How Northern Gas Networks became an “An Agile and Adaptive Organisation” in under 18 months

A very personal perspective

As ever with my posts this is a very personal viewpoint and perspective about one of the most enjoyable and invigorating periods of my life. My time as 3iG Director at NGN.

I decided to share this journey to help show that when you get down to it – great people can do amazing things – not technology, not processes….people.

It’s a LONG POST! I’m not going to apologise too much though – getting the essence of what we achieved across in less would be impossible. I suspect not everyone will make it to the end – fair enough. (I was going to do a couple of other deeper dive bits over the next couple of weeks as well!!!)

A bumpy journey (and one day a book!)

There were some bumpy parts to the journey and know that at times some of my colleagues felt frustrated, annoyed, and I know for a fact that some of the suppliers to NGN felt life wasn’t fair. My hope is that even if they didn’t always enjoy the journey that they understood why we were on it.

One day I hope to write a book about the how and why NGN (Northern Gas Networks) were able to achieve so much in such little time to do justice to the people there. So whatever I write down in this short post can only capture 1/10th of the energy, passion, enthusiasm and commitment of the people who made it happen. However people like Matthew, Mark, Howard, Martin, David, Dave, Eileen, Ruta, Maggie, Gillian, Trish, Nick, Nicola, Kenny, Mark, Matt, Chris, Elouise, Ian, know how much I owe to them in this journey and how I’ll never forget that fact (and the full list would be 30 or more people who instead of doing nothing did something brilliant).

So…hindsight’s a wonderful thing

The graphic in this post is a basic attempt to show the 12 stages we went through to achieve what we did (btw – a proper picture of this is on my profile). I’m not going to walk through each and every step in this post – just pull out some highlights of the journey. I’ll also state up front that this is NOT a recipe approach. I absolutely believe that achieving success at this scale means building your own story and journey – bits of my journey may resonate – but sorry to say – trying to just apply them as a formula won’t work!

It’s NOT linear!

I’ll start by saying it NEVER felt this linear or planned at the time, mainly because it wasn’t. We had a pretty clear idea of where we were heading and this direction was to be an outstanding, customer focused, connected and highly adaptive business. It wasn’t about being a good utility – we already were – that’s not really stretching any boundaries – most utilities aren’t very good at Customer Service!

It was about being a brilliant business.

From the outset our CEO Mark (Horsley) understood the power of collaboration, communication and a passion for excellence. So FACT ONE. If you’ve a leader who understands the business, it’s people, the power of technology and can inspire folk then you’ve probably already got an 80% chance of succeeding. If you haven’t then you’re going to have to work harder. Much harder.

The words/mantra that we kept using during the journey were “Emergence and Communication” (actually hats of to Mark – he constantly drilled home the need to keep being honest and open about everything)….things will emerge and if we made sure we were constantly sharing stuff with one another we’d be able to adapt the journey accordingly.

The success factors

Relentless and Unstoppable : I’ve mentioned NGN’s CEO Mark as a key reason NGN can tackle and succeed in doing this sort of thing at pace. Equally the can do culture is exemplified in a term which I heard from day one “relentless and unstoppable”. The profound and absolute belief that our people were capable of anything if given the freedom and support to do it.

Customer Value: So many companies today talk about being customer centric, or customer focused and yet it only takes a cursory glance at their culture, behaviours and reward systems to see it’s only skin deep. Don’t put Lipstick on a pig. In NGN it doesn’t. The entire organisation “obsesses” about two things Customer and Safety. Not bad things to obsess over when you’re a gas company serving 2.7m homes! Given the concept of agile being about customer value there was a positive and natural alignment on this one from the outset.

Servant Leadership: Right. There is so much total bullshit flying around about this subject at the minute that I felt compelled to put this piece into this post. I had not realised what this really meant when I started the NGN journey. One of the HiveMind coaches educated me – a chap called Colin Sweetman. Colin’s gentle and persistent patience in explaining how he kept seeing this trait all over NGN also helped me understand how you can’t just “implement servant leadership”. I’ll leave it there on that subject but if you’d really like to know what it is and how to do it – ask Colin! (oh and for those people that truly get it, they’ll recognise the irony in people who post articles on linkedin saying how they’re an excellent servant leader).

Coaching and Mentoring at all levels: I’ve worked in many top notch consulting firms crammed full of bright young things and sold multi-million pound change programme staffed with them. No-More. From the outset and I guess a part of my disruptor mindset I wanted to take a completely different approach to making change in NGN be OUR CHANGE and therefore sustainable. I didn’t want “land and expand” or rigid methodologies and dogma. Both Mark (CEO) and I had both lived through and run conventional transformation programmes and our experience made us both swear that we’d never let NGN fall victim to that particular horror!

