Episode #1

Do what you preach. Interview with Jason Little

In this episode, the host Sergey Kotlov talks with Jason Little - author, entrepreneur and agile thought leader about his global training business LeanChange.org. Since its start, more than 10,000 students went through workshops envisioned and designed by Jason. You will learn about the origin of the business, how he grows it through experiments, automation and delegation.

Summary

Being in software development and working with startups has helped me to be open to experiments.

I wanted to create a community-driven ecosystem where facilitators can get support even after they have finished a course. The programme I have created is about values and principles, not about extracting money from people. I believe that knowledge never goes away so there are no certificates requiring facilitators to pay every year.

Now that it has become a real business, it’s more structured, but the values and principles are the same. I can turn down people if I see that they are in it just to extract money.

The primary measurement of success for me is facilitator’s happiness. Being from an IT background, I do more of a support function, while facilitators stay in closer contact with the market.

We pay attention to what people say on social media and keep track of social engagement across the Internet. And I am trying to keep in touch with facilitators and evolve based on all the feedback we have collected. Our first priority is listening to what people need and adapt to that.

Speaking about the concrete measurement of success, we are using OKRs. We set a goal for a year, then break it down into smaller sub-objectives and do a planning every week to see what our next step is. Basically, we follow the stuff I talk about in my book.

And just like in the book, it’s all about building relationships and connections. I want to keep this project small and nimble. For a long time, it’s been just me and the robot I’ve created, but recently Sarika Kharbanda has joined. And our biggest challenge now is to learn to let go of things we used to do alone and learn to rely on each other.

I decided that I can go full-time with this project when I realized that I don’t need to do any gigs to support myself. But if I were to change something when I just started this whole thing, I would probably join an incubator and keep myself involved in the community to get more outside thoughts. It would have helped me to reach my current position faster.

Podcast materials

The first book by Jason Little, Lean Change Management: Innovative practices for managing organizational change

The second book by Jason Little, Change Agility: A guide to help you think about change management differently

Lean Change Management website: https://leanchange.org/

Transcription

Sergey Kotlov

Hi everyone. My name is Sergey, CEO of Workshop Butler. And this is our first ever episode of the podcast Training Business Anatomy. And our first guest is a writer, an agile thought leader, and a successful founder of a global training company, Jason Little. Hey, Jason.

Jason Little

Hey Sergey. How's it going?

Sergey Kotlov

Pretty well. As I said to you a little before, a bit nervous. So, Jason, it's really nice to have you here. And thank you for joining me. While preparing for this interview, I looked through your website and I got into the history of Lean Change Management and how it started. It's a pretty awesome development, I would say. From one person starting about seven-eight years ago to more than 50 facilitators around the world, more than 500-600 training sessions, thousands of students. Tell me, please how it started.

Jason Little

Sure. The original ideas came from working in the enterprise transformation in one of the telecoms. 2008-ish or so around there.
I remember it was New Year's Eve day, and I'm sitting in the office. The funny thing is, I actually worked in the exact same office 10 years earlier, when they were another gigantic company. It was cool to come back and see that they still had some of the old company logos and conference rooms. It was kind of neat, to go back into the same environment where I was working as a call centre person way back and then came in to help this new company with some agile stuff.
I was thinking that it wasn't working, the transformation wasn't going anywhere. We're about eight months in. And I was just thinking that this agile stuff is so freakin easy. Why can't they get it? Like what's wrong with these people? Which I think is normal. Even today, people still do the same thing.
And then I just sat down and started writing a blog post around thoughts. There's got to be a better way to do this. There's something I'm missing because as easy as this agile stuff is, it can't just be my perception. There's got to be something else going on. And that opened up the door to this whole organisational change aspect of agile.
That led me down a different thought process, which led to the first publication - Agile transformation, Live Lessons series that I did for Pearson Education. They wanted me to write a book, but I didn't do anything for about a year and then that became their Live Lessons. Lyssa Adkins did her Coaching Agile Teams live lessons, and I did my Agile Transformation. We went into the studio, recorded them both and launched the “Live Lessons” brand.
And then the ideas were sitting around for a while just waiting for a story. And then the Commission, the company in the book, was the story. Otherwise, it would have been like a manual - here's how I like to think, here's how I approach change, etc. But it was just waiting for that story to come out.
I released the first version chapter by chapter on LeanPub, very lean-startup-like. It got the attention of a few companies. I did book study groups with internal OD teams and CM teams, and then Vasco Duarte created Happy Melly Express, which was like a bridge between self-publishing and big company publishing. I remember he and Jurgen were looking for an experiment for a book and I said: “Hey, I'm going to rewrite mine. So how about this one?” And that's where it all started from - just experiments.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay, so in my understanding, and if I hear you correctly, the publishing of the book was a turning point that actually relaunched or accelerated the brand and brought the company to life.

