Focus, leverage, and build habits with ex-Spotify leadership coach

Omnichannel Podcast Episode 34

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Our guest today is Cliff Hazell. He’s a founder, manager, and leadership coach who helped Spotify grow from 700 to 5000 staff.

Over the last two decades, Cliff has built a career dedicated to dismantling the barriers that impede exceptional work.

In this episode, Cliff and Noz Urbina will explore several critical themes, including the reinvention of Agile coaching, the vital balance between efficiency and strategic planning, and the nuanced approach to automation in business processes.

“If you automate stuff that’s wrong. You now have the bad things automated.” – Cliff Hazell

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What you’ll learn


  • Strategic Focus and Flexibility: The importance of creating focus in an organisation to identify what’s working and being adaptable in strategy implementation.
  • Project Initiation and Bureaucracy Reduction: Insights on how to initiate new projects effectively by reducing bureaucratic processes and understanding the impact of organisational thresholds.
  • Automation with Caution: The risks of automating the wrong processes and the importance of thoughtful automation in organisational operations.
  • Sustainable Change Management: Learning about the necessity of planning for leadership and operational transitions to ensure the sustainability of change initiatives.
  • Understanding Organisational Friction: How to identify and reduce friction within an organisation to enhance collaboration and efficiency.
  • One of Noz and Cliff’s favourite books on strategy:Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” by Richard P. Rumelt.

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Speaker(s):

Cliff Hazell
Cliff Hazell
Cognician Group
Noz Urbina
Noz Urbina
Urbina Consulting

Full session transcript

THIS IS AN AUTOMATED TRANSCRIPT

 

Noz Urbina  

Omnichannel is the unification of engagement and communication strategies so that they complement each other – rather than run in parallel – to give the audience what they really need. That means orchestrating experiences across multiple touchpoints and aligning content, design, governance, and systems around people’s journeys.

Our guest today is Cliff Hazell. He’s a founder, manager, and coach.

Over the last two decades, Cliff has built a career dedicated to dismantling the barriers that impede exceptional work.

He seeks to cultivate the appropriate culture and systems necessary for the development of outstanding companies and product and says he’s trying to show brands the benefit of integrating everything you do, not just fixing one part. Omnichannel for the win, baby!

He’s now based in Sweden, where he spent four years leading a team of coaches at Spotify during a period of significant growth, as the company expanded its workforce from 700 to 5000 employees before moving on to coaching private clients, particularly those experiencing rapid scaling.

His guidance is focused on helping them develop focus, leverage, and sustainable habits. We’re going to talk about what that exactly means and how you can do it during this episode.

Noz Urbina  

Hello, everybody. Welcome to the episode. I’m here today with Cliff Hazell. Cliff and I originally met at my first Boye conference up in Denmark. So we hit it off immediately. So I knew I had to have one podcast. Thank you for joining us today. I don’t know when you’re hearing this, but this is the first podcast I’m recording in the new year 2024. I hope everyone had a great holiday. Hi Cliff. Welcome to the show.

Cliff Hazell 

Thanks. Nice to spend some time and chat with you again. And yeah, actually also my first podcast for the new year so far. So looking forward to it. Awesome.

Noz Urbina 

Alright, so as I mentioned the intro cliff, did some leadership coaching at Spotify. And I want to why don’t you introduce yourself a little bit, you know yourself Cliff to the audience. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve do, what you’ve done. And what to bring to the table. Yeah, cool.

Cliff Hazell 

So my background is actually in product management and networking as in like computer networks, like how things talk to each other over the internet canister. I started out in that space and then realized that actually a lot of the hard problems about working in a company environment is not so much always the technology and getting the tech to work well, but often getting people to collaborate and coordinate and align and agree and discuss an idea it’s and put all their smart brains together so that they can do something coherent. And yeah, I spent some time at a couple of different companies, mostly originally in South African telecoms, and then later moving to Sweden where I joined Spotify spent just shy of five years that side. And then since leaving Spotify, I’ve been taking everything that I learned along the way and helping other folks most commonly at rapid growth companies. So either kind of the scale up stage or maybe just post scale up. When you’re kind of dealing with holy crap. We’ve got tons and tons of people what are we going to do about all of that? And yeah, that’s that’s been my area of interest for the last little while understanding human beings and how we can work better together. So yeah,

Noz Urbina 

awesome. So I have always felt that the startup world or the rapid growth world as you as you describe it, is very analogous to omnichannel products, projects, because even if you’re, regardless of the size of your brand, the initiatives often have huge demands on them from going from some ideas and some prototypes or people never having worked together in that way or maybe and honestly maybe never, never having worked together at all, as you start to bridge silos and to connect business processes that were previously not connected. It’s you’re kind of doing a startup within possibly an established brand. So I thought, what we say that the that omni channel is content design, governance and systems, you know, designing content, designing interfaces, designing systems, putting creating good content, it’s going to go in all those things, making sure that your systems integrate with each other. But then the governance bit is that how are the other people network, you know, as you were describing, how do the people interlock and interconnect and collaborate? How do you handle the changes of roles and responsibilities when you move from single channel or channel focus teams to actually working together? So I’m sure in some of those experiences, you’ve had to take teams and bring people together in new ways.

