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Nigel Dalton

A new orbit – thoughts on leaving Lonely Planet

By | People

Last Friday my work at Lonely Planet was completed. The new website team, led by half a dozen energetic founders from Melbourne, re-started in London after an intense 100 day transition program that was judged a great success.

The opportunity to take to the wider business community the radically lean, agile and kanban ways of working that have been developed in my time at Lonely Planet has begun – here’s my parting thoughts from the big day.

When I joined Lonely Planet in April 2007, the world was somewhat different.

  • YouTube was only 18 months old, and we all wondered how the world’s largest collection of dog and cat videos would ever survive given it had no way of actually making money.
  • Facebook had about 40m users, and we all kindof assumed it was destined to be a pale imitation of the dominant MySpace with 120m users.
  • Rolling up American trailer trash mortgages into great big bundles of fiscal shit, polishing those turds and selling them to Asian retirement and investment funds was a great business to be in.
  • Some guy called John Howard was the Prime Minister of Australia, and the nation’s primary policy focus was turning back small boats full of refugees.
  • There was no iPhone.
  • There was no iPad.
  • There was no Kindle, Nook, Sony eReader, or other digital book platform.
  • http://www.icanhazcheeseburger.com  was yet to be registered.
  • There was no such concept as Groupon, or 4Square.
  • Rupert Murdoch didn’t own the Wall Street Journal.
  • Lonely Planet believed outsourcing, enterprise software and waterfall delivery were ‘the shit that killed’ (a favourite Lance Armstrong quote that one).
  • I couldn’t play the guitar at all, and certainly wasn’t cool enough to be in a band.
  • Popular music was dominated by the unashamed ass-waving of Fergie, Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, Keisha, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Gwen Stefani and Nelly Furtado.
  • Drugs, betting and schoolgirls were the dominant news headlines relating to the AFL; and…
  • We had no idea what would happen to Harry Potter.

It is good to know only some things change then.

Those things that did change, changed quite dramatically in that short time.

Since 2007, I have spent millions of Lonely Planet’s dollars of hard-earned income (running IT, then helping run Digital) trying to figure out our strategic response to some of the more radical challenges thrust upon us. That’s thousands of dollars an hour in the average working week. So, if like our CFO, you’re you’re all wondering what the Retro on a transformation project of that scale looks like:

What worked?

  • Being agile, not just DOING agile: most organisations only ever get to ‘doing agile’, somehow our culture, our business crisis facing the GFC and our challenges of new media have led us to BEING agile. We talk daily. We learn weekly. We adapt to change. We are transparent about the work and priorities. This capability of moving fast will serve Lonely Planet well.
  • And as I have said before – if you don’t like change, you’re going to enjoy irrelevance even less.
  • The caring: not so much in the ‘gives a shit’ sense, we know people at LP give a shit (it’s a hiring filter). Just the raw humanity of the place:
    • You eat food and drink coffee from the Mad Dog cafe made with LOVE, and you can taste it. And James, I don’t for one moment hold your pork roast crackling responsible for my open heart surgery.
    • When something bad happens, the wagons are circled and it is sorted out.
    • There is music, and humour, and art. Everywhere.
    • The individuals all know who they are. Too many to mention, or thank.
    • It is so special I shall be partaking in the social aspects that are extended to people beyond the walls of this golden cage in Footscray – the musicians especially, but also the agilists, the innovators, the emerging lean leaders, those who I have spent a lot of time with. We should all try to make our alumni more comfortable with coming back, for lunch, drinks, or a catch-up. Help them to get over the embarrassment and discomfort and get them out here.
  • The smartness. No doubt, with an agreed strategy, 20 people randomly selected from Lonely Planet could leave here, start and succeed in a new business venture in the travel space. It’s a good thing, and a sign of the glue that binds this place that they so rarely do!

What didn’t work?

