Academic Awards 2022: Katja Kopra-Kullas


Katja Kopra-Kullas received one of Agile Finland’s three Academic Awards 2022 for her Master’s thesis “Perceived change in leadership while adopting agile practices”. Katja managed to truly impress the reviewer Maarit Laanti by choosing a central, difficult topic, handling it in a passionate way, and creating a thesis with great practical value for the industry at large.

Leadership is a well-established academic topic that has received a lot of attention over the years. One would think that there is little to add to it by now. What was it that made you interested in this topic?
It was clear to me from the start that the topic would be connected to agility in some way. I was working with the customer service department in my company, and we knew that the ongoing change would be huge for them, especially from the leadership perspective. Discussing with my colleagues and with my thesis instructor, we ended up with leadership as the focus area.

What did you find easy and what did you find challenging when writing your thesis?

One thing that was easy was creating a framework in my thesis. I was afraid that this would be challenging, but it turned out to be easier than I expected. The most challenging part was to stay objective. When you also work in the same organisation that you are studying, it’s easy to get biassed. I kept this in mind at all times, and listened with open ears instead of injecting my own ideas.

From your research, you were able to draw a good number of practical conclusions. Is there anything that surprised you about these outcomes?
Generally, the teams got a good start on the path to self-organisation. While this is a long journey, we are starting to observe some of the results and benefits that we expected to see. People have started collaborating and solving problems in pairs and smaller groups. 

What surprised me was the lack of emergent leadership. Emergent leadership means that individuals step up and take charge as needed, but we didn’t really see this happen. As the department hierarchy was flattened, the leader of the department got a large number of direct reports, and some of the operative work of the leader was then delegated back to the teams in the form of a number of “hats”. This was centrally planned and not emergent as such. Also, some team leads were former specialists, and returned to this position again when the hierarchy was flattened. We found that the team members still considered them leaders and turned to them with questions and problems, which slowed down the self-organisation. They should move to other teams rather than go back to their old teams.

Another interesting thing is that when the teams started taking on more responsibilities, we observed that the authority and accountability were not always in balance. We had to inspect and adapt.

Social research and especially case studies are often difficult to generalise. Are there some takeaways that you feel would be of interest to other companies?

One thing that stands out is that every team is different. Some teams are very dependent on their manager, and require a lot of support to let go. In our case, some teams were even afraid of how they would be able to perform in the future. Others were already self-managing and quite ready to step up and take charge.

Another thing is that agility is an attribute of a mature team. If you don’t have a proper team, then it becomes difficult to achieve a good level of agility. For example, if the team composition changes, the agility level is likely to drop.

I should also mention that the change is just as difficult for the mid-level managers as it is for the teams. The managers need to learn to change their own habits, and it’s a good investment to give them training and follow up on how they are adopting the new leadership styles. The same goes for training the teams, and coaching should also be available in their own working environment. But this needs to be balanced, because if you give a team too much support and facilitation, they don’t find much reason to self-organise.

Writing a thesis is a difficult process that requires dedication and sisu. Any tips for people who are just starting on their thesis work?

First of all, find a topic that interests you. It’s much easier to find energy that way. Second, focus on the work until it’s done. Of course you need to think over things sometimes, but don’t leave the thesis out of your hands for long.

Finally, what are your plans for the future?

Last autumn I started working as a Customer Experience Manager for the customer support department that I wrote my thesis about. This is a new role that is being piloted until August this year. I work as a sparring help for teams, and promoting common ways of working across team boundaries. In sum, I help the business area function better as a whole. What happens after that? We’ll see!

Katja Kopra-Kullas will give a short presentation at ScanAgile 2023 together with the other two winners of the Agile Finland Academic Awards. Her thesis can be found at: