The National Business Review on Boost’s lasting positive impact

By Nick Butler

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Boost CEO Nathan Donaldson being interviewed by Grant Robinson on how he and the company are looking to have a lasting positive impact.

Boost’s purpose — helping others have a lasting positive impact — along with our Agile advocacy, freedom-centred culture and plans for employee-ownership continue to intrigue the media.

Recently the National Business Review put out two pieces on Boost. There’s a subscriber-only article from Gill South and a video interview between Grant Walker and Boost CEO Nathan Donaldson. Both provide insights into the benefits any organisation can get from becoming Agile and bringing in a freedom-centred culture.

Gill South’s article leads with Nathan’s drive to lock in Boost’s purpose-driven culture, and have a lasting positive impact, even after he is no longer CEO. It looks at his plans to stand aside in favour of two co-CEOs (one male, one female) and to open up the company to full staff ownership.

In the interview with Grant Walker, Nathan explains how Boost evolved from being Agile to becoming a freedom-centred workplace. He explains why Boost seeks out purpose-driven clients and how helping others have a lasting positive impact has lifted the team’s productivity, and the company’s profits.

NBR subscribers: Read the article

Boost founder to give staff 100% ownership. Say what?

By Gill South

NBR subscribers can read the article here

Watch the interview

Read the transcript

Grant Walker: Wellington IT firm, Boost is one of many organisations across New Zealand that have embraced a new way of working called the Agile method. In fact, they also coach other companies in it.

Why adopt Agile, and what does it really mean? Joining me, Nathan Donaldson, founder and CEO of Boost. Tell me about Boost, firstly.

Nathan Donaldson: We’re a small Wellington-based company, about 26 people, 19 years since we started. We predominantly do Agile coaching and training, but also software development for people in the GLAM sector, which is the galleries, libraries, archives, museums.

Also, we work with companies that are purpose-driven, so we’re always looking to make New Zealand a better place. That’s our purpose in life.

Grant: What do you mean by that?

Nathan: I think one of the important things that people need in their day is a chance to make an impact on the world and make meaning of things. It’s very important for us that our teams get to make a lasting positive impact. So we look for customers who are looking for us to help them make a lasting positive impact.

We tend to work with people like libraries, at the moment we’ve been working with MSD, the Ministry of Social Development, and they’re looking to make New Zealand a better place, and we want to be part of that journey and to help them do that.

Grant: I was just thinking, as an aside with the Well-being Budget that’s coming there’s probably a fair bit of work coming your way. Do you go looking for clients or do they come to you now, because it’s the new thing, isn’t it?

Nathan: Yes, Agile is the new thing, and also quite an old thing as well. It started in the ’80s with a group of quite prominent software developers in the States who went up into a cabin in the mountains to try and work out, what were the things that were common across projects that were successful?

They were appalled by the success rates of IT projects, as most people have been over the years. And so they were trying to look for what are the commonalities across these projects that we can then create methodologies or ways of working that will give us more chance of success?

Grant: What did they learn?

Nathan: They learned that there was no methodologies that would help.

Grant: It was a short weekend away.

Nathan: What they came up with was a set of values and principles. There’s four values and 12 principles, and following those is about adopting a new mindset. Often, when people start to begin their journey in Agile, they’re really thinking about, “What are the methods we can use?”

We, in our training and coaching and when we work with our teams, we’re always coming back to, what are the values? How can we implement the values? What are the principles? One principle would be working software as the primary measure of progress. It’s a little bit hard to unpack, but I’ll try and unpack it a wee bit to see if it’s interesting, so, tell me if it’s interesting.

Often, in IT projects previously, we’d seen things like documentation be seen as progress along the way. But that really doesn’t deliver any value to anybody in terms of customers.

By taking a step back and saying, “We have to have working software in front of customers for it to be valuable,” we get a much better sense of the progress of a project, and we can say, “Is the project going well, or is it not going well?”

Rather than working for years, getting lots of great documentation out but nothing to show for it, we’re looking to put working software out sometimes multiple times a day.

Grant: In terms of those four main principles, what are the four?

