UK Tote Group is the proud owner and steward of the Tote, the UK’s leading pool betting operator since 1928. Started by Sir Winston Churchill, the Tote was created to be a safe place to bet and return funds to British racing. The Tote has therefore been at the heart of British racing for over 90 years.

In this episode of The Godel POD, Laura Ainscough, Service Delivery Manager at Godel is joined by, Lydia Hawthorn, Head of Product Delivery at UK Tote Group to talk about how agile delivery works within UK’s leading pool betting operator.

This is an edited transcript, for more conversations on the latest in tech, subscribe to The Godel POD on Podbean and Spotify. Podcast jingle provided by the Hideout YouthZone.

Podcast transcript

Laura Ainscough: Hi everybody and welcome to another episode of The Godel POD. This episode today is called “Agile delivery, how to keep the train on the tracks”. Firstly, let me introduce myself. So my name is Laura Ainscough and I am a Service Delivery Manager here at Godel Technologies. Today we have the pleasure of speaking to my guest, Lydia Hawthorn, who is Head of Product Delivery from the UK’s leading pool betting operator, the Tote group. Welcome from us, I’ll let you introduce yourself.

Lydia Hawthorn: I’m Lydia. I’m the Head of Product Delivery at the Tote. I’ve been at the Tote for a year and a half now, leading Agile transformation there. But prior to that, I was at a tech incubator called Tech nation. Looking after delivery them. It’s pretty great to be here today.

Laura Ainscough: So, we’ve been in a partnership for over a year now. I know exactly what the Tote would do. So just for our listeners do you want to let us know what the Tote Group are about and what they do?

Lydia Hawthorn: Yeah, of course. So I think The Tote is fairly synonymous with on-course betting. Specifically, within horse racing. It’s where our lineage comes from. And we’re pools operator, so rather than fixed odds betting that you might find with another provider when you bet with The Tote, you’re betting a stake into a larger pool, which you are then essentially looking to win a dividend and depending on how many other people in that pool bet the same way as you or bet another winner, depends really then on how much of the dividend you receive out of the pool. We’re the only pool operator in the UK which puts us in a very unique position really in the market.

Laura Ainscough: How big is the company regarding how many employees do you have?

Lydia Hawthorn: We’ve reached 180 something. There’s been a lot of growth over the last three years. Since the buyback, Tote had been owned as a brand by Bet Fred previously. Over the last three or four years, we’ve been buying back the business so that it’s now a standalone business owned by the owner’s equity group, which is made up of roughly 155 individual investors who are passionate about horse racing and feel that the total had a standalone brand that really would warrant some focus and it’s just been growing ever since really.

Laura Ainscough: Brilliant. If we just get back onto our topic of agile delivery, I suppose it would be good for our listeners, to introduce how agile work delivery works within The Tote Group.

Lydia Hawthorn: Yeah, of course so as I mentioned, I came on board a year and a half, leading the transformation at The Tote. Prior to that, they’d been using Scrum, a fairly basic implementation of several Scrum teams. And they were looking really to lead the charge on a safe implementation of a Scaled Agile Framework, which looks at adding a scaled layer of processes visibility on top of a scrum layer. So at the moment, we are a year and a half into that implementation. It’s heading towards a portfolio implementation of safe versus an essential version of safe and anybody who understands safe methodologies knows there is a difference. So we structure everything on top of that base layer that’s basic scrum layer and everyone else, really so as well as being the head of agile at the head of product delivery. My title is also an RT, which is a release train engineer who has a specific role within safe framework that keeps the train on track, which is exactly the point of the podcast.

Laura Ainscough: And talking about kind of keeping that train on the track within this kind of processes, as always, probably times you divert or kind of feel like you’re losing control and coming off that track. What are the kind of key things that you do to try and keep everything in line and kind of handle those changes, but make sure everyone kind of knows where they’re going in that right direction?

Lydia Hawthorn: I think ultimately, there was a lot of work when we first started at providing the right level of visibility from a road like a strategic roadmap perspective, which traditionally is owned at maybe an OP CO level or by senior stakeholders in the business, mapping that visibility of what commercially we wanted to do as a business, then into the squads in terms of what is it that they’re actually delivering day to day? It was clear that there wasn’t that much awareness of what either side was doing. It can be as simple as just shining a light so that there’s an understanding of what’s happening at a strategic versus a tactical level.

