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Agile Innovation Leaders

Feb 7, 2021


Darren has a background in commercial management, being an Associate of the Chartered Institute of Bankers following sixteen years in Retail Banking. This culminated as a Senior Personal Banking Manager within the Guildford Group of Branches, which was comprised of 9 branches and 140 staff.

A career change into IT in the late 1990s has led to a number of roles within IT including three Head of Department positions covering the complete spectrum of IT. Also, as an accomplished Project Manager and a Prince2 Practitioner he has a phenomenal record in delivering complex programmes and business transformations and an impressive record of negotiating and implementing multi-million pound contracts including Outsourcing, Off-shoring and ERP systems. He is also a Chartered IT Professional.

Darren is now a Director of Radtac, a Global Agile Consultancy Business based in London. In addition, he is DSDM Atern Agile PM Practitioner, APMG Facilitation Practitioner, PRINCE2 Agile Practitioner, Certified Scrum Master, Kanban Practitioner.

Darren is an active agile practitioner and coach and delivers training courses in Leading SAFe and more recently, Darren is now a SAFe Fellow, one of about 30 worldwide. He is also a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer (SPCT), contributor to the SAFe Reference Guide 4.5 and founder of the London SAFe Meet-up Group.

Finally, he is the Treasurer of BCS Kent Branch and co-founder of the Kent Scrum User Group. Also a co-author of the BCS Book “Agile Foundations – Principles Practices and Frameworks”, a reviewer of "Valuing Agile; the financial management of agile projects". 


Books/ Resources: 

 NOTE: * As of the time of publishing this episode, the most-current version of SAFe is 5.0 and so I would recommend getting this version.




Darren’s social media profiles:


Interview Transcript:

Ula Ojiaku: [00:27]

My guest for this episode is Darren Wilmshurst. He is the director and head of consulting at Radtac. Darren is a Scaled Agile Framework Fellow, an achievement realized by less than 30 people globally. He's also an SPCT - that is, a SAFe Program Consultant Trainer. Darren trained me as an SPC, and I am honored to call him my mentor as well.

This episode, be aware, was recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic so parts of our conversation about travel around the world, conducting a big room planning with all team members physically in the same space might not reflect the current pandemic situation as people aren't traveling as much. And of course, there's social distancing in place, and people are working more remotely than ever.

The release of this episode coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto. Darren and I talked about the Agile Manifesto. And in my opinion, the pearls of wisdom that he shared about applying the values and principles are as valid as ever.

Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, my conversation with Darren Wilmshurst. Enjoy!


Main Interview

Ula Ojiaku: [01:51]

Thank you so much, Darren, for making the time for this conversation.

Darren: [01:55]

Real pleasure to join you today. Thank you for inviting me.

Ula Ojiaku: [01:58]

Darren, why don't you start off by telling us a bit about yourself?

Darren: [02:02]

Oh, yeah that will be good, I have a probably interesting background. Because I spent 16 years in retail banking, I was a bank manager. And banking was all good until the first week of November 1997. Not that I remember the (exact) date. But that was the date that the bank decided to automate my job. So, some bank managers were really good at lending. Some bank managers are really bad at lending. And they wanted to manage the credit risk to 1% of the portfolio. And they can’t do that with individual discretion.

So, on that date, everything was credit scored. If you wanted an overdraft, (a) personal loan or mortgage, everything was credit scored. I went from being a bank manager of nine branches and 140 staff to being a sales manager, selling financial products, and not something I really wanted to do. So, I made the entirely logical leap from being a bank manager into IT, because that's where my job got (absorbed). I started off as a business analyst, I did some testing, test management, did project management, and then I joined an outfit called, P&O Ferries. And I did a number of ‘Head of …’ roles: Head of Programme Management, Head of Development, Head of Delivery as well as Head of Operations, Infrastructure Networks and that sort of stuff. As well, I was just really fortunate to work with some really inspired CIOs during that time, who introduced me to agile probably back in 2003, 2004. And I was just given the environment to experiment with lots of adoption to patterns and practices as well, some that went well, some didn't, we learnt loads as well. But I found it was really hard initially. I think we did our first sort of agile project about 2004. And I'd gone away and read a book and gone to a conference and got inspired by this new way of working. But I came back to the office and (it appeared) my colleagues had read a different book! And we ended up in almost like these ‘agile wars’, you know, where we're arguing about whether we all call it a sprint and iteration increments a time box, and I got really fed up with that.

