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The benefits of continuous change

with Claudio Perrone

It was a great pleasure to have Claudio Perrone as a guest on our podcast. Claudio is an internationally-recognized Lean & Agile expert, entrepreneur and startup strategist who helps companies move fast, learn faster and thrive.

In the industry he’s known as “The Chuck Norris of Continuous Change”, and the creator of PopcornFlow for Continuous Innovation & Change, which is our chosen topic for this interview.


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Transcript from Episode 72: Claudio Perrone on the benefits of continuous change

Can you share with us a brief overview of your background?
I’m a lean and agile management consultant, entrepreneur, public speaker. I have a lot of experience in the software development. And given the name, I’m Italian, but in 1999 I moved to Ireland. I had the good fortune to work with lots of organizations, from startups to large American corporations. So, it’s a good background that I developed here. Software is eating the world, isn’t it?

Can you tell us a little bit about the agile experience?
Well, I’ll tell you this, a few years ago, waterfall was essentially the universal best practice. What happened with waterfall, we focused a lot on the speed and efficiency through specialization. In my experience, many organizations struggled, you know, we had a lot of fixed contracts, fixed price, big design up fronts, then we had this kind of sequential process, lot of hands-off, lots of documentation, simply to communicate internally. And then of course like this would take a long time, so while the business was going on we would have a lot of change requests.

In the end, it always took some heroic effort to go live, and very often we would have late releases and poor quality. What I realized was that although like companies kept re-organizing themselves, they really didn’t change much, it was like you know changing furniture in the Titanic really. I saw there was a lot of command and control which is something to be honest I still find a lot like nowadays, where a factory have somebody from the top telling you what to do, and all the various levels that follows. I sarcastically call it “the blame floor”.

In 2001, I was lucky enough I met a pioneer like in the agile movement, which was like really early days back then and was in Seattle. I discovered what the true nature of the problem was and the reality is we are not in control of all the variables of the environment around us. Yes, we try to add more and more, to add more and more control but essentially we’re not in control of the elements.

I discovered the agile is such that the idea was that rather than you know being predictive or assuming that fact that you can follow some best practices and design a perfect process up front. I tell all the times of people if you do have the perfect process, use the perfect process but agile said something like this “Well, we don’t know the perfect process but maybe we have a way to converge some to success”.

Agile proposes this kind of early incremental delivery particularly with feedback intensive strategies right, so you would have things like retrospective or the idea to inspect and adapt. We start with what we know now and then on a regular cadence or even just in time but we reflect not only on the work that we deliver, but also how we are creating the work, the process in itself. This kind of setup as well of small cross-functional teams, created this kind of really great collaboration among people. Of course when the agile is done well, which is not always the case unfortunately.

What typically goes wrong with agile in your experience?
Number of things to be honest, that can actually go quite wrong these days. Agile moved pretty quickly from a continuous discovery to exploitation. Essentially, there are a lot of industries, a lot of companies out that are really exploiting it, because if you’re thinking about agile as selling certifications rather than you know developing better ways to help to create software and then to share this information with others, then essentially we are in pure exploitation. That ain’t agile. The other part is that agile generally created also local optimization in many ways and you know the way I look at it is organizations simply cannot be agile if only development teams are doing it you know. This is something that should get to the whole organization.

You are having some experience then in lean, as well. Where does it fit in?
With lean effectively it created a sort of a role for management. Before we had like reporting organizations, rather than having this kind of command and control, reporting organizations, lean turned those organizations into supporting organizations, where the role of the of the leader is to support or team leader or manager there is, to support the people that they serve. I like the definition of lean as the permanent struggle to flow value to one customer.

What they say for example in Toyota, where you know, why one customer because you know we would build a million cars but in the end the customer only gets one and so cares about his own car. I think lean integrates really well with agile to create the kind of organization that becomes more of a learning organization. In particular, I like what’s behind lean, like it’s not so much like the tools like Kanban, value stream mapping, these are the solutions of problems that people had.

That’s the outcome in a way of the thinking but it’s not the thinking. I’ve been doing a lot of work especially on lean thinking in particularly and what I realized is that lean really created you know a group of skilled problem solvers, really because when you think about some impediments to flow, flow is actually is to think in terms of how can we reduce the timeline from concept to cash, you just look at that. It is not really resource optimization, it’s flow optimization, can we remove pretty much all impediments, well that requires problem solving skills and that’s really what’s what lean organizations develop, their people. They can make money in so many ways but through the development of people is really lean.

You also talk about continuous innovation and change and can you explain what you mean by that and any advice you have for organizations who should do it and how to do it?
There’s a lot of models out there that actually work and we have to introduce them. We really live in a turbulent world, there’s a lot of change on the outside and turbulence on the inside. And the way I look at it is that inertia, our tendency to do nothing and remain unchanged, that inertia is our enemy. And I look at it from my point of view, as my inertia, as your inertia. You know, the thing is like life is made of choices but we don’t choose very often, we sleepwalk, we take the default choice really and I see it we’re likes zombies living in the Zombieland.

The only reason we don’t notice that is that they all look like us and that’s because it is us. But when the people think about changes, they think that they are big, slow and scary, like a Godzilla. So, we have this kind of huge programs where we want to go from A to B, and we encounter a lot of resistance. And the way I looked at it is what if instead of actually looking at the big change ,we looked at how microorganisms evolve instead, that you know, this kind of idea of looking at microorganisms that evolve a new generation every 15 minutes, and they evolve so fast.

Whatever drugs you may try to destroy them, actually becomes quickly ineffective because they have a lot of change and some of it is improvement. Can we apply this in real life and and so I created a principle for myself which was this one, which is actually the very first PopcornFlow principle that says – if change is hard, make it continuous, if change is hard, the harder it is, the more often we do it. If people work in software development particularly they use things like a continuous integration, we already know that approach, we have this idea that you’re not in the old days we used to integrate software once a year, once every six months, at the end of a whole cycle, where pretty much developers could spend time, create bugs, you know, know nothing because we had no feedback freely and then when we put things together, we would discover pretty much all the issues.

