Interview: Haeme Ulrich – “The new normal is agility!”


Haeme Ulrich is a consultant. The Swiss native has focused on leadership, digital transformation and multi-channel publishing.

Bernd Zipper: Haeme, the Covid 19 crisis hit the printing industry hard. How do you assess the current situation and how are the companies you work with doing?

Haeme Ulrich: It is quite difficult to say how they are really doing. In Switzerland, too, many companies have reduced working hours – which distorts the perception a bit.

However, it really is the case that a lot less is being printed. And that’s also logical: if events don’t take place, less marketing is done and therefore less is printed. That’s what I hear directly from our Swiss customers in the printing industry.

At the same time, however, I also sense something like a pioneering spirit. I sense little resignation or giving up. On the contrary, perhaps also due to the conditions of remote working, there is a push towards experimentation: “Come on, let’s try out new models!” New models with regard to collaboration, but of course also new offers on the market.

Bernd Zipper: A pioneering spirit is a good thing, and that’s what we’re both always complaining about: breaking new ground. But what needs to change in concrete terms?

Haeme Ulrich:  What will not change is the basis, the foundation of a company, and by that I mean above all the corporate culture, the way companies are managed. In my immediate environment, I have two examples of medium-sized companies, each with just under 100 employees.

In one company, the work is top-down and everyone is getting more and more stressed. So every month a few people have to leave. And in the other company, the senior boss actually went from person to person and said, “You, we’re coming up against a huge storm and you as an employee have two options: Either you stay in the boat and have to row along, or you have to leave the boat. But the storm is coming: now!”

Bernd Zipper: But how can a company leader extricate himself from this situation of apparent lack of perspective? Approaching each other openly is the first step. Then what?

Haeme Ulrich: The captain has to be honest with the whole team. That is exactly the solution. I like to compare it to a boat in a storm – it can only get through if everyone is pulling on the same line. It is very important that honesty is also communicated, even when the boss is at a loss. It gets bad or extreme when the CEO only has the answers for himself: “We have new ideas for new markets. We can discuss this for ten minutes now, but the decision has been made.” That’s an outright joke to the employees.

Bernd Zipper: Many printers run their business like a lord of the manor or a patriarch. They actually find it difficult to drop the mask and leave the lifestyle of the entrepreneur behind. Do you have any suggestions as to how managers could motivate themselves to actively change this?

Haeme Ulrich: I think we can learn a lot from sports. The entrepreneur would then be the trainer or the coach, and he should also see himself that way. He’s not the one who has to deliver the top performance – that’s what his team does. But he must prepare his team optimally, he must have their backs, he must define functioning rules and provide the appropriate tools. That’s how I see the boss in a crisis.

Bernd Zipper: At the same time, there is an effort by some to use precisely this time now to change something and initiate a transformation – in terms of both corporate cultures, but also digital transformation. How do you perceive this? Is a crisis the right time to discuss such “change topics”?

Haeme Ulrich: There are different phases of a crisis. There is the first phase, which I think is now slowly subsiding. That’s the phase of being overwhelmed, the phase of being scared, the phase of “switching to emergency mode” and something like the escape phase. That’s when all you can do is run. We are now slowly leaving this phase and can start thinking again about how to proceed in the medium or long term. So if you think the time is right now – go ahead with the transformation process.

However, it should not be forgotten that we have fundamental problems in the printing industry, not just due to Corona. Corona has simply made this much clearer.

“There are different phases of a crisis. There is the phase of being overwhelmed, the phase of being frightened, the phase of “switching to emergency mode” and something like the escape phase. That’s when all you can do is run. We are now slowly leaving this phase.” – Haeme Ulrich

Of course, much less is being printed. But we’ve complained about that before, too. For me as an entrepreneur, the situation would mean: “Now more than ever …!”

Bernd Zipper: But now more than ever also means I have to come to terms with the circumstances …

Haeme Ulrich: That’s right. But the most important thing is to be honest. By that I mean not to suppress or cover up your own insecurities, but to really communicate sometimes: ” I myself don’t know where to go.” If you as a leader are able to show weakness, that is the real strength, so that people will trust you. The worst thing you can do is answer uncertainty with uncertainty.

Bernd Zipper: Showing uncertainty at a new beginning or in a change process is certainly not very motivating for others. How would you initiate a change process, given the limited resources?

Haeme Ulrich: I organize quite a few workshops on change, which are often attended by middle management. Most of them think, “It’s just difficult if it doesn’t come from the top.”

That’s by far the easiest thing to do if there’s a requirement. But the problem with larger SMEs is often that there are two different cultures there: The sheltered workshop with the CEO and his bubble – and then there’s production. All they ever hear is that there is something new available as a kind of salvation. But it is precisely the production team that becomes resistant to frequent changes. They hardly understand change processes – and if they do, they first perceive them as a disruption. The consequence of this is that I have to approach the changes as a team.

Bernd Zipper: Change is one thing, but today people are also constantly talking about the “new normal.” 

Haeme Ulrich: That’s really a funny term for this situation. But in the context of business, it means that the new normal is agile. Agile also means I always adapt my direction of moving forward to the current situations. Then I can control entire projects with agile management methods.

There, I can definitely start at team level as well and don’t have to command or delegate everything top-down.

Bernd Zipper: If you say that there are different cultures and that “agility is the new normal,” how can an entrepreneur who has been using the same management model and the same concept for 30 years learn agility? In that case, he needs a trainer for himself!

