Valuing your team means valuing their retirement

A couple of weeks ago I read a spate of articles in the New Zealand media that really riled me. And not for the usual reasons….

Here’s one of them

With the greatest respect to my fellow Kiwis, and a solid dose of empathy for how difficult it can be to stretch incomes to just cover current outgoings, we Kiwis are pretty poor at saving. Research shows that, even if we do save, we’re poor at financial goal setting generally, and many of us have not considered what savings goal we need to be aiming for to give us the lifestyle we want at retirement age.

Knowing this, it’s beyond disappointing to hear some businesses might be actively discouraging their staff from contributing to KiwiSaver (New Zealand’s largest retirement scheme). Apparently some Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) bosses “see KiwiSaver as an extra cost and administrative burden”.

In NZ, employees choose their contributIon rate (3, 4 or 8% of their gross income). When employees are contributing (ie not on a KiwiSaver holiday or on unpaid leave) employers must contribute a legal minimum of 3% of gross salary. Employers get out of their obligation where staff “opt out” of the scheme or go on a contributions holiday.  It’s also possible for employers to include their KiwiSaver contribution within a “total remuneration package” (meaning their contribution comes out of the “headline” salary. Thus it is entirely possible for employers to be an impediment to KiwiSaver uptake or even to discourage employees from participating, whether actively or through how they structure remuneration packages.

I’m very aware that stretching to a 3% gross contribution can be beyond a lot of young and low wage workers. I’m sure those workers are significantly represented in the figures suggested in the article above. However, ranting about addressing NZ’s low wage economy, or the ways in which the KiwiSaver regime could be more accessible to Kiwis, will have to wait for another day.  

At Media Suite, we’re an SME. One of the special things about operating at this scale is the genuine, human connections within our team. I cannot imagine de-prioritising the long-term financial needs of those (awesome) humans due to “cost” and “administration” (when both can be planned for). On the administrative side, we use exceedingly cost effective software which makes administering KiwiSaver pretty close to effortless, and certainly no more effortful than complying with usual employer tax requirements. The compulsory employer KiwiSaver contribution is 3% of an employee’s gross salary, thus totally proportionate to total staff cost. Frankly, if your margins are so slim that this is seriously material, I’m not convinced you ought to be in business.

Obviously, every business is different. I really don’t want to come across as arrogant or insensitive to those SME owners who are doing it tough. I know what it is like to be the last person paid. I know what it’s like to have your personal assets on the line for business failure.  We don’t run a business with a strong cyclical/seasonal revenue, and I can appreciate that might complicate your forecasting. We’re blessed to run a business with a highly professional team, in a market where those skills are valued. Even with all that, running a SME is bloody hard work (although I’d also describe it as fun).

I’d say Media Suite’s directors and shareholders collectively feel a moral obligation to organise and run this business in a careful and sustainable way to ensure job and income security for the team is a priority. While I’m concerned that businesses might find administration or cost a genuine reason to discourage participation, I guess I’m also worried those might be bywords for operating an unsustainable business model and/or a touch of self interest.

There’s a great piece of research that gets updated annually which analyses the spending of over-65-year-olds based on Statistics New Zealand household economic data. It then suggests what level of savings the average person will require under certain scenarios. When I read this last year and then worked through a retirement savings calculator, my savings goal was pretty dramatically increased.  

Over my professional life, I’ve contributed the minimum and the maximum. I’ve gone on KiwiSaver Contributions Holidays to reduce debt. I’ve watched my partner’s contributions (finally) outstrip mine due to being the one on parental leave. I am undoubtedly very fortunate at this point in my life to be in a position to increase my KiwiSWaver contributions. I’m currently looking at changing funds. At the very least, I’d advocate for Kiwis to actively keep under consideration what they can be contributing and where and when that might change as their lives change. I think employers have a role to play in supporting this conversation.

We’ve been thinking about the importance of an employer’s role in KiwiSaver for a while (thanks to a member of the team, for opening that dialogue). At the end of 2017, Media Suite’s role in KiwiSaver went on our Board agenda.  We’ve always been more than happy to contribute our 3%, however, what we mulled at the board meeting was that human behaviour is often “set and forget”. In other words, people tend to fill out their KS2 when they start with us and it’s pretty infrequent that people check or change their contribution rates. Anecdotally, a lot of the team were also pretty passive about managing what fund they were in (or even a bit baffled about how to start considering options). The directors decided we would up our skin in the game and incentivise the team to consider what they are contributing.  So, anybody choosing to contribute more than the minimum 3%, will now have their employer contribution increased to 4%.