Jason Little

Yep, exactly.

Sergey Kotlov

Yep. Okay, okay. Sounds cool. But there are many authors out there, and definitely, not all of them have successful global businesses. So what's the difference? Definitely not a book. What actually happened after that?

Jason Little

I think that one of the key things was coming from a software development background - being a developer, then being a product owner, then getting into agile coaching, then getting into the change and entrepreneurial space. I think it helped a lot. I worked for a lot of startups from the early 2000s and on. There was always this attitude of being responsive and open to new opportunities. And don't worry too much about intentionally planning things out to a certain degree, but be open for experiments.
And one of the first experiments we did was a Godfather package. We used Indiegogo to actually fund the second edition of the book and we had a Godfather package - you pay about 800 bucks and you can organise and host the first workshop based on the book. There was no workshop, no intention to do one, or create a training company, nothing like that. And a fellow named Torsten Sheller in Munich, Germany bought the Godfather package. It was like: “Oh, I guess I need to build a workshop now.” He actually sold two of them and said: “Alright, I sold two of them, for a couple of months from now. Can you come to Munich?”
So I went to Munich, had some nice sausages, pretzels, and beer, and went to open markets. And then we ran two workshops. He said: “Can I run these too? What would you charge me to run one of these?” I answered: “Well, what seems fair.” We worked out a deal for the material and I said: “Go ahead and do it.”And then the thought dawned on me: “Why don't I just try this with a business model and see if this works?”
I started running workshops in a lean startup style. I used a net promoter wall in the first 10-15 of them. After every chunk of content, I would ask how valuable was this from 0 to 10 and why. I used a lot of the ideas in the book to create that whole thing. And there was always at least one person in each workshop that said: “Hey, can I train these too? I have clients that would love this stuff.” The more people that kept asking the more I thought that this needs to turn into a business.

Sergey Kotlov

That sounds pretty amazing. And when you realised that more and more trainers, more and more people asking to become licenced facilitators, and you realised that it's kind of a business coming up to you, what was your goal? Did you have something specific in mind, something big, something really inspiring, or did you just say: “okay, this sounds okayish, I go with it”?

Jason Little

There were some loose ideas. Because the whole idea with the licensing was the people that were asking: “Hey, can I teach this course?” They were already teaching Management 3.0, so Jurgen had already been using the exact same model for a few years before I started copying and pasting basically what he was doing.
When I created my facilitator programme, it was more about adding the things that I thought were missing from Management 3.0. It's a different space, it's a different target audience. So the programmes couldn't be exactly the same. Most of my goals were around the thought that “I want to have more of a community feel right away. I want to have more options and benefits and support for facilitators because back then 10 years ago it was like this - you take the course, you pay a small fee, and there you go! Go away and do whatever. The facilitators are left to figure it out on their own. And I wanted more of the community-driven ecosystem around a closer-knit network. That was that idea.
And then there was also setting the bar higher. Not using certifications (I know Management 3.0 doesn't do certification, either) but not wanting to call anything a certification. And more of “You've completed it, you've shown that you have the knowledge”. Without getting into the pyramid scheme that a lot of other things do today, where you have to pay an extra fee every year to keep your certificate. But for me, the knowledge never goes away. You don't forget after a year. That's simply just trying to get money out of people in a business model. I wanted it to be more about the values and principles and less about how can I extract as much money out of this. Much of what's in the programme was related to that.

