Interview with Jurgen Appelo

A short while ago I had the pleasure to interview Jurgen Appelo, the author of Management 3.0, a wonderful, highly engaging and thorough compendium of agile management practices. It’s a book that all managers should read.

He’s also the author of Workout: Games, Tools & Practices to Engage People, Improve Work, and Delight Clients, an engaging and practical book on what you might call “the gamification of management.”

And I can’t fail to mention How to Change the World: Change Management 3.0, which delivers his unique and engaging take on change management.

He also runs Happy Melly, a global network of people and businesses focusing on happiness at work.

Dave Gray: Jurgen, it’s great to talk to you. I’m sort of a fan of yours. I’ve really enjoyed reading your books but also watching the way that you present your ideas, which I think is as fun and interesting as the content itself.

My first question is this: How did you come to be doing what you’re doing? You seem to be someone who really enjoys his work. What gets you up in the morning?

Jurgen Appelo: Wow, that’s a Grand Question, Dave, with a capital “G” and “Q.” First of all, the admiration is mutual. I’ve read your books, Gamestorming and the last one, The Connected Company. We share a lot of similar philosophies.

What makes me get up in the morning? I firmly believe that there is another way of managing organizations, of achieving productivity with people who enjoy their jobs while delighting their clients.

We see so many bad organizations around us, where people do not like their work, do not engage. It’s just a 9-to-5 job they’re going to. What makes me get up in the morning is to try and do something about that. I enjoy my work. I enjoy almost every minute of it. What makes me enjoy my work while other people don’t? That is indeed a big question.

I think one of the things that is different is that I only take up work that I like doing. After many, many years, I found a job that fits me like a glove. It took me a bit of time, maybe 20 years, but now I’m in the kind of work that I love doing every day.

I think everyone should feel the responsibility to find the job that fits them like a glove, so that they know exactly what they like doing that also fits their living, their home situation, that is agreeable to the rest of their family, etcetera, etcetera. I found that.

Dave Gray: What do you think you did over those 20 years of search? What do you think helped you get closer to finding that?

Jurgen Appelo: First of all, a lot of experimentation. I have been a manager at various organizations. I learned a lot by having a lot of ideas and never being afraid to try things out. I love trying things, experimenting. I’m not afraid to fail, and that means that I learn a lot.

I have several failed business ventures behind me, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Yeah, I wasted a lot of money, including other people’s money, who were my investors, but it was all part of the game, and I learned so much that I can now share a lot with people.

Too many of my friends and former colleagues were afraid to try things out. They were risk-averse, not wanting to go the unbeaten path. For example, when I finished my book Management 3.0, I was already known as someone who was familiar with Scrum, and I got a lot of invites to give Scrum classes and workshops, but I was not interested in that. It wasn’t appealing to me.

I could make a lot of money as a Scrum coach, I’m quite sure, but it didn’t inspire me to go in that direction. I’m happy that other people did because there’s clearly a market, and I hope that others are happy with that kind of work, but it would’ve made me unhappy. I want something different. I want to create my own materials, as you pointed out, that are very colorful and lively.

I saw that most management books were quite boring, actually, a bit drab. If you look at many websites about management, they’re all dark-colored and black and gray. It doesn’t send the signal that management can be an enjoyable job. I think managers have the right to enjoy their job as much as anyone else.

I have some experience in that. As a former CIO of a company of about 200 people, I ran a lot of experiments, I tried lots of things and half of it failed, half of it succeeded, but at least I had fun, together with other people, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

This playfulness is one part of the job. I think that is important, and that is what I try to put in the message in my books. They are colorful books with all the descriptions and photos, they contain a lot of humor. I think that is important.

I want to get the message across that management can be an enjoyable job, that everyone is responsible for managing something in the organization. It’s not just the manager’s job, everyone is managing something at least, so let’s turn the organization into a more interesting workplace. That’s the whole idea.

Dave Gray: You haven’t used the word “confidence,” but I can tell that you have a lot of it. You said you were never afraid to fail, and that you’ve tried things out, and there’s a certain sense of fearlessness and confidence that’s coming through there.

Where do you get the confidence? Do you have any thoughts for people who are not feeling that kind of confidence? I’m sure you know people who are afraid to fail. What do you tell them? How do you get them to follow that example? How did you first get yourself to go there?

Were you just born fearless?

Jurgen Appelo: No, no, not at all, though I have experimented with silly things in the past, to be honest. I often give the silly example of when I was about seven or eight years old. I was wondering… “I like vanilla ice cream and I like chocolates, but when you put them together, it’s even better, and I thought, this is like a natural law. Is this something that’s always true?”

