The Godel POD: Leading by Example with Nick Hodder

Welcome to The Godel POD. In this episode, our host Chris Howorth, Client Director at Godel is joined by Nick Hodder, Assistant Director of Digital Transformation at the Imperial War Museums to talk about digital transformation and leading by example.

Chris Howorth: [Intro] Welcome to The Godel POD where we speak to Nick Hodder, Assistant Director of Digital Transformation at the Imperial War Museums with a particular focus on leading by example.

[Intro music]

Chris Howorth: Nick, if you don’t mind first and foremost, could you just introduce yourself to those that are listening?

Nick Hodder: Sure. So, I’m Nick Hodder. I’m the Assistant Director of Digital Transformation at the Imperial War Museum, that means I’m in charge… it sounds like I make cups of tea for the actual director of digital transformation, but I’m actually in charge of it.
Chris Howorth: So, you’re not then, assistant to the director like the kind of joke.

Nick Hodder: Sometimes I get phone calls, which is the reaction is kind of oh, what can you put me through to the actual director? That is technically me.

Chris Howorth: Yeah. No good to hear. And I also hear you’re a part-time stand-up comic or do some of that in your free time as well. I found your website nickhodder.com. Was a little plug there as well. And did you perform at the Edinburgh Fringe if I’m not mistaken?

Nick Hodder: Yeah, I’ve performed at many Edinburgh Fringe’s going back. But, in order to set expectations for this particular podcast, I’ll try to remain in the professional capacity but yeah, I can occasionally pull out the odd organic here and there [laughs]. But yeah. Don’t set the expectation to like it’s mainly you get a bit about Yeah, digital and people.

Chris Howorth: Yeah, categorically. Let’s not be funny on this podcast [laughs]. I heard you talk probably two or three months ago at an event focused on leading by example. And I think you covered three points and used some quite nice analogies. I think it was the HMS Belfast you used as an analogy sailing through a storm, focusing on like how to empower your team, how to balance conflicting interests, and I suppose the best ways to communicate and maximise engagement. Not to make you painfully take us through the analogy again, because I believe at that time you had a presentation, which would give a lot more light to what I wanted to discuss. I suppose I wanted to take those points almost separately and talk through them. And I suppose, separately thought through what challenges those might face, from a high level into maybe deeper dive and challenges that might be caused off the back of them as well.

So, I suppose the first one was how to empower, and I think you articulated on the presentation that the main aim actually is to get out of the way and point people in the right destination, ultimately, but could you expand on that a little bit for me and talk us through your methodology or ideas behind that?

Nick Hodder: Yeah, I guess when you say that I think that if I try and put myself in the position of some sort of technology. And some I might be thinking, Well, why? What was the reason for that? And in my world, which is digital, but I think this has an effect in lots of areas, organisations as well. So, a lot of time now I start conversations by talking about the landscape, right? So, we have businesses or charities or non-profits, essentially, normally, even if we’re b2b or b2c. Ultimately, there are customers at the end of that and your customers are a product of the landscapes that they’re in. And the landscape is constantly changing. And sometimes it’s hard for us to notice that okay because we’re in it. But when you think about 2007 doesn’t feel like very far away for me. Jobs, the credit crunch and financial crisis, etc. Back in 2007. Feels like yesterday to me, but before that we didn’t have an iPhone, you think about how much was changed through technology and since that point, and it doesn’t seem very long ago.

I saw one of my team the other day, someone told me that they were born in 2001. And suddenly I couldn’t get out my head that they must be 12. But now clearly, I’m not very good at maths. But our perception of time is somewhat warped just because we’re in it. It’s hard for us to tell our customers in this landscape of wearing this landscape and it’s changing really, really quickly. So that the ranks impact of that that I see in my world is that there used to be digital generalists, people who knew all about digital. And very, very quickly there’s a kind of this this exponential age, this unprecedented period of growth.

What we require are all these different specialisms these specialisms are growing as much as the technology is and they’re becoming deeper. So as digital people become leaders, they might have deep knowledge in one area that they’ll be managing teams that have gotten a vast array of specialisms and you can’t teach them a skill you don’t understand that only they will know how to do their jobs. So, it has to empower them to develop themselves and essentially in that kind of scenario, autonomy is your only option. And I think that’s the kind of amazing digital is like the thing that is impacted SAS but eventually I think that impacts kind of every role in an organisation every area of organisations. What I wanted to do to give some background as I said, why would you want to do that? And for me, it’s not just like a desire to think that it’s I don’t really see that there’s any other option.