So to help on this accelerated journey, we engaged with a bunch of smart independents and micro-consulting firms who work in a professional, social and commercial network called HiveMind (and yes I thought they were so good, it’s a network I joined two months ago). They cajoled, persuaded, explained, forced (nicely) for us to examine ourself and drive change from within – sounds zen but it’s not, and sometimes coaching sounds like a soft option – if you’ve experienced it – you’ll know it’s anything but! They put there money where their mouths were – if they didn’t add value we didn’t pay! (ps didn’t happen)

Be Brave or don’t bother at all…

Trying to do this level of disruption at this pace takes courage for those on the journey.

It’s about the people who’s job’s changed, the executives who were used to a particular way of doing things and exercising power, but tried another, the departmental staff from HR, Comms, Finance, Customer, Ops, IT who suddenly had to become part of a “Business Capability Squad” and talk to each other about business problems, teams having to applying weird concepts such a “pace layering”, architects trying to figure out what the hell emergent architecture really meant (and a shout out to a guy called Ethar Alali for making emergent agile architecture real for me – even when it seemed totally mad), supplier account managers trying to figure what their purpose was (some didn’t and left), Health and Safety worrying about an outbreak of whiteboards, Matthew having to translate my Gartnerspeak to Yorkshire….so ONE thing helps – people are allowed to fail fast and learn fast. NGN excelled/excel at this.


Given what I’ve written so far I realised I should have answered the “why on earth would anyone wan’t to try and do this much in such a short space of time”.

Ambition. NGN has built an enviable reputation in the world of Customer Excellence and business change (we won awards for this stuff two years ago – against some highly respected private sector commercial operations). Mark H recognised that if we could be this good with poor systems, processes and technologies then just how awesome would we be with a business powered and enabled by smart systems and great business capabilities.

A simple and clear measure of success we developed was. “Ideas to Life“. A simple way of asking the question and measuring “how many great ideas can we get, which fit with our strategy and make a difference to our performance into our business operation as quickly and efficiently as possible!”. We stopped talking about IT and “Gathering Requirements” – we aren’t squirrels so lets not behave like them. FACT TWO – we reduced the time it took to make a simple change to our processes and systems from 100 days (unforgivable) to 5 days – just about acceptable. In fact we got to a place where our operations colleagues asked us to slow down on releases – :-)!!!

FACT THREE – we reduced IT costs substantially whilst doing a shed load better stuff (have a really smart well thought through sourcing model not some repetitious me too model – kudos to Jonathan F, John L and Matthew Little on building a hybrid, and clever sourcing model)

FACT FOUR – we implemented Customer Experience Management capability in 12 weeks and at a quarter of the cost of old school thinking and models.

Business capability modelling doesn’t belong to architects.

If you’re going to do some sort of version of Spotify’s Guilds and Squads that works in something less trendy and cool than an on-line music business – it’s pretty important to try and find a way of creating squads around something which isn’t just a function (HR, OPS etc) or a software package (this is just so wrong it makes my nose bleed). We chose business capability models – I’m not going to go into detail about these in this first post (will cover next week) but here’s another fact – starting here is FAR FAR better than becoming obsessed with process models (imho) – WHY because examining processes causes tinkering, examining capabilities creates innovation and disruptor type thinking. When we got really good we could connect experience and journeys to capabilities – which was cool.

Customer & Digital Strategy should take a few weeks or so to suss…

I was luck enough to work with some great people to help create a customer and digital strategy in weeks not months. This wasn’t some arid dry document it was a highly visual and easily understood set of materials that would work at any level of our business. It helped frame almost everything we did. I now firmly believe IT strategy is more or less dead in this context. Oh and digital has no real meaning other than “modern things!”.

Pace Layering in reality

My Gartner colleagues had produced a brilliant piece of thinking around something called pace layering (I was so annoyed when they started blathering on about bi-modal – pace was better). We took this concept and MADE it REAL in NGN. Then we iterated it to an ever cooler – classes of service model (Mark D thinking and Kenny G). Pace is a fab model that our Exec got completely…it also fits with digital thinking really well (modern thinking).

Agile or Accelerated Delivery

Agile isn’t about software. I’ll say that again – agile isn’t about software! We took the concepts of lean/scrum/kanban and with the help of the guys from the Hive helped make the thinking become that of “accelerating delivery” – we deliberately used this term to break away from the baggage of agile as a software development model. By accelerated delivery we wanted to promote the idea of accelerating “ides into life” – not software changes.

more to come….

I’ll do the next bit of this post next week where I’ll share the points where it all got a bit hard and how we dealt with it….

Thanks folks :-)