I think that has then helped create a little bit more of a North Star and there’s definitely more than we need to be doing but as our strategy has changed over the last three or four years. We were in a fairly unique position where we started with almost no digital assets when we bought the business back so we have no website, no app. Initially, it was how do we turn the lights on? To more of okay, how do we keep the lights on and then how do we light more lights? So those sorts of things have changed really our strategic approach over the last few years. And naturally, then they begin to inform what the tactical pieces of work end up looking like yeah, everything from the actual tech enablers to new feature work. So when people feel that the train is coming off the track it’s supposed a chance to litmus test okay, how aligned are both of those things? How aligned are the micro and the macro? And that’s the first bit to revisit, really, there’s so much more after that. Once you’ve diagnosed where the misalignment is, it’s how do you actually treat it? But I think that’s the key sort of question that you need to ask yourself if you’re seeing that happen.

Laura Ainscough: Is there kind of a specific example you can use where there where things that went in a different direction, both sides were heading there and how you did that align it back?

Lydia Hawthorn: I think to be honest, sometimes it can come down to even basic things like requirement gathering. So obviously we work in a very highly regulated industry. We are very passionate at the toe about keeping our customers safe, and not just doing the bare minimum and doing more to provide that safe space to enjoy gambling responsibly with The Tote but what that means is within an agile setting, the whole emphasis is on delivering value in the flow of value out of the customer as frequently as possible. Yeah, it’s where you get this concept of an MVP, a minimum viable product coming from is not because we want to do something basic, and we think that all that’s good enough. It’s how do we make the customer feel value is being delivered to them on a regular basis.

And when it comes to compliance, for example, there’ll be certain items around sub exclusions, for example, loss limits or deposit limits that we’re trying to do. Not only in line with what the regulation says, but also to the level that we feel as responsible inside the toe and doesn’t invite any extra risk for our customers. But in order to do that, you really have to question and drill down somewhat into the requirements sometimes of what is absolutely necessary and then that creates your phase one. What are the enhancements that create phase two, and that can be at times a bit? If people need some reassurance around that sometimes that you’re not just going to do phase one and forget about phase two Later, the enhancements will happen.

In order to we could either wait six months and get all bells and whistles, or we could deliver a piece of value to the customer within three months. So, it’s important when you’re going through a transformation that you set expectations so that people see when these situations happen, they’re not ambushed by them. They will set the expectation that these are exactly the sorts of difficult conversations and challenges that are presented when going through a transformation and if people know what to look out for, they know then our way this isn’t a signifier of something going wrong, it is just a natural process that comes with change and the agile mindset.

Laura Ainscough: It helps people kind of get used to change in that way as well as behaviours.

Lydia Hawthorn: Precisely I think everybody sees change the transformation as disruptors. And what I say is I want to disrupt but I don’t want to be disruptive. There is a difference and you really do have to focus a lot of time on the hearts and minds piece of bringing people on the journey with you. It’s a very lonely place to be in change and transformation if there isn’t a real good set of allies that are helping, sort of signpost you along the way and these are not always individuals within product and engineering.

Quite often they’re the people at risk or in compliance or in Customer Care or in marketing, or in data. And when you have those allies in those spaces that advocate for you, even when you’re not in the room, it’s a massive, massive part of effecting real change because you’re not just wanting to be agile by name only. There’s no point in planting a load of processes if people don’t understand the benefits and aren’t really truly embracing them because they see the impact that they could have. You really do need to rely on those core allies ready to help you push an agenda, not a scary agenda, one that you genuinely wholeheartedly believe is going to bring positive change to the business.

Laura Ainscough: I suppose that makes sense and coming back to your role as Head of Product Delivery. And I suppose to our listeners as well who are in a similar role, why is agile delivery so crucial to your position and the product delivery of Tote Group?