Cliff Hazell 

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the big things that’s interesting for me about the startup space is that quite often, you’re kind of earlier in the company’s lifecycle. And generally I think people are more comfortable with the idea that some of the things that we’re doing may not work out. As companies grow and get more stabilized and consistent, you tend to have teams sort of dedicated to doing their thing. The assumption at least it’s not necessarily always true, but the assumption at least is that things are quite stable. They’re known predictable to an extent. And I think that’s where things start to become challenging is because what you’re getting in those kinds of organizations is you get the chance to kind of iterate maybe you do a couple of projects over the course of a year or a few bigger changes. When you’re in startup land. You’re doing hundreds of those every week. Maybe even, you know, ongoing for several years. And so I think what you get there is the sort of maybe sort of leaning slightly more towards looking for what’s working and what’s not. And I think that’s a big part of figuring out when you’re in any kind of change process, whether it’s from you know, being a single channel to multi channel or kind of omni channel as you call it, or any kind of organizational adaptation, responding to, you know, new entrants in the market or new technology, it’s coming about the challenges that we have to then basically step back into the gym at the beginning of new year when we’ve been eating the whole time at Christmas. And it hurts a little bit. The first few times we do it because we’re not in the habit of you know, flexing these muscles and so on. So I think there’s a lot that can be learned from startups and scale ups in the space. I do think there’s also things that can be learned the other side of me, especially when it comes to topics like governance, you know, startup land can be a little bit shoot from the hip sort of cowboys all the time kind of thing. And at some point, you have to be a little bit more sort of mature in the market and maybe, you know, addressed some of the compliance and legal things and realize that the consequences of your actions maybe the broader when you’re in a reading, reaching millions of users, as opposed to you know, it’s just, you know, you and three buddies playing around with the app that you’ve built. So yeah, I think a lot of it is that adapting to that change, and fundamentally getting used to the idea that on one hand, we have this very strong belief that we’re doing the right thing and going the right way. But also, on the other hand, being open to the fact that like, some of those things may not work, and not necessarily feeling so in doubt that we can’t take any steps or move in any direction. And I think that’s kind of the challenge, you’ll see sort of companies oscillate a little bit between these two, too much pain because we’re too slow and consistent and like sort of standardizing our way we can’t change anything, or everything’s changing all the time. Nothing’s coherent, cohesive, like nothing is predictable. And so you kind of feel this kind of moving in between the two. And I think it’s, it’s a challenge for specifically for leaders to make because, you know, as the leader of the company, people are looking to you saying, Well, you know, is this the right direction? Is it the right strategy? And you have to kind of say, Yes, it’s the right strategy, but it might also be wrong. And that’s that’s kind of a complicated one to navigate. And include people in the conversation and figuring out where is the nuance? Where are the bits that are maybe not quite how we thought they were, so that we can make better decisions?

Noz Urbina 

Yeah, I like that a lot. And I’m, I’m, I’m glad to have my my analogy of the startup and the omnichannel. Initiative, starting up in omnichannel initiative, validates everything you’re saying, especially if it involves that oscillation between kind of okay, we’re, what we’ve been doing has been working for us so far. But we need to do something new and having a vision, leadership having a vision and also of putting in place I would think some processes and some measures to make that vision adoptable and concrete for teens. Can you talk about like some of the what are the some of the tools or techniques that you use to pivot people to work in a new way and start maybe working together that haven’t worked together before?

Cliff Hazell 

Yeah, I think it depends a little bit on the context that you’re operating in. Often when I’m dealing with is a situation where the sort of two common patterns that I find is you’re entering an organization that’s been around for a while, and it has some sort of established habits and patterns, you know, this is how we work. This is what we’ve built up over the last few years. And often the challenge with that is that it’s not so clear exactly which things we can and can’t change. And so we have to kind of figure out, which are the boundaries that are very, very hard and fixed and which are the ones that are maybe a bit more flexible, that we can use to kind of you know, experiment or explore a little bit. The other side is that if you’re working maybe more in the startup space, often what I find is that a lot of people that I work with, which is very similar to my own personal journey, which is where a lot of my experience and kind of coaching insight comes from. You’ve basically landed in a company been given a job that you’ve never done before. You’re now managing teams of people before you might have been the person that are doing the actual work. And now you’re managing people who manage people who manage people. And so you’re entering into the space of like, well, how do I delegate effectively, and most of us think of delegation is like a give you a task you go and do it and then you come back. The reality is that when you’re going more like into the strategy space in the organization, and you talked about setting like division, there is more like unclarity about the direction you’re sort of saying we’re going northeast. Attraction, these sort of metrics. But at the end of the day, you have to still kind of disseminate that information so that people can work with it in their own space.

Noz Urbina 

I lost you for about 20 seconds there. You just kind of been having a little tiny freezes but they weren’t so bad. That one was like a big, maybe 10 second gap.

