Disruption & Adaptation26

Stagnation or Evolution?

Making the decision to grow and mature at CHOICE

Christopher Ruz

August 24, 2021


CHOICE, founded in 1959 as the Australian Consumers Association, is Australia’s leading consumer advocacy group. Similarly to the US-based Consumer Reports, CHOICE is a non-profit organization that campaigns for improvements to consumer rights and researches and publishes information on products and services available to the Australian public, including household goods, electronics, insurance policies, children’s products, and more. Their mission – to ensure all Australians have a fair go – is funded by their 190,000+ membership base, allowing them to remain proudly independent and impartial.

In 2021, CHOICE is an organization in a constant state of evolution, guided by the values and principles of Business Agility. Core teams have rebuilt themselves according to Agile values, and the Board has incorporated a growth mindset which has led to the implementation of a company-wide culture of continuous learning and improvement. This growth and change, coupled with a new focus on outcomes over outputs, has led to CHOICE growing its membership base and consumer reach throughout the worst of the ongoing COVID pandemic.

None of this would have been possible without a confluence of coincidences: a Board strategy workshop in 2015 with flatlining revenue and risks of disruption as key topics, a realization that CHOICE’s approach to strategy was ineffective, and a fortunate alignment in mindset after both the Chair of the Board and CEO undertook similar strategy and leadership programs. These three factors led key team members to examine and reflect upon their weaknesses as an organization, and to take a determined step towards rebuilding their organization’s structures and mindsets.

A Turning Point

In early 2015, CHOICE CEO Alan Kirkland and Director Sandra Davey participated in similar executive leadership programs at MIT in Boston. They entered their respective programs intending to develop their understanding of disruption and innovation, and both came away with new depths of knowledge, along with a framework and language for thinking about innovation and disruption within the workplace.

Alan and Sandra each brought different skill sets and experiences to CHOICE; Alan was an experienced CEO with a strong background in consumer advocacy, while Sandra had deep and extensive expertise in the product, tech and digital fields, as well as experience in developing new ways of working. In order to further develop disruptive, agile thinking at CHOICE, Alan and Sandra both sought to surround themselves with people who looked to innovation as a priority, and who had experience in similar fields. While there was no official Agile process at CHOICE at that time, these early decisions to favor innovation resulted in the natural development of a workforce and Board attuned to a growth mindset, some of whom had Agile backgrounds. This unplanned convergence of like-minded people was a primary factor in giving the team an appetite for growth.

Meanwhile, the Board realized they were moving slowly but inexorably towards a crossroads in the direction of the company. Their operations were largely focused on creating reviews of consumer goods on a timetable beholden to a monthly print magazine, forcing teams to adhere to a regimented schedule that didn’t match the pace of consumer needs or the pace of pure play digital competitors. While CHOICE also released all its reports and findings online, and the majority of its members now held an online rather than a print subscription, its web presence was rudimentary and dated. To complicate matters, much of the company’s online functionality had been outsourced, creating barriers between the team and their digital-only users. Updating anything related to CHOICE’s digital presence was slow and frustrating, meaning that they had few fast and efficient means of communicating, engaging with or activating their community. This was reflected in their membership numbers, which were steady but had essentially ceased to grow.

In truth, the organization hadn’t changed significantly since the early 2000s. The markets were changing, fast. CHOICE wasn’t. Overseas and domestic competitors were building successful online platforms built largely around content churn, and while their product reviews weren’t of the same quality as CHOICE’s, their speed, adaptability, and free access meant they were taking deep bites out of CHOICE’s supporter base.

The organization wasn’t in a true state of crisis, thanks to healthy cash reserves. Even so, the Board knew instinctively that things couldn’t continue as they were. CHOICE didn’t have the speed or the flexibility required to respond to changing markets. They needed to evolve, or accept a slow decline.

The Board, in agreement with Alan, decided to evolve.

But making a decision to evolve is much easier than the actual process of evolution.

Stepping Into Uncharted Territory

Alan, in consultation with Sandra and the Board, made the decision to make a drastic change in investment in the organisation, its people, and its capabilities. He didn’t present a business case to the Board, and instead based the proposal around strategy. In order to thrive, Alan posited that CHOICE had to make a step change in investment in two key areas: innovation and in-house digital product development. This was, in essence, a faith pitch, which was helped over the line by the product and agile backgrounds of some Board members, and a high degree of trust within the Board and between the Board and management.

