Paul [00:00:00] All right. So we’re really excited to have our guest today. Fin Goulding is an expert in business technology agility. He’s worked as CIO and CTO in several major organizations, such as Aviva, Paddy Power, Last Minute, Travelocity and others. He’s been consistently named one of the top global CIOs year and year and is recognized as one of the most experienced enterprise agile leaders in the world today, as well as being a prolific author. We’re super excited to welcome a Fin Goulding.
Fin [00:00:29] Thanks very much.
Paul [00:00:30] How are you doing today?
Fin [00:00:31] I’m doing great. Thank you.
Sean [00:00:33] So just to expand on that a little bit, you wrote the book Flow, which was incredible, and you’ve also got your own 12 step program I understand.
Fin [00:00:41] Yeah. So we, with my coauthor, Haydn Shaughnessy and myself, we actually set up our own company earlier this year. We were seeing such a demand for organizations wanting to move towards a more business agile way of working and that opportunity, using my experience as a practitioner, has been very useful. And the books themselves detail a little bit more about what we do.
Sean [00:01:01] Great. Well, we had a little conversation earlier last week talking about the things that you’re passionate about right now in our space and I’d like to hear a little bit about that. So what are you studying these days? What are you learning about agile and implementation in larger organizations?
Fin [00:01:17] Yeah, I mean, what we’re seeing is that the technical agility, the kind of methodologies that you see out there, they’ve been a great way of tech teams becoming more efficient. But what we’re actually seeing is companies themselves, either side, say for instance, on the upstream value delivery or value discovery is not actually working very well because of the old kind of methods of doing yearly planning, et cetera and then downstream, the good old-fashioned operational side or change management side is also coming under pressure for not being as agile. So what we’re looking at is a true end-to-end way of making an organization business agile and we use our idea of working around this, which is flow. It’s more of a toolkit rather than a methodology and flow itself is a way of talking about end to end in an organization and it’s gaining a lot of traction.
Paul [00:02:03] So that’s one thing that I wanted to pick your brain on a bit. The modern sort of knee jerk reaction to the word agile has been in the capital a agile as the thing that the consultant comes in and teaches you how to do. But in doing so, it seems like we’ve lost our lowercase a agile ability to actually be resilient and flexible in the face of ambiguity.
Fin [00:02:25] You’re absolutely right and I think that what I call agile is really a thing that you are; it’s not something that you buy, and that kind of moving away from a very rigid methodology into something that’s more of a philosophy. People have agility in their day to day lives, you know, in the way that they approach business challenges, in the way that they collaborate with teams and move away from all of this kind of over-jargonized way of working that I’m seeing at the moment.
Paul [00:02:50] Yeah. One of the themes that comes up often in flow and other talks that you’ve given is this just general concept of visualization: getting something out physically, literally physically, into the world on a wall oftentimes. What is it that you think it is about the act of visualizing a problem that makes it so much more approachable or able to be thought through.
Fin [00:03:12] You know, visualizations, for me anyway, they’re not just about software development. I think software developers will have been used to doing stand ups and visualizing work, et cetera. Some of the business folks are not so used to that in terms of ways of working. But, you know, I think if you look into, for instance, an interesting part of this is if you look at crime and the police and how they take collective intelligence to visualize a particular scene of a crime and the people that are involved and they visualize the connections between all these different actors and players, et cetera, to try and process clues and come up with potentially what motive there was or what was behind this, and that kind of collective intelligence and that visualization, if you take it out onto the business floor, actually we find visualizing portfolios of work or visualizing the health of a team is quite powerful, much more powerful than reading it in a memo or in an e-mail.
Paul [00:04:00] Mhm.
Sean [00:04:02] Without a doubt. As I was doing my research, one of my favorite quotes that I came across in your work is a play on Peter Drucker’s quote about culture eating strategy for breakfast. I think you said, “culture eats technology for breakfast.” Can you talk about that a little bit?
