Culture at Harris Partners

Earlier today I was interviewing someone for a job at Harris Partners (side note – what a great candidate!).

I was trying to explain to her the type of culture we have – one that promotes extreme ownership. As a follow-up to the interview I wanted to leave her with some thoughts and materials that shaped my thinking over the past years in founding the company, and shaping its culture.

My list was as follows:
a) “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” – I read this book the summer before I left McKinsey, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Before reading it I knew I wanted to leave. After reading it I knew what company I wanted to build next.
b) “How Google Works” – Google (or any other software company) didn’t make the “Built to Last” list of companies, because one of the criteria was being around for 80 years or longer. This book describes in most detail around the types of behaviors we are trying to have Harris Partners employees – “smart creatives” – to exhibit in order for them (and our company with them) to thrive
c) Stanford University CS183C: “Technology Enabled Blitzscaling” – Reid Hoffman (a founder of LinkedIn) created the course, invited a “Who Is Who” of Silicon Valley to guest speak across 20 lectures, then made it available on YouTube. What a legend! While I learnt something applicable to Harris Partners from each lecture, the one that made the biggest impact was definitely one by Jeff Weiner (current LinkedIn CEO).
d) The Netflix deck (and a follow-up HBR article) – the Power Point presentation by CEO and Chief Talent Officer of Netflix describes how Netflix approach to talent and culture works. It was famously described by Sheryl Sandberg as the most important document ever produced in Silicon Valley. For 128 pages, it is a surprisingly quick read (helped by font size kept well above 40pt on most of text!)

My personal philosophy that most likely still shapes a lot of the Harris Partners behaviours can be very broadly classified as stoic. And there is a whole list of books that have been shaping the thinking

Digital transformation: similarities with running a marathon

I recently ran my first marathon. I have been running on and off since junior year of high school, with “off” times driven mostly by recurring knee injury and excuses (like working crazy hours or travelling).

Since moving to Sydney three years ago I found myself running more consistently (after someone told me about a simple stretch that stopped my knee injury to get better over me), but it took a while for me to actually find myself at the starting line of a 42.2 kilometre race in Canberra at 6:25am on Sunday 10th April 2016.

Running the marathon came around the second anniversary of me launching Harris Partners – a tech company focused on helping clients in their digital transformations – so while reviewing our progress and thinking about the strategy for the next year I couldn’t help to notice that running a marathon was actually very similar to a digital transformation.

Both are simple, but hard
Matrix - Simple but Hard

Simplicity does not imply easiness. Running a marathon is simple. I can describe my process for achieving it in a small number of very simple steps: wake up six times a week at 5:15am for 16 weeks, and run – depending on the day – between 5km and 35km, at varied levels of intensity. Is it easy? No, it is damn hard. To be successful you need to do it day-in, day-out. Rain or shine. And up to this point we are not even talking about situations when you fail (more about it below)!

A digital transformation is dead simple too: take some data about the way your customers interact with your brand across different channels. Develop hypothesis on what can be improved. Run a test with a strict control. Ruthlessly analyse the results. Get more data to come up with more insights. Run more tests.

Really really simple. Is it hard? It seems so. It requires your organisation to fundamentally change the way in which it operates.

*Yes, that’s the one we struggled with most. It seems that the answer is any system that has limited number of variables connected in a non-linear manner, for example Lorenz’s model

Both deliver best outcome when you set a big goal
go big or go home

I set myself a big goal for my first marathon. After some back of an envelope calculations (based on my past half-marathon times, my V02 max level and pace of my recent training sessions), I set my go-to time for 2h41m, with a backup plan of sub-3hrs. Did I end up achieving my 2h41m? No. I managed to get 2h53m. Did I cry myself to sleep because of that? Also – no. But did I feel challenged? Yes. My hypothesis is that if I had one goal of sub-3hrs, I am not sure if I managed to reach that one either.

When I think about my next marathon, I still have 2h41m goal in mind. That is my Everest. I am not falling into a false sense of achievement because I ran a marathon, I want to keep improving. I want to challenge myself to reach my full potential. Setting comfortable goals that I am sure to achieve is not going to help me.

If your digital transformation sets a timid goal (say improvement of profitability in single digits over a couple of years), you are not transforming. You are playing by the same rules you used to play. Your digital competitors waiting to disrupt you are not setting goals of “become a leader in implementation of average ideas that we take to market in average length of time”, “become a number 25 player by market share” or “become a magnet for truly average digital talent”. They are swinging for the fences. If you do not adapt the same attitude, you have failed already.