Nathan: What are the four? I can only ever remember three at a time, so let’s see how it goes. Individuals and interaction over processes and tools, is the first one. The way that they’ve been worded as one thing over the other, it doesn’t mean that the second thing is not important. It’s just that where possible, we try and put it as the first one.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools is about finding ways to have conversations and to engage as humans, rather than put in place processes or try and rely on tools to solve the problems for us.

Grant: Does it mean that your workplace looks different?

Nathan: Yes, it can do. There’s certainly a lot more information radiating out into the space. As much as possible, we try to have the progress of the work visible at all times to everybody. Transparency is a really key part of our culture. You can come into our workplace and immediately see how a project is going, whether there are some fundamental problems with the project.

One problem that software teams often have is too much work in progress. Everything is started, nothing is finished. When you’ve got that visualised on a board, you can immediately, as soon as you look at it, see that that’s the problem and what’s happening, and then when you can see things, you can address them.

Grant: It’s interesting. Does it make staff more equal? I’ll put it to you this way. On your website, and you’re the CEO, normally, a website will start with the CEO. Yours doesn’t. Yours starts with a lot of your staff and you’re plunked right in the middle there.

Nathan: We’re ordered by most handsome, to least handsome. I’m of course right down the bottom. That’s a conscious decision. As part of becoming an Agile organisation, we evolved into a democratic organisation, and we became part of a worldwide movement called WorldBlu. They’re about freedom-centered leadership, freedom-centered organisations.

To unpack that a wee bit, there are another set of 10 principles, things like decentralised decision-making, balancing the collective and the individual, dignity and fairness, reflection and evaluation. We use those principles in our business to make sure that we have a workplace that works for everybody.

We, for instance, poll the team every month on how happy they are at work, just a simple, “How happy are you, 1 to 10?” We’ve been doing that since 2013, so we’ve got a bit of data. The result from our last one was 9.4 out of 10 on average, with a 75 percent response rate.

We use that as our key metric to determine how successful we’re being, and we’ve seen a strong correlation between team happiness and the growth of our revenue and our profit.

Grant: I was about to get that. It all sounds great on the scale, but a lot of business owners would sit there and go, “Yeah, that’s great, but how much money am I going to make, or is it going to cost me more?”

Nathan: Some of my business friends refer to it as my fruit loop circus.

I think one of the things that’s coming through more and more in business is that our first customer is actually our teams. Our teams can’t deliver great value to our customers unless they’re happy and engaged. And so one of my personal goals is to make Boost the happiest and most productive workplace in New Zealand.

I think those two things go hand in hand because you can’t be productive unless you’re happy, and you can’t be happy unless you’re productive. When we see our team at the least happy is when they’re sitting around with nothing to do.

Grant: Do you incidentally have a policy on holidays where you can go when you want?

Nathan: No, we don’t. Being that we’re a services business and we bill by the hour, it’s very difficult to accommodate that. If we were a product business, then that would be much easier.

Grant: You teach other companies to use Agile. Is there much interest?

Nathan: We run a free workshop fortnightly that we follow up every fortnight, that’s got about between 10 and 20 people in it. We’ve been doing that since 2014.

Grant: Is it because there’s a change in the air? I’ll put it to you this way. I speak to James Shore often about how green is the new black, how we’re all of a sudden getting things, all of a sudden, water, it’s too much rubbish and we don’t clean rivers. We’re moving this way. Is it the same in business?

Nathan: 100 percent. I talked about making meaning in our lives. Especially with younger generations, having a sense of purpose is becoming an essential for them in their day-to-day lives. I think that everybody wants to feel like they’re making a positive impact in the world. And so connecting ourselves to that more directly is really important.

Grant: How do you deal with hiccups then in the workplace? How do you deal if something is not working?

Nathan: A number of ways. The first thing we try to do, we always keep, as a core tenet, is to try not to become bureaucratic. We don’t see a problem and then write a blanket rule. We say, “OK, this is an individual instance,” often with an individual person. We’re going to deal with that isolated in that case.

We’re not going to say that “Now, we’ve got a rule that you have to do things this way or that way,” because rules are very brittle. We’d like to have guidelines instead of rules because they’re a bit more flexible. They’re context-specific.