Cliff Hazell 

Or you may just close a couple of browser windows and things just see if that’s causing an issue. Yeah,

Noz Urbina 

see if there’s any Dropbox or anything like that anything it’s thinking might be thinking in the background. Oh, you froze again. Can you hear me? You back Yeah, that one was even worse.

Cliff Hazell 

Yeah, I had my VPN on so I just closed it and I think that’ll probably fix the issue. Okay, great good. When I’m on unprotected Wi Fi or sometimes turn it on, so. Okay, okay. Okay, hopefully that’s good. Is it better? No,

Noz Urbina 

I think so. I was it was like every 20 seconds. So I think so far seems to be sticking up for the best. So you I think I think we left off at you were just starting to talk about the vision as work. So let me just restart the record. Cool. So you have to when you’re delegating and establishing a new kind of vision for people.

Cliff Hazell 

Cool. So yeah, I think kind of into maybe I just started from the beginning again, because it was kind of a connection between the two. So I think often what happens in these kinds of examples is that what you’re dealing with is that you’re dealing with one of two situations. The company either has established ways of working, and they’re trying to figure out where they can bend and flex and change how they’re working. And that challenge there is kind of to highlight which of the boundaries which of the ways of working on things that can be flexed, which are the ones can’t be on the other side. We have this sort of challenge where maybe I was leading a team of people, or Initially when I started the company as a founder. I was the one doing the actual work, right? So I understand how to run the marketing campaigns, write the software, hire new people, whatever it is. And now what’s happened is as we’ve grown, I’ve added more people to the team. And I’m now trying to figure out how to delegate and handoff and kind of give these people some scope to be able to work so that I don’t need to micromanage them in all the details, but they can effectively run. And I think part of the challenge is that everybody will have a slightly different perspective on where the company should go. And I think that that’s actually both a good thing but also just something we have to accept about reality. As soon as you have more than two people you will have more than, you know, at least one idea. So you’ll probably have two three or four even. And figuring out how to put those things together is how we get the power of human creativity to come out from our people. And I think very often what I find is that people have made the mistake of setting very rigid and hard boundaries around things. So the constraints in which with their teams can operate the very narrow because we’re worried that people might screw up or make a mistake and that could cost us money or waste time or frustrated customers something. But actually what you want to try to do is figure out which of those constraints can you leave much wider open in which ones do you want to be super tight and strict on so in the sense of these are ones that are flexible and malleable, these are ones that like if we do this we will get fined and will go out of business. So separating those I think can open up a bit of a conversation about you know, can we experiment in 1% of the German market with almost anything we can think of within you know, our understanding of the compliance frameworks. But maybe you know, when it comes to credit card information, we don’t just YOLO our way through encryption and security because that would be an absolute minefield and put us out of business.

Noz Urbina 

I’ve never heard the phrase YOLO our way through something like that. So can you give some specific anecdotes or stories so you’ve worked at Spotify and you will also discuss your telecommunications insurance and all that kind of how that plays out with with people in the real world.

Cliff Hazell 

Yeah. So one of my favorite phrases is this one that I heard when I was working in telecom, the switch was our strategy was great. We just couldn’t execute it. And this smelled funny to me at the time. My role there was head of product and so my job was to kind of figure out the product strategy for the organization, which up until that point, mostly had worked on gut feel and instinct of the founders and a few of the other people in the tech teams and so on. The instincts have been pretty good, but now there was increased competition in the markets. And the challenge was the company kind of had this perception that the strategy was right, but the execution was the problem. And so there was this kind of sort of approach of looking around, you know, I wouldn’t go as far as like, who to blame but like, where is the problem? You know, is it the developers taking too long to build it? Is it customer support not doing a good enough job is it you know, maybe the accounts team not doing collections is marketing, maybe not running good enough campaigns? And the challenge was that there were a number of assumptions in that business about how it worked that were wrong. But because of the fact that the senior leadership had somewhat decided that these things were unchallengeable assumptions you couldn’t criticize the idea that the products were the best priced in the market despite evidence to the contrary. You couldn’t criticize the fact that the customer support was not necessarily as flawless as everybody thought it was. People were trying their best but there was really no training program for people. There was no real attempts. To try to fix the problems that Randy so what we did was we got a couple of folks, including myself, and when it’s sat inside the call center, and stop all let’s go and speak to our customers firsthand and find out what is the stuff that they like, what is the stuff that they dislike, what are the kinds of things that they call us for and quite quickly what we realized was that one of the big things that they were calling us for was that they were trying to top up their accounts. So it was a data limit on how much you could use something this was quite a few years ago now. And basically when you were when you hit that limit, you were off the internet and you had to phone us to top up it’s I was having a conversation with a couple senior folks and everything but we have this like control panel, you know, self service thing, you can go and top up. So we went and had a look and realize that well, once you’re kicked off the car, get to the control panel. So that one moment when you need it. You can’t get there. So you know we ran through a couple of experiments like this and basically did things like whitelisting it so that you could still access it when you were no longer you couldn’t access the internet, but you could access the Control Panel. We found out that people’s passwords were too complicated. They were you know, there was this weird password policy that had to be different from your other accounts and you know all kinds of things. So just simplifying the user experience, basically, yeah, and through through improving both the user experience of that whole thing. We managed to reduce the call center load for these types of queries by nearly 35% Within the space of about seven months. And the net result was actually not just that there was less customer support, which is kind of an operational expense improvement. We noticed that people were topping up way more. You know, if you send people to text messages and say, Hey, you’re gonna go offline in probably two hours at your current usage rate. If you’d like to top up now just reply yes to the text message. Boom, you know, pop you up, and you can set like a threshold. You know how many pop ups do you want a month or a billing limit or something like this? So I think these kinds of things when when you can challenge the underlying assumptions of like what’s actually changed in the current climate because there was this these things are flawless we we don’t need to fix them. And we already have a control panel. Turns out, you know, there was some other line or underlying challenges that we hadn’t really looked into. And once we started to see those, we saw a lot more of what’s possible. So and I think just to just to sort of put a point on it is that so often what I’ve seen is a repetition of this kind of pattern in the companies that I’ve worked with you know, we’re great at this, or we have to be good at this or we this thing will happen by that date. And then it turns out that it’s not quite true. And things start to fall apart. So yeah,