I tried to figure out what natural laws were. On one side I had my mother’s homemade chicken soup and on the other side I had a fresh glass of orange juice. Then I poured orange juice in the chicken soup to see if that tasted even better. It was horrible! It was horrific! I figured out, it’s not a natural law, apparently, but I learned something there.

The experimentation was in there at an early time, but I was afraid to let my mother know that I ruined her chicken soup, so I threw it down the toilet and then flushed it and never told anyone. There, you see? That confidence wasn’t there yet. I was afraid of telling other people that I failed with my experiment instead of telling my mother that I learned about a natural law … not existing.

I think the confidence came later. The drive to experiment was there early, but I was afraid to tell others that I failed. I think the confidence started when I started writing about everything that I was doing. When you write, you have to share how you succeeded, but also how you failed in order to succeed later on.

When you write and you share something that was a failure that you learned something from, then it turns out that other people find it very valuable and they compliment you on sharing that failure and say, “Oh, wow, you’re so awesome sharing that with the rest of the world.” I think the writing is what gave me the confidence to share my failures.

It was scary, sure, in the beginning, just writing about anything that you’re doing, including the things that didn’t work. Obviously, that is scary in the beginning, but once you find out that people appreciate it, then it becomes very easy. Now I make a lot of jokes about all the silly failures that I have had because it goes down well with the audience. They eat it up.

Dave Gray: That’s interesting. I do think people appreciate when someone, especially someone who’s up on a stage or in some kind of a position of authority, tells them about things that make them vulnerable, things where they failed or things where they’ve gone wrong.

Is this also part of the reason that you take such a playful approach? To get people feeling more comfortable with risk, with trying new things? Is there a connection between experimentation and play for you?

Jurgen Appelo: Maybe there is, but I haven’t thought about it, actually. I read a lot of books, and now that you mention it, several authors have noted that children are often very experimental in nature through their play.

When they play together or play on their own, they try lots of things that we would find silly as parents or adults, but they just don’t have the knowledge yet of what works and what doesn’t work, so they try, and it is part of their play. In that sense, yes, I think we could connect the dots there also for us as workers in an organization.

We know there are organizations out there who mandate experiments through 20% time, exploration days or hackathons, whatever form they use. They want employees to fool around, basically, which is the equivalent of play, but with the intention that people try things out in order to come up with an idea that might be turned into a product or service later on. That is indeed, again, playfulness connected to experimentation, so I think you’re right there.

Dave Gray: I did have on my list of questions to ask you, is there a grand scheme behind your approach? You mentioned color, you mentioned humor, I also notice that you use a lot of pictures and you’re funny. You’re a genuinely funny guy.

Is there a purpose behind all this in terms of the way that you work and the way that you share information? Is there something behind it other than just having fun while you’re doing your work?

Jurgen Appelo: No. I think it’s just coincidental. This is who I am. What you read is what you get, so to speak. I have been creating silly cartoons ever since I was 16 or 17 years old. I have decorated the university’s magazines with cartoons. I was often asked to illustrate things because it was fun.

I’ve never had the ambition to be an illustrator as a profession because that didn’t interest me that much, but just drawing things on the side every now and then, just for fun, that’s what I like doing.

Then, interestingly enough, when I was writing my first book, “Management 3.0,” I hadn’t even thought of the illustrations yet at that time. I was a writer and I signed the contract as a writer. Then, halfway through the project, it occurred to me, “Wait a minute, I need illustrations! I need images!”

I actually thought, ‘Who am I going to go to hire for this?’ It wasn’t the first thing that came to my mind that maybe I could do it myself, and then maybe, I don’t know, 10 seconds or 10 minutes later, I don’t remember, I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I’m an illustrator! I can do this myself! Duh!’

Dave Gray: Wow.

Jurgen Appelo: It was not intended, but then I thought, ‘Well, that’s actually a good decision to do it myself,’ and then I saw the business side of it, the marketing aspect. People appreciate when you draw yourself, when you do not hire someone else, but when you can tell the audience, “Yeah, I’ve drawn these myself.”

They’re not the most perfect illustrations. If I paid someone, it would be better, but this is mine. This is as good as I can make them and people really appreciate that that is personal. It gives a personal touch, and that is good for the personal branding and the marketing, etcetera. I find visualization very important, so if I had not had the ability to draw, then I would’ve hired someone else to do a good job, and I know many other authors do exactly that.

