Austen Merrett - Lloyd Davies Associate - Operating Models

Austin has just co-authored the standard OMBOK (Operating Model Body of Knowledge) which we are creating playbooks to support in the Cohesion Platform. Here Don Phillips talks to Austin about his career and how he gained the knowledge to write the standard and offer training and coaching on it as an accredited training organisation through his company SWUSH Ltd.

Interview by Don Phillips October 2023

“Austin, I took a look back at your LinkedIn profile, its 27 jobs and counting! At the start you were involved in Howdens, you've got a massive body in financial services and you look like you've got all entrepreneurial towards the end. Can I ask, was there a plan?”

So when you see 27 jobs I see 27 opportunities where I've helped individuals in an organisation, their family, their friends and then also the wider society that's based around those organisations. 

So I will confess that the first job at Howdens that appeared there I was a humble kitchen salesman which meant enticing builders to come and buy my kitchen cupboards in a warehouse enticing them with a tape measure. I then thought there's got to be a better way of doing it, was the tape measure of corporate bribe? There were many times they were saying can I have a screw box instead of a tape measure! But what I identified very early on was that there was a massive opportunity for improvement of processes, of roles, of how warehouses were, how all the racking was stacked and all the products were stacked. How it could actually get deliveries in quicker, get deliveries out faster. Then also how we can change the view of the organisation from not just something for builders but actually selling to local government and the public sector, to hospitals, fire service and going to architects as well for affordable housing. So in that context that organisation had let's say cheap as chips products and then they had the super fancy products.

So it was a case of " how do we”, if there's a drive for affordable housing for social good, how do we actually get the people who are designing these houses, the people wanting these houses to actually see the kit and equipment that was available.  I brought a different flavour to that particular branch and I actually increased the turnover by 1,000,000 pounds. My career, my consultancy career, came from Howdens.

An agency saw my CV online put me forward for a role, it was called design consultant and it was at Norwich Union based in York when Aviva was called Norwich Union. I got the job! It took me twelve months to work out what a design consultant actually did. Once I'd worked out what I was supposed to be doing, I thought I don't want to do that. You could say I was either ambitious, driven or being a bit of an entrepreneur, but I was working at two or three levels above what I should have been working at. But all organisations can become static if they just do the same old, same old.

“That's a very valid point.”

The issue that I faced was that every time I went for promotion you did the competences and the interview and then they basically have a checklist of all the things that you're supposed to achieve in your year.  They say have you done this? And I go, no, that's a cross, what's next? Have you done this? No, that's a cross. But what I have done is this. We created a business analysis practice, brought in external speakers, created a community, looked for opportunities around the organisation to make improvements. Not only in how we create products or how we sell those products and how we deal with roles and individuals in the organisation, but also customers. That was just like, you know, no, you're not supposed to be doing that, so we can't measure you. 

So I made the decision, I decided that I was going to become a freelance consultant because I was working with many business analysts, business architects and programme managers and project managers who are just shockingly bad. They weren't really interested in gaining knowledge and then passing that knowledge on to people. I typed my resignation letter, handed it in on Monday. They said, have you got a job to go to? I said no. They said you're very brave. And I said yes. Within four weeks, I had two job offers as a freelance consultant. I had been released into the world. Here is an Austin who wants to do stuff and he's now got an opportunity to do so.  

“So what you have on LinkedIn Austin is the roles you've had,  you've worked for many in financial services,  many very credible brands, First Direct, NHS etc has that always been as a freelancer have you been employed?”

Apart from the 18 months with Norwich Union the rest have been freelance. My plan at the time was to work on the pieces of work that fit my values and I want to work with the organisations that I think I can give the most benefit to who can then pass on benefits to people that work in and with them. 

“So very 2023 values, if you don't mind me saying you were showing”

It makes sense to me. So yes.

I've got some ‘cool’ brands on there. Lloyds Banking Group, Halifax, Bank of Scotland. The people that I worked with when they were going through the financial crisis. The banks were being smashed together. I have never seen so much dedication and goodwill amongst employees knowing that they're going to be made redundant. But they wanted their brand, this thing that they built for years and years to be well looked after. They would bend over backwards to help even though they knew their pensions were worth nothing because the share price had dropped. But they were there to help and make sure that whatever was being created would survive and benefit people. That was super important to me, the mutuality of it because Halifax was a mutual originally very community focused, but building an institution.

