Skip to main content

Lonely Planet

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.
  •  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.

Masters research on Dalton Pierce Digital Disruption Quotient

By Disruption2 Comments

Remember this post and this formula?

The DPQ was our effort to explain the massive disruption suffered when technology starts to influence customers and business, in particular media and publishing businesses. It has survived many conferences, discussions and debates, but now we’re delighted a graduate student at RMIT has picked it up and will put it to the test for his Master’s thesis.

Matty Soccio is a former colleague of ours at Lonely Planet. He’s from the hallowed world of book editorial, so without our digital fanboy tendencies he will doubtless prove a good cynical tester of some of our predictions – and if he’s a good scientist he will be going in trying to disprove our work! Here’s Matty’s thinking on what he is about to undertake.

Breaking Down the DPPQ

The words ‘digital content’ elicit a plethora of intriguing ideas and misconceptions, though you can’t find fault in those who are out there everyday furiously tapping keyboards or skimming thousands of pages of online information in an effort to understand. I should know – that’s me too.

But why? Why are we spending all this time that we could be making meaningful friendships in the ‘real’ world, attempting to find out more about the struggle to control and ‘monetise’ ethereal concepts that we can have little hope of mastering?

Now that I’ve decided to take the plunge back into the academic world, I’m beginning to further realise the folly of ‘control’ in the digital media landscape. Perhaps the idea isn’t about control; hell, even ‘management’ could be considered as somewhat of a misnomer here. Maybe the word that future electronic publishers should be thinking about is ‘harness’. Harness the enthusiasm of millions of online contributors out there. Harness the power of new devices that are changing the way we consume content of all types of digital content. Harness the joy people get from discovering something new.

In my first semester I’m discovering what my own field of research will be. So far? The extraordinary creators of Luna Tractor have effectively given me free rein to break something of theirs.

As dedicated readers of the Luna Tractor blog would know, a theory called the Dalton-Pierce Digital Disruption Quotient raised a few eyebrows at its perplexing suggestions about the future possibility of continued control and success of traditional paid content business models in the publishing and media sector.

How does the economy affect their ability to attach tried-and-true business models to future technology/consumer trends? Are the old ideas of ‘content economics’ hiding a longer-term problem in the future of the publishing/media sector? Are the devices that people consume media on, and the consumers themselves, changing the way they consume at a faster rate than traditional organisations can keep up? Will digital content (whether it’s writing, video, whatever) continue to have an economic value on it in the near future? Many large traditional publishing organizations hope so. The Dalton-Pierce Digital Disruption Quotient may hold a key to these questions… however, there should be emphasis kept on the term ‘may’.

My aim isn’t to prove or disprove the DPDDQ, but to understand what the theory itself can tell us – is it a proverbial crystal ball or the ramblings of mad scientists? If I can show a subsequent conclusion from the results of the theory, all the better. For now (at these extremely early stages of my research) I’m content to find out if I can further my understanding of it.

If this means breaking it, fine. If it means succumbing to its lure of concrete results, perfect. By blogging my progress readers can hopefully draw their own conclusions from my results, and participate in the never-ending knowledge pool that is the digital world. In other words, to share the journey and knowledge transfer that will help to develop our understanding of this world.

Not just an IT thing

By Agile, Development, Lean, People, TechnologyOne Comment

Derek Sivers says we shouldn’t share our goals, or make them public, that the act of sharing our goals makes us less likely to achieve them. However, our experience with the teams we’ve worked with is that making public commitments to each other is a powerful motivating force.

With all things Luna Tractor we try to practice what we preach, plus eat our own dog food, so today we went public and launched a project to share the stories of agile and lean transformation at Lonely Planet.  At a lunchtime briefing with our friends at ThoughtWorks, we started to share some of the stories and photographs we have been collecting as the basis of an ebook about the remarkable business transformation at Lonely Planet in the last 5 years.

The book’s title, ‘Not just an IT Thing’, was inspired by Thoughtworks’ Lean business strategist David Joyce, who in early discussions with us was lamenting that so little progress has been made outside of software development with systems thinking, lean, agile and kanban methodologies, and that all too often agile was dismissed as “just an IT thing.”

