Keeping a Grip on Large International Projects through Transparency

March 29, 2021


Stan Bentvelsen

Pieter de Braam van Vloten

Theo Gerrits

Core elements of Agile have the right effect at Nikhef:

After joining forces with Xebia, Nikhef realized Agile working requires a culture of trust and honesty. Stan van Bentvelsen: "Instead of talking about mistakes, you need to discuss possible improvements. Within that context, you can sketch perspectives and trust that people will follow.” Nikhef's transformation resulted in more transparency, job satisfaction, and more efficient projects.

During an Agile transformation, managers and leaders need to be open to bottom-up ideas and initiatives. Stan Bentvelsen: "It's about servant leadership, placing the responsibilities lower in the organization. If you keep approaching people in a directive way, opportunities will be lost. Thanks to Agile, we have further developed a culture in which we can give people more freedom."

Strive for perfection
Nikhef is a Dutch institute that provides instruments for research into subatomic physics. CERN is a major partner, as are other large-scale initiatives such as the KM3NeT neutrino detector in the Mediterranean. Nikhef, located at Amsterdam Science Park, has large departments for developing and producing mechanical technology, computing facilities, and electronics.

Nikhef successfully globally carries out projects with a lead-time varying from three to 20 years. Stan Bentvelsen: "We have a large number of expert competencies in-house. Our pitfall is that we often get lost in aiming for perfection. We need to keep a grip on these projects."

Within Nikhef, there was some frustration about several organizational matters. For example, projects for research partners encountered classic obstacles: delayed schedules, overshot budgets, inefficiencies, peaks in workload followed by inert periods, and, last but not least, irritation among employees.

"We wanted to convert dissatisfaction into opportunities and improvements," says HR manager Pieter van Braam van Vloten. "To begin with, we wanted to boost job satisfaction and enhance efficiency by making better use of the expertise of the people in the workplace and allowing them to make more decisions."

Applying expertise
After Nikhef tested the Agile waters, the company was eager to implement further and had heard very positive things about Xebia.

Xebia Consultant Theo Gerrits: "Through my assignment at ING, a positive review spread, and I was approached to work for Nikhef. Working at the institute was great! I have a background as a physicist, and I was able to apply my knowledge and expertise in an academic environment. The technology developed by Nikhef is absolutely cutting-edge. That makes it even more interesting."

"If you want to be successful, you must be open to expert feedback and coaching"— Stan Bentvelsen.

Theo Gerrits presented himself as an Agile driving instructor. Pieter van Braam van Vloten: "As Nikhef, we got behind the wheel, and Theo helped us on the road and constantly gave us feedback. Theo has taken the time to join us, become part of the team, and walk with us as an advisor. His approach ensured we didn't have to depend on consultants, and it had the best learning effect."

Guiding principles
Supported by the right software, Nikhef started implementing Agile in several projects. When drawing up the project plans, a matrix structure determined the various project teams' required competencies. This has been expanded to a point where almost all tasks are now tackled in a short cycle and a team context. "That is the core of Agile," Stan Bentvelsen summarizes. Theo Gerrits adds: "That is really what it is all about. We never used a standard method or implemented Scrum by the book. Instead, we used Agile principles, like transparency and ensuring that information is always available to everyone."

You can be very enthusiastic about a particular method. Still, according to HR leader Pieter van Braam van Vloten, you should always check whether it fits in a specific context or situation. "Some aspects can work. Others don't. When you have clarified that, you can start implementing. In this regard, Theo's pragmatic advice was very valuable."

Nudging and seduction
During the implementation, grateful use was made of a few of Nikhef's enthusiastic protagonists. Partly initiated by Xebia and management, relevant project leaders who are open to change and modernization formed a 'guiding coalition' and exerted positive pressure on the rest. For example, by sharing the progress or results. Today, this Agile transition group is still active.

Qualitative results
Nikhef is not a production company, making it difficult to quantify results, like increased output or lower costs. Qualitatively, employee perception is measured to visualize and evaluate progress.

Director Stan Bentvelsen: "We have made a considerable effort to change our processes and use Jira as standard software to improve the coordination and aggregation of resources within projects."

Due to the long lead time of projects, a certain technology that is being worked on may be outdated upon delivery. Iteratively working based on Agile principles makes it possible to incorporate new insights and developments progressively. Also, those involved can more easily adhere to agreements made so that not everything always has to be iterated.

"Large international projects do sometimes require traditional project management in which you define all kinds of phases in advance," says Bentvelsen. "We often have to deal with stakeholders who have a different way of working. We have to find a mode in that." - Stan Bentvelsen.

Nikhef's workspaces will be made more colorful, open, and focused on collaboration and chance encounters to support the cultural shift. In the new, open culture, the social aspect is important. A lot of attention has been given to these aspects while developing plans for the upcoming full-scale renovation.

Clear ambitions
To be ready for an Agile future, organizations and their leaders must have clear ambitions and goals in mind. "You will have to trust the people and, as a leader, dare to outsource tasks in an open culture. Management then mainly makes adjustments," says Stan Bentvelsen. "You shouldn't be afraid to take a detour if things don't turn out exactly as you had intended or expected. You won't get anywhere without some leeway."

According to Pieter van Braam van Vloten, organizations consist of groups of people who flock together to achieve more than each for themselves. "That premise never changes. On the other hand, how people organize themselves must be continuously adapted to keep up with the nations' pace. When the organization's development is in line with all personal motives, there is a good chance you will succeed."

As a consultant, Theo Gerrits likes to improve matters largely based on Agile principles. At Nikhef, instead of sticking to a standard methodology or framework, he used the principles. "Firstly, look at the needs and then use Agile to improve things."

Transformation focus
"Thanks to Theo's help, we have been able to focus on our transformation," says HR head Pieter van Braam van Vloten. "As an organization, you have to be open to feedback and coaching. Director Stan Bentvelsen adds: "The way we do Agile is customized. Our approach matches our context and situation."

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About Stan Bentvelsen

Director at Nikhef

About Pieter de Braam van Vloten

HR Manager Nikhef

About Theo Gerrits

Senior Agile Consultant

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