  • Needing open heart surgery part way through the website relaunch. This event, potentially life-changing for me, showed Lonely Planet and BBCW’s mettle, depth of talent and support for its employees beyond the call of duty.
  • The result however, was coming back from a mid-life disaster with a focused passion on transforming the entire organisation’s capability – not just IT, but everywhere. The result is the most agile enterprise I know – from finance, legal, sales, product development to HR.

What puzzles me?

  • Those people who can still be heard murmuring to themselves about all this damned change stopping or slowing down. Well folks, Google bought Zagat this morning so the madness continues as we sit here.
  • Why don’t you read? You have the best business book library of any business I have ever worked in, and better than most bookshops I have been in. It is a treasure. But it’s dusty. As a brand new writer myself (as opposed to the shitful celebrity agile blogger I might be described as by my friend Amy Gray ;-), I can attest to the amount of thinking that you have to do to make an argument cogent enough to justify a book. Use that sweat wisely – read the result… books.

What would I do differently?

  • Go beyond our walls! My 4+ years at LP has now given me the chance to co-found a small business doing what I am deeply passionate about – teaching others that there are better, smarter ways of working, which can also result in a better quality of life. That business (based on this blog) opens on Monday 12 September, and will be blown along by the support of many of you, not the least of whom is Matt who I thank greatly for giving us the courage to follow our passion.

Reflections on Agile in Australia

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James and I were both on the roster of speakers at Agile Australia 2011 this year. There were some great presentations over the 2 days, the highlight for me being Martin Fowler’s closing address on the profession of software development in the 21st century. His point was simply “we are ALL software development companies now, so you need to understand some technology basics”.

It resonated for me having led the charge over 4+ years on the journey from Lonely Planet proudly proclaiming it was “not a technology company” in 2007 (thus they’d seemingly outsourced everything that had a green LED light on it) to one where our digital and publishing businesses both revel in having high levels of technology competency on the teams.

If you have not heard Martin talk about technical debt, software complexity and development abandon this blog immediately and read these 3 blog posts:

Martin Fowler of Thoughtworks delivers the final address.

Technical Debt 101

Technical Debt quadrant diagram

The design payoff line (aka the line of regret)

Having attended Agile Australia for the last 3 years, I was amazed to see the change in the profile of people attending, and how rapidly agile is taking hold in Australia.

The plaintiff cry was pretty much “we’ve been doing agile for a year now, but we still feel the pull of gravity back to the world of 5 year plans, business cases and large teams working on projects where the design is done up front – why is agile such hard work? It’s not fair!”

That matches our own experience at Lonely Planet – year 2 can be pretty agonising as some team members lose the faith (having suffered a failure or two); a lot of ‘hiding Harrys’ have their shortcomings at prioritising product features and joining the dots at standup every day exposed; the scrum zombies get a foothold; and in our case, romantic memories were revived by finance of life under waterfall governance being somehow more certain in its outcomes. “Certain to fail” I was forced to point out at times, pulling out our $6m clock.

My advice? With stakeholders, stop talking about agile and start talking Lean at this point. Focus on measuring value, eliminating waste, improving flow of work, building what the customer has pulled, and speed of delivering to customers. Talk about ‘time to cash’ and start measuring customer outcomes. Put those metrics up on the board alongside the points delivered and burn down charts. Focus and talk about being great, not being agile.

James Pierce

James spoke on the subject of agile workspaces – a topic on which there is very little written. A lot of dangerous fallacies exist about open plan offices that can impinge the success of any transition to agile working methods. It is not all about rows of desks with paired programmers yammering away to each other – you need carefully designed quiet spaces and well thought-out dynamics. From the level of questions that ensued, this is a topic that needs further expansion.

Nigel Dalton

I presented a series of case studies on agile product development – using examples of a number of Lonely Planet stories where things had not gone as planned, and linking those results back to where we overlooked some key agile principles like customer input, releasing early and testing.

I was delighted to score tweet of the day with my flippant “every time you draw a gantt chart a fairy dies”.

Jean Tabaka provided Day 2’s opening with a stern reminder that the agile community has its destiny in its own hands, and essentially should stop whining and start building. That means all of us!

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