With the Board now fully invested in the process, the teams could now focus on overcoming their first and largest obstacle: moving past the mindset of CHOICE functioning as a monthly publisher.

To do so, CHOICE looked to the Agile Values and Principles, as well as discrete operating methods. Instead of adopting Business Agility in a single sweeping transformation, they made the decision to examine what could be adopted piecemeal. 

Their first step CHOICE took towards becoming a more responsive and Agile organization was to invest in building their in-house product and engineering capabilities. Outsourcing their tech services and platform capabilities meant that CHOICE simply didn’t have control over their own platforms. In addition, relying upon outsourced digital capability meant that teams had no ability to improve or refine their platforms. As such, the CHOICE website was out of date, and essentially mimicked the layout of the monthly magazine: lots of text, a few static images, and little interactivity with users. This, in part, was driven by the CHOICE traditional approach – to present the facts and allow consumers to make up their own minds. But that ethos, when applied to a digital platform in the 21st century, had resulted in stagnation.

CHOICE had initially approached this problem in a fundamentally un-Agile way, by commissioning an external agency to ‘rebuild’ the website at significant cost. By the time this project was drawing to a close (over-time and over-budget), the error of this decision had become clear. CHOICE began to grow its in-house engineering capability but it soon became apparent that developers could only do so much without an explicit product vision, informed by an understanding of what their users really needed.

This led to the recruitment of the organisation’s first product manager. She quickly built the case for growing a team of product managers, UX specialists and digital designers around her, while the engineering team continued to grow in parallel. This product team would ultimately play a major role in driving the adoption of Agile approaches within the organisation. 

The second parallel step taken towards building agility and CHOICE was to create an innovation team, which would hopefully drive fresh thinking in the digital sector and in business model creation, extend beyond the monthly publishing structure, and uncover new ways of serving their supporter base.

This team, dubbed New Things, was given around 5% of CHOICE’s operating budget. Their goal was to experiment with innovative ways of helping people, through methods including (but not limited to) mobile apps, more effective use of data, new digitally delivered services, and so on. They weren’t asked to deliver revenue or to help to optimise existing business models  – rather, their success was measured on the basis of how many experiments they could test in the market.

The New Things team began small, with a single employee, but the expansion into an innovation team necessitated growth, and soon the team had seven members. Before setting up New Things, the Board spoke with trusted industry colleagues and industry friends  to gather feedback on what innovation model would be most effective. The advice was mixed – some partners recommended the use of an entirely isolated team, while others advocated for integration.

In the end, the decision was made to go with an in-house innovation team. Key to this decision - informed by Sandra and Alan’s time at MIT - was a recognition that to succeed, the team would need access to some of CHOICE’s established resources and capabilities, like its deep subject matter expertise in key markets, stakeholder relationships and large supporter base. This decision allowed New Things to remain in frequent contact with other teams, and to continually visualize and share their work with the larger CHOICE community. This had the effect of exposing the entire CHOICE team to the innovation team’s practices and culture. This also helped the outside-in approach of the innovation team percolate throughout CHOICE, giving the organisation faith in its ability to rapidly test and launch new ways of responding to user needs.

This approach was not without its tensions. A key point of tension was over choice of technologies. CHOICE’s core technology platforms were simply not fit for purpose when it came to supporting a fast cycle of experimentation with new products and services. New Things was given licence to make its own decisions about its choice of technology and was ultimately given additional investment to establish its own platforms team. This was a source of ongoing tension between New Things and core teams but until CHOICE had modernised its core technology, giving New Things this freedom was the only realistic option if CHOICE wanted to support experimentation.  

Transformation Across The Board

Sandra, Alan and the Board understood their teams would need support during this transitional period. As such, in 2016, an Agile coach was employed to spend a week working with the new Agile teams to assist in their understanding and development of the principles and values. Her second task was to sit with non-Agile teams throughout CHOICE, explore the ways they were working, and to discuss with them what aspects of Agile might assist them in their processes and accountabilities. Her job was not to make those teams adopt agile ways of working. Rather, it was to assist in the streamlining of the ways they worked, and help people outside product teams understand where Agile approaches might help them work more effectively.