While a 1% increase doesn’t sound like much, for a SME like ours, with a high staff cost it amounts to a fairly substantial annual sum. We thought it was a good starting point, but there’s always a balancing act between increasing wages in the here and now, and increasing a future benefit. We were beyond delighted to find 70% of the team took some proactive action after this was announced (from signing up, to increasing contributions to checking contributions with a view to increasing them). I’d rate that as a success, and I’d be really interested to know what other businesses have tried to increase staff engagement with KiwiSaver.   

We set goals in our business regularly and we encourage the team do the same. It’s never too early for financial goal setting. As individuals, that should definitely extend to the life you want and deserve in your grey-haired years. We’d love to think our team have financial goals in place and to be able to support them in reviewing, adjusting and achieving those. It really is the least we can do as a employer, given that this business is quite literally built by the effort of the humans that work in it.  

For the love of a place

We Kiwis like to give each other a bit of cheeky banter. It’s not unusual to hear us gleefully pointing out the various shortcomings of towns and cities up and down this beautiful country of ours – usually accompanied with a wry smile. In recent years, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time with immigrants. There’s nothing quite like the fresh eyes of someone who has deliberately chosen to make their home in your backyard, to encourage you to reassess where you live.

Queenstown is (and remains) my spiritual home. I was born there and lived there for the majority of my youth and early adult life. I still get butterflies in my stomach as I drive south through the Kawarau Gorge. Other places I have lived include: Mount Cook village (population 50) for 2.5 years; the west coast of America  (living mostly out of a combi van with my sister and parents) for about 4 years; France for about 1 year on an OE and central Wellington (chasing a girl) for 2 years.

As a youngster I had a love/hate relationship with Christchurch. I have officially moved to Christchurch three times now. The first, in my teens, for an education, the second for my business to grow but finally, the third time I moved here, it was for me.

What Christchurch offers me is a great balance for the three main components of my life: family, work and fun.

Family

I have been blessed with an awesome family. That girl I chased to Wellington turned out to be pretty all right and we now have a six year old, a 3 year old and 4 month old.

Our eldest boy attends an amazing (state) primary school just a few minutes walk from our house. The school implements the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme. It challenges the students to think for themselves and take responsibility for their learning as they explore local and global issues and opportunities in real-life contexts. The key things they taught him in his first year at school were risk taking, empathy and resilience – a pretty solid foundation for life, in my opinion. It also represents some of the social fabric that has developed in post-earthquake Christchurch.

Our middle child attends a community run, not for profit preschool not far from where we live. The preschool implements a Reggio Emilia philosophy with a heavy focus on free play and highly qualified teachers facilitating the Te Whāriki curriculum through child-led inquiry. This is an incredible connection into our local school environment. There is also heaps of outside space, which both of our children have loved.

Exploring the Avon – Pic: Abigail Wills

Thanks to the earthquakes (strange as that sounds!) we find ourselves fortunate enough to live in a warm, modern house, which was very affordable by national standards. While there are still some insurance repair battles happening around the city, a great portion of the housing stock in Christchurch (not to mention public infrastructure and facilities) has been greatly modernized in the last 7 years.

Christchurch has mostly skipped the housing bubble of the last few years. We have an abundance of available land and an excited building industry spurred on by the earthquake rebuild. Christchurch currently has a slight oversupply of housing which, in a nation plagued by “housing affordability” concerns, makes it a very accessible place to buy or rent.

This weekend I took my two older kids horse riding (a mere 20 minute walk from our house). This was followed up by a family trip to the Lyttelton farmers market where we were entertained by The Secret Lives of Ukulele  while stocking up on fresh produce for the week. Genuine market prices really do prove just how much markup our national supermarkets add to basic foods.

The Secret Lives of Ukulele – Pic, George Wills

With high calibre (and deeply affordable) education opportunities, public facilities, outdoor recreation, a sense of community and affordable living, Christchurch is an ideal place to raise a family.

Work

The business was founded in Queenstown in 2001 (albeit under a different name). In Queenstown we found a steady stream of talented people to work in the business, however we were lucky to keep them around for more than a year or two – such is the transient norm in Queenstown.

