In the modern business landscape, companies and their employees frequently encounter VUCA situations, characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Easy, quick solutions are often not possible. Sounds intimidating? Sure. But with the right mindset and tools at hand, organizations can efficiently navigate such challenging environments. They may even benefit from new perspectives, innovative approaches, or unexpected results along the way.
This is where BENEO’s Catalyst Program comes into play. Since 2018, 24 BENEO employees from different functions, locations and hierarchical levels have been trained to work as agile coaches and process facilitators. They are now commonly referred to as “catalysts. They support BENEO in successfully executing important business projects that benefit from an agile, cross-functional project management. To learn more about what it means to be part of the catalyst community at BENEO, I spoke to five catalysts:
- Alan Osbahr, as of September 2023 working as Internal Consultant and Catalyst Community Manager at Südzucker, after being Customer Technical Support Manager at BENEO in Offstein (Germany) since 2014
- Koralie Heise, Assistant to the Commercial Managing Director of Functional Carbohydrates in Mannheim (Germany), working at BENEO for 10 years
- Kris Vandereycken, Project Manager in BENEO’s Continuous Improvement department in Tienen (Belgium), working for BENEO since 2006
- Dr Lisa Schweitzer, Manager Nutrition Science in Offstein (Germany), working for BENEO since 2016
- Dr Liv Janvary, Project Manager New Business Development in Mannheim (Germany), working for BENEO already more than 20 years
Alan, Kris, and Liv, who were part of BENEO’s first catalyst generation, underwent training in 2018/2019. In contrast, Koralie and Lisa joined the program’s second round, successfully completing their training in 2022.
The drive behind being a catalyst
Becoming a catalyst means adding a new role to one’s existing job function. And it entails an intensive training program of roughly six months, including traveling for several off-site sessions in person. Sounds like a serious commitment. No wonder that the catalyst colleagues all have one thing in common: a high motivation for learning and personal growth. But also for improving certain processes and driving change within BENEO. For example, Kris comments: “The Catalyst Program was a unique chance for personal development in various topics which would typically require several trainings. They were nicely combined into one program with the purpose of making BENEO a better place to work at.” For Liv, who had been a part of BENEO for 16 years already when she became a catalyst, the purpose of that program was very clear:
For Liv, this also involves challenging the status quo. Because this is crucial for driving innovation and responding to dynamic trends and conditions.
Shaping the future and breaking up old structures within the company was also part of Lisa’s motivation. Another aspect that inspired her to become a catalyst was the chance to work across different departments. In the meantime this has even made her feel more connected to BENEO. Finally, she gains insights into a wide range of functions and topics. She also works with many colleagues from all over the world. And all this beyond their day-to-day business. Interestingly, Alan’s decision to become a catalyst was closely linked to his cultural background: “Growing up and living in Venezuela, one of the most VUCA places in the world, shaped me in the way I think and act. Always remaining flexible and creative was key for me to make progress. And I felt like I could provide this mindset to the catalyst community while also learning even more about agile methods”.
While everyone brought their own motivations, but also experience and expectations, the catalyst training program turned two dozen individuals into a community. But what does that training process look like?
The backbone of the catalyst community
After applying and being selected for the catalyst program, the colleagues go on an intense learning journey. In the course of about six months, the aspiring catalysts meet for four modules, each lasting 2.5 to 3 days. In the process, they familiarise themselves with various areas, from agile methods to the design of meetings and decision-making processes. At the heart of the programme are the special agile projects. They offer the unique opportunity to apply the newly acquired skills and tools directly to a real business problem in small groups. But let’s take one step after the other and have a look at what the catalysts learn.
Agile methods: An iterative way of making progress
A central pillar of the catalyst training are agile methods. But what does that even mean? First and foremost, such methods are a project management approach, originated in the context of software development, but also suitable for other types of projects. Managing a project in an agile way entails cross-functional collaboration and an iterative process. Still seems a bit confusing? In other words, a project is divided into smaller phases. This allows to react to changing requirements more quickly and to reflect on what worked and what did not. The results can then be improved in the next cycle.
For Kris, becoming familiar with such methodologies was an “eye-opener”. They helped him and his team to improve their collaboration and the quality of their deliverables. He explains: “By creating a safe space for the team to reflect on their processes, we identified areas for enhancement and implemented actionable improvements. This continuous feedback loop helped us optimize our workflows, increase productivity, and foster a culture of learning and innovation”. BENEO’s catalysts learn how to set up an agile team and to help guide the colleagues into their respective roles and responsibilities for a specific project.