The ‘head of’ that programme was a man who had worked his way up from a clerks role to running an organisation of 900 people. It was a huge programme of work but very tough. 

The only organisation in the UK at the time that had a database bigger than Halifax/Lloyds was the NHS. In terms of data it was massive,  data centers massive, security massive, and the number of people that may be made redundant, massive. Waves monthly. Imagine having an organisation where you get rid of up to 30,000 people and you still have to perform! 

We had current accounts branded differently, there's a different tone of voice, there's a different customer segment you've got to go for, there's multiple different systems, there's different systems in the branches, there's different systems online. A lot of people get brain fade,  they don't comprehend it but if you've got what I'll call an ‘Austin’ perspective, where you can see it in a kind of kaleidoscopic way. You can go from Ohh yeah. So this is the strategy and this is what we need to achieve. It's a bit like the Matrix and you could almost go down to the data field you know. 

Where most people are either strategists or architects or programme managers or business analysts or developers,I've got a very strong core thread that goes through all of that stuff. I don't do coding because I don't understand it. But I can have a conversation with a coder in a way that they can understand what is actually required. Because sometimes you can always articulate that in words, whether that's a requirement or or in a catalog or a user story. At the same time you have these siloed views or mentalities where a business analyst won't speak to a developer or they say they're not going to do testing. Or you might have a project manager who says ohh, you've got to go do this if you can. 

If you can have this view of what needs to be done, if you can apply let's say different lenses, so there's a lens of right. So who's going to buy this product? How am I going to sell this product? How I'm going to create this product? Who are the people that are involved? If you've got drive and that energy, enthusiasm and imagination. You will be a brilliant entrepreneur. That's what an entrepreneur is. They can see things differently to other people and they can count these fantastic ideas, where entrepreneurs fall over quite a lot and I would say this really wears me out because it's not my natural home. 

If they can pull all those together, they're going to succeed.

Success isn't always being able to go to market and generate an income, because if you fail. there will be a success at the end of that failure because you understand why you failed and you can learn from that and build into it again. Don't ever become despondent, use the people in your life and your networks to get to where you need to be. 

“We are articulating what you were during that phase. You didn't like the label of design consultant that you used, what would you describe yourself as?’ 

That is such a hard question to answer.  I'm tempted to say society chooses to label people.

“When I first came across you,I got a strong sense of architecture in my head and I got a strong sense of leadership development.”

I regard labels as constrained, it's just my nature, but I don't naturally fit into boxes. I get put in a box and I spring out. I am Prince 2 qualified but I am not a project manager. Business analysis  I would say that's my bread and butter type. If you set me off to go and do a piece of work, you have to observe, you have to understand, you need fantastic people skills, you need to be able to analyse data, you need to be able to formulate and then articulate questions. In some instances it will take you down the route that you want to go. But they need to be neutral. If you're coming up with an options paper perhaps and you know what the preferred option is going to be, you've got to think about how you're gonna phrase your questions.

Then you've collected all that information, you've got so much knowledge about people, process, information, data and technology of that organisation, you become like a walking encyclopedia of the organisation that you're working in.From there you've got to be able to articulate that in either pictures with fluffy clouds and blue sky thinking and and all that kind of stuff, or you are doing process maps or you're writing procedural documents or you're helping with policy writing. 

For me I see that as the linchpin within the project lifecycle from idea through to delivering it.

In Norwich Union they called it the design consultant, you were a bit of a business analyst, a bit of an architect, a bit of a project manager. You were the safe pair of hands kind of consultant. But when there's a Scottish Widows, I was called a business designer, which I prefer to a business architect.

“Which is interesting in my parallel universe. My first job was as a salesman for Hewlett Packard, but they called me a field engineer. In retrospect it was genius because my father thought I'd gone to the dark side and I thought I was doing an engineering job.”

Yes it sounds good. Field engineer. Again it's that label which sometimes you need a title. I mean if you try and remove the word consultant from somebody's title then they get a bit touchy about it but with business architecture, it takes you to our business design which is a phrase you want to use. It takes you up another level a bit nearer to what I used to call the propellerheads that were coming up with the strategy for the entire organisation. You're thinking of a high level, right. 