In 2005, we closed both our Queenstown and Invercargill offices and moved the business to Christchurch in search of a more reliable workforce and stable economic base to operate from. In Christchurch we grew. From here we were able to maintain our southern clients and when we acquired Andrew and Sarah Pitts’ Blenheim-based business we had a solid client base spanning the entire South Island.

Post earthquake Christchurch has given us our biggest opportunities. We now work for many of the largest organisations in the city and have subsequently grown five-fold. With excellent air connections we are able to service our key customers in Wellington, Auckland and Blenheim, as well as have easy access to most of regional New Zealand. With tech tools like Slack and Zoom we can connect with our remote team and clients seamlessly.

With something like 40 billion dollars of offshore reinsurance money flowing into the local economy over the last 7 years, we are now seeing a new wave of entrepreneurs and ventures coming through. Historically, Christchurch has supplied and serviced the agricultural breadbasket of the Canterbury plains as well as much of the rural South Island. Today, this is complemented by a burgeoning tech scene and a strong design and manufacturing base. It’s a pretty exciting time to be building professional networks and tools like Transport for Christchurch and Forward Works that help to shape this city.

Our city owns its key assets too. The airport, port, fibre optic network, power network and maintenance companies, as well as many other holdings, are all owned by the city – giving it an A+ credit rating on 2 billion dollars worth of assets. On top of providing a dividend, the ownership of these strategic assets allows our council to make better long-term investment decisions for the region. This gives me some confidence to invest personally in Christchurch.

The daily commute in Christchurch is hardly a chore either. The average city commute is around 15 – 20 mins by car or bike and public transport options are generally sub-30 minutes. Christchurch has the highest rate of cycling in NZ and this continues to grow with hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in safe cycling infrastructure around the city. My own commute is a 10 minute walk. Which is just long enough to clear my head at the start and end of my working day.

Commuting by bike – Pic, ccc.govt.nz

With all of these benefits, plus a world-class university on our doorstep and a stunning natural environment, we are having no trouble attracting both local and international talent at all levels to work in our business.

Fun

If you are of an adventurous spirit Christchurch has a lot to offer. This Saturday I rode my mountain bike from my house along the top of the Port Hills to meet some friends at the adventure bike, a purpose built downhill mountain bike park. The Port Hills are littered with walking and MTB tracks. After living in these hills for the best part of a decade we are still discovering new tracks with stunning views and even a few cheeky little boulders for Mr Six to hone his climbing skills. On Sunday, while the rest of the family were at a kids birthday party, I snuck out for a kitesurf in the waves at New Brighton. It is Monday morning now and I have that feeling of a well-exercised body and organised mind heading into a busy week.

I never appreciated how good the weather was in Canterbury until I moved back from Wellington! In summer, we have several surf beaches mere minutes away from home, which catch the NE to SE swell. The southern swell is just an hour away on Banks Peninsula. The estuary (literally at our doorstep) offers sailing, kiting, windsurfing, paddleboarding, kayaking, crab chasing and bird watching.

Paddleboarding at Taylor’s Mistake – Pic, Abigail Wills

In winter there are half a dozen ski fields within day-trip range, and many more to the south around Queenstown and Wanaka – which are good for a long weekend or ski week.

One of my passions is flying gliders. On our doorstep we have the Canterbury gliding club.  A three hour drive away in Omarama lies one of the world’s best gliding sites. Taking off from either of these locations gets you into the stunning South Island High Country and offers opportunity to tackle international records.

 

Soaring Aoraki. Video: George Wills & James Pearson

Outdoor recreation is alive an well in this part of the world; walking, hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, backcountry skiing, wakeboarding, cycling, surfing, sailing (competitive or hobbyist), it is all here. While that meets my needs, there’s much more than parks, mountains and bodies of water on offer. The city has a strong arts and cultural focus too and our pristine supply of water makes some of the best coffee and craft beer in NZ.

It may seem a little un-Kiwi to write an ode to your own backyard. But perhaps if we all spent a little more time being conscious about the beauty of what’s on offer in our regions and smaller towns, we could all start the working week with a bit more energy and joy.  

Agile: Rethinking Risk

We love agile software delivery, so why don’t we always use it?

At this point in my agile journey I’d describe myself as an agile pragmatist. I encourage our teams to practice an agile mindset and refer back to the agile tenets and principles, to incrementally and pragmatically find ways to improve what we are doing with an overall focus on how to best deliver value.