So, I got an outfit called Radtac to help me; a guy called Peter Measey. I just need to help us to get to a common foundation. And the first thing we did was just an education event where we got all the guys in the rooms, ‘look, this is the way we're going to work, this is what we're gonna call stuff, we're gonna at least get a common taxonomy in terms of what we mean by these things.’ And that made a difference as well, then, you know, implementing it was still hard. So again, got Radtac to help with some of the practices and help them refine those as well. And then I got to a point, I don't know, about seven years ago, where I’d spent almost 30 years in the corporate world and just wanted to do something a bit different, wanted to go and explore my passion a bit more, not about agile, but more about trying to make organizations more effective. And funnily enough, I spoke to Peter Measey again at Radtac, and joined them back in 2012, as a director, and to grow their consultancy practice.

So, I went from the corporate role to the dark side of consulting, and that was quite a change. For me, personally, I’d lived, about 25 minutes from my work. And that was right from the time I left my house to when I had coffee on my desk in my office. And now suddenly, I was traveling around the country and around the world. And my children were quite young that time (11 & 13) and that was quite hard in the first six months. I wasn't quite sure this was for me, but I just wanted to explore that passion for that change was hard for me.

And then I think I was working with a client down in Bristol, and they started talking about this thing called SAFe. And this guy called Dean Leffingwell. And I hadn't really heard much about it and what it was as well. And then almost coincidentally, I heard that Dean was running an SPC course in London in October 2013. And I thought, okay, I want to go to that.

So, I went to that course - I was not convinced. I always remember Dean talking about this two-day PI planning event and he’d said, ‘we can get everybody in the room together.’ And I said, ‘what, everybody?’ And he looked at me quizzically ‘Yes, everybody, that's everybody that wants to know; not just the developers - Scrum Master, Product Owners…’  ‘All of them coordinating live - the planning  was with everyone in the room together?’ ‘Yes.’

So, two days, I think you'll never get that, you know, the conversations that you will need to have, in order to get two days to where people get together for planning out will never happen. So, I sort of remained skeptical. I started running some training courses in 2014. But the interest in the UK was quite low, to be honest. 2015 first off, much the same. And I think towards the end of 2015 people started saying ‘Actually, I'm really interested in the SAFe stuff.’ So, we did more training courses. And then I did my first (SAFe ART) launch and that's where my skepticism turned into ‘Oh my - this is an amazing event!’ because you know, getting all those people in the room together, when you create those social bonds, that networking, that alignment and where you resolve difficult problems together is huge. I became an advocate so much so I got asked to join the SAFe Program Consultant Trainer program.

Ula Ojiaku: [07:07]

You said that you were skeptical about bringing everybody in the room for two days. How did you get to convince your first clients to do that? Well, how was it for you?

Darren: [07:20]

I think I was lucky because my first client was coming, over to my public courses. I think it was like April, this delegation of about four of them. They said ‘we love this. We want to do it’. And they said, ‘we're going to start small, we're not going to start with no massive teams.’ I think we started with four teams. And just on the tipping point, really just say, we want to prove it out. So, I need to start with four teams. And two teams were in India and two teams were in the UK.

So, my first one was distributed, which was fine, but yes, I think for them, it was like they were sold on it. And they wanted to start small. I think it was easier for me in terms of they were already bought into it. And they wanted to run it and have smaller teams make it an interesting first planning event. But, you know, we had some issues running it distributed. I think it should have taken two and a half days. And it ended up taking three and a half days.

Ula Ojiaku: [08:08]

Oh, okay. Well, it was a first wasn't it?

Darren: [08:13]

Yeah. I think the issues with that one there was a couple of things was, first of all with, because it was my first PI planning, I think that's a real red line for me when we try to do asynchronous planning.

Number one, you need to have a co facilitator in each location. I didn't, I was in the UK. I wasn't in India, and it was all new to them. And they really struggled as well. Secondly, we tried to do what I call asynchronous planning. So, in the morning, we did all the briefings. And we got to lunchtime. And then we started out in the UK, we started off draft plan in the afternoon, by which time they (the teams in India) had gone home. So, they came back in the morning, and they did their draft plans. And then we tried to bring them together. It just didn’t work. I mean, the whole point of the planning is to understand the tensions and the dependencies between the teams. Of course, we're doing that asynchronously. So not only did they weren't sure what they were doing, when we tried to bring the draft plan together, they didn't work. So effectively, we lost that first round of planning. So, we said, okay, we need to find a way of overlapping.

