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Wired for Change

The history behind my career path and the motivation for my future

Halifax from Southowram Bank, 1968
Halifax from Southowram Bank, 1968. Image from

I often think about how cultural and societal change affects the workplace. The 1990s were simpler, transitory years that provided a wonderful backdrop to be a teenager in Bradford. Football’s heyday, anthemic music, timeless computer games and seminal TV shows hitting their stride.

Reflecting on those times, particularly in light of today’s difficulties, invokes a warm sense of nostalgia. I feel fortunate to have experienced them.

Another feature of that decade was my dad introducing me to his working world each Saturday morning — singing Queen anthems on the drive to the wire plant, and having fish and chips for lunch afterwards. This was the era where British steel was thriving, and he was a respected figurehead in the industry.

From a young age, he offered me first-hand experience of how the functions of a business were organised by someone with meticulous consideration for its success.

Best of all, he encouraged me to be hands on. Working with software to plan the wire drawers workload was fascinating and truly exciting. The experience of creating charts and graphs from a spreadsheet I made that would actually be used to make real life decisions made me feel like I had superpowers and gave me confidence to speak to his colleagues.

Unbeknownst to me, I was learning about people and communication as much as work.

Although in a senior position, my dad had tremendous respect from the shop floor because he worked his way up from there and they understood each other.

In hindsight, the various jobs I was subsequently placed in - from cleaning staff, to an electrician’s apprentice, to hosting customers at football match boxes - were aimed at helping me understand how each part of the system forms a cohesive whole.

He was intensely proud of his Bradford upbringing and the characters who helped mold him, whom he spoke about with huge admiration. His parents ran pubs, and he inherited his sharp social skills and community focus from them.

My first experience of change

While I was studying business in Liverpool in the early 2000’s - equal parts the product of my early introduction to business and love of The Beatles – some pivotal changes were underway.

In a snowy resort in Utah, a group of software developers were researching new and existing methods that would lead to the Agile Manifesto. Technology was exploding, disrupting manufacturing, markets and whole industries.

Over phone calls, my dad described how the wire industry was changing as fibre optic technology increased in popularity, while the wire itself was becoming much cheaper to produce in China, Spain and Russia. In a relatively short space of time, whisperings transpired to relocation and the decimation of the wire industry in Northern England.

His tireless dedication to transform the organisation was dismantled by consultants continuously seeking cost cutting measures until the business could longer sustain itself. He decided to take a redundancy package at the age of 52. To this day, I can recall the look on his face.

This was my first real experience of change. I knew what work meant to my dad and while he managed to get another supply chain job, he never experienced that momentum and passion for work again.

It left me with an incredibly sour taste about how organisations are run and shifted my whole perspective on work. Could even tireless dedication provide no guarantee of success or sustainability?

When I stepped into working life after university, I still subscribed to the work hard, climb the ladder approach. I was living with my wife-to-be, managing bands in my spare time and found the freedom to quickly respond to change in that space infinitely more liberating than work.

I can’t be sure if it was my dad’s experience or my wife’s Irish family’s give it a go attitude that persuaded me to commit to it full time. Liverpool offered a platform to express yourself and scousers’ strong will and determination was infectious.

I went on to release records, meet record executives, organise high profile shows and edited a national music website before deciding to move to a steady job. That old Yorkshire mindset was hard to shake off. Had I not landed in an incredible job, I’d have challenged it sooner.

The next six years in the NHS were among the most enjoyable of my career. I was part of a talented team that were contributing to society in ways that made going to work every day deeply meaningful and rewarding.

The UK government’s 2014 Change & Transformation white paper was the most significant in a decade and called for a complete overhaul of our business processes and technology. I had been there long enough to understand the need for, and magnitude of the change, but not long enough to feel threatened by it.

The same couldn’t be said for many of my colleagues.

Some had spent their career working toward positions that became obsolete overnight. I was transported back to my early twenties; witnessing my dad slowly work his way through the SARAH model of change (Shock, Anger, Resistance, Acceptance, Healing/Hope). Holding on to the old ways of working weighs you down.

I was determined to avoid this at all costs. If change is a foregone conclusion, how do you get ahead of it?

Shortly after the arrival of our first child, my wife and I moved to Ireland to begin raising our family and I began working with a software company where the traits of change aversion were also apparent. I worked with brilliant people that were burdened by business processes lacking scrutiny and accepted as “the way it is”.

The truth is, no process stands the test of time. In order to achieve great things, we must accept that business, much like society, changes fast and one company’s convention is an opening for innovation at another.

The days of pre-estimate deadlines, archaic architecture and big reveals are a distant memory for the majority of market leading organisations but remain rife in many struggling companies. I need not point out the correlation...

The reality is, there is always a startup looking at a problem in ways that you haven’t considered, using tools and processes geared toward speed, innovation and validation. Scaling fast isn’t the problem it once was.

This focus on continuous innovation is what draws me to Agile. Its principles are oriented around embracing change and using it to your advantage.

While studying Agile, it sounded like the voice of my own conscience. A method of tackling the conundrum that’s weighed on my mind since I was 19.

Aren't all large organisations Agile these days?

I want to be careful here not confuse leading organisations with large organisations, many of whom are widely reported to have half-adopted Agile. Throwing new tools at old habits is an expensive exercise in futility. Jira, Kubernetes and Docker are excellent ways of baiting good people in through the door but without good processes, the returns diminish significantly.

What good is a great idea if by the time you release it, someone else has released something that delivers better customer outcomes? Long established companies with change aversion are learning that their time in the game no longer has the bargaining power it used to have.

My take on this

Great people want to do meaningful work and build great products. Customers want to use great products made by people who care about them. If your organisation isn’t fostering and encouraging this mindset, rest assured another one is. I feel fortunate to help teams achieve better ways of working and am deeply satisfied by their success.

I thrive in the space between existing processes and better ways of working — bridging the gap between teams that simply work, and teams that deliver great work.

I’ll be using this blog to speak about how this change is within reach. From better estimation, evaluating programmes success, systems thinking pitfalls, to how can we use agile in complex technical situations to achieve better team collaboration.


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