Dave Gray: Interesting. How did you get from a kid who was interested in experimenting with chicken soup flavors and drawing cartoons to CIO of a 200-person company? That’s got to be an interesting journey in itself.

Jurgen Appelo: I love programming, software development. I’ve been a software engineer for a good number of years. I studied software engineering in a university in Delft, graduated, but then immediately when I finished my studies, I thought, ‘I’m not going to be a normal employee. That sounds boring. I want to do other things.’

I actually started out as a freelancer teaching people how to program, at that time, in Microsoft Word, in Microsoft Excel. That was the end of the ‘90s. Everyone was migrating from Word Perfect to Word and from dBase to Microsoft Access, and Microsoft had a bit more professional programming platform behind those applications at that time than their competitors had, so people were struggling with the programming aspect.

Then, there I saw an opportunity to teach people how to program, because I like teaching as well and I like making courseware. The whole creative aspect, that was appealing to me, not just programming but also everything else around it, including illustrations and you name it.

I’ve always had a quite diverse number of interests in not only programming but also how to run a business, how to form a startup. I wrote bookkeeping software. I know the difference between debit and credit. I can read a balance sheet. I find it all interesting.

When I ended up at a company as a development manager a couple of years later, I was easily promoted to CIO because, in the words of the CEO, I was the only person that he could understand around there, because I was able to speak his language in terms of the business language, financials, etcetera, because it interested me not only how to format the code but also how to format the balance sheet. I find that equally interesting.

Dave Gray: Wow.

Jurgen Appelo: I think the communication skills helped me to hold that CIO job successfully for a good number of years, and that’s where I learned how to be more agile as a manager. I introduced Scrum and Agility in the business. I was a big fan since the early 2000s.

Then I had to figure out, what is the role of the manager in an organization that is doing Scrum? Because Scrum had a lot of suggestions but no reference to a manager anywhere. It didn’t exist. It turns out many people were struggling with that, actually, how does middle management change when you have self-organizing teams. I had some ideas about that, so I started writing, and the rest is history, as we say.

Dave Gray: There are a whole bunch of things going on in my head related to that, but let’s talk about what happened from there. You started writing. Can you help me connect from that point to where you are today? Because I do want to get into Happy Melly and what you’re doing today and I’m interested in talking about that, too.

Jurgen Appelo: Sure. I was trying to figure out my role as a manager. I started blogging about that at NOOP.nl. I always wanted to be a writer, but originally I envisioned a book about software engineering and complexity science because those were two of my favorite topics, but it was far too big.

Then, through my blog, I noticed that people liked my articles about the role of the manager in an Agile business. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should focus on that more specifically and give the whole book a specific audience and angle,’ so I think it was the readers telling me what kind of book to write. That’s actually very Agile, isn’t it?

I wrote about other stuff as well, but this is what the market told me was interesting, so I just started focusing on that.

The blog became very popular for various reasons, and then it was quite easy to get a publisher, Pearson in that case, who took up the project, and I published a book in Mike Cohn’s Signature Series, and then I was an established author. That was early 2011.

I quit my job because I had been the CIO for seven years and that was enough. I saw other opportunities as a writer and speaker at conferences, and so I was independent again, self-employed. I had been self-employed 15 years earlier, so I knew what it meant. It was another try at being self-sustainable, and this time successfully, unlike the previous times where they never really worked out.

I’ve been a speaker and writer ever since, and from the very first day I started, I knew I wanted to create courseware materials again because I have experience writing courseware, and I knew I liked that.

Sure enough, I wanted to test the courseware by doing my own courses for a good while and see what works and what doesn’t, but always with the end goal in mind that I would want to delegate to others, who would then be able to take over from me, and actually, often more experienced trainers and facilitators than I am, because I’m just the writer and a former manager. Those are my stories, but I’ve never been an excellent trainer, in my opinion.

Dave Gray: I think you’re a teacher. It definitely feels like you’re a teacher to me when I read your stuff.

Jurgen Appelo: I like doing it, but others, I’m sure, are much better, much more experienced there, and also enjoy it more in the long term, because for me it’s always short-term.

For me, I enjoy testing the materials, seeing what works, also having great conversations with people, of course, but if I do the same workshop 30 times, it gets a bit stale for me. There’s nothing much new to learn, so I lose interest. I want to write new materials and dig into new topics, so I’ve always had as the end in mind that others would take over.

That has happened. I now have 115 licensed trainers around the world who give my classes, the workshops based on my materials. Now I have to keep feeding them with new stuff, which is a great position to be in, marketing the brand and then sharing stories and going to conferences and keeping everything up-to-date.