Fin [00:04:17] Yeah, I think we just seem to have lost the ability in organizations to focus on great social interactions between people working collectively and collaboratively and sometimes the leaders seem to exclude themselves from this. For some strange reason, they say, “well, there’s the team over there, they’re doing that stand up, they’re working together, I’ll just leave them alone.” Leaders don’t see themselves being part of it but they are a major factor in driving cultural change, or mindset change, and for some reason, they’re sometimes missing off the pitch.
Paul [00:04:48] I’m sure you’re gonna be sick of hearing this question, because I’ve heard it asked of you a few times, but, the concept of a visual wall and visualizing problems and getting leaders into this thinking process is easy with a co-located team. How do we handle this with, you know, every team that I’ve been on in the past decade has been distributed in some form or another. When we’re not working together in the same physical place, how do we do these things, how do we think this way?
Fin [00:05:11] Well, there are two aspects to it. One is on the practical side, if you’ve got teams in two different locations, you can use certain video-type tools Cisco Webex et cetera, or you can share photographs if you really want to get that feel of those Post-it notes coming alive, you know, in different locations. But in reality, you know, when you get into flow, there’s an element of this which is really based in lean software development, or lean principles, where you look at the efficiency of how an organization works, and having teams in two different locations can be highly inefficient. In fact, the handoffs can create an awful lot of waste. Having run my own offshore development team in Argentina for three years, I was right in the middle of this, finding that in one country you’ve got certain decision-makers or part of the puzzle, and then things are thrown over the fence to the other team, and even though you’re having this kind of daily conversation, or daily stand up remotely, you’re not really that efficient. So I kind of feel that the work should be end to end in the different location and try to minimize those connections between the teams unless they are really, truly working together. So distributed agile has been really difficult to make happen.
Sean [00:06:19] So you’ve run really big organizations, really big IT organizations. It’s quite impressive, the things that you’ve done. So what are the key learnings around culture since you’ve discovered that it’s more important than the technology that you use or the process that you use, what are some of the key learnings about building culture, especially in the context of what we’ve been talking about here, about remote teams. Like what do you think in terms of celebration or acknowledgement of your team, things like that? What are the things that you’ve learned that have been powerful?
Fin [00:06:49] I mean, with the remote teams, you know, there’s a paper out there from M.I.T. about leadership spanning boundaries. And what that really means is how you should set up your first interaction between teams is to bring everyone together. I mean, it really is a case of building trust amongst individuals. They see each other, they talk to each other, they celebrate, and once you move back into your remote locations again, you can actually, you know, draw upon that initial connection that you’ve made face to face. And if you don’t have that connection face to face, it’s very, very difficult to move forward without getting to know somebody for real. And that is sharing stories, sharing things about each other’s cultures, you know, our sort of successes and failures, and sometimes we find that, you know, leaders within organizations tend to see that as a waste of money. And I actually find that bringing that team together is pretty important and moving away from a kind of command and control structure where, you know, requests such as thrown over the fence to the remote team and trying to build much more of those connections. You know, find a way of making the teams effective and understanding each other, which is, I mean, for me, it’s the most important thing because these are the people that are going to be actually building those systems or those products or applications.
Sean [00:08:04] It’s a very humble approach, my good sir. I feel as though I’m hearing like there’s this imperative for leadership to get into the weeds a little bit and to really know what’s going on at the ground level.
Fin [00:08:16] So in a way, I think it’s kind of building upon that kind of servant leadership mindset that’s out there, which I’m not necessarily a fan of that expression, but certainly I do see that leaders need to be much more coaches.
Sean [00:08:28] Sure.
Fin [00:08:28] So getting into that, into the detail can be just by asking questions and letting people themselves come up with the answers and solutions.
Sean [00:08:36] I love it. I want to pull on that thread a little bit about face time. We’ve found the same thing. We’ve found that it’s important for the teams to get together periodically. If you’re always in each other’s faces obviously that’s not productive, but you have to have some periodic time together because it’s a very human experience. If you think about every technology organization today, the largest item on our balance sheet is our labor. So our only real input is the minds that we put to work to build these products. You know, we’ve got to take care of those minds. So is there a cadence that you’ve found to be most productive or do you think it’s different team by team, organization by organization, culture by culture?
