A celebration of 25 years of corporate life
This year marks one quarter of a century of my corporate working life. In this post, I explore the changes I have seen and forecast the direction we are heading with a sense of wry humour and mirth. This journey may echo your own career and experience. It’s a long read.
The beginning of the commercial web
In 1997, we did not have iPhones, iPads, iWatches, and the joke iWheel humorously posted by The Onion was still 12 years away. Apple Macs were not much more than an appliance like a toaster. Dial up broadband at 56k was the norm, and NT4 was being rolled out as the corporate networked operating system of choice. We would no longer have to install WinSock because internet connection was built into the OS for the first time.
My first proper job was in the new Project Management team at GlaxoWellcome. A huge effort was underway to digitise regulatory documents for pharmaceutical filings, research and development, and medical trial papers. It was a huge undertaking, and the idea was it could be managed using milestones and Gantt charts. The problem was, no one knew how to write HTML or create the web pages. I volunteered to go on an HTML course to become the department ‘champion’ of the web.
Attending the training course on HTML changed my life. A lightbulb went off in my head and I knew deep down that this web thing was the future, and I wanted to be a part of it. My job changed from being something I did to swap time for money into being something I did to make a difference. The internet was something I could believe in, something worth getting out of bed for. Belief as a motivator is a thread that has become woven into my approach to build outstanding organisations.
The next 9 months, I learnt everything I could and was soon producing web pages at the quality of the ‘New Media’ companies that had sprung up to take advantage of the new internet medium for marketing and customer communication.
We could not yet access the web on our Nokia banana phones inspired by Morpheus’s cell in the Matrix and downloading videos took most of the evening but it was getting there.
Delivery at speed – beating the market
New Media companies appeared and disappeared like mining companies of the previous century’s Californian gold rush. I soon got a job running some very large corporate digital web builds for a company called The Hub Communications. No one had done this before. We were all in over our heads. The technology was developing so rapidly that new features were coming out weekly, but we still managed to keep up. And we loved it.
You may remember Macromedia Flash as the animation revolution. This sadly was killed off years later after Adobe bought out Macromedia and had a fight with Steve Jobs, who then refused to support Flash on the Mac, effectively killing off a fantastic tool.
You might also remember the amazing million-dollar pixel website? Amazing creativity put to commercial use.
Innovation, Iteration, and delivering the right thing quickly
Over the next few years, until 2003, I worked for several very large New Media companies, and what strikes me now is how well we all worked together. We were pioneers, pushing the boundaries of possibilities, literally living innovation on a daily basis in the interests of bettering our clients’ businesses. We did not do this with departments of silo teams consisting of database engineers, testers, security professionals, operations, and project managers. We did it in small cross functional teams that could deliver at the pace of technological change. Everyone did a bit of everything.
Do you remember the browser wars? Netscape and Internet Explorer bringing out new features to rival each other and the New Media companies iterated every month taking advantage of new features to wow and delight customers.
Then there were the search engine wars, with Alta Vista, Yahoo!, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, MSN, and, of course, the new contender, Google. Anyone remember Copernicus, the tool that allowed you to search all the search engines and aggregate the results in one easy view?
Of course, as the money got serious, and more and more percentage of corporate revenue was derived from the web, it got more and more important to have systems of control and quality checks, and for the web developers to stop making changes on the live servers at 5.30pm on a Friday night. I remember at one organisation, we hosted all of a very big electrical and entertainment retailer’s websites on the computers under our desks, and when Mark* went home for the weekend and turned off his computer, the sales website went offline. Clearly, things had to change.
* Name has been changed to protect the incompetent!
New Media companies went through a few vicious years of merging, failing, being bought out, and eventually becoming Digital Media or Marketing companies, and the word ‘New Media’ disappeared. It was time the web industry grew up. And grow up it did.
Reduction of risk
During the noughties, after the dotcom crash, the structures of organisations moved from innovative teams exploiting a stream of new technologies, to large serial production lines, with quality, viability, and regulatory gateways built in. Unfortunately, we adopted the old factory style approach for producing software as though it is widgets on a product line. The old Gantt charts I had seen first at GW (now GlaxoSmithKline), appeared again, giving better security and checks and balances but unfortunately killing innovation and delivery at speed. Web just got boring.
I started my own web agency with the intention of keeping the magic alive. Servicing corporate clients with an energy just not achievable in the long production lines of silo-based hand-offs, queues, and delays.
Reviewing the experiences of the past, contacting my previous clients, and taking a hard look at what went wrong as well as what went right, I realised an iterative approach with feedback was essential to balance risk with innovation and value. I presented this to my brother who worked for Sky and he pointed out I was trying to reinvent this thing called Agile. It was 2005 (ish) and Agile was not being used anywhere I had worked, which by then was a lot of places.
Over the next few years I absorbed and experimented with as much agility as any one person can stomach. Being a sponge for Kent Beck’s work, Ward Cunningham, Alistair Cockburn, Martin Fowler, and many more.