Noz Urbina 

I love that. And that that meshes. It’s funny because it meshes with what what we’re doing and seeing up from a very different angle. So we talk a lot about journey mapping, persona, research, Experience Research, before you do anything, whether it’s design content, you know, product changes. First going to the real voice of customer and understanding what they’re going through. So, you know, if you have these disconnected features, like we’ve got a dashboard or you know, we provide this stuff, that’s all well and good. That’s a classic omni channel thing of, yeah, you each of us individually in your silo or on your channel or in your team. You’re knocking it out of the park, your your York success metrics, what you think your definition of good is, but has anyone I call it zoomed in or zoomed out. But has anyone looked at this through the customers eyes and walk through their actual experience that applies not only to externals, is your case studies, but also internals, like just that people aren’t using it or people aren’t adopting it? But have you actually talked to them and understood what they’re trying to do for their audience? And they also as your staff, what are they? What is their experience? Like try to use this new thing you’ve rolled out and have you thought about how what the reality is as opposed to your shiny PowerPoint?

Cliff Hazell 

I think that’s the challenge. There’s so often people still stuck in the old school marketing mindset that like build it and they will come. And I think, you know, there are perhaps some markets where that is true, but they are very few and far between the vast majority of the time Yeah, exactly. You know, if you want to try and displace the incumbent in your market, you need to be significantly better to offset not just, you know, there’s a 10 bucks a month price difference or whatever. Like, it’s the pain and the effort of moving and the risk of like, you know, is your customer service and your billing going to work and will not be offline in the meantime, and just, I mean, even before you start talking about awareness, and like, do people actually even want to move like, I think it’s very, very hard to do those things without being open to the fact that there is probably some things that you don’t understand about how the current climate works.

Noz Urbina 

Yeah, it’s marketing is one of the ones where it’s was very obvious. But I’ve seen it in just about every department. So if you’re like knowledge, knowledge workers or service workers or you know technical documentation, people, it’s it’s kind of we’re in a digital environment and in in an digital environment, it’s kind of starting to mean an omni channel environment. So you know, you have other touchpoints rather than, let’s say, your website or the product itself, or even if you just have those, how do they how do those two work together for the different functions that a user wants to? What like, learn about something take advantage of new feature, Crossroads upgrades, whatever it is, research get query answered, what are their what are their questions and journeys and how did that cut across features, functions, departments, as opposed to I would like people to do this. So I’m gonna put these call to actions in place in these, you know, these these these pizza continent place and then they’ll do what I want them to do.

Cliff Hazell 

Yeah. And I think often the challenge is that it’s very rare that we’re just saying, you know, I want people to do this. And that list contains a single thing. And usually what I find is that there’s probably 200 things just from the content department. Then there’s another bunch of stuff from marketing things from you know, product release information and compliance in terms of conditions and whatever else that’s happening, right. And so I think the biggest challenge and a lot of these cases, and this is kind of where I come back to this thing about the great strategy just couldn’t execute it. Most companies I’m so massively overloaded with work, that to me that is actually sort of the fundamental baseline almost of like, bad strategy. Is having so much work, but you just can’t get it all done. And so I think the the approach that is needed in this case is that we actually have to if we want to be able to be better and more effective and potentially, you know, sort of outperforming our competition and so on. We have to take this approach that you and I chatted a little bit about the other day, just kind of create focus so that we can have some breathing room to figure out what’s working, use that breathing room in that space that we have to find leverage as number two like what actually are the high leverage things you know, it’s not just throw more spaghetti and hope it sticks to the wall. It’s what actually is working here and working well. And certainly, we need to reinforce that with habits. So the organizational habits and the system that we have, so that, you know a lot of the time I see people starting at the back end and they try to automate everything. And the challenge is that if you automate stuff that is the wrong idea. You now have the bad things automated and so you actually have to start at the other end first. And so I like this idea. So creating focus first and we have some breathing room, using that breathing room to find what’s working, finding the leverage, and finally reinforcing what’s working with habits so that it doesn’t consume as much energy and individual heroics to get it done each time because it’s not sustainable over the long term. And I think we see this you know, the number of people that I’ve met who have burned out or burning out, you know, companies that are just like it’s absolute mayhem all the time, and I think it would be better if we spent a bit of time you know, just pausing for a minute and having a look around to see what’s working rather than just assuming we need more of everything. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Noz Urbina 