Chris Howorth: Great, I suppose the point you’re trying to make here that they will always know how to do their subsection of their job better than you. So ultimately, you should leave him to and I suppose within the remit of tech and digital as well, there’s probably an extra layer to this where, over time, we advance and we innovate. You as a leader may just get further and further away from being on the tools so almost your knowledge base even if you were an expert within a vertical previously, you potentially almost going to become less of an expert if you’re not on the tools in my opinion, you know, overtime as well which is worrying.

Nick Hodder: I agree with that. And I think it’s not just that you need you need to give them the space to become an expert on what they do. It’s really important you learn from them. You need to understand not the detail, but you need to understand what’s affecting them how that’s moving, because that’s how you support them. There’s a really good book by a guy called David Marquet. He wrote a book called turn the ship around, some of the audience may be familiar with it, but he’s a essentially a submarine captain who was put in charge of a submarine that he does not understand. You’re supposed to train for a year to learn how to use a submarine, how to manage a submarine. And all submarines have different settings on this training course throughout the year, we’re learning about the submarine that he’s going to be the captain of and then all of a sudden, he’s in charge of a completely different submarine. And it’s very simple as the scenario he describes. As your he might have a depth of knowledge as digital expert that you go into a team, and you don’t understand how any of that works. So, David Marquet uses pivots, so it isn’t just kind of okay, just go ahead and do your job. And I’m going to kick back and relax, and it would be lovely if that was the case, but it isn’t.

Dependency refers to our control competence and clarity. So that is you as a leader needs to prove that’s what you need to be providing. That’s your job so, you can show their competence and that means that they’ve got the adequate training, that they’re supported. You need to ensure that they have controls, they’re empowered. If you’re asking them to do something, you need to ensure that they have the power to do that. And a lot of times we blame doctors that’s not the case which creates big problems. And then finally, I think this is the most important thing is clarity. It needs to be really clear where you’re going, what the objective is, because you might be giving them power and control and they might be competent, but if they don’t know, where are they going then that is for me the biggest problem. And that clarity, not just from you as a leader, but from the organisation. Is it clear what the organisational strategy is? Is it clear, is it cascading down? You know, from the leadership through the, through the management of the organisation, what we’re trying to achieve and what the objectives are, what the goals are, and if it’s not, it’s your job as a leader to engage with the rest of the leadership to ensure that you have that clarity to say to pass it on to your team. So, for me, it’s not less work. It’s way more work in my experience.

Chris Howorth: Now, that’s goes nicely on to point two of the talk that I heard you give, and it was around balancing conflicting interests. And I think what you said was conflicting interests often come from people focusing on short term goals. You know, my small box I operate within is the most important piece but the larger term, I suppose NorthStar, if you like or vision as a business is what people should be looking at. And I think there’s what you just sort of articulated there. But I suppose I was keen to understand almost how you would try and get people to transition from a short to a long-term goal because you’re always changing people’s mindsets aren’t you, don’t focus just on yourself or what a bigger picture is. What’s your thoughts or ideas on how to do that?

Nick Hodder: For me, there’s a lot of tension in those conflicting goals and actually, and I’m guilty of this, and I think we all are, what you get is, why are they being so stupid or why they’re doing it like that, or they must be incompetent, and you come up with all the kind of reasons, often personal reasons as to why they why they’re making your life so difficult. And the first thing to say is it almost certainly is, it’s not normally that person’s fault. It’s because of this lack of clarity and or sometimes there is clarity, but it’s clarity and silence. You might have a sales team that’s trying to hit a sales target. You might have an operational team who needs to ensure that everything is working. And you’ve got these difference that they haven’t been, those targets haven’t been pulled together in a cohesive way. They’ve been developed separately by the leadership.

We normally find it relatively easy to manage now, right? We find it relatively easy to tell people in our teams what we’d like to do at least what we’d hoped. It’s much harder to manage up. But this problem requires upward management. And there’s a way in which you should do that and it’s not you guys are doing it wrong. It’s actually, can you build a really good collaborative relationships with your fellow leaders with your peers across those what might be silos to come together with some clear why. I’m a Simon Sinek fan and something that says Start with whites what the Golden Circle. All of those people are starting with the how or the what, sell more stuff, make more stuff work, whatever it might be, but often that is not tied together so you’re going to find kind of why. I think in the olden legacy organisations, there’s far more focus on the how and the what and then the museum sector often the what was a building with stuff in.
Now, I’ve made that sound terrible there are some fabulous buildings with some incredible stuff. So, what it’s really doing is making history come alive, you can sometimes touch and see and smell, but who dies for today, which is the museum and today, working airfields so you can literally find it so you can smell, and you can see the can you can hear them, so that’s incredible, like tangible stuff. And that’s why I think we’re quite focused on how what the what because what is so incredible, and the how is get people into, you know, getting people to see these, these incredible machines to learn about them and more importantly, learn about the people who flew them, and the people affected by them. But the why is actually much more about communicating a better understanding of conflict.