When you're thinking of OM (Operating Models) it's the different people in the organisation interacting and you have to think of the total experience they are getting. 

You've got to consider if that person is going to be answering the phone, they need to be able to access the customer's details, they need to have the scripts, they need a process to follow our procedure and they need to be trained. Are they in the right location to do this? What are the opening hours and then you’ve got to consider the technologies that they're going to use. 

When you're at that level and considering the business architecture, you also need to consider application architecture and your data architecture and also your technology architecture. Then you've got your product suite and then you've got your roles and you've got all your locations. What you're actually creating is an operating model. And not many people understand that, not many people understand what an operating model is. So you're creating the thing that's going to enable the creation or exceeding the criteria required for that organisation. To me it's, it's strategic goals and it's obvious and it's in some cases it's regulatory obligations. 

“There's two avenues I'd like to discuss Austin because I came across you were operating and visible on the web selling people development skills. Why people development skills? I associate with SWUSH but it's a touchy feely thing, not an operating model, which is how do we operate the company at the most efficient level possible.”

So let me explain. Over the 25 years I have been doing this  I realised that you cannot do a single thing in an organisation or create an organisation, maintaining scale or shutting down an organisation without having a thorough understanding of two things, people and data.

I ended up on a course for executive coaching and one of the things that you do there is your fellowship for the Institute of Leadership and Management. That's the reason I got into coaching. But you build your operating model on people and data, so they are connected.

If you actually listen to what people are saying and observe properly, observe what they're doing and whether you're being a coach or an architect or an analyst you start to pick up on things and you start to read body language. Most entrepreneurs will be like me and have a hunger for knowledge. You'll start to read things and you start to get a better understanding of something. And then if you've got the opportunity, you'll start to demonstrate and experiment with what you're learning.

I discovered that there are two views.

If an organisation is making some process changes This is a change that an individual's got to go through. A lot of people don't like change, particularly those people who've been in organisation for 10/15/20 years. I've been in meetings where they've said this is Doris. She's the baby of the team. She's only been here 19 years. 

When you're doing your analysis and when you're doing your architecture, you have to be extremely mindful of you're actually impacting people's lives and the way that they do things.

The other view became very clear to me and I've seen this a number of times. Everybody at that certain level, regardless of their bullishness and their bravado, are frightened. They are scared. They do not want to be found out. 

There's a video with Jordan Peterson, and he talks about camouflage and he talks about zebras, and he said what zebras are black and white stripes. The Serengeti is kind of brown and green.It's not the fact that they're hiding from predators. They're hiding within the herd. That's what people do. They don't really enjoy sticking their head above the parapet and taking all that responsibility. And it manifests itself in stress, in poor behaviour. They become Alcoholics. They have drug problems. They pretend, they lose sight of what they're supposed to be doing.

I realised that I like people and I want to help in some way, which is a massive thing for me because when I was an architect in financial services, shirt and tie everyday, pinstripe suit, brogues, the hair, the quaff, the stands, you could be seen as aloof and condescending because you're  in the ivory tower where all the thinking happens.

When you discovered me, Don, I was putting myself out there. If I'm going to be advising people and showing them how to get over their fears and their insecurities so they can either have a better home life or perform better at work, I've got to do it myself to be authentic. With the coaching that I do, I have a niche which is females, whether they're business leaders or if they're in a business critical role or if they want to get on to the board of directors. It's a brutal place being on a corporate board. 

“Listening to this, you're offering an architectural framework for executives and leaders to navigate success in whatever it is they're trying to do?”

If you've got a framework to do something, then it's a lot better than not having a framework.

“I've got an echo on this. I had a sales director who would always turn up in front of your desk and say 'what's this week's plan?’ if you didn't have a plan, he would  poke you in the eye. If you had a plan, it would be excellent. And I can come back and ask you how you're doing next week!”

There are a number of types of coaches out there. There's the coach who has gone off and they've done a lot of training, they've got qualified but they don't really do anything with it because they don't want to charge anybody for it!  Then we've got what I call the blueberry muffin brigade, these are purist coaches where they want you to come up with the answer, it's almost ethereal, they'd sit there for forty minutes and only say four words.