Sergey Kotlov

Did these goals change over the years? Because it was in the beginning, when your business just started. But later on in five years, or right now, for example, are they different from what you had in the beginning?

Jason Little

Yeah, I think it's evolved more into a real business, I guess you could say, the first few years, it was kind of a side hustle. If you remember when you first created the first iteration of Workshop Butler, right?

Sergey Kotlov

Yeah.

Jason Little

It was like “Hey, there's a need here for some stuff”, but you had other stuff going on. You had other work and other things happening. So it was kind of like that it was a side hustle. It was small enough that I could manage it while still doing full time coaching, consulting and other things.
And now, probably the last couple of years, it needs its own attention - using a lot of the stuff I've been teaching companies: using the Rockefeller habits, “What's our three to five-year goal? How do we break that down into annual goals? How do we break that down into quarterly and monthly and weekly ideas”, and using OKRs as a way to drive the whole business.
There's a little more structure now. But the values, the principles and the purposes are all the same. And the mechanics are the same. The licensing costs have increased, because there's more value for people now.
And I wouldn’t say it's more constrained, but it's not the case of Just because you have money for a license, you can have one. I turned down, I wouldn't say quite a bit, but I do turn down people who want to become facilitators, because it doesn't seem like they're either in it for the right reasons, or it's just a revenue stream for them: “I can extract money out of people by offering this new thing.” It's still kind of loose in that way. But it's a little more structured and formal.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay. And when you treated it as a side hustle, did you define the success of this side hustle in any way? Did you say to yourself, something like: “Okay, if I get this amount of money at the end of the year, it will be successful, and I can count it as successful and try to just go full time for each”, or something like that.

Jason Little

That was a secondary one, for sure. The primary one was facilitator happiness. Are they happy with the materials? Are they happy with how I'm helping them promote?
I still join as many classes as I can for other facilitators. It's part of selling too: “Hey, I’ll join your last session for an hour in person”. They would obviously video me in, unless I was in the city for some reason. Now that everything is pretty much virtual, it's the same type of thing.
To me, it's always been focused on the stuff that was ingrained in me as working as a developer in IT - a service and a support function, kind of like the mouse pledging pitch model. I'm in the middle and the facilitators are the periphery, they're the ones in closer contact with the market. So they drive a lot of how the business evolves too. Just a totally different approach.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay. If I got it correctly, from the very beginning, you had two measures of success: happiness of facilitators and quite ordinary business targets, right? And do you measure the happiness of facilitators on a regular basis? In surveys and stuff like that?

Jason Little

Not as regular as I would want to. But yeah, we normally do some type of facilitator survey. It's starting to become a regular basis. How happy are you with the programme? What's missing that you would like to see? It's more like a retrospective as opposed to a hard measurement. And then the lagging indicators are the recurring revenue, the people that are attending.
I think with the virtual stuff, we've actually just hit over 1100 courses, which surprised me. Because I was going in there and digging for stats to see what the difference online made. And I was like “Holy cow. That’s a lot of courses.” It's probably over 10,000 now.
It was more mostly anecdotal, observational evidence. And the official stuff was people who are sharing stories on social media, which now we obviously track. We use a bunch of different metric dashboards and stuff to track engagement across the entire internet. But it was mostly informal. Because when it was small back then, I could talk to every facilitator on a weekly basis and I still do a lot of that today. But there's 58 now so it's a little bit harder. So it’s definitely much more on the informal side. And there is a dedication to continue to evolve based on that feedback. So not just strictly about targets and measurements, but more “Am I listening to what it is that people want and need? And am I adapting to that?