We need to take these people on a journey from coming here to see an amazing Spitfire to understanding the Spitfire, understanding what it might have been like to be in a Spitfire, understanding what it might have been like to be a pilot shooting someone down when a pilot has been shot down. What it might feel like to be the enemy and exploring conflict in more detail. And so that’s our why. And getting everyone in our organisation aligned behind that is the critical thing. And so, I think for me also, not people say they’re working at museums, but when you work for another organisation, often you’re saying I work for, for this organisation, I often think there’s a role of lack of purpose behind that. And so, as a sector and I think certainly in IWM we’re really keen for our staff to work for IWF, because it’s a really good organisation to work for because there’s a really good reason to work for us. And it’s about communicating that better understanding.

So, the why is important it’s not just about alignment, it’s also about getting people really passionate about why we’re aligned and why we’re all working for the same thing and going in the same direction. And so that relationship building is important to have the confidence to build the confidence, to manage up is just actually inspiring your leadership, like coming up with good ideas. And the best way to come to them with good ideas is to come along with your colleagues and say, look how joined up we are, and they will want that.

I think it’s really important that you work towards those kinds of relationships.

Chris Howorth: Now that that’s a really interesting point and it leads me on to imagine a listener here who is in a start-up type business, for example, you know, different to IWM, and there is the stage where maybe they’re defining their why, you know, they may have had an idea that’s a proof of concept if you like within the tech world and they have their. But yeah, they need to go out and find that. Do you believe that say everyone in that business has to be involved in formulating the why or is that a management thing who’s taken inspiration from those guys? How do you think that should work?

Nick Hodder: Yes, sometimes a really good example and start-ups kind of equally terrifying and liberating. At the same time. I would say that, yeah, you really shouldn’t start with your why you should start with why before you start developing your app. Before you hire, which is my advice, but it’s never too late. And yes, it should involve everyone to underline that point. It’s about getting people really passionate about what you do. I used to work for Google and Google’s Why is organise the world’s information and make it available to everyone. And, you know, Google was a start-up once. And I think, you know, often these things become harder, the larger you become, but I really like that there’s a why and I think it’s something that you know, every member of staff should be able to get behind.

I think there are some aspects that become a lot more nuanced, but a lot of the big kind of unicorns and things they all have a good why and I think it’s really important. It’s not just about inspiring your staff. It’s about it’s your strategic lens. It’s a lens through which all of your strategy goes through and starts from and also it should be a why that puts you in a position of your customers. And if I was a customer, what I’d be behind this, because that’s where your authenticity as a brand also comes from. So if you’re a start-up, you can see how important it is in every aspect of what you’re doing. I would definitely say yeah, get everyone involved in understanding it. Get your customers involved, not just your staff would be another piece of advice I would recommend as well.

Chris Howorth: And I suppose sticking with the start-up analogy for a minute or two. Do you think the why can change during the evolution of a business? Because if you use Google as the example, you just gave it, that would almost be an audacious goal for a start-up and although you know, let’s say they did, they did achieve that or are very much on the way to doing so. I suppose sometimes when you’re trying to grow business, could you ever inspire new hire strategy that’s achievable when you’re a 20-man business as opposed to a couple 100,000? Should that why ever change or is it is it stick to it and go?

Nick Hodder: Right, so it shouldn’t be aspirational? And there’s different views as to whether you should target something. So, if you’re in, if you’re in an organisation, say Cancer Research Organisation, you’re essentially you’re trying to cure cancer. I would say go ahead and put an X in it, right. We want to cure cancer, I think, yeah, we want your brain tumours. I think have that as your why. Now that is hard, right? Really, really hard, but it is possible. I think that’s a good why sometimes your why you know, can and should see impossible and that’s okay. And the reason that’s okay, to quote Simon Sinek again, and his one of his other books, which is the infinite game. This is like data theory. And the problem is a football match, or a game of chess is finite. Okay. There are no players no rules that go we know what we finished. We know what the end looks like. The business and often, like charity, and not. And so, your why needs to reflect that. Some of the example Simon Sinek always gives is Microsoft and Apple.