Fin [00:09:12] Yeah, I think having the initial come together, you know, particularly if you’re working on a large initiative or you’re going to be in a partnership for quite some time, that initial face-to-face is important. And as I said, discovering personal stories about each other makes things more real. You know, I’d say, in my experience, I’ve seen teams get together, or people within teams move to get to each other’s places, say, once a year at minimum, you know. But then once you have much more collaborative video technology and information that can be shared more readily, that cadence doesn’t need to be so great. But I’m still learning about what’s the best, you know, but I do find that when teams do get together, problems get solved much faster. So it’s just finding the right balance. I guess.
Paul [00:09:59] Yeah, that observation is definitely what we’ve seen too when we’ve been working on problems separately for some duration of time and then come together, all of a sudden the lightbulb comes on because you’ve got ideas colliding and really starting to evolve and that collaboration is something special that I think can happen. But it requires that up-front time, too. I’m just wondering, in this petri dish of culture and leadership and remote that we’ve been thinking on, do you think that there is one factor that has a gravitational pull stronger than any other? And specifically, do you think a strong culture or even strong leadership can overcome the downfalls that you’ve talked about of being remote? Can you have a culture strong enough to overcome that?
Fin [00:10:41] I think you can. I mean, the thing is that people expect instant culture, right. And it’s not as easy as that. I mean, it’s something you have to work at. You know, to to quote Barry O’Reilly, you need to unlearn some of the ways that you’ve worked in the past and get away from hierarchical structures, et cetera, and a little bit of humility in that leader. And what I’m focusing on at the moment that kind of, it’s just a concept, but I’m thinking around personal agility. How do leaders in this world think of themselves personally accountable, personally agile to be able to you know, they themselves create these connections to be, you know, maybe the one that’s the catalyst for it? This is a rare type of skill that I’m seeing so that’s why I’m kind of focusing in on, what does it mean to be really an agile leader?
Paul [00:11:26] Yeah, I love those stories of the physical wall being put up of, you know, there’s a program with a hundred initiatives and the CEO is staying late and you find him wandering a darkened office, pulling papers down off the wall because, “we don’t need to do that.” And you can only make these decisions when not only do you have the culture embracing the collaboration, but the leaders kind of walking and interacting and being able to see the decisions that they’re making and being able to feel the impact that they have in organizations. It’s special. I think I would almost describe it as delicate. You know, once you get this state of flow, it’s something you really have to nurture.
Fin [00:12:02] I think you’re right. I think what you’re doing is challenging some of the norms where information is power and information needs to be locked up in reports or in tools or systems. And when you visualize a portfolio of work and you see hundreds of projects and it’s probably the first time some of the exhibits have actually seen all this stuff saying, “wow, what what is all this?” And then what we tend to do is then try to color coordinate those particular cards on the wall to say, “well, how many of these things relate to our strategy, how many relate to our customers, how many relate to new business? Are we looking for new ecosystems or are we looking to get into partnerships with adjacent businesses?” And what you see is a myriad of stuff that’s really, I think, no value to the organization whatsoever.
Paul [00:12:46] Yeah, that hit home. I’ve heard you mentioned that a couple times in your writings, the navel gazing. The things that we build for ourselves end up overshadowing the things that we’re building for the people we’re actually trying to help. It’s crazy when you can step back and think about it that way.
Fin [00:13:00] I mean, I’ve found in some companies, and I can’t say who they are, you know, where projects exist only to allow the leaders to eke out their existence until they retire.
Sean [00:13:10] Ouch. That’s painful, but if you’ve been around this industry long enough… We’ve all seen that in various forms.
Fin [00:13:17] Yeah.
Sean [00:13:17] I’m gonna put you on the spot here. I’m going to ask you to define culture.
Fin [00:13:24] I don’t necessarily have a good description of it, to be honest with you.
Sean [00:13:28] You know, I think it’s one of those words that gets abused, like strategy is another one for me. It bothers the crap out of me when I hear people throwing the word strategy around irresponsibly, because I think one of the traits that I see in great leaders is that they are very particular about how they use their words, you know, and culture is one of those words. We know it’s important, especially, you know, given what I just said, right. All of our inputs, all of the money we spend in this space is on our people; it’s on the minds that we have to nurture. And we know how important culture is to that so we should be pretty particular about it.