Focusing on delivering value (above almost all else) means we adapt our toolbox for each client we work with and each project we work on. As a result, our version of agile is well… agile. Agile purists may not love all of our methods but would surely agree that consistently delivering working software is a solid way for a software company to measure success. We’ve delivered something like 1,500 projects over 17 years now and we haven’t yet delivered something I would consider a failure. That is a track record I am immensely proud of and aspire to sustain.

When I talk with clients about how we might approach their problem and deliver their project, I tend to break it down into two, contrasting models which have quite different risk controls.

  • A known budget with a fixed scope; or
  • A known budget with a flexible scope.

In both cases we start from a known budget as I’m yet to have a client turn up with a totally blank cheque. Ultimately, the choice ends up being how we approach scope and where change fits within the project. The fixed or flexible scope mindset has massive implications for how a project unfolds. One of the interesting implications is around is how financial risk is perceived and controlled between the two models.

The Fixed Scope View

In order to arrive at a well-understood fixed scope, you need to do a huge amount of upfront design and planning. This is fine (and often it’s even better) for short projects or quite simple problems, where scale makes it possible, or even more efficient, to scope everything in one go. It can also work well when a client is not resourced to provide a strong “product owner” to the joint development team. Doing lots of upfront planning is often appealing for stakeholders who carry any personal/professional risk on the project but are not involved in the detail or planning. The artifacts created during the planning process gives them something tangible to hang their hat on.

Where it typically falls down is in larger or more complex projects, where you might need to spend many months (or even years) in the planning phase.

Front loading the planning can make the overall project life cycle (time to deliver) longer than an agile project where planning is more intertwined with development. Additionally, upfront planning on fixed scope projects can end up with a significant separation between the requirements gathering and delivery phases. That gap can be a risk to delivering the right thing – because requirements (and people) often change over time.

On top of that, our understanding of the client’s problem-domain deepens during delivery and even continues after the software has been delivered. Experience has shown us that some of the best ideas probably won’t land till pretty late in the piece. You run the very real risk of being unable to incorporate those into the project or needing to find additional budget at the tail end. Equally, things you once assumed were really important may feel less important as the project progresses. A well-known phrase sums this up pretty well. “The start of a project is the point of maximum ignorance”. With this in mind, making all your decisions upfront at the start of a project could be considered high risk.

While a fixed budget and fixed scope will deliver you something at a known price, if the solution doesn’t actually solve your problem then it may as well be considered a bad price.

My own internal rule of thumb, is that a project with a development duration of more than 3 months should start to see the benefits from an agile, flexible-scope mindset. Less than 3 months, and you should certainly consider whether it is possible, or desirable, to scope it all upfront and find the most efficient and low risk way to deliver that scope.

The Flexible Scope View

This is Agile’s happy place. We do sufficient planning to identify the most critical requirements of the solution and enough work to determine a responsible budget. The focus is then on delivering working software early in the project life cycle so that we can get feedback from users and prove that we are, in fact, solving the problems we have been tasked with solving.

Much of our toolbox has been heavily influenced by some of the agile subcultures such as Lean Development,  DevOps and User-centered design. You’ll hear us talking about minimum viable product (MVP) a lot. That means we ask the team to stay focused on the minimum amount of work required to solve the problem. I know clients can initially find it frustrating when we pare back their ideas or remove the polish from their project, but ultimately, focusing on MVP is an important aspect of our agile practise because it forces prioritisation. In order to prioritise you need to be clear about the problems you are trying to solve. Being clear about a problem requires you to understand the problem deeply. I believe you can only come up with the right solution once you have grasped a deep understanding of the problem from multiple perspectives.

For us, MVP is a tool we use to peel away the layers of requirements and get down to the important business of solving the core problems. By attacking the biggest problems first we reduce the project risk early, and when there is still runway to accommodate change if we need to. With a responsible budget there should absolutely be room to come back and polish things ahead of a first release. So worry not, the polish is coming, it just doesn’t always make sense for that to be the first thing we do.

Agile helps us to reduce risk in a project early by quickly getting us deep into the domain, so we can help you to come up with better solutions. Ultimately, it gives us the ability to change course if required and it gives project teams a sense of empowerment – building software that tackles real problems feels meaningful.

Under an agile model you might not know exactly what you are building upfront (which can be challenging for clients to stomach) but if you can trust in your team, you will get working software at a known price – which is more likely to solve the right problems.