I came to realise that I had uncovered something extraordinary. The experience I had and the genius of codifying what we all experienced in the wild west of the dotcom boom and adding the risk management of iterative feedback was something that could change corporate delivery and give my customers an edge no one else had.
Changing finance can change the world
As an options and stock trader in my free time, I yearned to combine my knowledge of the markets with my working life and so took my organisation design skills, technology expertise, and love of all things connected, to the banking industry.
I moved from web development to large system design and build. Focusing on the underlying banking systems that kept our great capitalist society alive. After the banking crash of 2007/2008, I focused on building systems that would last, be flexible, did what they said they would do, but at the same time, delivering new features at pace.
Working at the most prestigious of firms, the mighty Goldman Sachs, I was able to revolutionise the entire backend system that was required to ‘upgrade’ banking after the crash. After 2 years, I and my amazing team were delivering monthly builds and getting some serious praise from the high up directors of the bank. However, all was not well. I hit the penultimate obstacle in my search for the perfect corporate delivery system for well thought-out secure but innovative software delivered at pace. This obstacle ultimately meant my demise at the mighty GS and sent me on a multi-year quest to figure it out. That obstacle was politics.
I loved working at GS and would recommend anyone to work there if they get a chance. However, my success had ruffled the feathers of both the technical architect movement inside of GS and the delivery teams who were trying and failing to deliver software in 2-year cycles. They were quite frankly embarrassed and were getting grief from above that they were not delivering as we were.
Not everyone wants you to succeed. Not everyone even cares if the company succeeds, and they certainly don’t care whether your methods lead to improvement or not. If there is any chance they will look bad or risk being moved out of their comfort zone, you will feel resistance. In my naivety, it took me several more years to figure this one out.
I knew how to make organisations great, but no one would let me get beyond a certain point in achieving it. Politics.
Flustered by this seemingly impenetrable wall of middle management resistance to change, in 2013, I founded the community of practice Adventures with Agile to see if anyone else out there was having the same challenge.
Turns out they were. I tapped into and developed a community of change agents that would eventually span the world, operating from every habitable continent. We took the existing agile community that was focused on single team delivery frameworks such as Scrum and Kanban, and posed the problem, how do we get this to work with hundreds or thousands of people? We became, and still are, the most significant driving force in growing whole enterprise cooperate ways of working for the better. We ended up training many of the large consultancy firms so they could do it too, although many of the good people left those firms when they realised their own firms couldn’t support them to do it.
During 2013-2015, the space was taken up mostly by the agile framework wars. I had seen the browser wars, the search engine wars, and now it was the framework wars. Funny how human beings repeat themselves.
None of these frameworks addressed the problem of politics and all of them came from the perspective that a group of change agents knew best, and they would decide how others would work. At best, the framework creators said, ‘you must have senior management or top-down buy in’. I had already gotten to this point and needed something more. I knew this would hit a political and cultural wall I had already experienced.
Through the community, I met many of the leading lights in what I call ‘the change industry’. Our industry of change is full of bright, hopeful people who believe that work can be better. People who believe. That creates a lot of motivation to make it work and luckily there are some who found a way to make it so.
Lyssa Adkins wrote her book Coaching Agile Teams in 2010. I didn’t discover this book until I needed it. It was another lightbulb moment and although I did not realise it at the time, it was one step towards the answer to my politics problem.
Professional coaching is the key to solving the organisational roadblock of internal politics. It is not coaching itself per se, but the mindset shift that has to happen to make coaching effective that is. I spent the next 7 years exploring how to take that mindset and enable teams and whole organisations to progress forwards through whatever political landscape I discovered. We have now pioneered different techniques for systemic coaching that gives everyone a voice in a timely manner and allows the hidden elephants to have a voice and to manage conflict beneficially. This has meant that change initiatives can move past the roadblock of politics.
We launched the 8-month ICAgile Certified Agile Team Coaching Cohort Program that results in individuals gaining real-life practical professional coaching experience whilst being supported by course leaders and cohort members alike. It is one of ICAgile’s flagship certifications and results in participants gaining the ICE-AC Expert in Team Coaching. By adding this vital ingredient into agile coaches’ skill sets, we are sowing the seeds of success for them and their organisations against the blocker of politics.
Enterprise and systemic coaching and facilitation
The now well-proven systemic coaching and facilitation approach that we used, which we call The AWA Playbook, allows hundreds to thousands of people to move forwards together, without the dogmatic and arrogant approach of the agile scaling frameworks. We found a way to bring about the change we had dreamed of years before.
In August 2018, Shannon, the director of ICAgile, the main certification authority of the agile world, contacted me, and asked if I would like to serve on the panel that would attempt to define what enterprise coaching was and set the industry standard for how to bring success to organisations.