Fin [00:13:59] I personally think it’s a collective thing. Obviously, there needs to be some sort of North Star or something that you’re all heading towards as a team, let’s say, for instance, or a company. But you know, a lot of places create their values and principles and they write them down and stick them on the wall and when I go into companies, I ask them to tell me, what do they feel about these things, can they recite them? And very rarely do they understand it. So then you’re looking at, well, we need to change culture. So changing culture, or changing mindsets, it’s really hard because people, particularly some senior leaders, don’t like to talk about feelings, emotions, or thoughts, or biases, or beliefs, and these are all factors. And I think getting an organization that’s comfortable talking in that kind of way is a company that is looking to do something quite extraordinary in their culture but it’s very hard. And I always also talk about making sure that you bring the right people on board. As a leader, even to teams in the thousands, I would always speak to every new hire before they started because I’d want to understand what their motivations were and the kind of person they were and how they would fit into the overall group.
Paul [00:15:03] I’ve got another definition in question. I’ve been struck lately just in terms of the humanity of the way we use this concept of remote or distributed or offshoring and I’ve been trying to come up with a better definition or at least a better word for how we describe our teams, because there is inherent in all of this language, a sense of us and them. If you are remote, then you’re not here. If you’re offshore, then you’re not onshore. If you’re somewhere else, then you’re not where you’re supposed to be, so to speak. So it’s implicit in the word, but there’s also just something that I feel like I need to overcome in how we’re describing our teams. There’s no less value in the way that we build or design or think or program. The location that we’re in doesn’t make much difference and yet we put this word on it that seems to make it different.
Fin [00:15:54] Yeah, I totally, totally agree with you. I think there’s something missing here. I’m not sure what it actually is. But, you know, in that study I was talking about from M.I.T. about boundaries spanning principles they talk about companies that have this issue even between floors of an existing building. So, you know, I had a team session in one client’s organization and people coming from different floors hadn’t met each other before. They’d spoken through email systems or through ticketing systems, but hadn’t actually seen each other face-to-face. There is something here about providing those venues and I think that’s what the leadership is required to do. But having, as I said, worked offshore, or a remote team, or whatever that word happens to be, you know, my team in those areas were fantastic engineers and totally dedicated and highly skilled. And I think in some companies, you know, this kind of remote team was seen as cheap labor or something. And I just see it as fantastic skills and how to get the best out of those skills is really down to how you work together.
Sean [00:16:49] Amen. So we have a large presence in Argentina as well; we always have for the last 20 years. We’re big fans of that environment. I heard you say in our pre-call that you are considering retiring down there as well, which is kind of cool.
Fin [00:17:03] Probably more than that. Actually, I do live there from time to time. That’s where the in-laws are; my wife’s Argentinian. The thing is that what I learned from my team when I was there for three years was really around the way that they approached work. I mean, we were talking about dev ops in 2010, you know, and the guys were really into it. And in fact, the releases were done over an asado late at night, you know, because we were working late with a U.S. other side of the organization, and I just saw team collaboration and unity in action, you know, despite what you call it.
Sean [00:17:36] Now you’re talking my language; releases over asados, right up my alley. So moving on to another subject here. Another thing that I’ve seen you talk about is moving from projects to products, but also then moving from products to experiences and focusing on that. So this is really important work, like philosophical work in our industry, to move to experience. And I don’t believe it’s just the customer experience. And I think you’re onto something here. When we talk about culture and the importance of culture, it’s also about the experience we provide to our teams. Part of building a great culture is getting the team aligned on our outcomes versus just our outputs, and I know you talk a lot about that as well. One of the reasons I think the industry is so broken, because it is still pretty broken, is that there is this focus on outputs, you know, features for dollars. This is what we have to live with. It’s like we have to produce an ROI. That’s how the business culture has been for many, many, many years. It’s like we’re fighting an uphill battle, but if we can change the culture, I think the place to start is in the goals and in the metrics and focusing on outcomes versus outputs.