Sergey Kotlov

That's pretty amazing. And how would you define success for you right now?

Jason Little

We're using OKRs. Right now it's just me and my little robot buddy, Mr. Zircon, who's my little automated buddy that does all my magical scripting in the back end. It's just been the two of us for the longest period. And now in June this year, Sarika Kharbanda has jumped in to help part-time with community engagement.
We're following the quarterly OKR schedule now. We're using stuff that's in the book and stuff that we teach and stuff that's in our workshops on ourselves. We have an objective for the year that we break down into quarters. And each of those quarters has a number of sub-objectives, and a bunch of key results.
Actually, just before we recorded this, we had our weekly planning. Monday morning, we look at what's in our OKRs, we plan a goal for the week, we review at the end of the week. That includes whatever those measurements are, which could be social media engagement numbers, could be people who are sharing stuff anywhere on the internet. We have scripts and some automation that captures all that type of stuff. And then we react to that. And we follow that same process every week.

Sergey Kotlov

It sounds to me like a much more process-organised, process-oriented approach that it was at the beginning. Is it correct?

Jason Little

Yeah, for sure. There's much more of a rhythm now because a lot of it is out of my brain. Because it had to be. Bringing Sarika on, we had to go through a couple of weeks of getting everything that Mr. Zircon does, automates, and tells me. Probably kind of creepy to say that there's this little robot that's helping me. It needed that structure.

Sergey Kotlov

Tell me a little bit more about this robot, because I know many training business owners, who run similar businesses to yours, but no one has this Mr Robot. What is unique? From your perspective, it is better to say that you're able to grow a global brand mostly on your own. Just a couple of months ago, another member of your team joined. So how did you achieve that?

Jason Little

I think that the biggest reason is just having been a developer. I've always had the belief that anything a robot can do a human should not be doing. Everything that can be automated should be automated.
Nowadays, it's so much easier to do that stuff. With Integromat, and Zapier, and the fact that everything is pretty much SaaS-based and has an API, it's crazy easy to replace an admin person and a marketing person with a robot. You need somebody to do something with that output. But paying somebody to go to twitter.com, and type in status updates, and hit send is what robots can do. Robots can analyse sentiment and write a post on their own, based on what people are talking about. I've always had that idea that it's very easy technically, to do some of that stuff. And the other thing driving it was talking about experimenting and growing it through experiments over time.
One thing I knew that I did not want is I didn't want to wake up in six, seven years and be in an office with 20 employees. Because it's a whole new level of stress. It's a whole new level of being locked into more of coalescing, more into what businesses tend to evolve to.
I wanted to keep it small and nimble, keep providing value, but just give it a different feel. Attending people's workshops, doing lean coffees with them. If I'm in town somewhere, going to visit facilitators, companies who were doing stuff and just hang out and chat with them. Keep it very much about all the stuff that I talked about in Lean Change, which is all about relationship building and connections. This is what it's all about.
So the robot stuff was for any time I'd get to a point where I'm like “Okay, I've just done this exact same thing four times this week. The robot needs to do that.” And then I would build a script to do it somehow, whatever needed at the time.
That led to using story mapping and creating customer flows, and all these types of things that would show what a person's life cycle was from either buying a book and going to a workshop or attending a meetup and getting digital credentials. I have all that stuff in story maps, and all that stuff was automated.

Sergey Kotlov

I can say it's really cool. And one of the things that I’ve just realised is that you mentioned one of the goals that you actually didn't talk about before. It’s not how you wanted your business to be but how you didn't want your business to be in a few years. It has been driving you all the way for all these years - creating an autonomous system, which would work without you at all. Maybe not to this point, but pretty much.