So, on day three, the UK guys came in a lot earlier. And we asked the guys in India to stay a little bit later to share the pain. And then we've got an overlap. And we've got our plans together. But we effectively lost that first round of panning because there was no support. And it wasn't synchronous.

Ula Ojiaku: [09:26]

So, on the third day, did you manage to find someone who would facilitate on your behalf in India or you still had to do that yourself?

Darren: [09:35]

Yeah, I did it myself. We had video links and stuff like that (to connect with the people in India). But I recognised that they were struggling. The second time around, we made sure that we had facilitators in both locations - really important.

Ula Ojiaku: [09:58]

That's quite interesting. If you don't mind, I'm just going to go back a bit to the point where you said your tipping point was after about 30 years in industry. You wanted a change, which was when you made the leap into consulting. There might be some people listening who are considering making that same leap. So, what made you decide to go for it? And what was the last straw that broke the camel's back (if there was any such thing)?

Darren: [10:27]

I don't think it was a midlife crisis. I wanted a new challenge. And it was at that time, I'm like, well, if I didn’t do it now, it would never happen. I think I'd gone through, you know, so many organizational reorganizations and restructuring. I just, I couldn't face another one of those. (I thought to myself) ‘well, if I'm going to make the break, this is the time to do it as well.’ And I had the opportunity with Radtac to join them and help grow that particular organization as well.

So, I think it was an alignment of moons - I needed to change. I’d spent 30 years and in the corporate world and didn't really want to go through another reorganization. And this opportunity presents itself as ‘Okay, well, let's give it a go and see how it goes.’

Ula Ojiaku: [11:04]

Would you say there was an element of you know, wanting to be a bit more in control of your destiny and not just being at the whim of maybe reorganizations that tend to happen in larger organizations more having some sort of direct say in the direction of things with your career?

Darren: [11:20]

Probably not, I think because again, I was very senior manager at P&O Ferries. I reported the Board Director. I helped shape a lot the restructuring that happened within P&O Ferries as well. I had a lot of influence and with that organization, I just think it was just about really just exploring my passion and just trying to do something different. I always thought there's just something there's one more thing left in me and I thought this was it.

Ula Ojiaku: [11:43]

Okay. You said your children were young and the first six months you weren't sure in consulting whether it was for you. So, what made you change your mind? It's definitely evident that you're doing something you're passionate about. What made you decide, ‘Right! It is for me’?

Darren: [12:00]

Again, my children were like 11 and 13. Both of them are serious swimmers. My son was a national swimmer, he was training about 17 hours a week. So that's four mornings at five in the morning (and evenings as well). My wife was working full time as well. So, it's just it was just again, with me being away traveling and not knowing what time I'll be home. That was the bit that was difficult because at least at P&O Ferries, I know what time I left for work and what time I got home. I could be quite predictable, (but in the consulting situation) I was less predictable.

So, we had a long conversation, and my wife decided to temporarily give up her job. And she's a teacher, in order to support me and the children as well. That was a life changing decision that we had to make as a family. So, I'm really grateful for my wife saying, ‘Okay, I'll take a little sabbatical to get us through this.’ And we tried to get some normality back to our lives as well.

Ula Ojiaku: [12:50]

It's really refreshing to hear this because it almost seems like - looking outwardly - everyone has it all, you know. You have to make some sacrifices, compromises to be able to achieve a goal.

Darren: [13:03]

 It's a good question. Because a lot of people say to me, I'd love to become a consultant. And I talk to them about that. ‘Well, you need to recognize that, you know, you could be anywhere now - what's your flexibility?’ I could be in the UK, I could be overseas, if it’s (my client appointment is) on a Monday, I'm probably flying on a Saturday or Sunday to get to locations.