I I’m gonna go on record now that it’s over and say 2023 was nuts. I don’t know what was in the water, but everyone I talked to in clients and partners and competitors and peers at conferences. Everybody was just going it’s crazy town right now. Everybody’s totally overloaded in a way that they they really did feel was different. You know, we always complain, we’re overloaded. Everyone’s always got too much work as you were just saying, but 23 years has had an a special special edge on it in terms of people feeling disrupted and pulled into many directions. I don’t know if it’s a long tail of COVID or the long hammer over of COVID. But it was, it’s been wacko lately. I think I like that a lot. Create focus, find leverage build habits. Let’s use our last few minutes here to kind of break that down into a little bit more detail. What does how like how do we create focus? I want to come back to this kind of metrics and measures thing. I’m very interested in your experience to say Where have you seen? Maybe not in every project, but where have you seen really good examples and how can people who are listening to this maybe get started to think about putting some measurement around this, especially if you’re if you’re talking about a large scale organization, or you’re scaling up in a big way, how if you don’t have you can, you can no longer rely on you know, quarterly or annual personal interviews to see how people are doing. You have to report on this in some way. How can we put some how can we start to find out where to focus or put measures in place that will help us find focus?

Cliff Hazell 

I think the most important part of this question is not so much, you know, What measures do we need but what are we wanting to actually measure? And in most cases, what we’re doing is that we’re focused very much on individuals and what each person is doing and I think the challenge with this is that it focuses too much on each person being productive and busy and actually creates the wrong incentive and the wrong driving force within the organization. Very often what you want is you want the work to float so the thing the customer is asking for, you know, you needed out the door. And there’s more than one person that has to work on that. But the problem is that when everybody’s busy each time it moves from one person to the next person, it’s got to join the back of a queue that’s very, very long. And so we end up with this very long hand over time between each person doing their piece of the work. So when it comes to how do we create focus I think the way that I like the most for this is actually to sequence work and have a single clear number one at the top and a single clear number two beneath that and you can carry on to what people number one for whatever sorry, whether that’s products or projects or campaigns or people you’re hiring, whatever it is. So there is a an item number one working on as a group. Exactly. Okay. And what that enables us to do is that that means that in a situation where I need your help, let’s say you’re working on the number one thing I’m working on number 17. I come and ask and I say Hey, Noz Can you help me with this thing and you go targeted? I’m working on number one thing for the whole company. So, you know, maybe ask somebody else or here’s some documentation or actually, you know, I’ve got five minutes we can have a coffee but I can’t stop working it for more than that kind of thing. Maybe you take a stab at it and see see how far you can get kind of thing. The flip side is that if you need my help, you should be able to get it pretty much immediately. And even most

Noz Urbina 

as your manager knows that I’m working on number one thing. Well,

Cliff Hazell 

hopefully we would both know that you’re working on the number one thing and that’s the thing that I’ve seen be most effective in these organizations when when everyone in the company actually does know what the number one thing for the company is. I’m not saying it’s without you know, sort of challenges because some people might get a bit soggy because well I’m not working on the number one thing and I’m My thing is only number 17 Or maybe not even on the list. And I think that’s something you know the egos and the the desire for for status and showing, you know, some sort of attachment to the big things is a thing that you have to address, but it’s the thing you have to address regardless of whether you’re sequencing your work or not. And so it doesn’t really add anything new into the mix, but I what I found is that as a result of me knowing that you’re on number one, I can even take it one step further and not even come and interrupt you in the first place. And if I’m constantly everyone else is constantly being blocked on you, then what we need to do is we need to look at why we always blocked on NASA or NASA’s team or NASA’s department and say, okay, marketing is clearly the bottleneck here or content is clearly the bottleneck. How do we address that? Because otherwise, it’s just going to continue to be mayhem. And so basically what it all is is to try to put something in initiative at number one, and put as much of our collective energy on it so that the time between when I work on it and when you work on it, when you finish it. Those things actually get closer together. The customer gets value we get a much faster return on investment cycle. And we can experiment because the feedback loop is tighter. We can experiment much more quickly. And you see startups naturally doing this but I think a lot of bigger companies for guests and projects become big and complicated. And we put more and more people on it. And so it just becomes this convoluted mess of me. Hey Noz Can you help me with this thing? And you’re like, dude, I’m sorry. I’m busy with something else the whole time. And it just it’s chaotic. We have to make that decision as the leaders. Which thing is number one, otherwise, you know, everything becomes number one, and then nothing is number one.