Fin [00:18:38] Yeah, I mean, I’ve got lots of different ideas around this and lots of thoughts, and in fact, I like the stuff that you’re doing as well in terms of some of the nontraditional metrics, because I think what’s happened is that metrics and project management offices or change management leadership, have been trying to measure stuff which to my mind is not as important as the outcomes, and measuring things that show them a particular progression, but they don’t necessarily look at value, et cetera, and I think it’s because we live these days in organizations of whether, we like it or not, low trust. I think there’s a really low trust in the people that work for us, and we don’t give them the space to be bold and brave and so we don’t get innovation. We don’t get new ideas. We don’t get people being allowed to test and learn. You know, many products and services know they became very popular not because of what the original thing they were designed to do. I mean, Slack was for gamers to be able to work when IRC went down and it turned into this messaging tool that if they’d started off with that one first focus, they would have just failed. And I just think that’s the thing is that we’re trying to measure, we’re trying to stop people being creative and we end up in a world which is potentially like a fear culture because individuals are being measured to an inch of their lives rather than being allowed to work towards something for the greater good.
Paul [00:19:57] Yeah, and it’s not just fear of the so-called management or fear of not performing, but back in August of this year, Jamie Diamond and the Business Roundtable released this sort of mindblowing document that made the news cycles for a day or two before it got overcome by other things going on, but they essentially said that the goal of the firm is no longer to make a profit. The goal of the firm is to ethically and fairly treat people like people and invest in our supply chain and make sure that everyone in our circle of influence is being treated fairly like a human being. And I’m wondering, is that a pivot moment in our broader culture? Kind of skyrocketing through the philosophical stratosphere, so kind of coming up to this fifty-thousand foot layer, are we at a tipping point where, yes, we’re obviously capitalists and we have the underlying drive to stay in business, but we also have this new consciousness that’s becoming more and more pervasive in conversations at higher levels of is this sustainable? Can we keep doing business the way that we’ve always done it?
Fin [00:20:58] That’s a good point. I don’t think we can keep doing it the way we’ve always done it. I think you see that from businesses being disrupted by newcomers. What happens is sometimes that those newcomers are bought and their culture has changed. They’re put into this kind of hierarchical structure and they’re no longer allowed to be as effective as they were before and what I find is that part of this is, in my world, that we’re beginning to see certain functions, in terms of people functions and human resources functions, not really up to speed with what’s happening in companies. They’ve become very much more looking back and working in administration and worried about cost, you know, and stuff like that. Less around what I think is important from a human resources perspective, which is, you know, performance management from a coaching perspective or occupational psychology or mindset coaches or cultural management, organizational designers. These are all things we don’t see those functions doing and we see them happen by the fact that they are embedded in a culture in a small company. In a big company, we don’t see it at all, and I think if they can have that switch around to that kind of mindset, rather than just saying, “OK, well, you know, one of the big four consultancies said we should just adopt the Spotify model,” that’s just too lazy. They just need to really get into what this human capital is all about and why it’s so valuable and how you can really move the dial.
Sean [00:22:20] I think my biggest learning from reading Flow and from our multiple conversations, Fin, has been that we think we can put everything in a perfect little box and follow scrum and agile and do all these things and we’re going to get a perfect result. But the reality is very, very different. We’ve all seen perfectly formed scrum teams operating by the book produce really crappy products, right. And to really optimize our spend and optimize what we’re doing here, it’s really important to let the teams figure out a lot. We have best practices that we should follow until they don’t work, but allow the teams the space to produce their best possible work. And I think that’s what Flow appears to me, from the outside in, to be all about is creating the culture and the environment in which people can do their best work.
Fin [00:23:06] I think you’re absolutely spot on. I think it’s around leaders being coaches and really trying not to dictate, allow teams to self-manage to a degree and self-learn, create a safe environment when things go wrong, because you know, things do go wrong now and then, and as you said, as a learning exercise. And I think also it’s a case of trying to be, as a leader yourself, trying to learn what will ignite those teams and those people who are the most important things to be focused on.