The art of designing collaboration effectively
Another area the catalysts tackle with their training is how to design workshops and meetings that lead to an outcome in an efficient way. Lisa comments: “The program equipped me with techniques to navigate challenging conversations and design effective decision-making processes”. According to Kris, the training showed him that it’s crucial to eliminate assumptions within a business context and to reach a common understanding. “Such processes require careful planning”, he explains. ”What helps, is developing and agreeing on what we call the PO3 of a project or meeting: the Purpose, Objective, Output and Outcome”, adds Liv. This allows everyone to stay on track and to avoid getting lost in processes or tasks without reflecting about how useful they are for a certain goal – and this ultimately helps speed up processes.
Apart from becoming familiar with specific methods and tools, Koralie also highlights some general learnings from the trainings: “The program helped me to change my perspective and to support others to do the same. It also showed me how important it is to ask a lot of questions – this helps to have clear expectations and avoids uncertainty in projects.”
Turning theory into practice: What it means to work as a catalyst at BENEO
Acquiring new knowledge, skills and tools is great – but how do BENEO’s catalysts actually apply them? Well, this depends a lot on the specific requirements and goals of each project which also influence the required catalyst competence. An important step in the program is for each catalyst to define his or her profile, including self-assessing one’s skills. This way each project can receive the support it needs and each catalyst can contribute strengths and keep growing in certain areas.
Now let’s have a look at some ways that catalysts can apply what they learned. Lisa shares that “having a catalyst on board is especially valuable when individuals from the same hierarchical level meet. That’s because I often observe that people are hesitant to take the lead in such situations. This makes decision-taking very difficult. As a catalyst, I can help improve the efficiency of a meeting, for example by defining to do’s and allocating tasks.” Here, another relevant role of catalysts comes into play – that of the timekeeper, as Koralie explains: “In meetings I often see that people lose themselves in never-ending discussions. This not only extends the previously agreed time frame, but also leads to the lack of a clear result at the end. As a catalyst, I can help the participants to stay on track. In some cases this means showing them that a certain aspect should be discussed in a separate meeting or simply making them aware when a general agreement is impossible. Sometimes, the most constructive solution might be agreeing to disagree and to get back together at a later point after reflecting on the topic again. It might also be helpful to loop in an additional colleague who is better equipped to make the decision.”
When it comes to acting as an agile coach in a project, catalysts are often confronted with people who are unfamiliar with such a project management approach. “Initially, this can pose a challenge and you need to bring everyone on board”, Alan notes. “But no matter how difficult this might be in the beginning phase, I have noticed that agile methods often allow for an engaging process which can even be fun.” To help illustrate the iterative character of agile methods, Alan shares a project example: “The goal was to find a new set up for a global meeting. Over time, the meeting structure went through a number of iterations and improvements, always building on what participants thought worked and stopping what did not.” Embracing this iterative approach helps to minimize the risk of investing time and other resources into results which don’t actually answer the project’s demand, Kris explains.
The joys of being a catalyst
Working as a catalyst clearly involves a lot of effort and is definitely not always easy – especially when it comes to breaking down old structures in complex and ever-changing constellations of people or communicating when something is not going well. But talking to the catalysts reveals that the positive parts outweigh any tough situation. “When you feel like you need support as a catalyst, you always have a great asset at hand – an extended network of sparring partners within the catalyst community”, underlines Kris. “In the end, it’s great to know that you can make an impact in the company, even if it seems small”, says Lisa and adds: “It’s especially rewarding to witness when colleagues’ initial skepticism turns into encouragement”.
A significant element of being a catalyst is the cross-functional work, not only within BENEO, but also within the Südzucker Group, as Alan emphasizes. For Liv, this also means getting a broader view of what is happening in a large range of departments, but also in the wider business environment. Koralie adds that being able to apply the catalyst skills to one’s daily tasks is invaluable and a nice side-effect.
In summary, the catalysts’ stories uncover that they can be seen as a type of multiplier or ambassador within BENEO. They cannot only apply their skills, experience and resources in specific projects, but also in their own day-to-day business as well as in their own team. This means that the catalyst mindset and way of approaching challenges is spread across the organization in a much broader way – and lets many colleagues benefit from it. What a win-win situation!
A big thank you to the colleagues for sharing their experiences with me.