Just like the web industry had to grow up, so did the change industry. So many independent coaches with different approaches and ideas, with no formal industry qualifications, were making consistent and progressive change inside a single organisation difficult. Often, organisations would hire a large number of smaller organisations or independent agile coaches in the hope that these individuals would help them move their large enterprises to a better place. The wild west of change was about to end.
It took 18 months for the ICAgile change group to determine the competencies needed to make organisational change work. It is hard to define a system of competencies in a linear fashion, but we did (at least in our opinion) a thorough job.
I invited Kevin Callahan, another member of the ICAgile change group to come to my house in March 2020 to start drawing up a master program that would allow coaches to not only be supported in their daily work, similar to supervision, but would allow them to grow the competencies needed to be effective. Kevin managed to escape back to his US home just days before the borders closed in the wake of the pandemic.
We finished designing the course over the next year and we are now running the third cohort, with students from the first and second cohorts already achieving their coveted ICE-EC Enterprise coaching certification. This is not a certification of attendance; it is a certification of application of competencies in real world organisations. In other words, it really means something. It means people can do what they say using the AWA approach to change.
Through this and other training programs we are moving the industry from the wild west to a cohesive and structured approach to organisational change that works.
I heard from one course attendee that he is getting interviews on the merit of attending our courses. We are obviously doing something right.
In 2020, I started writing my first book. It is called Change. It reflects my current thinking of how to make it all work. As you might expect, I am writing it iteratively with feedback. You can read Change. for free here.
You might be wondering what the last impediment is. The last impediment is internal personal growth. To enable the techniques we use to work, it is essential that those using them operate from a mindset that enables the right culture to grow and thrive. This means working with leaders and coaches to grow themselves.
Coaching is a part of that growth, but there is so much more. We are now working and building better leadership and relationship models that allow leaders to see themselves, their work, and their teams in new ways, and this means a behavioural shift and a culture change. We are exploring therapeutic work that unlocks belief systems leaders have had in place since childhood and uncovering trauma that guides decision-making in every adult.
Human beings are complex creatures and even more so when there is a lot at stake, such as a career, an organisation, and a planet. This is the cutting edge of organisational change happening right now, and as always, I strive to be on it and to help make the next leap forward.
Putting it altogether
This post is not meant to be an ultimate blueprint for change, but it does summarise the key learning steps I have explored over the last 25 years from a change perspective. Most organisations focus only on the first pillar and have a little disjointed focus on the last. All four challenges are required to be addressed.
- Market success
- Internal Politics
- Leadership Development
The next generation
In October 2021, we launched the 100 Thought Leaders Program, an accelerator for individuals who either want to be, or already are, leaders. It is an exploratory experience that is focused on internal growth and practical innovation to keep leaders at the cutting edge and at the top of their game. It is my hope this develops into a global standard for leaders in agile and innovative environments.
In March 2022, we will launch version 2 of The AWA Playbook and probably give it a catchier and more consumable name. The playbook version 2 gives much more practical help in how to implement a coaching people-first approach to organisational agility. This will be launched on the weeklong ICAgile certified Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp that I will run on the 14th-18th March in-person in London. It will be made public after that.
This year we have significant plans on how to restructure our business to suit the new post-pandemic world and so you will see new partnerships, new services, and lots of new ideas. The focus will be on advising our clients, growing leaders, and teaching coaches how to do it.
If you or your organisation would like help from us, please get in touch.
The next 25 years, I expect, will be just a revolutionary, with corporate focus moving into environmental stability, motivation through purpose and meaning, collaboration achieved through large scale facilitation and coaching techniques, and leadership and system growth through transparency and feedback, as well as agility allowing profitability in complex markets with shorter and shorter lead times and lifetimes of products and services.
I will be revealing what I see for the future at a keynote talk at the Agile Business Mixer event on the 3rd March 2022.
The most interesting aspect for me is that there is a growth in awareness happening all around us that is subtle but extremely powerful. It is the relaxation of the boundaries between individual things leading to a growing experiential awareness of systems. We grow from the isolated I, into the connected We. It is in this way we will make decisions that will change the world, solve the climate challenge, and bring agility into the heart of our organisations.
I end this little reminiscence and celebration of a quarter century of living out a dream in the same manner in which I started; with a belief. I believe we are living in a time of perfection, moving to ever greater cycles of more complex perfection. We all have a part to play and if we expand our awareness to the systemic view, and we leave everything a little bit better than when we found it, we might just make this planet and the place where we spend most of our useful lives, inside our organisations, amazing, sustainable places to live and work that have real motivating purpose.
I hope that we all find fulfilment in the work that we do, and that, in the end, we find that the betterment of humanity is a more fulfilling and, ultimately, a more secure endeavour than that of profits, status, and material desires.
Simon Powers is the CEO and founder of Adventures with Agile. He has over 20 years’ experience helping very large organisations to thrive in the market and to be better places to work. His approach led him to create our transformative ICAgile Certified Enterprise Agile Coaching training courses, which run worldwide and online. Simon is one of the first ICE-EC experts in the world.