The coach returned six months later to check in with the product development teams and to hold them accountable for their commitments. This allowed teams who had instigated change and experimented with agile ways of working to self-reflect and better understand how both their processes and attitudes had improved over the past months, thanks to the integration of the values and principles into their working structures.

In 2017, with Sandra now as Chair, the Board met to review the effectiveness of their business plans. CHOICE had always worked according to a three year strategy, with more detailed annual business plans. These were extremely detailed - with as many as 50 actions in a year - and tended to be developed in April-May for the year starting in July, meaning that by the end of the plan, some of the thinking was 15 months old. These had been semi-effective a decade or two before, when the next four or five quarters could be predicted. Not so much in the 21st century, when forecasts barely lasted a month, let alone a year.

CHOICE's old business plans were overly detailed and didn't reflect the speed with which markets were shifting.

The team needed a more flexible approach. The solution: retain a high-level, three-year strategy while replacing detailed annual business plans with OKRs. From July 2018 onwards, the Board approved 6-monthly OKRs as the key way that it set strategic priorities and measured progress.

This was a critical point in CHOICE’s transformation. Their old business plans had been busy, overarching, and packed with outputs. Oversight of this traditional approach led Board members into instruction mode. For example, in the old CHOICE, a director might engage in the detail of ideation, making suggestions on what to build. When these ideas made their way into a business plan, teams were encouraged to focus on delivering the output rather than identifying the best way to respond to community problems or market needs.

By switching to OKRs, the entire methodology of the CHOICE team was flipped. Now the Board could focus on the why and the what, while getting out of the way of their teams and allowing them to decide on the how. The hypothetical director formerly suggesting development of a specific app would instead say, “We need to help Australian consumers make more informed choices about their health insurance. Why? Because insurance is a complicated industry that our users are struggling with.” The teams closest to the source – staff working adjacent to users – would then decide on how to assist those users, based on direct feedback from the public when appropriate.

That direct feedback, consultation, and engagement with their community was core to driving CHOICE’s ongoing evolution into a responsive, adaptive organization. Basing business decisions around the direct and immediate needs of users allowed them to work at the same speed as their users, who were more naturally attuned to changing markets. 

As with other aspects of the Agile adoption, this was not a decision specifically made to adhere to an Agile framework. Rather, the team at CHOICE stumbled into it naturally, by taking the time at each junction to question how effectively they were actually functioning and whether there were alternative methods and structures that would emphasize reactivity and flexibility. This inquisitive, growth-oriented mindset is what has continued to lead CHOICE along an Agile pathway.

 Another Step Change In Investment

Around the same time as the decision to shift to OKRs, Alan recommended to the Board another step change in investment. While the Board recognised the value of some of the recent changes, many on the Board were concerned that CHOICE was still not moving fast enough. The management team identified that the primary barrier was insufficient investment in the key capabilities that CHOICE needed across its digital campaigning, digital product development and technology teams. Alan therefore pitched that the Board enter an even deeper cycle of investment, involving large deficits across the next two to three years. 

Like the 2015 decision to invest in innovation and in-house product development, this was another faith pitch. There were no detailed business cases or financial models promising a return on investment within a defined period. Instead, the Board was asked to invest in capabilities that CHOICE needed to enhance. This ultimately involved three years of planned deficits. The Board had to hold firm to its faith in the original decision as these deficits climbed, ultimately getting as big as seven percent of total revenue. But the investment in capabilities gradually paid off as revenue began to grow faster than expenses, sending the organisation back towards the black. 

Seeding Agile

While the Board and management team recognised the benefits of adopting agile ways of working at CHOICE,  those benefits weren’t immediately obvious to the entire team, especially to those employees for whom business agility was a fresh concept.

Alan encouraged agile product teams to present regularly to the whole organisation about their new methodologies, how they were engaging with their community and how they were capturing and applying learnings. This exposed non-agile teams to agile ways of work, which deepened as Agile teams began to work on challenges that were directly relevant to the work of other teams, like how to better meet the needs of users of CHOICE’s product reviews. Agile practitioners also made themselves available to help other teams, by facilitating workshops and introducing agile techniques and rituals in the process. Open dialogue helped spread the agile ethos throughout CHOICE, which illustrates how much of the business agility ethos is based around collaboration and honest interaction. As a result, many teams who were not part of the Agile program began to experiment with and adopt elements of agile practice.

