How Allstate Upped Productivity By Killing Meetings & Wearing T-Shirts

June 21, 2016 Coté

I’ve spent much of my time in recent years figuring out how large organizations turn into software defined businesses—organization who master the craft of creating software products that are the core enabler of their business. Pivotal customers are a great laboratory (or is it more like a frontier?) for exploring the question of digital transformation. We’ll be talking a lot about how organizations are changing at the upcoming SpringOne Platform conference (check out the all sessions!). One of my friends, Matt Curry, will be speaking there and ahead of that, I wanted to ask him a few questions about how Allstate is changing their culture to be more cloud native. He gave a great talk on this topic at the recent Cloud Foundry Summit, which provided some good fodder for the brief Q&A below.

Coté: One of the points you make early on is that, if an organization over-indexes on risk management, they end up doing nothing or moving at a glacial pace. While you certainly want to abate the calcifying effect of too much risk management, there’s probably some “healthy risks” you want to keep managing. What are some of the risks that you’re keeping an eye on?

Matt: There are types of risk that are incredibly disruptive to the business. One of those is regulatory risk. The idea is to figure out a way to clarify the guidelines and decision makers so that complying to the rules around managing those risks is easy. The right thing should be the easy thing. I’ve found that much of the problem is that the application teams have little visibility into the governance process and, thus, can’t figure out the easy, correct thing. So, make sure the approvers are obvious and the process is visible and, thus, easy to follow. It’s a two way street of course—the auditors need to seek out the application teams and work with them. The end-goal is for everyone to focus on the end-users and customers, regardless of what their role is. Also, there needs to be a certain level of consistency in decision making, and the challenge with committees is that they drive inconsistent application of the rulesets, which in and of itself introduces risk.

Matt Curry and his t-shirt culture in actionCoté: Throughout the talk you return to dress, specifically t-shirts, several times to make the point of culture change. It’s almost like t-shirts are the mascot of change at Allstate or, at least, a helpful tracer of progress. So, I mean: t-shirts. Really? Do they help catalyze change that much?

Matt: T-shirts are a symbol. Since I have given that talk, I have received probably 10 emails from Allstate people asking for a shirt. Like I said in the talk, the shirt gives people permission to dress differently, which surprisingly enough makes them act differently. It is really interesting how much more collaborative and conversational people are when they are in causal dress. At the end of the day, we are just looking to start by changing one behavior, which can get the momentum spinning to drive a much larger cultural change. T-shirts and hoodies are a very fun and non-confrontational way to get that change started and begin a discussion about how things should be.

Coté: You made a good case for setting up a new, separate type of “labs” program and environment. Historically, people would call this thing a “center of excellence,” a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use! You called this lab, and the 12 week training program go through in it, a “defibrillator for our culture,” which is fantastic. Why is it important to have this whole separate, even in-person setup to start having cultural change?

Matt: Conversations that happen behind physical barriers tend to be less empathetic in nature. People tend to say things that they would not normally say to their co-workers when they are not in arms reach. Given the siloed world we are used to, we find that nothing is quite as effective at breaking down those silos as collaboration in a shared space. The reason that the space is separate is that when the new culture is young, we need to nurture it as it is developing new social norms. If we try to make this change in the context of the broader organization, the cultural muscle memory is so strong, that the change is incredibly difficult to make.

Also, this environmental change has a similar symbolism as the t-shirts, except it’s a much larger change. We’re trying change how we operate, day-to-day, whether that’s wearing a t-shirt instead of whatever “business casual” is or physically changing how we sit and work. To be all Yogi Berra-ish about it—the thing about changing is that you have to change.

Coté: Do you think there’s possibilities for doing things remotely? Is face-to-face the only option for both the training and then ongoing work?

Matt: We like face to face work for pairing. Obviously, we have globally distributed teams that need to collaborate without being in the same location. But for the most part, our goal is to have the team co-located so that the majority of day to day interactions are done in person. The desire for colocation is really driven out of our desire to pair. We have found that when we have people pairing over Screenhero or through remote technology, it works but is far from ideal. We do occasionally have a need to do remote pairing and do it, but we try to make sure it is not a permanent thing. We also use Kubi iPad robots to facilitate collaboration between locations when people cannot sit next to each other. I know support for remote workers is a hot topic in the industry, but for now, based on where we are at in developing this program, we have found that co-location makes these changes much more frictionless.

