Allan Kelly of Allan Kelly Associates tells us about agile for software, digital for business.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Allan Kelly: Apart from the boredom, the main challenge has been homeschooling. Keeping two children motivated and focused has been hard and taken a lot of time from my wife and me.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Allan Kelly Associates.
Allan Kelly: I was a programmer. People tell me I was good, and I got to the point where the code was not a mystery. I could make it do what I wanted. I was in Silicon Valley at the time of dot.com bust. I came back to the UK and said to myself, “I’m moving into management roles, how do become a good manager, not a bad one?” so I went to business school. When I graduated, I realized that engineers hate MBAs, and non-engineers distrust anyone who has coded. But that’s me, two seemingly opposite things in one person.
I went to work for a small company, and I introduced lots of agile ideas. I actually find that what I learned on my MBA was completely aligned with agile. When that company hit problems, I decided to help people as I had been.
That’s my mission now: to help my younger self and help companies create environments where individuals thrive. We need more innovation in our business processes, how we manager and how we think about strategy.
How does Allan Kelly Associates innovate?
Allan Kelly: I write books. Writing forces the author to straighten out their own thinking and to explain to others. In so doing, I see the gaps and contraditions, and I get insights, inspiration and innovative ideas (and I make a little money from the books!).
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Allan Kelly: Obviously, things have gone online, but in general, I stepped back a bit. I’ve taken on fewer clients, allow time to homeschooling and writing a book on OKRs in agile. That is paying back as the book is really successful, and I’m overflowing with ideas. My new book Succeeding with OKRs in Agile was published in February.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Allan Kelly: I went to New Zealand to do some talks just as Covid was starting – it sounds crazy to say that now but it seemed OK at the time. When I came to come home, I discovered my e-ticket was invalid, and I wasn’t the only one; Auckland airport felt like Dunkirk. They couldn’t check me in, and my travel agent couldn’t help either, and I thought, “To go home I have to do something different.” I searched the airport, found the airline offices, walked in, and said, “I have to get on that plane.”
That’s my lesson: every day seems like a repeat of yesterday unless you deliberately do things differently, don’t wait for serendipity.
The first few months was a great time for experimenting, and people were really forgiving. I knew nothing about online courses, so I repackaged one of my day-long workshops for online delivery and ran it – I gave the places away to my subscribers, and I learned a lot. I broke it in two, ran those two workshops, and tried different formats and exercises. Keep experimenting.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Allan Kelly: Index cards.
With so much online stuff, it’s good to get physical – I’ve even returned to reading a printed newspaper every day rather than reading online!
I find keeping focus to be the hardest thing, so each morning, I take a new index card and write out what I’m going to do today. Half the items are routine (triangle email, eat lunch, exercise) and reoccur every day. The other half are things to work on. Then I number them 1, 2, 3 and try to work in that order.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Allan Kelly: My competitors are outdated ideas. I stay ahead by experimentation and working with new people.
The trick is to get the best from both – index cards and newspapers, and iPhones and Zoom – it’s a world of contraditions.
I’m working with a new partner to market my training offering, I’m working with a new marketer to sharpen my marketing, and I’ve started a new book with a co-author. Ideas aren’t the problem. Deciding which to pursue and which to pass over is.
Your final thoughts?
Allan Kelly: Right now, we live in a time of contradition: the internet had made distance irrelevant, but the first 2 meters are really important!
Similarly, on the one hand, during the last year, day-after-day has been the same – you don’t go anywhere different, you don’t meet anyone outside your immediate family. But on the other hand, there have been massive changes, cash is gone, commuting is gone, healthcare is hardly recognizable.
If – as we all hope – the coming months see countries unlock, then the restraining forces will be removed, you can meet someone new! Shake their hand! Buy them a drink! But you will still have all this distance-shrinking technology.
We pressed fast-forward on Digital by 5 to 10 years. More than ever, there is no room to separate technology and business: the business is technology, and the technology is the business. Yes, technologists need to understand the business more, but business people need to understand technology better.