This is an article about the work of Frank Ewert and Samir Keck working in the Agile Coaching Team of Zalando (2015 – 2019). For sure, Zalando has changed a lot compared to now, but the lessons learned can still be useful for improving a product organization.  


Very often I get asked what agile working looks like at Zalando. Do we use scrum? Do we use Kanban? Do we work with LeSS? Do we use SaFE? The answer to all of these is: “Yes”. 

As Agile Coaches we value principles more than frameworks. The principles are derived out of these diverse frameworks and they evolve over time. We iterate them, we rewrite them and we focus only on the needs of Zalando. Our guiding principles are:

1. Customer Centricity to build the right thing

Through practices we ensure that the customer value provides the direction for our work. We focus on solving customer problems and exploit market potential rather than finishing work we do not see or know the purpose or impact of.

2. Visualization for transparency and control 

As software development and other areas are brain and knowledge work, we create transparency by visualizing our work. We visualize concepts, workflows, KPIs and therefore can align and control the work.

3. Accelerated Feedback to lower risk and increase learning 

All our work is aiming to get feedback as fast as possible. Can we involve the user and customer directly and systematically in the process to receive feedback. Everything else is just assumption and this principle avoids building on assumptions.

4. Manage the flow to optimize for value creation 

The focus of our work is value creation and we focus on the work items running through our system and optimize their flow. By focusing on those work items, we see work from a different perspective than managing only people.

5. Build quality in to enable sustainable delivery 

This principle ensures that through our ways of working, we have quality as a default mode. Coding Practices and team policies are making quality not something to take of at the end of the process, but as the standard of our work.

6. Continuously improve to stay in the healthy performance zone 

Wherever we start, we constantly improve everything. We improve the human interactions to ensure conflicts don’t build up. We also improve our ways of working and our workflow. By constantly improving we remain agile, which is the sweet spot between chaos and bureaucracy.

Why are we agnostic about frameworks? 

We have more than 150 teams connected to software development. The skill sets and experiences of individuals are very diverse. Why should we force a team to Scrum if they work more effectively in a different mode and with different rules? As long as they are customer centric to build the right things, we give them the autonomy to use whatever frameworks or parts of them as they like. The context of each team differs. Focusing on principles allows as much customization of working style as possible and ensures that the most important practices are used.


How do teams learn and use principles concretely?

The teams learn about our principles in a two-day deep dive workshop. The aim is to get teams to understand the “why” behind the principles. We found that an agile mindset is far more important than following a certain practice. Practices themselves, without understanding them, do not lead to the intended impact. Next to understanding the “why,” we also connect concrete practices to each principle. For example, we connected nine concrete practices to the principle of “Accelerated Feedback” to lower risk and increase learning:

(1) Backlog refinement, (2) Estimation, (3) Story splitting, (4) Daily stand up, (5) Test driven development, (6) Continuous integration, (7) Emergent design, (8) Live concept test, (9) Vertical User Stories.

Teams use the principles as a reflection moment, e.g. in retrospectives to see where they can improve. Some teams take inspiration from the practices, see learning needs or potential for deep dives.

By working with principles over frameworks, we can work using agile methods agile at scale with a high level of diversity. The mixture of mindset and concrete practices make them very impactful. The whole principles had been teamwork from the Agile Coaching Team: Frank Ewert (now OrgVolution), Holger Schmeisky, Samir Hanna, Samir Keck (now OrgVolution) and Tobias Leonhardt.