The other thing that we like to do is involve the team in fixing problems. October, 2017, I was looking at the financials. I could see that we were going to be $300,000 short in our revenue come April 1st. Being in business, you’re always looking forward six to eight months.

I suppose the old me would have gone, “OK, I’ve got to do something about this.” I would have gone and started telling people what to do, “OK, you go and call this client. You do this. You do that.” I think what I’ve tried to do is trust my team more and more.

Instead, what I did was, went to the Navigators, the leadership team at Boost, and said, “This is the situation. I’m going to let you guys have a think about it, come back, and tell me what the plan is.”

They went away for a week and they came back. They came back with some cost-cutting to try and ease the problem, and then they came back with a system that we would roll out to potential customers and existing customers to drive new work. We ended up 500K up, at 200K up over that 300 that we were missing. They’re much better at everything than I am, is the takeaway.

Grant: Are they shareholders in the company?

Nathan: No, I own the company 100 percent.

Grant: I’m interested in terms of, because logic would dictate if you give them that much power, they should probably be shareholders in it.

Nathan: The plan is, we have a plan for Boost 2026, and we’ve co-created this with the team.

The plan is, by 2026, to be 50 percent male and female, to have, hopefully, an elected CEO or elected pair of CEOs, to be 100 percent employee-owned — I won’t be owning any of the business unless I’m working in the business — to be around 50 staff and turning over $10 million, which is three times what we’re doing today.

Grant: Are you going to get there?

Nathan: Yeah, 100 percent.

Grant: For the companies that you work with, what reaction do you get? I imagine there’s a big difference when you sit down with them in the office for the first time and say, “Here’s how we do things,” and they go, “OK,” and then they go and do it. What do they say afterwards?

Nathan: Sometimes when we talk to them, and we do talk to them often about this because it is different, and it can be scary for especially not so much the people we’re dealing with immediately, because we spend a lot of time with them, but maybe the boards or their leadership teams.

Often, they come back and say, “It felt like a leap of faith. We believed in you, and we believed what you were telling, and we jumped in, and it’s turned out fantastically.”

The reason we adopted Agile in the first place was because we wanted to have more predictable performance for our customers. We wanted to be able to predictably and honestly say, “We’re going to deliver a great result on a fixed budget and a fixed time frame.” Previously, we weren’t able to do that, and Agile has enabled us to do that.

Grant: What’s the difference? Why weren’t you able to do that?

Nathan: I think that the other ways of working fight against human nature. One of the things I really like about Agile is, it embraces human nature and works with it.

For instance, an example of that might be that everybody has their own capacity to do an amount of work. Why don’t we work with the amount they can do, rather than imagining we can do a certain amount and planning based on our imagination?

That’s what most companies tend to do. They use, I’d say, managing by wishful thinking. “We want the project to be done by October. We’d like it to cost a million dollars. We’d like to do this,” and then that becomes the plan that they follow.

We don’t believe that works, so we move it around a bit. We say, “What are the outcomes you want to achieve? How much money do you want to spend, and by when,” and then we work together every day to achieve those outcomes.

Another difference would be that our customers are often sitting in the room with us throughout the project. When I left to come down here today, one of our customers was sitting at the table in the middle of the room, working there, so that they had free interaction with the team as they did the work.

Grant: Is this in 10 years’ time going to be a way that most businesses work?

Nathan: I don’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years’ time. Everything I think is an experiment, and you just keep experimenting your way forward. We started this in 2007, which is 12 years ago. It feels just normal to us.

We find it weird that other people don’t work this way, but one of the guys who was involved initially in Agile, setting up the Agile manifesto and then later defining the Scrum methodology, Ken Schwaber, he said, “Scrum is hard and disruptive.”

It’s completely true. It changes everything about how businesses work together and how businesses work internally, and it takes some time to learn.

We went through a lot of hard, disruptive times to get to where we are today, and now it’s working well, touch wood, for now, but we will continue to experiment our way forward.

Grant: Nathan Donaldson, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Nathan: Thanks very much.

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