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CIO Podcast: Fin Goulding – Agile is dead

“It starts with extreme transparency,” CIO Fin Goulding told a packed room of CIO peers at a Meetup organised by the Horizon CIO podcast and Sullivan and Stanley, a leading interim and teams as a service provider. Goulding is an author on how to improve Agile, by day he’s International CIO for global insurance firm Aviva.

Published last autumn, Flow is a collaboration between Goulding and Haydn Shaughnessy the researcher on strategy, working methods and customer interaction. In the book the duo are analysing how large organisations “accelerate the pace and scope of innovation”.

As a CIO Goulding has been with Aviva since 2016, having returned to financial services from online gaming, where he’d been CIO of Paddy Power for nearly four years.  

“Agile is not a thing you buy, it is what you are, but you are probably being pressured into buying stuff to implement into your companies”

I am back in financial services, it has changed a lot from the first time I was there, but I love Fintech, mainly because it was named after me,” he jokes. Before joining Paddy Power Goulding had held business technology leadership roles at insurance specialists Sabre as well as credit card business Visa.

The Meetup came about from a discussion between CIOs on a blog posting by Goulding which resonated.

“As CIOs we all share many similar challenges. Those challenges being lots of complexity in the environments, working in silos, lacking in agility, and there is muddled technologies, and you get this Scrum Agile bit in the middle, but the last bit is not very agile at all,” Goulding says, empathising with his peers in London. Goulding went on to describe how he has changed the culture and operating model at the Aviva Dublin base, but at all times he was respectful and aware of the legacy challenges all CIOs face.

“Technical debt is real debt, because you will require investment to address that,” he tells the Horizon CIO podcast. “What we need is not so much technical agility, it is business agility coupled with it, so I am trying to bring these two things together, because I find the business is very interested in Agile once you strip out all the jargon,” he says.

“It is a fear of admitting that you don’t know something, but once you start working with these techniques, all of a sudden you do get this interest that goes wider and wider across the company, so I call it taking Agile forward.”

Goulding is amongst those that believe that “Agile is dead.” During his presentation to peers Goulding states: “Dave Thomas who wrote the manifesto said it was time to retire the term Agile and instead talk of being agile.

“Agile is not a thing you buy, it is what you are, but you are probably being pressured into buying stuff to implement into your companies.

“Agile has become a rigid methodology with certification everywhere. I am not a big fan of certification. Complex frameworks like SAFE (Scaled Agile Framework), are, I find too complicated and it is an excuse for large organisations to sell Agile as a need to scale, which I think can be done in other ways,” he says.

Goulding and Shaughnessy have developed and written Flow as a response. Throughout his presentation though Goulding is not prescribing one method over another, the central argument of Flow is that all methods have their benefits, whether Agile or Kanban they have their uses. Whatever the method, Goulding says organisations need lots of communication about the flow of a project and that visualisation is key to that communication.

The Aviva CIO demonstrated the visualisation methods he uses to make the boards highly effective. “We have a smiley face, that means if the team is happy or if they are unhappy they can put a little unsmiling face up and you can see.” This acts as an alert for the CIO or other members of the senior leadership team to “go and talk to them. Why should you read that in a report?

“Each project is described as a tweet. If you can’t describe a project in that number of characters then it is probably too complicated and needs to be broken down,” he says; going on to add that projects also carry a “t-shirt sizing so you don’t get bogged down in big estimates.” And a picture of the customer is always included.  

As a result even the senior leadership team have their own standup meetings on a wall. This visualises the outcomes the senior leadership team have to provide, but another visual strength is that everyone in the organisation sees the senior leadership team working in the same way as they do, and it provides everyone in the organisation with transparency about what is being worked on by the leaders.

“They were uncomfortable with it at first, then it flows down to projects and teams. It is the great big wall of business and how we get our strategy aligned to business outcomes. So it is a big Kanban wall for executives, we have ideas, inception, delivery, MVP, feasibility, in-play and done. These columns are where the business play with new ideas and priority sequence.