Yeah, so Microsoft spent years under Steve Ballmer trying to develop a mobile device that would compete with the iPhone trying to hire the best mobile developers, the best engineers too, and often trying to poach the from the likes of Apple to try to create Microsoft. The last version of the iPhone. Why? It was to be Apple to beat the competition. But Apples didn’t really care about Microsoft because they weren’t trying to win or have the best phone by a given time or by a given date. They just wanted to. They knew essentially that if they just continually met customers’ needs to answer the customer’s needs and develop their products for their customers that they would continue to generate revenue.

And actually, that is that’s the infinite game. And if you’re in an organisation, which is trying to beat the competition, or become number one, the problem is that you might become number one, but how long for a month, two months? 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years, but it’s an infinite game. So why not just focus on what you do focus on the why. And then you’re always doing the best you can. And another thing is to kind of focus much more on momentum rather than find the goals. So short term it’s really unhealthy. And short term is often involving you coming out all the stops or making compromises in one quarter or one year in order to be an arbitrary number, which that potentially is potentially damaging to you much further along the line. Momentum is much more important. Momentum is the number going up. Are we going in the right direction? And the things that we do that result in going up more quickly, we do more of. The things that result in us going down or going up less quickly. We do less off. So mentum is much more important than managing your team’s momentum is far more important than giving them specific goals. So that’s what I think, it’s a long-winded way of answering your question. I think there’s a lot of contexts that belong with it, which is your wide range, it shouldn’t be aspirational. It’s because almost all of us are in the game. Some of us are trying to cure cancer that is finite.

Chris Howorth: I suppose on the context of the infinite game, if you look at a business who potentially lost that and I think it’s a bit of a classical analogy within digital transformation is the whole blockbuster versus Netflix. trade off if you like and obviously Netflix seemed to have come off on top in the sphere of video on demand, if you like, was it the case that Blockbuster was wrong or did they just react badly or you know what what’s your thoughts on why that occurred?

Nick Hodder: So, this goes back when I talked about the exponential age, and I think technology has been exponentially growing since basically the 60s and 70s. But it compounds so I often use like that kind of grain of rice analogy, are you familiar with this one?

Chris Howorth: I’m not actually

Nick Hodder: If you’ve got a chessboard that’s got 64 Squares. If you put a grain of rice on the first one. And then you got two grains of rice in the second spot. And you double that to four grains of rice on the third square, and you continue until the 64th square. You end up with something like 16 quintillion grains of rice, but the 64th square and that’s exponentially it, right? And you can’t imagine that number. You can’t imagine that many… it’s impossible for us to do as humans, we’re just not built to do it. So exponentially it is compound growth and an era of technological compound growth. So, it’s going really quickly. So, what happened with blockbuster is that when VHS, and that would existed for a while, and then DVDs, and that existed for a shorter amount of time, and then blu ray, which existed for a much shorter period of time. And so that’s the grains of rice. That’s the exponentiality and you can see how that’s ramping up really quickly.

They can build an organisation with 10s of 1000s of physical stalls and leases. And then the exponential curve, hit the kind of the point when no return arrived, and they’re in this position where they’re going to find it impossible to keep pace because it no longer acquires 10s of 1000s of stores. So, they tried to mitigate this in two ways. The first way it was in 2001. They recognised that – this is interesting because they clearly understood that some aspects of this exponentiality and the technology was definitely going to change, and they saw that. Most of us in like the noughties a lot of stuff had like dial up modems, or the ADSL lines, we have 512 kilobits, maybe a megabit depending on where you were in the world that not many people have that. And compression codecs for streaming were nowhere near as efficient as they are today. So, we couldn’t compress the video anywhere near as much.

So, they saw this coming. And they partnered with a company called Enron, you might have heard of, So Enron, it turned out we’re not the company they thought they were they did that they did invest some money in this project. It didn’t go well. It turned out that they wanted to stream video to 500 times and 500 times didn’t have a good enough internet connection. They laid the cables to the 500 homes. It cost an absolute fortune and then the plane made no money. Blockbuster bailed pretty much at the same time as Enron were getting into trouble for their dodgy accountancy practices. So, they abandoned that project. Netflix was still actually sending DVDs in the post at this time. Netflix offered themselves up to Blockbuster, Blockbuster declined because they had their fingers burnt with the last streaming project, and then within about a year and a half, it became apparent what that strategy should have been. Netflix no longer wanted to put themselves up for sale. They’ll be happy with that strategy. Blockbuster had nowhere to go. So that’s like potted history.