Lydia Hawthorn: I think agile is underpinned by a fairly standard set of values, but a core one is about being customer centric and 100% making sure that you’re not scared to make quick decisions, or test and learn test and learn relentlessly. As long as it’s in the name of what’s best for the customer. At the Tote, our customer is so important to us. Obviously every b2c business, every b2b business, that customer is important. But our customer is a massive part of our identity. We’re as a brand incredibly passionate about horse racing giving back to the horse racing community about celebrating the heritage, the deep, deep heritage that is there. And it’s reflected through its fan base. And those are the customers, the people who are watching ITV seven and reading the papers on the weekend, the racing posts to understand what they’re going to bet on that weekend. Those are the individuals that we want to make feel at home at the Tote, and also, calling a spade a spade is slightly more difficult to position the pools offering out in the market than it is the fixed odd that is a bit more complicated, it’s not as common and we want to make it easy for them to see the value that the Tote provides.

So if you work back from that, how do we do that? Agile delivery is, as I said before, about bringing value as fast as possible to the customer and at a relentless pace so that they never feel like they’ve been forgotten. But it’s also about the level of insight that we’re expecting up front that helps us inform what the product looks like through user experience research, feeding that into the designs, and also making sure, in Agile what we want to do is it’s called set based design. We want to preserve our options for as long as possible. So rather than starting out with one option, which has been massively defined upfront, the product needs to look like this in order to serve the needs of the customer. And along the way, you realise Oh, either technologically that’s a challenge to provide it in exactly that sort of package. Or you learn another piece of insight that challenges what you initially thought. If you haven’t preserved your options, you then have to spend time diverging from that one initial plan and going back and figuring out what can be whereas if you prefer to present your options up front, you’ve got a plan a plan B, plan C plan, up to Z. Depending on how you want to go. And it’s very easy then to just change the track.
The second one, we always say an add on, you really don’t want to be afraid of changing things. We actually welcome change because what it tells us is that we’ve learned something that will bring us closer to what it is our customer needs. It aligns very, very nicely with our own product mission and what we’re trying to do with the business. But it’s also well proven to produce a higher quality product. So it’s, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t want to do that when you’re operating a product centric and customer centric model

Laura Ainscough: And I suppose obviously, within your industry, a product of a CI know well from working with you over the year, but would you recommend this type of approach with maybe products that aren’t as fast growing and changing as much as your industry just for maybe listeners out there who obviously aren’t in a similar industry?

Lydia Hawthorn: Yeah, I’ve implemented agile in non tech spaces. So even Okay, you’ve got tech so fast moving Tech that is in a scale up, for example, a business that is rapidly even pivoting or their route to market is speeding up that sort of use case I suppose. You’ve got tech that as user maybe a bit more well established? Isn’t this a bit more like keeping the lights on? But even then, you know, Tech is a space that innately seeks out innovation, it innately lives on that cutting edge, and a business that is seeking to continue to keep up with the pace of other competitors, the needs of the customer. But you’ve got businesses as well that are not in the tech space. And like I said, I’ve implemented agile practices there and I think really, I very rarely meet real proper purist, agile, applying the book will rule and then this is how you get a successful agile implementation. The majority of us are sensible individuals with the business acumen to understand that there are some times when a purist approach is not going to suit the business. So I always try to differentiate really, between agile frameworks, which are obviously the guiding structures and sort of processes around the flavour of agile you’re using, be safe, but it could be sort of scale, Scrumban, Kanban lean.

So that’s the framework piece, but then you’ve got the toolkits and really creating agile cultures and bringing agile mindset to your employees is about empowering them getting them to understand what is an agile mindset number one, and number two, how do they live, eat breathe it in their day to day roles. There are teams across Tote that are not tech teams, and they’re not product teams, but they can see and understand agile principles. And what we do is just equip them with the toolkit so that then they’re clear. We’ve got these guiding frameworks, but really, what’s important is that you’ve got the right toolkits available to you within agile frameworks to do your job well. And I think ultimately, if it comes down to that, then you can’t go far wrong, really.

Laura Ainscough: That nicely links into the safe framework that you’ve implemented, I suppose it’d be good to kind of hear if there were any difficulties with adopting them?