Both require persistence – also in face of failure

Persistence is what keeps you going when you fail. It is the trait that allow you to shake yourself off after you failed to run the speed session at the planned pace, or when you feel so tired after a workout that you feel that you are weak, and have not made progress in getting stronger.

I believe that ability to adopt “fail fast” culture is the single biggest determinant that prevents organisation from achieving its full potential. It is easier for executives to say “we are doing fine”, when they are playing it safe, instead of defining five big goals, and feeling comfortable failing, but learning from the failure to keep pushing on all fronts the very next day.

Both require flexibility to make changes to the plan quickly
keep calm

On 8th week of my training my lung collapsed. It is less scary than it sounds (and happened to me on this scale at least twice before), but it definitely was not a welcome addition to my training program. I had to stop for 10 days while my lung re-inflated. Did I give up on my goal? No, I adjusted my training schedule coming out of the rest period, and kept going.

It is easy to remain calm and make adjustments to the plan in face of adversity when you know you have done your ground work. Things might not go the way you think – to be honest, they most likely will not (maybe a better quote here would have been “no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy”…). But knowing that you are prepared means you will be able to quickly make resolutions to any problems you encounter. No point losing sleep over things you do not control…

Delaying both is a game of excuses

In retrospect, I could have ran the marathon a year, maybe even two earlier. I ran my first half-marathon in May 2014. This was an obvious trigger to sign up to Melbourne marathon in October. I planned to do Gold Coast in July 2015 (it’s nice and flat – definitely helping when you run for the first time), but ended up in China at the time instead. It was lack of conviction that was driving it.

Many executives of large companies tend not to like changes. It is in line with economic theory to only collect a pay check when your incentives are not aligned to make changes…

From my experience digital transformation may come from three groups of people:

  • Forced transformation resistors: They were told by their boss to make one happen, but they are not thrilled by the extra work required, and the most positive conversations with them tend to start with a “yes, but…” (I hate working with them)
  • Hired transformation expert: they were hired to make one happen – they have a singular goal, and are working towards that goal as the most important strategic objective. They are not afraid to break some eggs to make an omelette. (I love working with them)
  • True transformation leaders: they realised by themselves through reading and talking to experts that they can build something great and special, challenging themselves in the process. They tend to over time – if they are not forced by resistors to leave their organisation – create teams of people equally excited about it (I love working with them most of all)

Unfortunately the world is full of resistors (although certain countries have more of them than others). If you are a true transformation leader, please get in touch. I will do whatever I can to help you succeed.

So what?

Digital transformation is already running across entire industries in a tsunami-like manner. The problem that I find most critical is that digital transformation is in fact harder than training for a marathon.

I can decide to run a sub 2h40m marathon and start training tomorrow. In order for a 100 year old brand to decide to do a digital equivalent of the same, multiple stakeholders in that company need to decide and share that vision. That requires a strong leader at the very top. Or a smart one that hired others that will figure out that digital transformation is the way.

Feedback matters

Today I had another meeting with another smart person to talk about digital transformations. He sits on a board of a large multinational company that has been around for a while.

It was another meeting with a lot of nodding: we both agreed that the digital transformation would make a lot of money for the company, and that without it it was a matter of time that the company would first stop growing, and then quickly start struggling.

The meeting still finished with an overarching feeling on both sides that nothing will be done by the company’s management. Conservatism, or rather lack of foresight of the future burning platform, will mean that excuses will be made – not to move, to preserve status quo, and to continue the slow slide into oblivion.

The culture of any organisation can only be blamed by a very myopic person. At the end of the day the buck stops with the boss. “The culture of any organisation will over time evolve to the lowest behaviour that a leader is willing to tolerate”.

Leadership cannot be a hobby that CEOs practice when the times are good. It is how they act in the face of the struggle that separates the great bosses from the good ones. Being a great leader sometimes requires difficult decisions and tough conversations. Have you ever had to fire someone? If so, which one do you think is easier – firing one under-performing person on your team, or sweeping problems created by that person under a carpet and waiting for them to explode?

Sometimes I feel that the only thing that is required from any person working in a high performing team is their attitude and openness of mind – ability to take feedback from anyone, and assessing it in an objective manner to see if it is true, and then acting on it.

And it is everyone’s job to give that feedback.

“Truth is like poetry. Unfortunately, most people fucking hate poetry.”

The landgrab for the digital wallet

In this interview with Australian Banking + Finance Magazine, I explained my take on the digital wallet – one of the tools that banks have or will have at their disposal very soon, to enable great customer experiences. Will they use this chance?

Finsia: For those of us who don’t know, what’s a ‘digital wallet’?

