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Q&A: Elliott on the healthy chaos of agile

Installing an agile methodology at a company is a transformation - and transforming culture is one of the hardest things a business can do.

At the recent Agile Australia conference in Melbourne, we sat down with Shayne Elliott- the leader of perhaps Australia’s most high-profile agile organisation, ANZ - for a fireside chat on people, agility and how it has changed the bank he works for. Below is an edited version of that discussion.

We started by asking him how a company can undo 180 years of thinking. 

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Pic: Shayne Elliott & Sally Warhaft Source: Provided

Elliott: You have to do something radical. I mean if you want to change something that's so ingrained in the organisation you are going to be a radical in your ambition. 

"I think at ANZ it was understood we needed to change.” – Elliott

Nothing has fundamentally changed.  At our building on the corner Queens St and Collins St [in Melbourne] - our old headquarters from the 1880s - if you look up on the corner there’s a turret.

That turret was the internet of its day.  

What has always been the source of competitive advantage in our industry is speed. What that turret was for is the bank manager could look out the window and see the boats coming into the harbour and that was trade they needed to finance.

That was a competitive advantage - you saw boats first, you sent your runners down to the boats to finance the trade off the ships. So nothing has fundamentally changed, what we do as a bank. Culturally it's about being prepared to be bold.

Warhaft: What made you pursue agile? Was there a moment in time?

SE: I've been CEO for a few years and when I got into the job I knew we didn't have a lot of time. I knew the old world was changing really fast around us and I wanted us to be boldly different.

We had two ingredients right at the time. We needed people working in our place with a growth mindset. We needed people who can sense the world around them, understand change and have some sense of what our customers are going to want the future.

And we knew that we needed the technology platform which allows us to do things at pace. What I didn't really understand was the bit that knitted it all together.

Then we came across ING – the leader of this movement in banks. And I said ‘I think this is that missing ingredient.”

SW: So tell us what you’ve done.

SW: Well we’ve basically tipped the organisation upside down.

SW: And what challenges were the most obvious?

SE: The change in our way of thinking. We had a traditional view we should do things in a certain way or we should structure things in a certain way.

Some of that was good of course, that's called experience. I think the difficulty was getting the balance right between thoughtful and valuable experience and making sure we were able to push the boundaries.

SW: So what was the response?

SE: I didn't have to make the case for change so much. I think at ANZ it was understood we needed to change as a company and as an industry so we were up for it.

I'd say staff were kind of thankful that management finally got. They were ahead and management were behind.

We spent a huge amount of time and effort on total transparency. We said for a lot of the questions ‘I don’t know. I don’t know the answers. I don't know how it's going to work out. I don't know exactly what it's going to look like.’

SW: Was there a hierarchy in the response? In that people further up the chain they were the more challenging they found it.

SE: Yes, I’d say that’s true, although not totally correlated. So a lot of it is about human nature and the degree to which you embrace change.

A big chunk of agile is taking away some of that hierarchy; that role of middle-manager who traditionally sourced their value by controlling the flow of information up and down the organisation. That need disappears in a new way of working world.

SW: There’s a language to agile, to the culture. This began with your workforce receiving a letter. I was amazed how it was very upfront that change was coming.  

Tell us how you express the narrative, the language of agile without it turning in to something a lot more clichéd and just weird? 

SE: There is an absolute value in the whole theatre of our agile, the language, the standups, the post-it notes - all of that is actually part of the cultural revolution required.

If you want people to change habits you need to change everything. It just helps.

In and of themselves they don’t change anything. You can just stick notes to walls and at meetings and still be slow and not customer-focussed.

The risk is that you think you can become seduced by it all of that it's all about the rituals. But it’s not it is actually more about the mindset.

SW: When hiring new people, has agile completely changed the way you recruit?

SE: Yes, yes it has. There’s no point saying we’re gonna work in a new way and then just using the same old processes in evaluating people.

At its heart what we're saying is ‘capability or mindset is more important than experience and what you've done’. So we’re not interested in interviewing you and asking what you did last time or whatt skills you have on your CV. It's about mindset.

Are you a choice learner? Are you inherently collaborative? Do you like challenges? Do you accept change?

So we had to completely redesign our interview process. And we’re continuing to change even now.

SW: How do you reward good agility?

SE: It’s a really good question. I think there's a couple of ways.

I don't know if anybody has done this perfectly because inherently it's a team-based culture and therefore we need to recognise teams, because you want to find out the people who are doing things well so you can learn from them.

We need to understand these why - what are they doing well that we can all learn? We have work to do on that because again we typically had set ourselves up to measure inputs – how many things we process – not necessarily the good things, or the right things, or having a positive outcome.

So we have to tip all our measurements around. One struggle we're having at the moment is this metrics piece. Often we'll measure a lot of things because we can measure them and not because we should. Flipping that around will be difficult.

One of the things people have asked is ‘without hierarchy, how do I get promoted? How do I as an individual get recognised for my hard work?’

Ultimately I think being respected as a master and being given more fun and exciting things to do.

SW: Is it chaotic?

SE:  I think there’s a healthy level of chaos. I think chaos is not necessarily a bad thing.

Sally Warhaft is a  broadcaster, anthropologist & writer

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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