So, I'm there on Monday morning as well, it sounds so glamorous that you know, I travel the world and people see you know that you travel all the time. But funny story was I was due to go to Dubai. And my wife was teaching at the time. And it was the last week of the school term. And my wife was going to finish on the 13th. I was going to Dubai the following Monday. So, I texted her at work and said, ‘Look, you know, I'm going to Dubai next week, do you fancy coming with me?’ And she texts back to me saying ‘No, I want a new kitchen!’ Okay. About 15 minutes later, she gets back saying ‘No, no, no, no, no, I'm coming!’ She came home and said ‘I was in the staff room when I got your text. And I laughed. And when my colleagues asked why, I told them you’d asked if I wanted to go to Dubai next week, and they said, ‘what did you say?’ She said, ‘I'd said I wanted a new kitchen?’ Yeah. (Long story short) She came with me (to Dubai). We flew out on the Monday -arrived in the afternoon for a two-day training event. I went into the office that Monday afternoon, just to check the office. And then I got up at seven. I was in the office at eight again, I forget how many hours I had three or four hours behind. So, it's like quite early in the morning - training from eight to six before going back to the hotel. And Jo goes, ‘wow, is that what you do?’ Yeah, yeah (I say).

‘So, you got really early in the office training all day. So, what do you do now?’ I’ll have a meal for one in a restaurant, then I'll come back to my room. I do my emails. And I go to bed. Yeah. And I get up the following morning, exactly the same - finish at six, got home, pack my bag, have a meal, go to the airport, fly home ... And that's what you do. I said that’s exactly what I did. It looks glamorous, but it's literally planes, hotels, offices. I hate eating on my own. If I'm on my own, I'm not a great explorer either. So, I know some of my colleagues are really good at going out and seeing the sights. So, if you're training all day, you've still got other responsibilities that you need to catch up with as well. So…

Ula Ojiaku: [15:17]

I can imagine as a head of consulting, it's not just the training, you still have to attend to other official type things. Yeah.

Darren: [15:25]

Good work for the company that I have to do stuff like that.

Ula Ojiaku: [15:28]

Oh, wow, I get the impression you are someone who's always out to learn to improve yourself. So, you're not resting on your oars even though you are at this level. Have you at any point in time felt like ‘I think I’ve learnt enough’?

Darren: [15:41]

It's also the reverse. I was never a reader. I've always been a numbers person. So, I went to university to study maths. I was one of those kids at primary school where you'd be given a book at the beginning of the week to go away and read it. I get to the end of the week; I'd hand back my book to Miss (his teacher) who’d ask ‘have you read the book Darren?’ And I’d go, ‘Yes, Miss…’ - I hadn't.

And I've never been a great reader. I just wasn't. What I do is probably over the last six years now I've read more than I've ever read. And even so, when I go on holiday, my daughter teases me because, you know, I don't take fiction books on holiday or biography books. I take business books on holiday.

Ula Ojiaku: [16:21]

I do that as well (laughs)

Darren: [16:22]

I have a picture my daughter took of me lying in a pool reading a business book. And every time I go on a course, someone will always recommend a new book I haven't read; so I have a backlog of books that I still need to buy and read as well. And there's a couple of books I'm rereading at the moment because… Some of my colleagues are good at the audiobooks; I need to see it. I’m a real visual reader.

Ula Ojiaku: [16:46]

Okay, okay.

Darren: [16:47]

…(still on his preference for physical books) …I'm getting down. I'm just highlighting, you know, the bits that character. This is a nugget as well. So, I can flick through that book and, and use those quotes as anecdotes during the trainings that I do as well, so.

Ula Ojiaku: [16:58]

Okay, so when you mean the visual, would an Amazon Kindle do for you or not? It has to be like a physical book, right? I like physical books; I mean and given that I tend to commute a bit, as well listening to audiobooks. But yeah, I've learned to blend all of them in depending on where I find myself. If you were to gift a book to someone who's aspiring to develop as a lean agile professional, which one would you, one or two, would you gift to the person or recommend to the person?

Darren: [17:40]

There's essentially a part of them beyond the roadblock is you sometimes just don't get chance to take time out and reflect and write. And I'm a bit frustrated at the moment that I haven't written a blog for a while and stuff like that. So, at the end of April, I'm going to do like a little mini retreat, I'm going off to Finland with Virpi, a fellow SPCT. And we're gonna have a little SAFe retreat, and we want to go away and write a couple of blogs and stuff like that as well.