Another key part of propagating agile thinking throughout the organisation was the championing of growth mindsets. This began in early 2018, with the adoption of a commitment to build a ‘culture of growth’ as part of a new three-year strategy. Sandra and Alan already had begun pursuing their own interest in growth mindset and psychological safety, but the concept flourished when a new Director of People and Culture joined CHOICE in early 2019 and explicitly introduced growth mindset through a series of learning opportunities for all staff and, ultimately, the Board. This concept became a frequent feature of conversations within the organisation and added further impetus to the work that had already been done to develop a mindset of experimentation, evolution, and steady improvement underpinned with psychological safety.

This was prescient, as the foundations were laid through 2019 for what turned out to be a rapid transformation of ways of working in 2020. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear in March 2020, CHOICE went from having most staff working in the office on any given day to all working from home. This transition occurred within a week, without any significant drop in productivity. While the organisation had the basics in place, such as equipment and systems to support remote work, the investment in flexibility, agility, psychological safety and growth mindset played a much bigger role in the success of this transition.

Thriving Throughout Crisis

It’s important to note that COVID-19 wasn’t the first time CHOICE was able to pivot as a result of their Agile mindsets. In December 2019, Australia was a country under siege as massive bushfires swept up the eastern seaboard, forcing the evacuation of rural towns and blanketing cities in thick smoke that led to hundreds of hospitalizations and some deaths. As the fires raged, teams independently banded together and asked how they could help the people of Australia. The result was the rapid analysis of products and services relevant to people in fire-prone areas, including fire insurance policies and air purifiers. This work was amplified through traditional and social media channels, which helped raise immediate attention to the issues faced by Australian citizens during a crisis.

The 2019-2020 bushfire season was in many ways the proving grounds for CHOICE’s staff, who demonstrated that they could act autonomously and decisively in service to their community. The confidence they instilled in the Board, and themselves, would serve them well less than two months later, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

 In April 2020, the Board convened to discuss the impact that COVID-19 was already having on business, and how it would affect their budgets as of July 2020 onward. The uncertainty had reached a level where nobody could even hazard a guess as to how the next months or years would play out, or whether their revenue models were relevant any more.

The Board recognized all these issues and were prepared to pivot. Their advice: don’t think about budgets, prior plans, or risk modelling. Instead, focus on opportunities for both supporters and the organisation. Even in a crisis, the guiding question hadn’t changed: how can we deliver on our purpose?

This reassessment of priorities allowed the Board to give staff permission to stop work on initiatives that weren’t immediately relevant. Projects that couldn’t help Australian citizens at that very moment were halted or shut down, freeing resources for a pivot to more immediately relevant initiatives. The speed of the pivot and the enthusiasm with which the sudden change was received was a testament to how invested the entire organization had become regarding concepts of Agility and flexibility. There was a high degree of trust between the Board and management and, in turn, between the leadership team and staff, meaning that team members trusted that they would be supported as they experimented with the best ways to help communities. None of this would have been possible if the decision had not been made years prior to the COVID-19 crisis to abandon rigidity as a structural and planning concept.

This flexibility helped CHOICE’s supporters as well as their teams. The ingrained ability to rapidly pivot in the face of a crisis allowed teams to quickly shift focus at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, tossing out old schedules and instead asking their users what issues they were facing as a result of lockdowns and travel restrictions. For example, the CHOICE community reported concerns about the quality of hand sanitizer, price gouging by companies advantaged by lockdowns, and the sudden fluctuation in health insurance prices as major concerns. By staying flexible and communicating directly with users, the teams at CHOICE were able to shift their investigations and testing to cover these areas, along with other products and services unique to the COVID-19 situation. As a result, CHOICE experienced a huge spike in online traffic and new subscriptions throughout March and April 2020. As of July 2021, membership continues to grow month-on-month.