Dave Gray: That’s really interesting. I‘m’ curious. You have so many things going on. You mentioned a little bit that you like to get feedback on your work, that you pay attention to feedback and try and amplify those things that people are liking.

You have so many possibilities open to you, it seems. How do you focus? How do you decide where to put your attention and what things you could do but you just don’t do?

Jurgen Appelo: They are tough decisions, Dave.

Dave Gray: I bet.

Jurgen Appelo: Very, very tough decisions, yeah, but what helps me is always to start something with an end in mind. Like, I have just decided, for the rest of the year, to stop taking new speaking engagements and postpone everything to next year, because I want to clearly focus on new content for the rest of the year.

I’ll be at home for about six months, more or less, creating new materials, but then I know that there will be an end to that period, which is end of December. Then I will be back on the road promoting all the new stuff in the new year, but probably for not more than half a year or something, and then I will be tired of traveling and I want to do something creative like maybe write a book again.

It’s always in chunks, half a year or a year that I focus on something. Otherwise, if there’s no end in sight, I get depressed. I need to know that it stops after some period of time. The book project is great because you’ll always have a book. That will be an end, your book. Then it’s finished and out there and you can do something else.

Dave Gray: My grandfather worked on a book his whole life that he never finished.

Jurgen Appelo: Oh, my God.

Dave Gray: He was a historian, but that’s another story. He was working with my grandmother and they were both historians, and apparently, this is according to my dad who tells the story, she would always do her parts and get her parts done and he would never get his parts done, so they never finished it.

Dave Gray: Maybe it’s a good time to get into Happy Melly. Let’s talk about that. What’s Happy Melly? Where did that come from and what is it?

Jurgen Appelo: The idea was that, first of all, I couldn’t do anything by myself anymore because the business was growing, so clearly I needed help, I needed to delegate things to others. At the same time, I didn’t want a traditional organization with me as a CEO and then hiring employees and basically going down the road that I was advising against.

I thought I should lead by example, and practice what I preach, and try to come up with the most weird experiments in terms of organizations that I could think of, and that became Happy Melly. It is inspired by a poster in Rotterdam, my hometown, which says, “Melly Shum Hates Her Job,” which is a work of art.

That story, that picture became the inspiration for the company, which is to make Melly happy, so Happy Melly, in other words. That is the purpose.

Then I assembled some like-minded people, and we said, “Let’s turn this into an organization and experiment on how to do that properly.” We’ve been experimenting, struggling and succeeding for two years and we’re now finally, I think, getting the hang of it, how it should operate.

I brought in my Management 3.0 brand and now other people are joining with their brand, so basically it is a collaboration of entrepreneurs working together under one name while each of us has their own brand and doing their own promotion, but we share resources and freelancers and we promote each other’s work, so it is like a community of like-minded entrepreneurs trying to make the world a better place.

If you do not have a traditional organization, then you have a lot of explanation to do. That is what we found. No matter how well we try to explain things, people have preconceived ideas of what an organization is, so if it is not like that, then you have a lot of storytelling to do for the message to sink in.

That’s okay. It doesn’t matter if people don’t get it right away. You need to see another video, and hear me speak maybe, and then, ahh, maybe then things will fall into place, and that’s fine. I always compare it with cities. You don’t understand the city by just this description on one A4 paper. You have to go in there and look around.

Dave Gray: Absolutely. Maybe you even have to live there for a while.

Jurgen Appelo: Yeah. It’s he same with any other kind of community, and basically Happy Melly has become a community of entrepreneurs, so how do you describe that in a couple of paragraphs? It just won’t be awesome.

Dave Gray: I love the idea of you putting ends to things. I never thought of that. That’s been a frustration of mine. Maybe that’s been a thing that I haven’t done too well. That’s an interesting idea, just put a deadline on it.

Jurgen Appelo: Sometimes it’s a clear deadline, but sometimes it’s just the way you’ll say, “In this period of the year, this will be my main activity,” and it’s okay if I don’t do anything with the other stuff because that will get its fair share of attention in the next period of the year or the first quarter of next year.

As I said, it’s chunks that I use to focus my time. I know I will be traveling a lot and speaking a lot again next year, but I also know that I will not be developing much new content because I can’t do both. It’s not realistic. Still, I admit, it can be frustrating not being able to work on some favorite activities because you made a choice of focusing on A instead of B, so you have to stick to that.

Dave Gray: You do that? Do you do that?

Jurgen Appelo: I try to do that, yes.