Where does planning and analysis fit within these models?

We do the majority of our work for public sector clients. It is pretty common for our clients to do a lot of analysis work up front to define requirements before putting a project out to tender. Analysts are often hired on contract to do the first planning phase and are frequently unavailable to us during the delivery phases. This can leave projects with a significant disconnect in both time and personnel, between the requirements gathering and delivery phases. When delivery and planning work streams are disconnected, the delivery team can be left with only a superficial understanding of why they are doing something. Closing the gap between the analysis, planning, user interviews, design sessions and decision making that led to the requirements, and then delivering on those requirements, leads to better outcomes. Good ideas and obvious efficiencies are easily lost when operating with a fixed scope mindset.

Agile looks to solve this problem by getting the development team as close as possible to the problem domain, requirements gathering and planning phases as possible. In this way, the development team are able to make (or help the client to make) informed trade offs and suggest alternative solutions to problems. Some of our very favourite solutions haven’t required writing any code.

One aspect of effective agile delivery, which I don’t think gets enough airtime, is that the development team can actually do meaningful analysis and planning work. This absolutely does not mean that we cut out business analysts, simply that they are a critical part of the development team rather than working in isolation ahead of delivery. You will often see BAs within our delivery teams. It’s likely that you’ll hear them being called Product Owners, User Experience Designers or Solution Architects – all of which use analytical skills within their specialty.

Agile is not…

Agile is not a silver bullet. Agile delivery alone will not make your project a success. Agile is not a way to avoid planning and analysis, an excuse to defer decision making or a way to make up for lost time.

Any successful project will likely to come down to having a highly engaged and motivated team working rigorously and with focus. If you have that team, then an agile delivery of a flexible scope could give your team a sense of ownership and responsibility that stands to make your project even better than you expected.

The Case for Professional Doodles

I’ve been illustrating my thoughts a lot more often at work – in meetings, for presentations, and even for clients. And I’ve started to notice a funny thing happens. It seems to simplify the discussion, and gets people to listen and respond, leading to better conversations. However, it also takes time and effort which can be expensive. I wanted to know if there’s any evidence that being paid to doodle is worthwhile.

So I decided to do some research.

It appears that visual thinking in business is a growing trend, with support from Silicon Valley and Stanford Business School. Large organisations the world over are turning to art to help engage, clarify, inspire and innovate. MBA courses are teaching drawing to help students “clearly communicate complex ideas and project plans.”

Art in the business world helps us “find our authentic voice” and “envision better futures and make wiser decisions,” according to creative consultant Linda Naiman. Forbes lists “15 ways leaders can promote creativity in the workplace”. And in Fortune magazine, Hitachi CEO Barbara Dyer outlines why creativity is “absolutely crucial in the workplace”.

“This is what I call a revolution,” says Giovanni Schiuma, chairman of the Arts for Business Institute and professor in innovation management.

“When we talk about the arts in organisations, we are not just talking about bringing in some artist, or some artworks, that make things fun or nice for a while,” he said in a speech at the British Library. “We are talking about using arts as a management tool. This means applying the arts across our organisations in a strategic and operational way, not just in a one-off way.

“Only by integrating the arts in our DNA can we create what I consider the true 21st century organisation.”

“All organizations have creative people and they should be encouraged,”  Barbara Dyer from MIT Sloan says. “But there is an important distinction between welcoming the occasional out-of-the-box idea and cultivating creativity as an approach to doing business.”

Dr. Christoph Hienerth teaches ‘Visual Thinking for Business’, which involves learning elementary drawing, as part of one of the world’s top MBA courses. He says that practitioners as well as researchers have realised that the more complex, dynamic and electronic the business environment becomes, the more important it is to be able to master such complexity via visualisation in meetings, presentations and discussions.

The Drawing Effect’ is a reputed series of studies that tested whether writing something repeatedly or drawing it would make it more memorable. The researchers found that people recalled more than double the number of words they had drawn compared with words that were written. Furthermore, they found that drawing worked better than writing descriptions of the meaning of words, better than just looking at the pictures, and better than visualising the words.

So, it seems there’s a case for doodles in the workplace. According to the experts, whether you want to boost your own memory, grab people’s attention during presentations, convey complex ideas in the increasingly invisible workplace, or just get people to open up and engage – drawing seems to help.