To continue this, and share our progress in an agile way, our goal is to publish some of the photographs of Lonely Planet’s remarkable workplace on a regular basis as the content comes together.  Stay tuned to the blog for snippets and the team’s stories, and most importantly tell us what you think.

A note of thanks must go to everyone over the last 5 years who told us to ‘write it down!’ Well, your exhortations have been heard, and this time we’ve actually started.

Reflections on Agile in Australia

By UncategorizedNo Comments

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!

Lonely Reflections

By UncategorizedNo Comments

Please forgive a some what more personal and indulgent post today; having worked with the team here over the last few months to make the complex and difficult decision to move LP’s online business to London I knew inevitably my own role here would be impacted.  Today is my last day at Lonely Planet and so I can’t help then but reflect on the last 12 months, in many ways working here in such a diverse, complex Agile environment has confirmed and refined many of my existing philosophical prejudices about building things, teamwork and productivity.

People need to be your #1 concern – Focus on hiring smart people who fit and enhance your culture.  Make sure you understand what motivates them.  Don’t be blinkered with building teams of people who are just like yourself, value diversity.

Agile is fantastic when it’s working well – When it’s not it can become a soul sucking zombifying grind.  Don’t be fooled, ‘Watergile’ isn’t some awesome hybrid that matches the promised (but rarely delivered) certainty of a traditional big up front design waterfall process with the flexibility and motivation of continuous delivery and improvement from the Agile world.

Conway’s Law is inescapable – Accept this and make sure you structure your application to suit your organisation or vica versa – trying to restructure one without restructuring the other is the road to misery and dysfunction.  If you have the luxury of a green fields development then be acutely aware that the way you structure your organisation will inevitably influence your architectural choices.

Having more than 6 developers working in one team is a crucial threshold – As you scale larger than this many of the positive collaborative team dynamics which you have taken for granted up to that level of scale will start to come unstuck.  This is something we need to consider and write about in some depth soon – there are important implications when you consider this dynamic and Conway’s Law at the same time.

DevOps is worth it – Right now there is an air of hype around DevOps which reminds me in many ways of the way people talked about XP or Agile in the early days.  It’s important to look beyond this and understand the fundamental change that’s driving the DevOps movement; Ops isn’t about installing linux and configuring network interfaces anymore, virtualised environments, automation, monitoring and deployment all require the same engineering approach that writing good code does.  Getting your developers working with your operations staff unlocks powerful knowledge sharing both ways.

Certainty and control doesn’t come through measurement and governance – There are 13 different Agile teams working within Lonely Planet, each has their own flavour adapted and optimised over time.  Some teams apply lots of traditional project governance, some teams apply classic agile governance (burn downs, burn ups as well as tracking velocity etc) and some teams take a very organic light touch approach. I haven’t observed any positive correlation between governance methodology and the success of a team.

 Space, Communication and Distraction – Agile is all about communication; routines and rituals which encourage teams to communicate, tackling issues and problems as well as sharing and learning from success. Our communication culture, physical environment and attitude to multitasking and distractions are less obvious levers which can have a profound impact on our teams and how effective they can be – Lonely Planet has allowed me to observe and work with a variety of teams, styles and approaches solidifying 10 years of puzzling over this one coming to some useful conclusions. 

I’ll miss my colleagues, working for a brand I love and Jimmy’s food in the cafe.  Next week I’m off to Agile 2011 to talk about Space, Communication and Distractions and then puzzle over what’s next.

Great Agile Workspaces: Conclusions

By UncategorizedNo Comments

This post is the conclusion to my series on creating Great Agile Workspaces, so if you just landed here, read these posts in order first:

  1. Introduction
  2. Physical Spaces
  3. Communication
  4. Distraction and Multitasking


Agile is a powerful methodology for building great software, but it’s just one part of the system in which we and our teams work.  Space, communication and distraction have a big impact on the net productivity we can generate.

Space: Focus on building a physical environment that feels good, promotes team work and yet gives enough isolation and separation between individuals and teams – the best environments have diversity, including quiet space for problem solving.

Communication: Embrace high value forms of communication and work on your culture to weed out low value, or negative styles.  Be intentional about how and when you communicate.