Allstate pairing stations

Coté: On one slide, you mention having a common “workstation tool-set,” but didn’t cover it. What’s this toolset?

Matt: Our CompoZed developers use iMacs for development with a second Thunderbolt display attached. On the machines, we preload the most commonly needed utilities (intellij, go, node, java, etc), but, more importantly, we remove email. The goal of these machines is to really facilitate productivity by having a slimmed down profile of exactly what the developers need. The developers can then use tools like dotbot to bootstrap their project specific dotfiles. We have other shared machines that are used for things like checking email, giving presentations, and completing mandatory employee training. The idea is that the pairing stations are for pairing, not individual working.

Coté: Issues of internal communication via the intranet pop up a bit in your talk. You seem to indicate that y’all haven’t really nailed getting the intranet right. Man, I think that’s been a plague of every single organization I’ve worked at; my mind boggles at how well we’ve fixed “collab” in the public web (Facebook, Twitter, Google search, etc.) and how horrible it always seems to be inside organizations. Other than “do more face-to-face,” can you offer up any best practices, or even technologies, that you’re finding helpful?

Matt: I think the big issue is that there should at least be a little in-person communication to prompt further reading and research on the intranet. Also, there is a tendency to take personality out of internal blog posts by sending them through approval committees and making sure they represent the “corporate message.” Blogs are meant to be someone’s opinion—allow them to be authentic and transparent. They should be respectful, but also be allowed to voice concerns over things they dislike and really highlight the things that they like. Humor is a powerful tool. It really eases the tension. We should make an effort to introduce humor and personality into our communications so that they come across as authentic.

Allstate replaced meetings with slimmed down, action-oriented collaboration sessions.

Coté: So, “meetings.” Everyone hates meetings, we can all agree on that. You mention cutting down on meetings where no one seems to be making decisions. Doug Safford, also from Allstate had a funny parenthetical in his talk: “[o]ur developers used to be 20% productive—they were in meetings the rest of the day—now they’re 90% productive.” He was talking about a lot more than just reducing meetings, of course. First, what kinds of meetings did you end up getting rid of, second, what kinds of meetings do you still have?

Matt: The challenge with meetings is that they are really one way communication. You get a bunch of people sitting around a meeting room at a table. Someone is the meeting organizer, and you all go through a slide deck that no one really cares about. But, someone spent a lot of time creating. No one knows if there is a decision to be made or if the right people are in the room to even make a decision. Meetings are an incredibly inefficient communication mechanism.

We still have meetings in a sense. We tend to have whiteboard sessions. We focus on having the right decision makers in the discussion. We make it interactive and avoid slides. The team that is collaborating is empowered to make the decision and move forward. It is much more efficient and engaging. It is amazing what you accomplish just by not calling it a meeting. As another bit of applied symbolism, we call them collaboration sessions instead and it makes a huge difference.

Coté: You’re scheduled to talk about managing multiple cloud environments at SpringOne Platform. What’s that talk going to be about?

Matt: We were early adopters of Concourse. We have a very small Platform Engineering team that runs 10 Cloud Foundry foundations between pre-production and production. The talk is about how we developed our Concourse pipelines and the journey we took to continuously deliver and improve, not only the Cloud Foundry platform, but also all of the services we have that surround it. We will take the audience through our journey of how we started building these pipelines, issues we have had scaling them, and the solutions we have created to deal with those challenges. The CF Summit talk was my “feely” talk, and this talk is my “nerdy” talk.

If this is your cup of tea, you should come to SpringOne Platform this August, it’ll be chock-full of how to transform to a cloud native organization, technologically and culturally. When you register you can use the code pivotal-cote-300 to get $300 off registration. Also, check out the podcast Matt and I do on this topic, interviewing people from places like the US Federal government, ExpressScript, and other large organizations who’re figuring out how to get change done.

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