Lydia Hawthorn: The interesting thing is of course, there are challenges, of course there are difficulties. So instead of just having a sprint planning, you have a PI planning and a PI is a group of Sprint’s usually five, and you’re planning for five months worth of work. So planning is a lot of refinement to into the product management teams need to come with their use cases and stories written well, there’s needs to be a level of estimation, having been done to the teams familiar with the piece of work, some identification of dependencies on other teams, and if there’s any tech blockers, preventing the work being done. So all of these sorts of things you know what to start when you start from scratch, they feel very, very daunting and a big to do list of things that you need to have done before PI planning happens and I think we are planning can sometimes seem a bit prescriptive and that like you have to go in there with all of the information, but the point of CO locating the planning is that you’re expected to have all the answers but the person who does have the answer you need is somewhere in the room or adjacent to you. And I think starting at the toe, they’ve done a couple of PI plannings, but it felt very, very daunting going into the idea that we will be running them consistently going forward.

So I just made PIs very short, we didn’t plan for five sprints, we plan for two sprints. And so we had a week planning and innovation sprint in-between. So it wasn’t a full sprint. It was a week. Yeah, so really we’re looking at PIs at five weeks long. And when you broke it down like that the rinse and repeat opportunities were just relentless. By the time we’d got to the point where everybody was ready to lengthen the PI’s people that are going, “please not another PI planning”. I mean the overheads a massive war going on, you know and get everybody together and we were doing all of this during lockdowns where we when it was saying we would come into the office, but when it wasn’t then we were having to facilitate remotely and there were times, obviously working with Godel we do have hybrid teams with summer abroad and summer and yeah, and having facilitate hybrid teams is a challenge too.

But, you know, again, it’s adopting the Agile principle of testimony and testimony like relentless improvement relentlessly trying to learn and how do you do that? Well, you just do it as often as you possibly can. But you know, my role in particular anybody in a head of product delivery role head of agile delivery role. They’re not strangers to challenge if you go into transformation thinking or what a key measure of success for me is that I don’t have any veils or any challenges. You’re really missing the point you probably haven’t adopted the agile mindset yourself because you can’t as always learn through positive experiences. We welcome fail fast is another big concept that sits in the Agile community is, if you’re gonna fail, figure it out quickly, though, learn that lesson as fast as you possibly can and then move forward with what it’s taught and so, I think it’s great that we talked about our failures, it’s great that we talked about the challenges that we’ve been set up against, but they shouldn’t be unexpected.

Laura Ainscough: I suppose fitting that as well because again, like we’ve got challenges, but I think there’s pretty huge positives of in the year and a half and change of behaviour as well in Tote and it’s both it’s good, quite directly, but has it been agile approach work? Have you seen the benefits and the positives that come with it?

Lydia Hawthorn: Absolutely. I think the one thing that we could have done more upfront, was set some more clear OKRs around how we would measure that success. And ultimately, I know I went in initially and because they have that scrum layer that exists and it’s a good place to start, especially if the transformation is daunting. I got brought in specifically to do that. But if you’re in house now and you’re embarking upon a transformation, you don’t really know where to start, health check. Health track what you’ve currently got. And then you’ll start to see where the dysfunctions are, where the low hanging fruit is that stuff that’s quick to fix and a quick win, as well as the stuff that’s probably more systemic, and that’s going to take longer to change. And so I did those health checks and that was a very good way of us measuring from that baseline, how we’d improved within six months within another six months. And so immediately, the second health check we did you know, those markers were improving is sort of out of, we started at 3.65 out of five. The next one was a 4.25. And also within safe, it’s very helpful as they actually use a metric around predictability of the release train, which is all of your squads together. And you can look at the predictability of squads based on the objectives that they set in their PI plan and then you can obviously roll that up into a predictability score across the entire release train. And they’d say, you know, we need to be able to see really safe to say anything over 80 is fantastic, because we expect change.

We’re not being over 100% It’s not good either. Because what you’ve done there and it’s delivered more than you set out to deliver which you might think okay, brilliant, but what at what cost was that? There’s a business readiness piece around delivering tech, right? You can’t just say, Oh here’s this brand new product off it goes, marketing needs to be involved, they need to come up with the campaigns we need to prepare customer care new bet types coming through so if they get a query, they know what that one is referencing, etc.

