5. October 2022

Christoph Keese in conversation: Agility without reflection is not feasible

Christoph Keese in conversation: Agility without reflection is not feasible

Jens Büscher: Hello Christoph, I’m glad you found the time for this interview. I would like to start with a few introductory words: A few years ago, the employee culture started to change significantly. During that time, I had the chance to fly to the Bay Area in San Francisco and get to know many companies there: Linkedin, Docusign and many more. I wondered what the work mentality is really like there and had the opportunity to experience it first hand for a moment. This allowed me to compare working life in America with that in Germany and see similarities and differences. This experience was an absolute highlight for me and highly exciting. Your Silicon Valley book was my companion to prepare for our appointment. Your stories in it were very congruent with what I experienced.

Christoph Keese: I’m glad. When were you there?

Jens Büscher: Das muss 2015 / 2016 gewesen sein und überschneidend mit deinem zweiten Buch Silicon Germany. Ich habe jetzt in den letzten Wochen dein neues Buch Life Changer – Zukunft made in Germany: Wie moderner Erfindergeist unser Leben verändert und den Planeten rettet gelesen – was mit Aspekten rund um die Ukraine-Krise erstaunlich aktuell ist.

Christoph Keese: The Ukraine crisis began during the first sentence form. That is, of course, insidious. Theoretically you can still change it, but practically you can’t. In the end, we decided with the publisher to add a chapter on the subject and at the same time to put a plot line across the book so that the Ukraine crisis could be taken into account.

Jens Büscher: The timeliness surprised me very positively, but I also found the book as a whole very inspiring. I am impressed by your motivating and very optimistic view. At the end of the book you mention that due to satellite networking there is hardly any government influence on internet availability – which could be good for us. We are living in a post-factual age right now, where we are spreading false and unworthy information everywhere, which completely misses the point of the internet and what could be achieved with it. You present a lot of great issues in your book. It would be nice if it happened that way… If it weren’t for us humans!

Christoph Keese: Yes, although if the first principle were really correct, it would come about on its own. The only question is whether you have found this principle – and of course nobody knows that beforehand. You only know afterwards. But some things have come about almost by natural law. I’m glad you liked it. I’m glad!

Jens Büscher: I didn’t even know about the first principle before your book. It gave me a lot to think about – also with regard to my industry, digital document management. It’s been around for twenty or thirty years – and it hasn’t really caught on yet. I always ask myself whether we have thought the topic too small. The entire market segment is lacking real disruption.  After reading about the first-principle principle, I asked myself, “What would actually be the upper assumption you would have to make, according to which you would break it down?” That’s where I actually came to a completely different assumption of our market than you did. That powerful thought-provoking idea still resonates with me to this day. I still wonder if we are not completely off the mark right now and maybe that is exactly the reason why the system and the goals as we are pursuing them have not yet taken hold at all. Unfortunately, the insights gained are so revolutionary that a person like Elon Musk – who has enough capital – can simply implement such ideas. For me as a small founder, on the other hand, it is rather difficult to turn a company completely inside out and set up a new system.

But now to the actual questions: We are currently experiencing a new generation of employees and decision-makers. The baby boomers are leaving; the post-68 generation is following in management and Generation Y and Z continue to follow. From the point of view of many observers, the latter set high demands and freedom. Do you also see this generational upheaval at the moment? And how do you see the work mentality of the generation for the benefit and meaning of companies?

Christoph Keese: I believe that every generation of decision-makers has been different from the generation of decision-makers before it, and they have also always consciously practised the Freudian virtue of patricide and tried to do things differently from their predecessor generation. Now, however, it is not only the typical generational change that is changing. I think this generational change and the effort to want to do things differently than the previous generation has been around since time immemorial. But now it is external exogenous variables that have occurred and are further exacerbating the process. One is certainly the inverted population pyramid: there are simply fewer coming in than going out. My son’s cohort is, believe it or not, half the size of my own cohort. I checked the mortality tables once: My cohort will be 82 until it is so decimated by death and illness that it is as big as my son’s cohort, which will also be further decimated by then. This means that the baby boomers who are retiring now will probably be in the political majority for the rest of their lives. This phenomenon is relatively new.

Also new is the great workerlessness, about which Sebastian Dettmers has written his great book The Great Workerlessness: Why a Shrinking Population Threatens Our Prosperity and What We Can Do About It. The market is simply tilted. You can see that in many markets: On the car market, for example, because new cars are cheaper than old cars right now. The last time we saw this was in the GDR. But we can also see it in the housing and labour markets. Almost abruptly, the notices came, showing that companies were looking for employees. In the end, this tips over at one point: If there is one more job than people who want to work there, the market has already tipped. As a result, a new generation of business leaders has to work very hard to find people, to attract them, to keep them, to motivate them. Something has come over the new generation of employees that I previously only knew from the USA: A complete confidence in the future and a disengagement from the previous employer. We are hardly afraid of losing our jobs any more. In Germany, until some time ago, there was a widespread fear of losing one’s job. I think that has largely disappeared – except for the emotional component. Because many may like to work where they are working now. But an existential component like: “I won’t find a job anymore and will therefore fall to welfare level”, has almost completely disappeared because a reassuring confidence has set in.

However, this confidence also goes hand in hand with a lack of historical awareness due to generational factors. The younger generations of employees take today’s goings-on in the labour market for granted because they did not experience the times of mass unemployment. So managers have to adapt very strongly to this. In addition, a new generation also approaches work with a completely different emotional openness. One or two generations of leaders before were characterised by the fact that the boss never makes mistakes and would never admit them – that was interpreted as weakness. Today, it is seen more as a weakness not to admit a mistake. That has changed a lot and is maybe also an import from Silicon Valley. Keyword Fuck Up Nights: It was maybe ten years ago when I heard the word for the first time. In the meantime, Fuck Up Night has developed into Fuck Up Week and Fuck Up Life. There is no meeting any more where you don’t talk about what you just did wrong – that was completely unusual ten or twenty years ago. In my humble observation, this is the most radical generational shift I have witnessed. Maybe it was different for our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

Jens Büscher: I can absolutely confirm that. I also know many CEOs for whom the current culture is also completely incomprehensible. Just as you described it, showing weakness in a decision-maker position, openly reflecting and openly opening oneself up to discussion is an absolute no-go for them. That’s where the strong culture change becomes clear. But I think if you don’t reflect yourself nowadays, there is no progress in the company. So reflection on activities and people is directly part of the success of any company.

Christoph Keese: …And that in turn has an exogenous reason for pressure that accelerates it: Markets and habits are changing faster – and this increases the agility requirements for companies. Reflection increases agility. The lack of reflection could be afforded at that time because there was simply less demand for agility. The business model of the steel industry, just like the automotive industry, has remained unchanged for a hundred years. Now the business model of the automotive industry is changing radically and agility is the only way to deal with it. Agility without reflection is not feasible. Everyone sees that they companies that have reflective, self-critical, open and honest managers are more agile and more successful. A causal bridge is being built between agility and success – and it is correct.

There will be a continuation of the conversation next week.

Jana Treptow
Jana loves writing and communication. That's why she is responsible for the editorial contributions and the maintenance of the blog. She is also the contact person for all press issues.

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