Noz Urbina 

So there’s two, there’s this awesome thing about that, which I love which is this idea which are constantly something like chest about which is coming together around the journeys as we were saying earlier that we’re looking at a bigger picture process and this would you call it work sequence of how does this How does this happen? Not how I do my thing, but how do we do our thing? Yes, live with the right service and the right experience the market on the other side of that. I’m trying to envisage what you’re talking about. And it’s almost seems like there’s a model of like this. There’s dedicated people for the for number one, so like I’m working on number one, as opposed to what I’m what I kind of think most people will listen to this will be saying, well, I they’re asking you to work on 12379 and 11 I may be working on number one, but I’m also told to juggle those those other ones. So I so

Cliff Hazell 

you know you have to keep that in mind within yourself as well as across teams and within the organization. The mantra that I like to I started using while I was at Spotify was this thing of don’t let number 17 blocked number one. And so the idea is that if I’m working on number 17, but I could be helping you on number one, I’m actually blocking progress on number one, and that’s the situation I want to avoid. If I’m not blocking number one it actually doesn’t matter what I’m working on. It could be 17. It could be I don’t know reading a book, I could be helping out some other team automating some tests or I don’t know working ahead for some other project that’s coming down the line. But the most important thing is that I don’t block number one. And that is really I think where the power comes in is for everybody to know that there is number one, and that the expectation is it’s fine that you’re assigned to number 1234567. Arguably, I mean, in theory, It’s fine as long as whenever number one is available and to be worked on. We jump on to number one and keep that moving. And usually what you’ll find is people will realize that having the same people assigned to 17 projects is actually counterproductive if you’re trying to optimize for this, but because we’re not optimized for that we’re optimizing for you know how much I look good Do I look if I work on 17 projects, so I’m gonna take on more and more projects and you know, I want to keep you happy and honestly, like, you’re a nice guy. So you come to me and say, Hey, Cliff, can you do number 80? And I’m like, Sure, absolutely. We can do this. Because, you know, the company culture is not one where I can say no, or, you know, where you might not bring me business in the future or something like this. And so, there’s a lot of underlying things that we have to deal with but we know that you get a better outcome when there is a clear number one, and everybody can contribute to that number one. Otherwise, we’re actually finding direction. Yeah, we’re just finding ourselves internally and that becomes an absolute nightmare. And the good news is you don’t have to be perfect at this. You just have to be slightly better than you were last week. And that’s not that hard to do. You know, just this idea of 1% Better each each time, you know, every week, you’re getting slightly better, and it compounds enormously. I didn’t tell the story about the insurance company that I worked with, but we did something exactly like this over the course of six months. We took them from doing 400 concurrent projects down to doing 15 at a time. It’s about nine teams working on stuff so roughly a project and a half per team on average, but we still had this clear there is a number one there is a number two usually wood projects before we started this projects were taking somewhere between 12 and 36 months to deliver. Within six months, we’d gotten this down six to 12 weeks to deliver. So I mean an enormous, enormous improvement. And now you’re able to have a conversation with the stakeholders and say like, you know, when this thing is actually important, like we don’t have to start working on it six years before we need it, because we can do it like fast when you actually need it. And so the conversation is about relative prioritization to the other things, rather than just, you know, nauseating is important. My thing is also important, and now we’ve got two number ones. What order should we attack these in and so we can have a far better conversation in that space. But you need the capability and like I said, so it’s the Create focus, find leverage build habits sequence, we started first with the creating focus for under the 15 projects. And then we can start to find the leverage within those 15 projects because it kind of surfaces part of that conversation. And then we can sustain it with the habits, you know, checking in every so often course correcting, adjusting the strategy, you know, finding out you know, which teams actually need some extra capability, staffing skills, where can we automate that kind of thing? Huge, huge opportunities for improvement. Once you’re doing that.

Noz Urbina 

I think you’ve first of all, I’ve got several clients and projects, both present and past which were flashing behind my eyes here. So I’m relating and I’m hoping the audience is too, in terms of so we’ve just got a little bit into finding leverage. It also reminds me of a thought which I’m I’m regularly raising which is not trying to with your new initiative or your new idea, drag the company in a in a new direction, but actually say look, we can deliver leverage, we can deliver benefits towards our our key focuses. If we do this new approach. So you know, not coming in and saying I you know, omnichannel is is it is revolutionary, it is transformational and all that good stuff. But it doesn’t mean that we’re going to change our fundamental focus as an organization. It means we’re going to we are going to look and listen better than we were we’re going to listen to our audience and understand them in a better way. But fundamentally, what we’re about and what our what our focuses are and what our kind of goals should be, are still going to be supported by this. It’s kind of you may be able to put this in words with examples would be to find your kind of your real goals as opposed to we’re trying to push this strategy through what’s behind that what and you know, what is your higher level goals or mission when you’re talking about funding?