Sean [00:23:38] Cool. Got one last questioor you about strategy. Obviously, strategy is a big word for you having run big organizations. I mean, if you try to run an organization without some semblance of a strategy, you’re in big trouble, right. What does that mean to you, like, what does a good strategy mean?
Fin [00:23:52] I think it’s a little bit more than it has been in the past, which is, you know, a bunch of people, generally quite senior, locked away in a room that come up with these ten things that they want to focus on to try to shift the dial. I actually think that a lot of strategy in companies is little more than gambling and guessing. You know, we’re going to increase market share by 20 percent or we’re going to do this by X percent. I never really see that come to life. I actually think that understanding where you are now and where you want to get to and co-creating that with a wider group, the team, and actually doing some sampling along the way to test and learn and try to see if you actually are moving the dial and pivot as quickly as you can. So strategy is sort of having a rough idea of where you need to get to, but kind of working it out as you go very rapidly and pivoting and changing on a daily basis.
Sean [00:24:46] I love it.
Paul [00:24:47] Excellent answer.
Sean [00:24:48] If I could summarize that: having a good strategy means you know how to learn and adapt.
Fin [00:24:53] Mhm.
Sean [00:24:53] So you’ve created the environment for learning and adaption with a solid set of goals and an understanding of where you’re going.
Fin [00:24:59] We call it continuous learning, like you have continuous delivery, continuous deployment, and no one really talks about continuous learning. In fact, learning is seen in some organizations as a cost rather than an investment, which I think is bonkers, but not all learning has to be expensive. I mean, you know, working together, demonstrating together, showing things to each other, helping buddies out, et cetera, is also. You just need time, essentially.
Sean [00:25:24] Great.
Paul [00:25:24] Absolutely. So we’d obviously recommend Flow and Twelve Steps to Flow to any of our listeners, but one last question that we would like to get from you is just, what’s a book on your radar that you’ve read or think is influential that product managers and product leaders in the industry should pick up and dig into it to get better suited to this strategic and agile shift that we have coming over the horizon?
Fin [00:25:49] Well you could probably read our next book when it’s out next year.
Paul [00:25:51] Excellent.
Fin [00:25:53] But it’s not quite finished yet; we’re having a pivot moment in terms of what we want to include in it because we are seeing a shift away from a technology focus to a wider business focus. You know, I don’t read as many books as I probably should. I met Mick Kirsten last month in Ohio, you know, who wrote Project to Product, and in fact, I’m on the back cover. I’d written a little piece around that because I see what he’s doing in terms of software flow being something that fits into our wider end-to-end business agility flow. And also Unlearn from Barry O’Riley, which is also kind of interesting how leaders need to unlearn ways of working and learn new ways. So with those two, we’re tackling and working together on, you know, there’s something happening here in the wider world and we really want to bring people on this journey and we’re still forming as we go along. But for me, Flow has got much more to give and there’s a lot more to it and reading these different books is just adding another piece of the jigsaw.
Paul [00:26:53] I agree. I’ve read Flow twice and I plan on reading it at least once a year. It’s one of those books that sinks in differently every time you go through it.
Fin [00:27:01] Yeah.
Sean [00:27:02] Cool. Is there anything else you want to promote?
Fin [00:27:04] No. I mean, I always say to people, feel free to reach out to me. You can find me on LinkedIn and on Twitter. I do talk to individuals that are struggling with issues and sometimes I can give them a little bit of advice. I mean, I don’t have tax stacks of time, but I do like to give back to the community and learn from the community and I’m always interested about challenges that people have and trying to understand their context through my curiosity, hopefully it helps me to become a better person as well.
Sean [00:27:30] Awesome.
Paul [00:27:32] Excellent. We’ll certainly link your channels and all these resources in the show notes that our listeners can find you and find the information that we’ve been talking about.
Sean [00:27:39] All right.
Fin [00:27:40] Thanks very much.
Sean [00:27:41] And I want to say, it’s been a real pleasure getting to know you and learning from you and reading your materials. It’s been a true pleasure. So thank you for all the contributions you make to our industry and I look forward to collaborating in the future.
Fin [00:27:53] Fantastic. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks very much, guys.
Paul [00:27:55] Thanks Fin.