So if you’ve delivered more than anticipated, does that mean all the other departments actually needed to then rush report that that release, so we really want that sweet spot of sort of 80% and we’re consistently hitting that and that’s been an uplift from around 50. So I think, as I said, I’d like to have spent a bit more time upfront, I think, in hindsight, it’s a great lesson to have learned, setting some of those OKRs and allowing some of the metrics to we could have been a bit more creative, I think with them. Yeah. But yeah, generally speaking, it It’s working, it’s doing what we want

Laura Ainscough: Moving in the future, you know, within the tech industry, there’s always new trends, new ways of doing things. And, you know, that’s what we’re always open to but I suppose How do yourself and obviously the Tote Group then kind of keep up with these trends and learn about them and embed them?

Lydia Hawthorn: I think The Tote as a company, obviously, we are in a unique space in the UK market. But globally. as well, we’re in a very interesting position because we can commingle into other countries via other Totes. So it really gives us a sense of community. Because a Tote is really just a structure. Yeah, it’s just a type of betting operator, right. And we happen to be called the UK tote in America and Australia. And when you are able to learn from the international community about what’s going on in those spaces, that opens up opportunities you really and it gives you insight that you wouldn’t already have and I suppose we are a very big community in the sense that we work together quite a lot, lots of open doors really there.

But in terms of agile obviously, there’s a responsibility that I’m putting my Scrum Masters on relevant training and that I’m myself making sure that I’m up to date on changes to approaches to safe and making sure I’m safe in and of itself has become its own real world and subculture of agile as a more general approach. And safe is fantastic at providing content podcasts, to hear from, say, fellows who are going across the world, and the experts in those in those fields and it says felt very progressive when it came out because it was seeking to answer the question of how do you do Scrum and Agile as a business is scaling and how do you do it at an enterprise level? Traditionally, the Agile hotbed was those small, agile teams of a few people and where they’re all co-located in the same building and in the trenches together. And there was a point where that was great. But how do you scale that then to the new world where hybrid working is so important, and even before that, when companies were opening international offices, and they were using companies like Godel, or other companies that provided or opening their own offices, you know, offshore, how do you then use the Agile processes at scale?

And so safe really was a response to that and continues to be a response to that. And there are a community that are very open to the idea that maybe they didn’t get it exactly right the first time. And I’m not in, in their nature, particularly purist in the sense that when you look at the big picture of safe, it is a little bit like a self serve, pick and mix of which of these elements of implementation are going to serve your business best. Aside from what the organisation has wanted to do strategically and in the market, and you know, it’s worth saying as well in that space, we also have to keep up to date, in terms of being responsible to our customers on things like regulatory trends and compliance trends, etc. And we have a whole team of people who are responsible for doing that and keeping the finger on the pulse. But yeah, in the Agile space, it’s the remit of the head of product delivery and setting that expectation that anybody in that fashion the Scrum Masters delivery managers are doing the same.

Laura Ainscough: I suppose this is like what you’ve done with the Tote Group in your career in general. You’re so passionate about agile delivery and changes, I suppose, is that what keeps you motivated that you don’t ever feel like it’s complete? There’s always so much to learn.

Lydia Hawthorn: yeah, and I often refer to like change and transformation agents as Mary Poppins characters where they really do like to come in and survey the situation. Everything does tend to be a sense of sort of, when my time is done, you know when I know that I’ve done my work on what I need to do, but it’s so nuanced. It’s not one specific thing that tells you all the transformation is done because like you said, it never really is. Yeah. The way I’ve always described it, though, is what I’m trying to do is recreate that feeling of, you’re in a car and you’re going to Scarborough and it’s your best friends in there with you and the sun is shining. There’s not another car on the roads. You’ve got amazing tunes and great snacks in the car, right? Yeah. Versus I’m going to go on the other side. You’re going to Disneyland You’re on your own and there’s tonnes of traffic and it’s raining really hard outside through the night away. And you haven’t got any snacks and there is just no end in sight. It doesn’t really matter. You’re going to Disneyland right you’re going to get to Disneyland and be really annoyed. Yeah. And be like, what, I’ve just wasted so many hours of my life. You’ll be grumpy, you know, it’s gonna take you a while to get over that. Yeah. And then if you’ve got told me, I’m gonna do it all again.