And one of the blogs I want to write is my top three books, top three videos, top three white papers. I think I'm almost there. One (of my top books) is the Tribal Unity by Em Pretty-Campbell. It's about how to get to how to go about forming teams and get them self-organizing. It's a short book. So, it's a really good brief read. Leading Change by Kotter, I think is another book that's just so critical. I think he wrote the book in 1995. I may have got that wrong. But he's rewritten the preface, because he's saying although this book was written over 20 years ago, it's still relevant. Now I find it amazing that the same challenge is still appearing now, even though they haven't learned from 20 years ago. And I think my favorite book of last year was The DevOps Handbook by Jez Humble and that was interesting for me, because for, two reasons. One, it's quite a thick book. Not, it's not small, but it's quite daunting to look at it. And also, you think, oh, I'm not particularly technical, but someone really encouraged me to say, ‘no, read it and actually read it in small batches, reach 25 pages a day.’ What a good idea! And what I found was that it was just there was so much goodness in there in terms of there's some technical stuff that you can, you can skim over.

But in terms of how to adopt it, some real stories about organizations that have done this as well. And for me understanding that actually, it's not just about automation, there's so much other stuff that you need to do in terms of re architecting and telemetry and stuff like that. Well, for me, that was my book next year. And if we're going to get to this organization where there needs to be more responsive, and they need to get their products to market quicker, they need to find a way to be able to do that without being on very slow, manual downstream processes and practices.

Ula Ojiaku: [19:43]

We're going to put the links to them (the books mentioned) in the show notes. And it's worth mentioning as well: I mean, you're a co-author of the BCS Agile Foundations book.

Darren: [19:51]

I think it was them BCS (who) approached us to run an effectively agnostic agile foundations course. We created the course and the exam materials for that. And then they said, ‘well, can you create a companion book for it as well?’  As Radtac, a small group of three to nine people that we were at a time, we wrote a book together. And again, we tried to follow our agile principles.

So, we had a Trello board. And we agreed and we broke it down into chapters, and then and into sections and who wrote each of those sections. And it was an enlightening experience to do that. I was quite privileged to be one of the co-authors of that as well, I reviewed a book on Agile financial management which was quite cool as well, again, that was in an agile way, you can check it out every two weeks, we were spending every two weeks to do that, as well. And also, I was one of the accredited contributors to the SAFe Reference guide as well, of which I'm really proud of as well.

Ula Ojiaku: [20:36]

Your last response actually nicely segues into the second part of this conversation, which is to talk about one or two lean agile related topics. You said (something about) the importance of applying agile ways to businesses to make sure that they are delivering value to customers in the shortest possible time; you know, on a consistent and predictable basis. Could you elaborate on that? Why is it important in this day and age for businesses to be agile?

Darren: [21:07]

I think for me now we're seeing a lot of digital disruption. The one I want to talk about is Blockbuster. That's an old story now, I think Netflix came knocking on their door over 10 years ago and said ‘look, you know, you've got a great high street presence. We've got this idea about streaming videos online. Do you fancy buying us for some silly amount of money? Really small amount of money’, and Blockbuster said ‘No, no, we're okay. We're doing great in the high street.’

‘The broadband speeds won't be big enough to stream videos that will never work. We're fine.’ ‘Netflix came back a year later and (made the same offer to Blockbuster who refused). And Netflix well… amazing; Blockbuster is not around anymore. I've probably had two or three more recent examples of different digital disruption: HMV - they got placed out of bankruptcy five years ago, someone bailed them out. It looks like they're gonna fold again, and they went on to the high street and said, well, why don't you go into HMV and buy videos and CDs? And the answer was, ‘well, we stream it, we download it. We don't need to do this (buy physical CDs and DVDs) anymore.’ My daughter's just doing a level a moment and she's gonna go off with some friends to Magaluf with her girlfriends - much to my horror. Oh, well.

Ula Ojiaku: [22:13]

Oh well, ‘bank of daddy’ (laughing).

Darren: [22:15]

No, no she’s paying for herself. So, traveling, she went on to a well-known high street travel agent and said, we want to go here, this is what we're gonna do and stuff like that. And they said that that's going to be about 750 pounds per person. ‘Thank you very much.’ She came home, good girl, went online, got exactly the same deal same hotel, same flights, all inclusive. Plus, airport transfers, which wasn't included, plus some club tickets for 350 pounds per person.