“In IT we don’t put anything into these columns until you have the resources, so in-play and done are the IT columns. This is an interesting concept, and this is where you have your debate and people ask ‘why can’t you work on it?’ ‘Well because we don’t have any people,’. ‘Ok what can be done about it?’ You can then re-prioritise.

“This is bit alien because normally you have accepted a load of things to do and now you are late because you have accepted it, you have accepted 100 projects and you could only do 20,” he recalls of a scenario that almost every CIO in the room clearly understood.

“We also have good social interaction between all our teams, and we have a style of office that facilitates that and it is fun. People are working together and sharing ideas on business problems,” he says of the environment.

“Working in a very agile way involves breaking things down into very small pieces and working in a way that I call small batch deployment,” he says of how he has taken iterative development further with Flow.

“You need to deliver to a target, I get that, but not everything. There is this focus on delivering 100% of what we said, and I think that can be wrong in an Agile world. It  is good to have projects up there that have failed, product owners don’t like it, but I like it to demonstrate that this project failed and we need to understand why. We have areas where we put projects into pause and ‘do not resuscitate’,” he boldly states.

“It is a combination of doing stuff using agile techniques, looking at lead times and cycle times also using some of the continuous deployment and infrastructure as code.

“From a Waterfall perspective you delivered everything before you could start getting your benefits, in Scrum you would deliver 80% before you could see value. In the Kanban world you can deliver much less, like 20%, that is why I prefer it. Kanban is great because it is about limiting the work in progress, that is the key thing,” Goulding says.

Culture hack

Changing the way technology is developed and deployed is only half of the battle for most CIOs though.

“Culture transformation is a big thing. I tried to work out how you get things from idea to production and what does that flow look like. If you have done lean, you are trained in those efficiencies and know what a block looks like,” he says, which was music to the ears of a CIO from engineering present.  

Flow advocates that the customer and their feedback be part of this process and their thoughts shared with all on the walls, again for transparency.

“It is about bringing the customer on the inside and extending Agile into that. So we have customer feedback walls.

Flow also advocates value based measurement, which Goulding tells the CIO podcast is about analysing value delivery during build and usage.

“In the older world you’d build all the requirements, but often you find these last requirements are a waste of time,” he says. Going on to describe: “Value based logging, you can write code that is small and logs every time it is used,” he says of making sure that your technology teams are not building “more technical debt. So you can go back to the business and show what is really being used and demand that you get smart about what you build.”

This is a paradigm shift for the CIO role. Moving the role from delivering so that organisations will give technology a seat at the senior leadership table, to challenging the organisation to rethink its approach to technology and become a more efficient organisation.

“I have a vision called the Agile wine bottle. Practices and toolsets are at the bottom of the bottle and most companies have that, but if you want your teams to sprint-on you need teams that understand the values and goals of your organisation. That requires a bit of cultural change to make sure that they care,” he says.  

“We are good at methodologies, we are not good at the culture change piece, the stuff at the bottom of the wine bottle is very visible and easier to achieve, the stuff at the top is less visible and much harder to achieve,” he says with honesty about technology teams.

“Digital transformation comes via cultural transformation, the two things are linked. We want champions and ambassadors and you have to watch out for the loose cannons. The more ambassadors you have the more chances of success.”

To create the ambassadors Goulding takes his inspiration from comedy legends Monty Python, which  he admits he has to explain to the millennial workforce at Aviva. “I do a thing called the Ministry of Silly Walks. The idea is that we do silly things at times as leaders, so I meet with eight to 10 of the team and we have breakfast and I disrupt the hierarchy and I meet everyone on the team, and I ask what we are doing that is stupid? And what are we doing that annoys you?” Goulding says the outcomes from the Pythonesque discussion range from complaints about chipped cups and nowhere to store packed lunches, through to people telling you they don’t agree with the strategy and why.

“I look forward to it. You can take care of some of the behaviours really quite quickly. It builds trust and trust is important.”

You can get your copy of Flow by Fin Goulding and Haydn Shaughnessy here.


And other books recommended by Fin is his presentation were


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