Living Agile

Developing Agility at CHOICE has not just helped their teams solve existing problems. It has opened the eyes of employees and the Board to new ways of working and new solutions. Most importantly, it has given employees new frameworks upon which they can build ideas for adapting and thriving in uncertain times. It sparks new ways of thinking and inspires team members to experiment with further layers of transformation. It allows the team to challenge preconceptions regarding hierarchies, processes, and how agility can be used to help people through challenging times. 

As the process of transforming CHOICE wound on, one key observation from both team and Board members was that there was a gulf between the being and the doing of Agility. Following Agile processes – doing Agility via stand-ups, retrospectives, sprints, and the like, brought massive benefits to the team by embedding learning and curiosity within employees. Switching to OKR-based outcomes and abandoning yearly set business plans liberated the teams from the rigidity of old structures. But it was being agile that sustained the team through the hardest months of 2020. The act of being adaptable gave team members hope for the future. Their curiosity was what drove them to experiment with new solutions and methods of serving the CHOICE community, and which provided the satisfaction they needed to sustain themselves in difficult times. The focus on continual improvement which began at CHOICE soon extended beyond the office environment and traditional 9-5 working model, and helped employees stay positive and focus on self-improvement during Australia’s on-again off-again lockdowns.

These positive aspects of living agility are obvious to people inside the industry, but less so for those who have not had the opportunity to first explore the Agile principles and values in a business context. As such, communicating the benefits of living with an Agile mindset is now a part of CHOICE’s work. Sandra and Alan have frequently shared their story at conferences and events, and members of the CHOICE team are often called upon to share their learnings with other organisations at earlier points in their journeys.

To The Future

Even now, in the latter half of 2021, CHOICE is not a completely Agile organization. There are a number of teams whose working methods do not fit cleanly into Agile structures: for example, lab teams, whose responsibilities are to test products in a structured, scientific manner. However, all teams have been exposed to the benefits of the Agile principles and values, and have been provided both guidance and tools if they wish to modify aspects of their established working methods to better fit with Business Agility.

Regardless, some high level changes have been implemented throughout CHOICE that resonate across teams: for example, the switch to OKRs over long-term business plans, driving towards outcomes instead of outputs, and working in shorter cycles, which delivers value as early and as often as possible. Attitudes across CHOICE have evolved as well. There is now a company-wide commitment to learning through a process of experimentation and ideation, and all teams have adapted to concepts of autonomous work and goal-setting. Even so, the teams understand that there is no ‘end point’ for their adoption of Agile processes. As such, Agile specialists remain embedded in CHOICE, running regular workshops, assisting with facilitation, and getting hands-on when it comes to the adoption of growth mindsets and radical candor.

This is not a mandated adoption of Agile structures and processes. Instead, the team at CHOICE has made the decision to let Agile seep naturally throughout the organization, adopted as necessary by the teams it's most immediately relevant to. Those positive experiences with Agility then gradually percolate outward.

This percolation has set the stage for a new strategic cycle at CHOICE. The Board and team members came together in early 2021 to discuss the next three years. The conclusion: thanks to the evolutionary decisions made over the past five years, CHOICE has not just weathered the COVID-19 pandemic. It has thrived, and is in a strong position to continue that evolutionary process. By mapping external changes and drivers, and performing extensive scenario mapping, the team has come to one immutable conclusion: to thrive during the next three years (and the volatile future beyond), CHOICE will need to be even more flexible and agile..

Scenario mapping predicts that the world will remain volatile and will continue to see crisis after crisis throughout the coming years. Nobody can accurately predict whether the vaccine rollout will definitively end the COVID-19 pandemic, or merely serve as a speedbump. Meanwhile, climate change continues unabated, threatening the world with rising global temperatures and Australia with continued catastrophic bushfires. Australia is reliant in many ways upon an economic relationship with China, but trade tensions between the two nations are in a continual state of ebb and flow. VUCA is a daily lived experience, and CHOICE has recognized that it needs to assume it’s headed into a future choked with unknown unknowns. As such, every step the team takes towards adaptability is a step towards survival.

The future is an unmapped landscape. It is an early adoption of Agile values and practices, combined with a growth mindset and an appetite for helping their community, that has handed the CHOICE teams a compass and the pathfinding skills they’ll need to reach the highest peaks and help their supporters through times of crisis.

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