Ula Ojiaku: [22:42]


Darren: [22:43]

Wow. And then the final one is that we were thinking about selling our house. And we moved about nine years ago – it was the last time we had moved. So, we got a guy around to evaluate our house. So, we asked him ‘what's your fees?’ expecting him to say, you know, it's about 2% plus VAT, and then we'll get into that haggling situation where I try and beat him down so we're at 1.75%. And he said to me, it’s 1% Darren. That was it. Why is it 1%? He said, ‘Purple Bricks’.

So, you know, I think you know, what we get into a situation where, you know, there's a lot of disruption. And these guys are firing up stuff much, much quicker, we need to be able to get out our products and our services to market faster. And also, to get that feedback. And we don't want to create, you know, work on a ‘great’ product for three or four years, get the market and find out that it's not required.  that people won't buy or sell isn't already limited as well. And we need to find a way of having a hypothesis about our product or services and testing and getting feedback on it as quickly as possible. And potentially as well getting the value as soon as possible before someone else does.

So, for me it's about that improvement process of making our work transparent getting inspected, if it's okay, we carry on if not we pivot without mercy or guilt. And having that short feedback cycle, as well try to shorten that feedback cycle as much as we can.

Ula Ojiaku: [24:02]

Am I right in the understanding that the feedback cycle would include the customer as early as possible in the process?

Darren: [24:11]

Most of the time that might be a proxy for the customer. But if we get to the real customer, then that’s so much the better because that's the real acid test of ‘would you use this? Would you buy this? What would you pay for it? Oh, am I doing the right thing?’

Ula Ojiaku: [24:24]

Very interesting! The International Consortium for Agile maintain that there's a difference between being agile, and doing agile. In your view, which one should come first?

Darren: [24:36]

 I think there is difference. I go into organization and say there are no we're using JIRA. So, we must be agile.  Okay, you know, it's a tool. There are lots of tools out there that can help, but I'm not sure in terms of agile, okay, well, then we're doing this practice of doing a stand up every day, just as a practice. And as some of those practices will certainly help you in terms of ways of working. But for me, and I think those things, though, about doing agile, you know, the tooling and the practices, I think they're starting points, they're very visible, because you can see those things, you see that tooling to see those practices. But in terms of being agile, or adopting agile, they're less powerful.

For me the values, the principles, and the mindsets, which are less visible, are more powerful in terms of the overall adoption as well. I've seen too many people that just use the tooling and feel like they're just cranking the handle with the practices, really understanding why they're doing it, that they're doing it not being it, I think it's not a case of one or the other, I think the two need go hand in hand. But you need to explain, okay, these are great ways of helping you in your ways of working. But you need to understand some of the other things that need to go without the values and principles and the mindset changes as well.

Ula Ojiaku: [25:50]

Okay. And when you talk about the values of principles, are you referring back to the one that originated from the Agile Manifesto in 2001, or is there any other…?

Darren: [26:00]

Yeah, I think you're right when I started out, they were the ones I used to reference the most. And they were written in 2001. They’re still relevant today. I wish they would just turn off some of the software language a bit more. And I think it's much more applicable to the wider organization, not just software development, I recognize that these guys came from the software industry as well -so, I get that but it'd be nice to do that (tone down the software language of the Agile Manifesto). I'm a big fan of the SAFe principles. And when I go in now (to client meetings) to be exact, I don't really talk about agile, because a lot of them will have a preconception of what they think it is and what they've heard.

So, I talk about the principles that we need to base our decisions on economics. And they go ‘Yeah, we do’. So now what are the best positioned to be able to evaluate lead, we think about the whole system end-to-end; system thinking rather than optimizing individual teams or departments, because that can sub optimize the whole system. When you think about systems as well, we're working in a very complex environment. So, we can't assume that we know everything upfront. So, we need to assume variability and some way to preserve options. But there's a cost of doing that as well. And we don't want to have too much work in our system, we need to make sure that you know that we've got good flow for our system, by putting too much work into our system, it clogs it all up. So, we do that as well. And then we'll talk about, you know, we still need to plan. So, we know, we need an arrangement as a working at scale, and how we do that.