Tymula: A digital wallet is a broad concept, but in essence it is an ecosystem of front and back-end systems that allow you to not only make payments to merchants through a myriad of potential options, but also interact through it with either the retailers you’re doing business with or your financial institution.

Finsia: What are the factors underpinning increased use and development of digital wallets from both the consumer and business perspective?

Tymula: The answer for both is because technology has progressed so far, it’s an obvious opportunity to make everybody’s life easier or, in other words, provide a step change in the level of functionality.

On the consumer side, it allows people to aggregate forms of payment and loyalty memberships in a single place like, for example, a mobile phone.

On the other hand, it allows the merchants to communicate differently with their customers, to gather new types of data about consumers, and to build targeted offers. Overall, it’s a large opportunity and it affects change in the value proposition for both merchants and the consumers.

Finsia: What’s one of the best examples of a digital wallet you’ve seen?

Tymula: One of my favourite cases is Starbucks. They’ve built an app which connects to your credit card to pull the money from it, and then layers the loyalty card onto it.

It is a closed loop system, meaning that you cannot pay anywhere else with it, but it is incredible how a thoughtful combination of simple functionalities can drive great customer engagement. Starbucks on the other hand manages to get a ton of data about their customers’ behaviour.

Finsia: Can you share some of the insights from the work you’ve done on what consumers value most when it comes to digital wallets?

Tymula: There are three major needs that consumers have. The first one is replacing their current payments mechanism, like a traditional plastic credit card, potentially also with the redemption of reward points.

The second one is need for traditional financial services; for example, bill payments, receipt management and budgeting tools.

The third set is value-added services that traditionally haven’t been handled by your bank or your payment provider. For example, you can imagine that your digital wallet is also going to include your weekly bus ticket or a driver’s licence.

Finsia: In your presentation, you pointed out that Australia was the country best positioned for rapid adoption of digital wallets. Why is this?

Tymula: Australia has all the key ingredients in place: market opportunity, readiness, structure and regulation.

If you look at the levels of penetration of current technologies like mobile, broadband or NFC (near field communication), and also the proportion of banked population, all of these are quite high in Australia compared with other places we’ve examined.

In addition the relatively consolidated financial sector means less customer confusion about what digital wallet is and what is the value proposition of each of the handful of flavours it is available in.

It might also be easier for a smaller group of institutions to align on terms of an ‘industry utility’, like EFTPOS.


What does 2014 hold for banking innovation?

Originally posted in Finsia Passport

I predict 2014 will be a year of continuing innovation in the customer banking experience, and in all layers that underlie it. We will see this most prominently in customer facing scenarios, but the lesser visible areas of technology and organisation will be experiencing a flurry of activity to support such innovation.

First, I expect that the banks will continue to improve their customer engagements, mainly by leveraging digital channels. The range of opportunities for customer contacts will continue to expand as an increasing number of customers leverage multiple forms of digital communication with their banks such as email, website, mobile website, and mobile apps.

Banks will start to focus on the opportunity to deliver on consumers’ rising digital expectations, where the bar is set by the likes of Amazon and Apple. Instead of employing disconnected campaign strategies or relying on functional contact methods, banks will start to create an experience that has more consistency across the various channels, to deliver the right message to the right customer at the right time.

Done correctly, this in turn will enhance their ability to manage their customer relationships to a higher lifetime value.

Second, we are likely to see more attempts to crack the mobile wallet market, with a high number of new entries into the market — not only from the banks, but also from non-bank players and startups.

I look forward to seeing which combinations of priority customers and features offered to those customers will be chosen by the industry players to best position themselves for the future growth. At the end of the day, those choices will determine the shape of adoption curves in the coming years.

At the same time, the banks will become better at leveraging data to optimise their customers’ journeys. This will be achieved not only by realising the value of the data they already have and acting on it, but also by ensuring that every customer interaction is treated as a new piece of data, and by subsequently building an arsenal of behavioural triggers, content libraries, and new contact opportunities.

Such a level of data-driven customer centricity will require heavy analytics, and we can expect that it will be progressively more difficult to acquire talent in this space. At the same time, the analytical solutions and self-optimising platforms will continue to become more popular among all customer-facing functions.

In order to enable these developments, and also to cut costs and drive down the time to market, banks will continue to rethink their technology architecture landscape. As a result, we are likely to see more adoption of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS).

Lastly, the banks will continue to innovate their internal processes — becoming more agile in the delivery of solutions in response to the new expectations of customers, and new products and ideas from competitors large and small.

We are likely to see more and better quality internal cross-function collaboration, enabled not only by technological solutions, but also by changing mindsets.