Dave Gray: You’ve found a way to be both creative and all over the place and also disciplined?

Jurgen Appelo: Yeah, yeah. Amazing, isn’t it?

Dave Gray: Yeah. It’s inspiring, actually. Do you have a wall with sticky notes or someplace where you put the stuff that, “Oh, when I enter the next phase, these are things that I want to be working on?” Do you have a list of things that you keep?

Jurgen Appelo: Remember The Milk, Dave. For me, everything is Remember The Milk. I travel a lot, so I don’t carry task boards around, but I use Remember The Milk for my personal tasks. For everything team-related and with others, I use Trello. I have a good number of Trello boards, and that is how we organize our work. It works remarkably well.

Dave Gray: Do you have a long list of things piled up for what you want to do in the next six months?

Jurgen Appelo: Oh, yes, yes, a huge number of things, yeah, but I have this process of how to set my long-term goals, as I said, chunking the attention per quarter of the year but then also build down to what do I do per week. I evaluate that once per week.

I go through the different priorities and I re-prioritize a couple of tasks, but I only do that once a week and the rest is out of my mind, basically Getting Things Done by David Allen, or Dave Allen. It’s his method that I apply and it works quite well for me.

Dave Gray: Wow. What’s next?

Jurgen Appelo: What’s next? I think new courseware, new Management 3.0 courseware, because I wrote the Workout book. The sales have been quite good, I’m happy to say, but there’s so many more topics to write about, organizational structure, risk management, how to hire people, how not to have meetings, you name it. Contracts, how to write contracts, or how not to write contracts with people. I want to touch on all those interesting topics.

Dave Gray: What about a book on Happy Melly and everything you’re learning about building the non-traditional organization? That sounds fascinating.

Jurgen Appelo: Yes. Actually, that is one of the ideas that I have for Book Number Four, indeed, because the freelancer economy is growing. The part of the economy that is dominated by big, old bad companies is shrinking.

I think it is worth writing a book on how to operate as a free agent in the 21st century using all kinds of platforms organizing your own work and doing work with others, with both your suppliers and your customers at the same time sometimes, because invoices fly in all directions, but you see them as team members and business partners, which is a healthy relationship to have.

For example, I don’t sign contracts with my team members who are basically my suppliers and I am their customer, but we trust each other. Why would we sign contracts? We just like each other and we prefer working with each other. I don’t sign a contract with my family or my friends, either. We just like hanging out. That works remarkably well.

You’re right, that could be a topic for the next book.

Dave Gray: Do you like to travel?

Jurgen Appelo: Yes, not just the sitting in the airplane, it’s rather boring, and standing in security lines, but that’s only my own inconvenience. I like being in many places and knowing many people around the world, no matter which country it is, acquaintances at least that I have in many places of the world.

I don’t see a lot of the city that I travel through, but at least you smell the atmosphere, so to speak. I don’t really do sightseeing when I’m on my own. I’m not that kind of person. I just prefer to work. I’ll find a good coffee bar, coffee house, and just go over there and sit with my notebook and do a bit of work, but at least you smell the vibe and you feel the vibe of the city.

Then I take an hour to have a walk around, or I run. I like running. I pick a route on Google Map and then that’s the sightseeing while running, basically. It’s also a very useful way to get to know a city.

Dave Gray: Thank you for your time today. Do you have any last thoughts that you want to share, anything I haven’t asked you for?

Jurgen Appelo: Wow, any last thoughts? The main thing that people should be doing is experimenting, as I always say. That was the message with my Workout book: Try something. There is no Golden Rule, no Holy Grail, no silver bullet to better organizations. Better organizations are created by people who are not afraid to try something, even very weird practices, and not afraid to fail but just learn from the experiences.

One tip that I picked up from the best change agents is you should never introduce a change in the organization. You should offer people an experiment. Don’t tell them, “I’m going to change you,” because then people will resist. You should tell them, “I have this experiment that I want to run with you. Would you like to play with me?”

That is much more interesting. Offer an idea as an experiment, because even if it works for 100 other organizations out there, for you it will still be an experiment that you have to validate to see if it also works for you. Then it becomes less dangerous for people and they’re not confronted with it, confronted with the change, but instead they will offer an interesting experiment to be a part of. Hell, everyone wants that.

Dave Gray: That’s beautiful. That’s wonderful and so simple. What a beautiful idea.

Jurgen Appelo: It’s not mine, so I don’t take credit for it, but I love the idea as well.

Dave Gray: Wonderful. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

Jurgen Appelo: Awesome. Thank you, too.