Cliff Hazell 

I think that’s that’s part of the conversation the organization needs to have, depending on the type of company that they want to be. And I would often point to things like the vision or this kind of a thing of, you know, what actually is our goal here? Strategy starts to inform where some of that leverage might be and for me very often, what I encounter is companies with my frankly, just very weak strategy. Most of the times what I find is just it’s a list of things to deliver. It’s not a strategy. A strategy for me would take into account some understanding of the current landscape, right? So you can’t say things like, you know, good strategy, we just couldn’t execute it. Because you know that that’s bad strategy. You have to take into account your capability to execute. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t make mistakes. Like there can’t be anything ever goes wrong, but like, if fundamentally you don’t have the money to buy that house, and your strategy is to get into property investing. That’s not going to work, right. You just don’t have the capital. So unless you have some other way to get into that space and solve that problem. That’s a broken strategy. But I see companies doing this all the time, not necessarily that they come up with a strategy that’s wrong. They just come up with a list of things that is stuff they want to deliver. That is totally incoherent with the environment that they’re operating in. And I mean, we touched on this some of these ideas around AI and a bunch of other things. But I I’ve seen this pattern repeat itself a couple of times. A few years ago, it was mobile apps. Before that it was websites recently it was blockchain. Every company on the planet was trying to do something with these technologies. And while I think that there are perhaps use cases, if you’re an Internet service provider as my company was, and none of your clients use iOS, having an iOS app doesn’t make any sense, right? The fact that your board of directors and your CEO and your founders use IRS is a huge bias bias in the blind spot. And I’ve literally seen this pattern happen. You know, I’m excited about blockchain. I’m excited about AI. I think these are fascinating technologies. But what you have to be able to do is say, how is this going to be useful in my context, because if you don’t have any kind of meaningful thing to attach it to all you’re doing is adding another bit of noise and another piece of activity and another something else that somebody’s got to manage. They’ve got to report on, you’ve got to pay them for it. You’ve got all of this overhead that comes with it. Does it actually produce some kind of an outcome? And if the answer for that remains no for too long, you end up in quite a tight spot. And so I want to get people to at least be able to explain before you start doing something, can we explain at least one or two paths to be able to get there? So if we’re going to the top of the mountain, are we building a hiking trail up the mountain, right, clearing the path, you know, building some sort of like log steps or whatever? Or are we just going to chop somebody to the top and drop them off? Then we can ask questions like well, what season what climate what kind of temperature how high is the mountain like these kinds of questions that we can unpack that give us something concrete to to be able to understand, but what most companies do is they start and say oh, we need this many logs. We need this many people, we’re going to need some petrol. And they’re basically playing a list of just random activities without really being able to coherently articulate the strategy. When you have a strategy, then you create space so that the rest of your team doesn’t need to be as micromanage because they understand where you’re trying to get to. We’re building a hiking trail to the top of the mountain. So when somebody has the idea of hey, this is quite a high mountain, I can build a log cabin for overnight stays halfway up the mountain. Oh, that makes some sense in the strategy. But if we just had a list of deliverables, it’s very hard to have that conversation. And so I spend a lot of time with companies and with execs trying to work through some of these things and understanding that like, in your head, the strategy is crystal clear as the CEO or the CEO of the company, but when you talk to your next level of VPS, or directors and so on, they have some understanding of it, and they totally can understand it, but they haven’t necessarily understood the same things that you had understood. And so there’s quite a lot of work to be done to make sure that you’re actually having this kind of cycle of communicating strategy and then getting feedback on what’s not working so that we can close correct. And if you’re not closing that loop, that’s where I think you’re falling weak on strategy. And there’s a huge opportunity in that space for improvement, regardless of the tools

Noz Urbina 

that you use. Have you read good strategy, bad strategy by Richard rumbled?

Cliff Hazell 

I have I recommend this book quite often. I really liked the way he defines. Yeah. Have you read any of his he’s got a new book out recently. I should have remembered the name I got back on. It’s on my desk back home in Sweden. Waiting for me to read it.

Noz Urbina 

But yeah, no, no, I’ve just read that one. So, so check out the new one. All right, I will. We’ll take that and I will try to put that in the show notes. So we have just a couple minutes left. What can we talk about about so we’ve we’ve we’ve created focus we’ve we’ve focused on what is actually going to deliver something and and whether we have a coherent strategy when we’re getting into execution or or we are or have executed, building habits, keeping things alive, keeping things maintained and healthy. Over over time. What can you what can we talk to in terms of the concrete steps or tools or techniques?