So, we need a, sort of, big planning event. We need to make sure that we invest a huge amount of money and time and to help people. And we need to make sure that we find a way that they are sufficiently motivated. They have enough purpose, autonomy and mastery in their job that they go, ‘this is a great place to work, I don't want to go anywhere else as well.’ And part of that comes with, you know, empowering them and decentralizing control so that people have the freedom to make decisions. So that’s this little narrative that I have, and that's very much aligned to those same principles that you and I did last December. (Darren was referring to the SPC course he’d taught in Dec 2018 which I, Ula had attended).


Ula Ojiaku: [27:57]

Yes. This segues nicely into my next question. So, you said when you speak to executives, and I would assume large scale enterprises, about SAFe,  you talk about the value and the principles. Now, even in the name SAFe, which is Scaled Agile Framework, it's more about applying agile principles and methodologies and tools at scale.

Darren: [28:20]


Ula Ojiaku: [28:21]

Question now is, ‘can a small enterprise apply SAFe?’

Darren: [28:27]

Can you describe it? What do you mean by small enterprise?

Ula Ojiaku: [28:30]

An organization that has up to maybe 10s, or a 100s of employees and wouldn't have as large a scale of operations as multinationals?

Darren: [28:39]

I think the key thing is, what we need to consider is that we're, we're moving away from a project-based organization to a value stream-based organization. So, in the old world, again, again, my heritage was project/ programme management. But those are temporary organizations, so and we fund them accordingly as well. And that's a bit of a nightmare for me as well, because trying to understand how much money we need for a project is difficult to work out. Most projects of that traditional era, tend to be over budget, by almost 200%, I think, standard report, last one was about 188%, over budget over time, as well. So that's always difficult as well. And then you've tried to merge in multiple projects at the same time. And if a project is late, once you finally start this project over here, but you've got people over there that need to be over here.

So, you end up with this, this constant trying to align your people to the right project all the time. So all I found I was doing with project was that I was cosntantly trying to move the people to the work and doing that all the time - just shuffling around all the time and the amount of task switching and the amount of overhead trying to do that as well was difficult. The project would be late, trying to get the funding was always difficult. So, we moved to a much more value stream-based approach where we said actually, what we're going to do is  create stable teams, and we're going to align our teams to a product or service. So, there will be long lived teams. And effectively what we do is fund that team, which is actually the capital cost of those people. And all that we have to do is we bring the work to the people rather than the other way around. And all I have to do or I have to coach is how to prioritize that work. And it's much easier to prioritize that work than anything else… That was a long prelude to the answer. (Laughs).

Ula Ojiaku: [30:17]

So useful; it is useful.

Darren: [30:19]

So, first of all, though, we're going to align teams to our products. Now, if we got a product that only requires another three to nine people, then we don't need a scaling framework. Actually, if you've got two or three teams all working on the same product, and probably we don't need a scaling framework. There are probably tools and techniques that we can take from SAFe but they can probably find a way to collaborate and align without a formal framework. The Tipping Point is once you get to 4-5 teams all working on the same thing, how do we make sure that they can collaborate and align (are going) in the same direction? And I think for me, that's the tipping point, it's not so much the size of the organization, have we got at least five teams all working on the same thing, a product or service that requires alignment? That's the tipping point for SAFe as well.

So, it doesn't have to be in a large organization or small. That's the tipping point. And what I sometimes see is that okay, well, we've got 10 teams, we're going to use SAFe to help coordinate them. But they're all working on different things. If they’re all working on different things, have different teams. Just have individual teams working on those individual projects. You don't need to coordinate them (if) there's no coupling or no dependencies, then why would you want to do that? And I sometimes see organizations using SAFe as a framework for organizational design. It's not (an organizational design framework). It's a framework to get alignment across multiple teams all working on the same value stream.

Ula Ojiaku: [31:40]

That's nicely put, and I believe it would clarify the false notion for some people in terms of using SAFe for uses that it wasn't intended for. It's more about delivering value and creating alignment across all levels in an enterprise.

Radtac is a lean company from what I could see of the organization. However, for the size of your company, you are making a lot of impact in this sector. What would you say is your secret?

Darren: [32:10]

That's a great question! I suppose it's, ‘you’re only as good as your last engagement.’ I'd like to think that actually it’s our reputation precedes us as well. A lot of work comes to us, we don't go to it. We don't have a business development function, because most of the work will come to us through our reputation. So, I think if we try to live by our own values, and both as, in terms of how we run our company, and how we work with our engagements; we try to deliver agile in an agile way. And if we're not adding value to an organization, then we don't need to be there anymore, as well.