Haeme Ulrich: Actually, it’s crazy: If he hadn’t been agile as an entrepreneur at some point, he probably wouldn’t have survived. We were all agile once, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived infancy. So, we don’t have to relearn anything, but rather allow what we were once capable of doing to happen again.

This includes learning by making mistakes, allowing failure, and doing something together instead of competing as individuals. But many entrepreneurs have forgotten that. And they have also forgotten that they need comrades-in-arms.

Bernd Zipper: When an entrepreneur says, “I’m going to go down this road and I’d like to learn a little bit more,” many people, in their distress, resort to the frequently overhyped start-up recipes. We do everything standing up, everyone gets a coffee, we’re all on first-name terms, and we’re all hip to the max. This cannot actually work at all. Do you have any ideas on how something like this could be approached?

Haeme Ulrich: I think what you’re talking about is very important. You can change the dress code and tomorrow everyone will be wearing a hoodie and sneakers, but that doesn’t mean you’ve been digitally transformed. That has no impact at all on digitization or transformation.

What’s important is that you don’t deal with the appearances, but rather you really deal with the culture in terms of trust. I think start-up culture is trust culture. You can adapt that to seasoned companies as well.

And all those who claim to be agile, please don’t confuse that with chaos. There is agile thinking and only limited rules. But I have to stick to them absolutely stubbornly and without fail.

If I can’t manage my deadlines and keep other commitments or obligations, I’m not in control. Anyone who then says, “Yes, we are working agilely,” is simply a chaos troupe, isn’t he?

Bernd Zipper: And what are the most important rules of agility for you?

Haeme Ulrich: What is very important for me, for example, is the daily stand-up, the meeting for planning, or whatever you want to call it. You take a fresh look at the situation in the team every morning. This results in three classic questions that you should answer for each other:

“What did I do yesterday? What am I doing today? What are the problems that are preventing me from doing what should be done?” If everyone on the team answers that every morning, much of the monitoring that used to be done by the boss becomes obsolete. And within ten to fifteen minutes, everyone on the team has a sense of what’s going on in the first place.

There’s just one mistake you can’t make: At some point, saying that it’s the same thing every morning anyway, asking these three stupid questions, and then giving up. In the end, you don’t have a leadership culture anymore, that’s not agile, that’s just disorganized.

Bernd Zipper: Okay – but how should “agile” be planned in concrete terms?

Haeme Ulrich: In classical thinking you plan the people and in agile thinking you plan the work. So: “Manage the work not the workers”. We are talking about progress in work and not about a job that Anna or Fritz are doing right now.

This is a question of planning jobs and resources. So, I manage the work consistently and not the workers.

“If you change only the dress code and from tomorrow on everyone comes in with a hoodie and sneakers, you’re not digitally transformed. That has no impact at all on digitization or transformation.” – Haeme Ulrich

Bernd Zipper: The keyword is “Kanban,” the Toyota method of how to organize production. I see a great deal of similarity with the printing industry, especially in the way tasks are completed. Many people are already trying their hand at this. Now we have applications like Microsoft Teams, where I can integrate Kanban, where I can communicate at the same time, use a shared data repository and so on. Is it a prerequisite for digital transformation in the company to work via such a platform?

Haeme Ulrich: Well, it’s a big help, for sure. But it’s not a prerequisite. The question is whether transformation has to be digital at all in the sense of massive use of technology. Transformation can also be as simple as becoming “lean” or “more agile”.

It’s the mindset and the rules of the game that matter: Open, honest, immediate, collaborative – this makes it extremely easy to work together. But it’s the same as always: The tool alone doesn’t matter; you also have to use it sensibly.

Bernd Zipper: What would be your ultimate tip if an entrepreneur asked you: “What should I do? Honestly, I already have Kanban, but still, I don’t see any way out of this. I’m in crisis here: financially, humanly, mentally, just in every way.”

I think there are a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t see a landing anymore and who get pretty sick of the consultant babble from you and me, because they say, “Yeah, you’re not in production, you don’t know what this is all about.” And at the end of the day, they’re left with nothing. What are they supposed to do now? What are they supposed to do to get out of this somehow?

Haeme Ulrich: If I had a 10-point list for everyone, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. We are in the same storm with our company. But maybe you can do something with what an older and wiser man recently told me: “Try, as long as it is possible, not to become dependent as a company. In other words, try as long as somehow possible not to receive external money, because then you will become a junkie.

Now of course I know the labor law in Germany rather badly and I know that in Switzerland it is much easier to spin and implement crazy ideas.

When Corona started with lockdown and all that and we saw within two days that 80 percent of our agreed upon orders were lost, we started making short contracts among ourselves in our company. We only take as much pay as we need to survive.

And then we had a design thinking workshop and looked at how we could reinvent ourselves.

That’s possible in Switzerland – but probably not in Germany. It’s important to find comrades-in-arms within the team and the corporate environment and to involve them.

Bernd Zipper: Well, I would say: Look for allies, look for friends, because without friends you are nothing.

Haeme Ulrich: Absolutely. Yes, that’s what I mean.

Bernd Zipper: Haeme, thank you for the time and the discussion. I think we will talk about this topic one or two more times. Because the new normal is agility.

Interview: Haeme Ulrich - "The new normal is agility!"
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Interview: Haeme Ulrich - "The new normal is agility!"
Haeme Ulrich is a consultant. The Swiss native has focused on leadership, digital transformation and multi-channel publishing. The Covid 19 crisis hit the printing industry hard. How do you assess the current situation and how are the companies you work with doing?
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Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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