimately, when you can see that you’re making a difference and users are sending you an email saying, “You know what, this made such a big difference to me,” that’s all you need to hear, and then your day is just made.

Richard:
Yeah. Totally. Totally. What are some of the concrete behaviors that you and your teammates conducted? What are some of the things you did together on this team very concretely that led to the success?

Jorgen:
The way the team operated was, in retrospect, very agile. We definitely did mob programming. It wasn’t called that then, but that’s definitely how it was. We all had our main roles. We had a dude who was kind of like the testing dude. And then we had a person who was a little bit more technically advanced than most of us so he did most of the hardcore coding. Then there was someone like me, who could do some Mickey Mouse programming, but also had a little bit of a design eye. And then there was a lady from India who had this really cool perspective on analytics. I mean, we were all in together, but I think the thing is that collaboration was really fast. It was real-time. We trusted each other and we were empowered.

Jorgen:
Now, of course, we have a name for that, psychological safety. We could make mistakes without feeling that, “You know what, this is the end of the world.” Because our manager, to his credit, he really believed… He wasn’t a traditional engineer either. He was one of those people who just really believe in creating a great product, not that they have to be done in a certain way. So he was really more about, “Hey, if you believe this is the way to do this, you probably know more about this than I do so I trust that.” You know what, there were times when we made mistakes, but the great thing is we could revert that quickly.

Jorgen:
So in terms of concrete behaviors, I would say that extreme collaboration or mobbing, I would say that empowerment, being able to make mistakes without being punished for that and being close to customers, having access to customers so that we can check and say, “Hey, are we on the right path here? Is this what you’re looking for?” and creating that trusting relationship so that when we did mess up, we wouldn’t going to get some terrible call. They would say, “You know what, I see what you were doing there. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Do you think you can do something about that?” And then, of course, that’s a different conversation than if you get yelled at and that kind of thing.

Richard:
Yeah. Beautiful. Beautiful. How about advice for listeners to be able to take some of this experience and reproduce it on their own team?

Jorgen:
Yeah. I thought a long time about that. I’ve been in situations where I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to recreate that.

Richard:
Of course. Of course. This is the work here, right?

Jorgen:
You’re right, I want to see more of that. To be fair, I’ve been on a, I would say, two or three really great high performing teams after that, but I also say that this is not, I think, a linear predicted process where you can say, “I do A, B, C,” and viola, I have a predictive high-performing team. There is an element of magic there that I am not entirely sure what is. I equate it to innovation in general. You can create an environment where I think the luck surface, if you want to call it that, expands, and I think the chances of it happening is probably bigger, but I think that it’s not a guarantee.

Jorgen:
So, you have to have that diversity of thought. You need to have that empowerment. You need to be able to be close to the customer and quickly validate your assumptions. But even though you have those things, there’s no guarantee that that will actually happen, because part of that is probably the personalities. It’ll be these people that… Why is it that certain people click and certain people don’t, that kind of magic? That I haven’t figured out. So, I’m not sure if I can tell you that there’s the recipe, but I think part of the things you talk about I think is exactly the types of norms and behaviors that I think increases the chances of those things happening.

Richard:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Awesome. Awesome. I love this phrase, the luck surface. What’s that?

Jorgen:
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. I mean, that’s what we’re trying to increase essentially, that surface of luck. Within that surface, good things happen, and whatever we can do to expand that I think is our job as leaders, which serendipity, I guess, is another word for it. It’s not easy to do those things and I guess that’s why great leaders are far and few between.

Richard:
All right. All right. Let’s see. So, I know you have your book there on the desk. Hold it up to the camera. Let’s see that beautiful book cover.

Jorgen:
Yeah, I have it out there.

Richard:
There it is.

Jorgen:
There we go.

Richard:
Unlocking Agility by Jorgen Hesselberg. Behind you, you got the banner for your company, Comparative Agility. It’s beautiful.

Jorgen:
Thank you, man. Yeah. No, I feel really passionate about both of those. I think the best thing I like about Comparative Agility is that it is not one of those sort of like colored by numbers type of situations. It’s truly a platform that reveals where you might have challenges and helps you ask better questions. It doesn’t give you the answers. I think a lot of people get put off by that. They say, “Well, you’re telling me that I do this analysis and you won’t tell me what to do.” I said, “No, no, but I will help you ask better questions and know who to ask about what, but you still have to do the work. I mean, this doesn’t take away the job of coaches and great leadership. We’re not creating widgets here. If we were, then yeah, I could probably tell you exactly what to do. You are in a complex adaptive system, so it would be very intellectually dishonest of me to tell you that after a survey, you will do this and this, and you’ll be agile. That just doesn’t work, but I can help you shine the light where it matters.”

Richard:
That’s true.

Jorgen:
And I think that is all you can ask for when it comes to systems like this.

Richard:
All right. And then, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jorgen:
No, just thank you so much for having me on. This was such a blast.

Richard:
Absolutely.

Jorgen:
We should do this every week.

Richard:
Any excuse to see you at hanging out and chat, yeah, totally. Let’s see. How could listeners contact you?

Jorgen:
Oh, pretty simple. I think, well, the easiest one is probably just email. I’m old school and I’m a nerd. So if you have any questions around agility or anything like that, I’d love to talk about that stuff. Jorgen@comparativeagility.com, that’s the address for that. I’m on Twitter now and then. I don’t do too many things. That’s jhesselberg. But those are probably the two things that I use most. But yeah, email [crosstalk 00:27:13].

Richard:
I’ve also seen the company. It’s a small company. I’ve seen the company on Twitter. I think it’s Comparative Agility. What is it? CompAgility?

Jorgen:
That is right, comparativeagility.com.

Richard:
CompAgility?

Jorgen:
Yeah. We’re definitely going to be out there, and then we keep having a lot of cool content from our authors as it happens. So, you’ll hear more about that too.

Richard:
Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Thank you so much, Jorgen Hesselberg. Thank you.

Jorgen:
Richard.

Richard:
It is so good to see you, so good to hang out and chat. I really appreciate this.

Jorgen:
Hey, my pleasure.

Richard:
Thanks so much for joining us today.

Jorgen:
Thank you so much. Next time, let’s have a beer in person.

Richard:
Yeah.

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