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Leading in a Changing Context in the 21st Century (2 of 2)

Steve Garnett

Chief Technical Officer (CTO)

discusses more about leading in a changing context in the 21st Century.

1 June 2018


In order to provide every opportunity for people to gain new skills and knowledge, we've created a structured personal development framework. The framework aims to aid mastery and progression through establishing clear competency frameworks that link competencies, self-assessment, career progression, coaching, learning resources, 'lunch-and-learn' sessions and training into a single framework for personal development.

To support this framework, we've created virtual communities of practice that share and learn knowledge. Employees choose the areas of development based on their own development plans: read our previous blog.

One day every month, the Company 'downs tools' for the day and focuses on its communities of practice, which we've branded 'Hive'. Hive days are given over to personal development, learning and coaching activities; these activities are decided upon by individuals based on their development needs and facilitated through the communities of practice.

We've redesigned our organisational structures and roles to encourage leaders as coaches rather than generic management. In the traditions of craftsmanship, we're looking to ensure senior developers and architects remain part of the delivery team, so that they can share their knowledge and experience on a daily basis and therein actively support our people's development: their 'mastery'. As an example of how we're restructuring our organisation and roles, Jonathan Nixon, one of our Principal Developers, describes his understanding of his role:

'The role of a Principal Developer can be summed up quite neatly: technical excellence and talent development. Principals work closely with the Developers in the team, recognising and directing strengths and encouraging and challenging them to address weaknesses.

'One of the key ways this works is through Personal Development Plans: owned by the individual and reviewed with the Principal. Regular one-to-ones provide a status checkpoint and a forum for teasing out frustrations and talking through ideas and opportunities. A key tenet is that there should be no real surprises communicated. Since Principals work directly alongside other Developers, they live and breathe the sprint with them and see the way individuals react to particular opportunities and pressures. Diligent encouragement and coaching of individuals shortens a vital feedback loop, helping to foster the much-sought-after culture of continuous improvement.

'Principals lead the way in the manner with which they engage with sprint tasks. They express their passion for technology through the quality of their own work and the standards they induce in others. Principals are fully committed to the Scrum framework and play an active role in its ceremonies and the management of its artefacts.

'Principals work on behalf of others to extend the reach of individuals and their team. They help to instil excellence in the hearts of teams, engender positive and productive attitudes in Developers and drive toward a common goal: build the right thing, build it right and build it fast.'

Moving Toward Greater Autonomy

Creating autonomy is a two-way street when establishing higher levels of autonomy within an existing company, structure and culture. Employees are looking for more responsibility for their output, the ability to define the way something is done and be recognised for the output. Executives are looking to ensure the company is going in the right direction to ensure the long-term sustainability of the company.

Establishing greater autonomy has to be a partnership, in order to safely steer the company through the structural and cultural changes required. We've started the journey by establishing team-based autonomy through our Scrum teams. This structure has been adopted throughout our Product Development and Consulting areas. Teams are responsible for their output, work in two-week windows (called sprints) as an autonomous unit, and have the goal of creating an increment of potentially shippable product.

This change in the nature of the organisation requires different daily activity and behaviour of everyone involved. We now collectively define our preferred behaviour through our values. We've integrated our values and behaviours into our reward and recognition processes. As employees, we've taken on more discipline, new skills, new tools for automation and responsibility as teams for the delivery of output.

Executives and management need to have a deeper understanding of value stream in order to serve the workforce by removing obstacles, encouraging innovation and provide an environment where challenging the norm is acceptable.

Establishing Purpose in the Task

Once you're in a position to 'take the issue of money off the table', it's all about the work itself and what an individual intrinsically feels about the tasks at hand. How can the executive foster purpose within a company?

We've defined vision, strategy and goals to ensure alignment of the business, which is a standard response to this question but, beyond this, we've recognise that, without open communication and an understanding of how each of us contribute, the goals will be meaningless.

Our work is now defined as Business Outcomes, that is, the actual value of the output. Our teams work on Business Outcomes to ensure we focus on the outcome, allowing autonomy in approach, and in defining Outcomes we understand how we're contributing to either our customers' or Company's benefit. In this way, teams as autonomous units can understand the value they create.

We've changed how we communicate within the Company, shifting away from emails toward face-to-face communication to try to ensure there is strong communication and correlation of the work of our Scrum teams to the Company's output. We now communicate face to face at 'town hall' meetings for regular operations information and marketplaces to communicate both the strategic or longer-term goals. Our CEO regularly has coffee with Scrum team members to understand what's going on 'on the ground' and communicate our direction, intent and the value of their efforts.


We are by no means the perfect company, but we want to be, and we've made a start.

The pace of technological change and adoption will continue to increase, and to be successful in this environment our primary focus has to be the attraction, development and retention of valuable, engaged employees. This can only be achieved through creating organisational environments that encourage mastery, autonomy and purpose and encouraging servant leadership – sharing power, recognition, decisions, and responsibility.

Read the previous blog in this series.

Steve Garnett is Chief Technical Officer at Aquila Heywood, the largest supplier of life and pensions administration software solutions in the UK.

Further Reading