So somebody smarter than me once said well why don’t we try if it’s so hard, why don’t we integrate softer are more often, maybe every quarter, and then we had monthly bills, weekly bills, and now we have continuous bills right where I just write a line of code perhaps and immediately I have a machine that is giving me feedback, to say if there’s any problem. The question I have is why don’t we do it with change, why do we still treat change like the big change that we had?

I had this kind of idea of continuous change which is not necessarily continuous improvement, it’s this realization that improvements without changes is impossible. So how about we do a lot of change? PopcornFlow is pretty much something that I created which is based on three principles, the first one you really know, the second one is something around the lines of – everybody is entitled to their own opinion but the shared the opinion in a fact, in other words if your agreed that we have this problem that’s treated as if it was a fact.

I mean we may be wrong, I can tell you we may be terribly wrong, but what we’re going to do then is to create options and run experiments pretty much to find out. Eventually it will converge to success. And the third principle is to learn fast, learn often. If you’re doing skateboarding, you can’t really do skateboarding if you’re not prepared to fall, you know it’s bound to happen. And we look at it is that the world is not made of concrete, it is like the ocean, you cannot control the ocean, you can’t tame the ocean, but you can’t stay still because you will drown.

What you could do is to learn to surf. So, we’re in this kind of known facts, right we’re talking about opinions, as first class citizens. Actually from the name comes from the seven steps of PopcornFlow which starts with P right problems and observations, options, possible experiments, commitments, ongoing review, next. So the beginning of each of that makes the word Popcorn hence the PopcornFlow.

If it’s working and working well, why would we change it and also if you have continuous change some might say how does that impact on consistency?
First of all, I can tell you that I can ask anybody what problems do you have, not problems I have, problems you have and surely enough people are very open to express the kind of problems they have. Based on that, I would say what options we have. So you see what’s happening, this is kind of the way to have rapid decision-making, particularly under uncertainty. Otherwise what we do is we fall victims of systems that we either created ourselves or that were created by others.

These systems are not, you know, the consequence of some cosmic rules, it’s been created by humans and by humans shall be destroyed, if they’re not fit for purpose anymore. For example people are very applied in their work these days, you know, software development teams reflect on how they’ve been doing the work, that you know that have raised some problems and based on that they make choices but it is the same for management for example. We rather than actually telling people what to do, now they share a problem first, they see if they reach agreements and then they call design options on how to proceed.

I’m going to talk next week with the board of management on a bank and so that use that for strategy because rather than actually then say “We go, we take this decision and this is a strategy we’re pursuing” they keep their options open and they committed to experiments instead. It’s kind of an interesting way to look at how you can look at your own life and I’ve seen this, I used it on a personal level, I use it with my son, a personal level. Once I actually explained it to a CIO that I personally run 5 change experiments a week roughly, which means that every single day, every single week I am 5 experiments older than. When you die, how old do you want to be two experiments old or 20000?

Can you give us an example of one of those experiments?
I mean there are lots of them. Actually this week, for example, because I was going to do some workshops in Italy soon, I worked with the organization, with a company organizes them. We created a lot of marketing experiments, for example, in that particular case because we were making observations, we launched some campaigns and each of these campaigns was a little experiment.

My son pretty much once like said “I like snails and I want to sell snails, mommy says nobody would buy them but she doesn’t know that”. And I said to him “You know, you’re right, she doesn’t know that, what options do we have?” and he generated like 16 options “I could tell everyone, I could put a sign outside, I could put a YouTube video”. I said “Okay, that’s a lot of options, let’s run some experiments” and so he did the YouTube video and put a sign outside and in the end he couldn’t sell them.

So I said “Well maybe we should think about some other options, maybe rather than selling snails, maybe you could draw, you could draw something themed with the snails”. He said “I have a better idea” and what he ended up was to create a comic book based on snails and he ended up, you know, he wasn’t even 7 and made €140 doing that and he said to me “You know, isn’t it amazing that I am not even 7 and already figured out a way to make money?”

The future is bright with sons like that. Is it fair to say there are more time consuming experiments or what is the time involved?
Yeah, these experiments usually last up to 3 days you know. All the majority of my experiments are one day long, I mean in terms of one day until I can get enough information to do a review because these experiments have an action. The reason why am I doing this in the first place and then some sort of expectation. If you are a project manager and you’re dealing with a particular team and you’re having problems again, you make observations and you can create options, you can co-create some, you can explain the issues that you’re facing even with the team sometimes and co-design options and then rather than commit to a particular option.

From now on and we’re going to do this until death separates us. When things start working the same terms of process improvement, a lot of managers ask me “you know cloud?”. That’s great and once you’re all finish, we’ll put it on a Visio diagram, as that’s it, that will be our best practice and I kind of say “Well, no, no, no, hold on, you don’t understand. If people don’t change the process next week or the week after next, we’re not doing something right”, because this effectively it’s a continuous evolution. It is this kind of approach of actually saying, well how do you know it’s good enough, why don’t we try something different and particularly if you look at the low hanging fruits, you will see that there’s so many opportunities for improvement.

I mean, my advice to everybody is to be humble. We didn’t figure that out, nobody figures that out, you ask the scientists, they have some parts that they figured out. There’s a lot of unknown if you know what I mean. So that’s really the point, let’s be humble, and I think there’s a lot of gain on co-design in a small change where you have this continuous negotiation really and to move forward.

Show Notes

Connect with Claudio Perrone on LinkedIn

Find out more about PopcornFlow here