I need but this time you go to Bora Bora. And you’re like, alright, yeah, I’m fine. I’d rather not go I want my team and yeah, whereas if it doesn’t, ideally, you’re going to Disneyland, and you’ve got your best mates in your car and a fun time in traffic on the roads. But that’s not always I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. I think both of those things can happen. Yeah. When I’m going into a business, I would for a transformation I would tend to find the Disneyland version of that, versus the Scarborough version. And ultimately, the people who go to Scarborough they’ll keep wanting to go back because they’ve had the best time. Best Yeah. This is really well, you know, it’s never boring. It never gets old because this is so much about the culture and the people. Yeah, just as much if not more, really, I would argue that the processes themselves.

And of course, you need good processes. And of course, you need good tech capability to back it up and all of those things, but if you fundamentally don’t have the right culture, where openness and transparency, you’re free to challenge and free to try and change things if that doesn’t exist, you’re always on that on that dreary road to Disneyland.

Laura Ainscough: And I suppose just final question, and it feels great to have you on as a guest just talking about this topic and so enthusiastically as well. But for anyone who’s wanting to break into that agile space, you know what would be your advice?

Lydia Hawthorn: So my background is slightly unique. I would say unique. That’s not really that’s doing myself too. I guess what you tend to see is this idea that people who are in Agile delivery or in transformation in tech teams, themselves need to have been in tech before doing that is really not the case. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I wish I had been a developer at some point I wish had been in QA at some point, just so I could get exactly what they’re talking about. The first time they said it without having to ask any questions. But my background was more in real, traditional sort of project management delivery management of consultancy services in the cybersecurity space. And what it showed me though, is exactly what I love about my job now is that you can deliver something on paper, but if the processes weren’t right, then it can all be undone really like it can all happen for nothing.

And I made the transition by just deciding this is what I’m going to go and do. I started to self-fund some of my agile qualifications and then baked it into my PDP inside my role at my job and I got my work to agree to fund the rest of it for me. So I think don’t be scared to self fund things. I think nowadays, it’s great if you’ve got an employee who’s super supportive. Yeah. And you’re in sort of safe that the skills that you learn within an agile qualification are transferable then brilliant. We’re not all in that situation though. So don’t be scared to self fund. Find whatever you think is going to be the most relevant the thing that even if you explicitly then don’t directly move to a scrum master role or an Agile coach role, you can still take knowledge from and using other areas in your career is a great way to start. I also think the community can seem intimidating, but we’re all just a bunch of people who are trying to figure out the best way to solve other people’s problems.

There’s a kinship that ultimately you all know what it feels like to be asked a question like, how can you fix this and you don’t immediately know the answer. So we’re all just on a quest for those answers, really. And I’ve found the Agile community to be one of the most understanding of what it feels like to be on the outside. So we all know what it feels like to be the first person to say, I’m going to make that transition. Okay, well, how am I going to do it? I want to go to an agile meetup. In Manchester there’s some great ones, great ones, are some really big supporters of agile ways of working as well as employers. So you’ve got your money supermarket, you’ve got Co Op, you’ve got some really big businesses there that are our advocates. You know, they’ve got advocates working for them and they’re, they’re very willing to give their time.

So reach out and go to the sessions. I know it might be daunting, but the only way to really, outside of getting a job in the space the only way to really learn is through osmosis and to be surrounded by those people who are living it day to day. And if anyone is really struggling, find me on LinkedIn message me, you know, I’m more than happy to put you in the right direction because people did it to me when I was starting out and it’s what makes the most difference. So you know, I’ve got somebody coming next week for work experience. That’s just giving them a week in the life of a scrum master, for example. So, these sorts of things, they don’t need to be massive either they could be a couple of days here or there, just to see it. Start to piece together some of your learnings that you want to get in on the other side. There’s so much so many resources out there now in terms of video, podcasts, and tutorials, you can teach yourself the basics of Agile at home without spending any money.

Laura Ainscough: Thank you so much for being with us today.

Lydia Hawthorn: Thank you so much, guys. It’s been lovely talking to you.

[Outro] Laura Ainscough: Huge thank you to all the listeners out there who’ve listened to this instalment of The Godel POD. If you like what you hear and would like to know when we’re releasing even more episodes, please just subscribe to the Godel page on pod bean or Spotify.