Cliff Hazell 

So there’s a couple of things that I like to draw on here. So the first one I think is really that we have to understand that at some point, the people who are driving the change currently, whether there are external internal people, they are going to want to move on to something else. So they cannot be forever the sustaining force. And even if those people are long term, you know, let’s say it’s the founder of the company. Probably you want that to sustain itself through other people having enthusiasm for this and momentum and force behind it. So when you start with this kind of approach, it’s about how do we get this environment and these, all of these people able to work in this kind of pattern. So that can sustain itself? Because if it takes individual heroics, generally as soon as that person stops pushing, they get sick or move on to something else. It falls flat. Exactly. And it just really becomes quite expensive. If you’ve got a lot of people sharing a little bit of the load, it actually becomes a lot easier. The other piece of

Noz Urbina 

it if I can put that another term on that it’s finding and finding and coaching up the next round of leaders, you know, moving to the to the to the maintenance leaders. Yeah,

Cliff Hazell 

you have to have a plan for this to be sustained by some folk beyond, you know, the initial maybe two or three in a pilot or a test case or something like this. How are we going to embed this within the context of the organization? Is one role going to own it is the set of people is it a cross functional group of folks? What’s going to happen there? And so I often start actually, with setting up that group and saying, okay, cool, you know, who will be the people that will guide this ongoing? And maybe at some point, you know, that that meant the members of that group may change and evolve, it may become a bigger group, but there’s, there’s at least some sort of sustaining force behind it. The question that I want them to spend their energy on is looking at the organization understanding that like, you know, there are certain things in the organization that are easy to do, and some things that are quite hard to do. And basically, what I want them to do is take the lens of friction and look at the org and say, Where can we reduce friction to make the things we want to have happen happen? More often or more easily. So for example, if you want to be able to start new projects, you need to lower the thresholds. A big convoluted bureaucratic process makes it less likely your projects will start right. That can be a good thing too. If you want to have less project start, you can tighten the constraints and some friction. But if you’re trying to have the opposite, lower down or raise it on the other side, if you’re trying to maybe make something a lot more unlikely to happen, you want to have you know, basically you can play with this friction. So what do you want to have happen more often and less often? And you can use friction accordingly.

Noz Urbina 

Yeah, that’s good. And it also comes back to our earlier I was about to find the friction, you have to kind of do this higher level analysis. What’s really going on? What’s how is this really playing out in the reality because you can’t find first you’re not gonna find friction points on one person’s desks. You might but it’s usually at those interpersonal processes where where things are having trouble. Yeah,

Cliff Hazell 

some examples of that. Like if the team that I need to work with or the team that has the information that I need, if they’re in another building, or another office, even in another country, they speak a different language. All of these things will add some friction. And I’m not saying that those are the only avenues that you have to reduce it. But if people have met each other, if people feel comfortable around each other, if they have a common language for talking about topics, a shared Slack channel, they sit near each other. You know, it’s it’s too often that I see people are doing like a reorg, or whatever, and they put everybody reporting to the same manager, as if that’s going to fix it. And, you know, if that works, the only way that it works is the manager becomes the conduit. And the managers usually already massively overloaded anyway, so it’s kind of a non starter as a thing. And so what I want to try to do is build those those collaboration points and those links, you know, basically creating environment so a shared Slack channel or common stand up, you know, sitting down to agree some terminology and some definitions, defining API’s. How do we work together? You know, what days do we meet on how do we think of how do I access your data? Common documentation, like all of these kinds of things, can lower the friction and increase the likelihood of collaboration

Noz Urbina 

between groups, common taxonomies, common tagging languages, common content models, all of these things even Yeah, we talked about these things on a regular basis because and that’s why we why we say content, design, governance and systems. Because if you’re trying to shove through any of these things independently of the others, that that commonality that common framework starts to break down doesn’t mean throw everybody into one piece of software, which was our answer, you know, in 2000 2000, to 2007. We’re trying to put in these mega platforms and, and all we talk a lot about single sourcing or single source of truth, and that’s all great, but I’ve never seen an organization that has like one repository, we have to look at we have to have commonalities across systems and repositories and commonalities of how we work so that we can communicate and integrate the answer Okay, everyone’s gonna ever gonna have the same software setup or everyone’s going to have the same x is not it’s unrealistic, but that’s the kind of things you’re talking about. communication channels, communication methods, organizational models at a higher level. Those are things we can all kind of work together. Yeah, exactly. All right. Well, I’m afraid we’re out of time. But we did manage to cover everything. I hope we can get you back on the on the show one day and we can we can better on the AI thing. A little bit more because that’s a that’s always fun and on everybody’s lips. But thank you so much cliff, for joining us. It’s great conversation and I hope everybody enjoyed that. Remember to check out what wish people checked LEARN MORE ABOUT YOU cliff.

Cliff Hazell 

The best place to find me is on LinkedIn. I post a lot of these thoughts and kind of engage with folks on a day to day basis, sharing kind of what I’ve learned ideas, tools, models, this kind of thing. So just to have Hazel on LinkedIn, otherwise, my website is also good place club hazel.com I think you probably link it in the show notes or something like that, but head over there. I’ve got a bunch of stuff that I’ve written about my thoughts and ideas and experiences. And I’m super happy to chat if you want to talk about any of these things and just kick kick around some ideas, thoughts and experiences. So hit me up.

Noz Urbina 

Awesome. Thank you so much. And everybody remember to Like comment, let us know how we’re doing, especially going into 24? Let us know what you want to hear about what are the themes, the topics, the gaps that you’re still seeing in our programming that you that you need to help us with your with your omnichannel initiatives and development. So thank you, everybody. Thank you, Cliff and I’ll see you all next episode.

Cliff Hazell 

Thanks for having me. Cheers.