Distraction: Some distractions are inflicted upon us and some are caused by poor habits. Our capacity to create things once we get in the zone is amazing.   The right space, communication culture and a lack of distractions are essential to enabling the zone.

Sadly the depth of field of a workplace is not controllable like the magic of a camera - all people are susceptible to interruption and distraction.

Essential References and Further Reading

Joel’s Field Guide to Developers – Developers and Workspaces

DeMarco and Listers’s seminal Peopleware – Teams and Productivity

Susan Maushart’s Winter of Our Disconnect – Distraction and Multitasking

Great Agile Workspaces: The Physical Environment.

By UncategorizedOne Comment

The physical space we work in impacts on the way we feel, interact and how productive we are. Jan Banning has captured these wonderful photographs of Government Officials in their office around the world.  Take a look at them and then stop for a minute. Imagine your ideal office … what would it look like ?

Perhaps your office reflects your culture ?


Or maybe your product ?

Our office at RedBubble

Or your design aesthetic ?

37 Signals

How about my ideal work space …

From an Agile perspective office spaces have an impact on a number of key factors.

  • How it makes you feel.
  • How it encourages positive social interactions.
  • How it enable communication.
  • How it manages distractions.
  • How it enables productive development.

Lots of communication and a high level of development productivity are often in tension and balance needs to be struck.

I’ve worked in nearly every conceivable office environment over my working career. I’ve had a number of private offices, massive open plan call centre style environments and I’ve also worked in the stereo typical startup garage.  There is a strong trend, particularly at larger companies towards open plan offices.  I believe this is a mistake.

Private offices are great when you need focused time to get hard thinking tasks done, or you need to make phone calls or have lots of adhoc meetings – in many companies they are also a status symbol reserved for senior management.  Small collegiate workspaces, typical at startups or creative agencies etc are perfect for idea sharing, collaboration and create a fun and friendly workspace.  But they can also end up being being loud and distracting when it’s time to put your head down and write some code. I’m not sure large open plan environments are  ever a good answer and here’s why – It’s about nodes and contracts.

A team of 3 people, has to maintain 3 lines of communication, or three social contracts.  As the team grows to 5 people, the number of person to person, or node to node interactions jumps up to 10.  That means more time spent keeping everyone in the loop and up to date.  As the team grows to 10 the number of contracts is more than 40.  Quite clearly this style of person to person communication isn’t very scaleable.  Imagine an open plan workspace with say 100 staff, the social contracts break down.  You loose the benefits of lots of connected personal communication between everyone, but you suffer all the negative impacts of noise, interruptions and distraction generated by that many people.  It also becomes necessary to resort to all hands meetings and so-on as it’s not practical to run a standup with that many people.

So what does the ideal environment look like ?

I think the answer is the smallest possible number of people in separated but accessible spaces that still allow everyone working on the same ‘thing’ to work collaboratively together. What does this look like in practice ?

Here’s one very successful setup for us at Lonely Planet.

This is how our Lonely Planet Operating System team of 20 people works.  It’s broken into 3 major groups of people, each working on their part of the project, or their ‘thing’.  We have one big long bench where 8 developers work mostly in pairs, and near by them are some of their primary customers, the SMEs.  We moved all the product, planning and generally loud talky people away a little bit.  These guys are not far away, but it’s a big improvement from when they were dotted among the development team.  There are a number of small meeting rooms and a dedicated quite working space with a few development machines and whiteboards etc.  Finally there is a dedicated planning / war room which has whiteboard paint on all the walls, it has a constantly changing view of ‘the plan’, ideas for future development and the day to day agile board on it’s outer wall.  There is of course regular communication between all three groups, but the primary and constant communication is restricted to on topic conversations within each group.

So small groups of people working closely together, quite spaces and shared spaces.   You might need to think carefully about how to break down some of your big ‘things’ to ensure the number of nodes and contracts is sensible; and that, leads nicely into my next theme: Communication.

Subscribe to the Luna Newsletter

Close Menu

Quote of the week

The new competitive advantage is the ability to anticipate, respond and adapt to change.

Recent Luna Posts

Become Remarkable.