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Lean-Agile Coach Kirsi Mikkonen: Digital Engineers and competitive athletes have a lot in common

Published in People

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Nitor’s internationally renowned Culture Desk, run by a team of talented culture correspondents, was born out of a need to put into words the mythology surrounding Nitor and the rumours and dreams circulating our offices.


November 29, 2017 · 6 min read time

An accomplished sailor and telemark skier, Kirsi Mikkonen, works as a Lean-Agile coach at Nitor. She has come a long way since she studied electrical engineering at the Helsinki University of Technology, today known as Aalto University. Ericsson’s landlines sent her to Sweden and China, and Kirsi has spread the word for self-guiding teams and agile working methods in Finland and abroad. Now it’s the culture correspondents' turn to get to know Kirsi and agile teamwork. 

Kirsi Mikkonen’s career includes a long and successful leg at the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson, where she worked as a research project leader and an agile coach, among other positions. When the time was ripe to look for new challenges in agile transformation, it was clear to Kirsi that the new workplace had to be close to perfect. A certain agile digital engineering company succeeded in convincing Kirsi, and so she started as a lean-agile coach at Nitor in 2016. 

A passion for agile transformations had ignited in Kirsi already during her master’s degree studies. This passion later drew her towards coaching and training. One could say that Kirsi has agility in her blood as she also needs these skills in her spare time which she spends sailing and telemark-skiing. Nitor’s Culture Department pounced on the opportunity to interview Kirsi between the skiing and sailing season. Our topic, of course, was agile teamwork. 

Kirsi, how did you end up at Nitor?
I had spent nearly twenty years at Ericsson in various interesting positions and was so happy there that the new job had to be close to perfect. Around 2015 I decided, however, that I also wanted to see how other companies worked. I wished the new job to be around agile transformation, and when I noticed that Nitor was looking for a Lean-Agile coach, I decided to apply. I already knew Nitor’s Maarit Laanti from before, as we studied at the Helsinki University of Technology at the same time. 

Based on everything I've learned, I developed Nitor’s Agile Coaching -course, where you will learn professional methods that support your role as an agile coach. In addition, I'll introduce several means for facilitation and give you tools to build and strengthen the agile mindset in your organisation. Read more about the course here.

What got you excited about agile methods? 
During 1992–1993 my professor at the University was Paul Lillrank, who had studied lean practices in Japan. That’s a while ago, but it’s quite nice how I ended up doing just what I wanted to study back in those days. Also, one of my best work experiences during my career was launching agile teams at Ericsson in China. 

How does launching an agile team in China differ from launching one in Finland and Sweden?
The work culture in China is more hierarchical compared to Scandinavian countries. In China, it’s rare to have self-guiding teams but having the support of Swedish management made it possible. We had a factory of 3,500 employees manufacturing wireless network stations in three shifts, using lean practices correctly and rigorously. The employees carried kanban cards attached to their shirts describing their task on that cell. Each shift began with a 15 minute daily, which gathered the head of the factory and the representatives of each cell together. In addition, a wall visualizing all customer orders in green and red was displayed, as well as the manufacturing status of the cell and the orders for materials. They went through all this in just 15 minutes – how amazing is that! 

On to sports: our background check tells us that you used to compete in sailing with small 470-dinghies. Weren’t you afraid of falling off? 
Actually, one of the first times the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet published a front-page story on sailing, the photo was of me falling off a boat! Another sailing team had invited a journalist onboard. I was about to start hiking (leaning out from the boat to move the body weight as far to windward as possible to decrease the extent the boat heels), and suddenly the mainsail sheet had a couple of meters slack. Of course, the journalist photographed my dip in the sea. 


Starts are crucial in competitive sailing. How have you utilized starting strategies in your work as an agile coach in the financial sector?
During starts – as well as all teamwork – the crew must share responsibility. When the team works smoothly together, words are not needed: the skipper can keep their eyes on the tell-tales and doesn’t need to observe the weather or the chess play going on in the field. In a self-guiding team, the skipper is no sovereign but instead makes decisions based on all the information they receive. If the team does not communicate, the skipper cannot know what to do.

What are the characteristics of a thriving team?
Self-guidance and empathy are essential attributes. In sailing, if one team member needs help, the whole crew jumps in to help without asking. If you wait until the skipper tells you to do something, it’s already too late. It’s the same in software development. The one who tests the system might get the blame for finding faults when the root cause could be in architecture. In sailing, we often practice switching positions so that everybody understands each other’s tasks.

Fast learning cycles are essential for a development team’s progress. This is the case in every single sailing competition as well. Wind, currents, and opponents are different every time. The winner is the one who learns these new things fastest. 

You enjoy challenging yourself through competition, also in telemark-slalom, we heard. What is this exciting sport?
Telemark slalom is a bit like giant slalom, except two jumps and an uphill cross-country section are added to the course. I found Telemark when I was studying languages in the United States after high school. I started downhill skiing at Pallas when I was three years old. Later during my studies at the University, the students’ alpine skiing organisation Skipoli became an important community for me. 

I’m part of the Telemaister-club, which has 56 members, just as Jägermeister has herbs. We spend a lot of time together during the skiing season, both in the Alps as well as in Levi and Pyhä in Finland. One of my finest telemark memories is from a Vappu (May Day) celebration from Levi, with reindeer furs spread around the hill. We skied to enjoy a Wappu lunch on the piste, wearing sweaters and leather pants. 

What is your take on Norwegian sweaters?
I prefer Devold-sweaters. Telemark culture has two clubs: the speedy lurex club, where people wear speed suits, and the more traditional leather-wool club (Editor’s Note: The Culture Correspondents are already trying on their heritage sweaters).

Do you see anything in common between people competing in sports and Digital Engineers? 
A lot! Digital Engineers at Nitor represent the top in their field, which is the case also in competitive sports. It is precisely the healthy pride over one’s know-how that unites top athletes and Digital Engineers. The world’s best are not making a number about themselves. They know that they’ve worked hard to succeed, and they are genuinely proud of it.  

Kirsi, now we’ve talked enough about you. If Nitor’s Culture Desk was a sailboat, which one would it be? 
I would say that a 470-dinghy. There are two of you, and your start is very successful. You’ve steered this interview very nicely! (The culture correspondents are making a number about themselves.)

Kirsis next course on Agile Coaching is on March 28th-29th, 2022. Read more about the course and enroll here.

Written by


Nitor’s internationally renowned Culture Desk, run by a team of talented culture correspondents, was born out of a need to put into words the mythology surrounding Nitor and the rumours and dreams circulating our offices.