And also, the fact that we have a really odd business model in terms of my role in organizations to make myself redundant in the organisation because I need to make sure that I transfer the capability and knowledge to organization. The last thing I want to be is their ‘agile crutch’ where you know, if I walk away, everything falls over.  So, I think that's probably an unusual for organizations. That said, I have a business model to make myself redundant; I have a business model to work in small batches; I have a business model to try and create value. If I'm not adding value, then I won't be here anymore. And I think that really resonates with organizations, and most of our business comes through referrals and direct recommendations as well. So yes, that's the secret. It doesn’t seem like much but it feels like it’s working!

Ula Ojiaku: [33:31]

No, it does say a lot, because I have worked in consulting as well – a while ago. And it's not what I, the impression I have of the consulting industry, which is more about you know, find more work, make yourself indispensable, weave yourself into, you know, the client's organization such that they can't do without you. So, it's liberating to see a different approach where your aim is to empower the organization so they can get on and continue without you.

Darren: [34:01]

And I think you're right, yeah, it's almost the opposite. I don't want to make myself indispensable. I want to be able to walk, well, allow them to grow and explore themselves as well. Yeah. But I find it that clients that I started working out with around September 2012 – they still come back and say, look Darren, we tried, it didn't work. So, I go back down and do some little check or audit check, or health check. And, say Okay, we'll try this and try that. So, I'm really privileged that over the last seven years, not only have I worked with some great companies, but I’ve worked with some really great people that I know.  Even though I would say that they are clients, they are friends, as well.

Ula Ojiaku: [34:36]

So now that's fantastic. And which brings me to… in terms of delivering client work, what I'm getting from you is that it's also important to cultivate good working relationships with them. Because it's not just about the work, it's about, you know, the people are trying to understand them, and making sure you're adapting yourself to them and making the whole engagement work for them on their terms.

Darren: [34:59]

You and I were both on the other side of the fence, you know, we worked in the corporate world. You know, I worked with lots of third parties and stuff like that, as well. And yeah, you know, you bought that capability. But you ‘bought’ the people. People buy people and for me that that relationship with my client is really important as well. It needs to be open; it needs to be transparent, and be honest. And sometimes you can have difficult conversations as well. But for me, it's ‘people buy people’ at the end of the day.

Ula Ojiaku: [35:22]

Thank you. That's something I definitely take to heart. So, a few more things than just to wrap up. Do you have any ask of the audience? You know, how? How can they get in touch with you if they want to say hello?

Darren: [35:37]

And I will say that the easiest way to get hold of me is on LinkedIn. I always used to say there's only one Darren Wilmshurst on LinkedIn. I'm not entirely sure that's true anymore. But there's only two or three of us anyway. So, Darren Wilmshurst, LinkedIn, just connect with me. That'd be really good to getting feedback on this today. That'd be great. Any questions do that as well just ping me in the links as well. If it gets too complicated, I might revert to email that might be easier sometimes. But yeah, just find me on LinkedIn. That's where I tend to be most active. So that’s where I publish my blogs and stuff like that as well.

Ula Ojiaku: [36:09]

Fantastic. So, you're not on Twitter or any other social media?

Darren: [36:13]

I am on Twitter. I'm gonna ask others my age. I don't tweet as much. But eh, @dazzawilmshurst (is my Twitter handle) but generally speaking, LinkedIn, is your best bet to probably get through to  me. I think you've got an option to publish right through to Twitter as well. So, I tend to use Twitter to follow my other passion, which is Arsenal.

Ula Ojiaku: [36:38]

So, while there might be other Arsenal fans listening, you will never know, we wouldn't know until we do that. So, we will put the links in the show notes. So, thank you for that. It's really been a pleasure speaking with you and you know, learning from you, as usual. And thank you so much for making the time.

Darren: [37:03]

And thanks for inviting me. It's been great chatting to you, this morning as well. Thanks for coming on my course last year as well. It's great to have you on the course as well.

Ula Ojiaku: [37:11]

That (attending Darren’s SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) course) was one of the best decisions I made last year. So, thank you!