The coaching that I do and what we do at SWUSH, we have a number of different different programmes but they have a core thing they're all built around. We want to find out about you.

Who are you? What are you about? What is it that you do? What's that thing inside that drives you or doesn't drive you?

Then it's right, what is it you actually want to do? Let's say I want to create a new business, you're a budding entrepreneur because your skills and your desires are not being used in your current environment. It's serious stuff and it should be treated as such. When you work out what you want to do, you've got to know where you're coming from. 

In the world of coaching and the world of my consultancy, we do the same thing. You create your as is. Where are you now? What's your financial situation? What's your health? What what your what's your what's your relationship with your parents, your siblings, your husband, your wife, your kids, all these things. What is the self and once you start to build out your values and you create this vision, we've written down what yourself is. 

That plan is why they're here and what they're doing to get there. Whether that's in their role as a head of function or head of business continuity or CEO of Lloyds or somebody who'd the data processor day in, day out thinking I wanna create a microbrewery, but I don't know how to do it.

It's the same thing, understanding what yourself is, your current environment, where you want to go and then working out how you're going to get there, plus how you're going to deal with all the obstacles, the opportunities, the highs, the lows. For me, that's what coaching is and it's that advising piece. 

I know from my own work, I've spent multiple 10s of thousands of pounds on myself over the past three years and it's now got me into a position where I know what I want to do. I know myself and I know that I'm here to help others either achieve or get on, be part of their journey to achieve what it is they want to achieve. 

“What you're talking about. You're applying to an individual effectively and the performance of individuals. You also can apply it to organisational design?”

Yes exactly.

“And that's what the operating model body of knowledge (OMBOK) you're creating is today? 

Yes. When we agreed to do this interview I was thinking, Don's going to ask me that question. Tell me about yourself. That dreaded interview question. What I say is I've spent 25 years understanding and creating possibilities for individuals, teams and organisations to increase their performance. 

Now if you were to look at the SWUSH website, you'll see there's a tab thats got all this coaching and there's a tab that says organisational design and delivery.

“What you're saying is it can be applied to an entrepreneur that understands that they need a body of knowledge in order to navigate what I'd call crossing the chasm?”

The entrepreneur needs an individual who understands this body of knowledge. That's what they need. The entrepreneur does not need to know how it works. They just need to know that there is knowledge. It's like calling an Uber. I need to get over there so I don't need to know how my app works. It just does. 

If an entrepreneur has got an idea and they're not quite sure how to do it, then they can either tap into the SWUSH knowledge, that covers people, emotions and what I'm going to do and all that kind of stuff through to the the the body of knowledge, which gives you the standard questions that you need that you should be answering. That person will be there to advise you becoming part of their network,

“Fascinating conversation Austin. My last question is, we've known each other for a couple of years now and you use me as a ‘Lloyd Davies Associate’, you are aware of the Cohesion Platform we're creating. How do you think that plays with you and in combination with you to help startups and scale ups and do you think it's a good idea?”

It's not a good idea. It's a brilliant idea, I'm chuffed to be involved so let me let me explain. 

For me it gives everything that's needed, I'll try and elaborate. I've got a load of knowledge, my team has loads of knowledge and there's some incredible people in the team. We need a place to get all our knowledge, our stuff into, so people can access it. 

So with cohesion what we've got is a smooth interface, it's easy to use. We can put all our information in the form of  playbooks and links to external content. When it's in there,

then it's easily accessible for other people, it's for entrepreneurs, whether they're starting, scaling or shutting down. They can access it in a way that's easy to navigate. We know it's secure. We know it's safe. It's just a really good Mechanism. A place to store the information in a way that people can access it either as somebody who's pulling or somebody's pushing. We're pushing info and then the entrepreneurs can pull. So I think it's great.

“I still regard Lloyd-Davis Associates as a combination of information and the network of people as well as a place for repository. Is that a valid view? 

Absolutely. And it goes back to what I said earlier,people and data. So let's put all the content in the system and we'll group that as data. But then it's the people that are going to enhance the knowledge and the information that's on the platform. Then the information is going to enhance what the people can, how the people can help or assist with. Yeah. 

“So it does loop back to people and data!”



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