So, Blockbuster understood, they tried to do something early I think because they wanted to play the frontline game. They’ve tried to get in there as early as possible turns up late when it’s too early, earlier than Netflix timed their entry much better. I think because they had the patience to just wait until the compression technology improves and people’s bandwidth increased and there was a sort of touch of desperation with blockbuster. So, there were lessons to be learned. Although it’s hard to think that well, I don’t know. We look at all of this with 2020 hindsight and I think we need to bear that in mind. The exponential age is still going. The world of blockchain is arriving and blockchain enables things called DAO’s which are decentralised autonomous organisation which are particularly interested in replacing things like potentially social networks. So, these organisations that we consider to the disruptors are potentially about to get disrupted themselves. And I don’t know how they’re going to treat that either. So, the most important thing is to understand your customers in the landscape, what’s happening to them, maintain that understanding as much as you can. And encourage your staff and your leadership to understand that the world is changing really quickly. In that world, you need to create more autonomy in your organisation because you have to be able to react quickly and steeply centralised organisations don’t react quickly, but more autonomous tested, momentum-based organisations are much more likely to be able to understand what’s happening and mitigate that and come up with new products and services that might work in that world So the other thing is, Blockchain is the is the world of the young and younger than me – I like to think I’m young but I’m definitely not. So again, providing much more autonomy and leveraging the skills and experience of young people in your organisation that might understand some of these emerging technologies better again is also going to be really cool.

Chris Howorth: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting one, the blockchain, isn’t it, as you said, because it’s an emerging technology. We’re entering a dangerous area where a 16-year-old in their bedroom might be more setup to deal with Blockchain than a business who we now deemed to be successful if you like, you know, like an Uber for example, and, you know, someone could come out of nowhere and become a competitor to them simply because they understand the landscape and the future better. And I suppose probably leads me to a final question, then. How would you think the best way is for a business to try and see around corners for these emerging trends, because you’ve talked about knowing your customer base, for example, you know, is that the main source of information in your opinion or is it is it bigger than that?

Nick Hodder: It is bigger than that. Because you should absolutely get to know your customers, your current customers, but you also need to understand the wider landscape where other opportunities might be. So isn’t just about that. You talked about 16-year-olds who understand blockchain more than we do sitting in their bedrooms. I mean, one piece of advice is to hire them. This is this is where experimentation, testing and learning comes in. Sometimes you can understand the opportunity on certain market size you can allocate some capital to it, and you can build projects to meet that need. And that’s a more traditional way of going about it. Other times, you just need to create a kind of skunk works kind of labs or you know, what that is reality is working like groups of people within your organisation who you give them capacity and time to experiment and try new things and say to them, look at the blockchain. Look at what’s happening with our customers have watched what could happen with our customers. With regards to blockchain, look at what everyone else is doing on blockchain and come up with some ideas and there are loads of mechanisms you can use for testing and learning.

I’m a big fan of the five-day design sprints, which is like a really good kind of innovation technique. We can pull together a group of people, often you would have subject matter experts or like people who know your customers really well combine them with UX people, a developer or engineer, and various other people who are designer people who want who you think could contribute to a project and have the given five days to come up with a prototype or just a working prototype of some concept have some idea that you have to take them out of your normal operation for five days that is definitely worth building capacity and to do that on a regular basis, because it gives you this ability to test and learn and come up with new ideas and these prototypes. They might not mean it but get any thinking about other things, refining ideas. It’s also just a really fun thing for your teams to work on, it gives us a timeout. So it’s really good to make sure that that’s not always the same group of people that you’re spreading that out and giving other people opportunities to contribute, which then gives you the benefit of the knowledge in your mind to teams as well. So yeah, definitely need to look outside of just the current customer base. And sometimes, if you’re going to reach an entirely new audience, you need to correct the entirety of the concept drop entirely the thing to do.

Chris Howorth: That’s a really interesting point you make actually because for two individuals who work within the technology sector. I think there’s a lot of businesses who will set say five hours a week outside of developers normal working activities for personal development, let’s say. I suppose for what reason, you know, that could be used for that sort of activity every once a month, for example, and definitely help those businesses. But no, I suppose hindsight looking thing and, you know, we’ll sort of see how people come out the back of that.
But, look Nick, I’d say thank you for the session. I think I’ve learned a great deal. I’ve learned I need to read some Simon Sinek books and learnt a lot about the evolution of blockbuster and Netflix as well. But I suppose thank you for your time and hope listeners did enjoy and learn something too.

Nick Hodder: That’s great Chris. It’s an absolute pleasure talking to you.

Chris Howorth: Perfect, thank you

[Outro music]

Chris Howorth: [Outro] Thank you, Nick, and for everyone listening. Hope you found this session interesting. Please stay tuned for future Godel PODS.