Jason Little

Yeah, I remember when I was at an event talking about something, and I mentioned another framework, let's just call it that, from the book. And I met this framework people at a conference here in Toronto.
I was having lunch somewhere and those folks were at the table. They said: “Oh, yeah, you wrote this. We meant to talk to you about that.” I thought: “Oh, cool, let's talk about some ideas. Let's talk about whatever.” The only thing they were concerned about was that I put the registered trademark symbol in the wrong spot when I mentioned the name of their thing. And that has stuck in my brain.
I've talked to the leaders in this organisation as well. They asked: “How do you ensure consistency across all of your workshops for everybody?” And I said: “It's impossible.” How do you get somebody who's trying to get a more rigid culture? They're teaching change in a certain way.
We have learning objectives, we have more of a community feel. It does get customised a little bit between different countries because change doesn't work the same anywhere. In that conversation, they asked: “How do you ensure consistent brand standards? And how do you ensure people are using the right hex code for your colour?” All this rigid stuff.
I thought that I don't want to become that. I don't, because it's not how change is. Change adapts. The approach that they use is more about “How do we constrain and make sure people are following the rules.” My approach has always been: “How do we put the right enabling constraints that help them be successful, but put enough guardrails in place that will keep a purpose and a value-driven organisation in the first place.”
If people go outside of that, it's not because of the person, it's because of me. It happened once. I had one facilitator that came in and tried to take the material and brand it as their own and tried to steal some of my facilitators. And it's not him. He was doing what he needed to grow a business. That says more about my onboarding and who I bring into the network, which is why it's a little more constrained than anything else.
Seeing how those more traditional organisations were operating, I thought: “I don't want to put somebody on a performance review, because they use the wrong shade of green on their website,it just doesn't make any sense.”

Sergey Kotlov

Well, it's deep. What surprised me is how different you are to many people I know personally. When you say: “I actually had one facilitator who tried to steal my materials and take some of my facilitators and it's not him, it's me”, this is a very different level of personal responsibility and personal insights on how things should work. Because usually it's a blame culture. This is a very obvious case - someone came in and tried to steal from you and you say: “It's not him. It's me.” This is very different from what I usually hear.
Why it resonates so much with me is that I recently had to fire our marketing person. And before that, again, several months before I had to fire two salespersons. Because of this same approach, it was all about moving responsibility and saying: “Hey, you didn't do this. And you didn't do that.” And I do accept this responsibility. I do understand this. I didn't create this and that, and I didn't explain this topic or this direction. And yes, we are a startup, we are constantly iterating and changing. I say one thing, and two months later I start saying another thing, but at the same time, I do also expect people to stop moving their responsibility for their own actions.
And I can say this is quite rare, but I constantly meet people that try to work differently. This is cool to hear.
Okay. And one more question to you. When did you see the business start growing? And when did you realise that this is a breakthrough, so you can just go full time and concentrate only on building the bare business, not going back to coaching and doing client gigs, etc.?

Jason Little

On the practical side, it was when there's enough revenue to support my lavish lifestyle.
It's like “Hey, I, I can buy groceries next month, and I don't have to take a consulting gig.” Revenue was never the first goal. But that was the first indicator that said that I don't have to take a coaching gig or a training gig if I don't want to.
Because you've probably seen with startups too that there are times when you realise you don't have any money to keep the lights on next month. If I've got a contract, I have to pay, and I'm like “Oh, crap, I can't pay them.” So I'm going to go do a side hustle, or I'll go find a training gig or I'll schedule a public course.
I got into this transition part where I knew “I'm probably going to be out of money in a couple of months, I should schedule a training course, like something that's easy to sell.”. Once I stopped having to do that, that was the indication that this can be a full-time thing. And then that led to the responsibility. It's a full-time thing until it runs its course. That means, it’s the endpoint of sale to another organisation, it’s the endpoint of a succession plan where somebody else takes over the stuff that I've been doing. Then the reality of an actual company starts to set in. But I would say it was primarily when I didn't have to do any agile coaching, consulting, training work that I didn't want to.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay, I got it. It makes sense. As soon as you have enough money to devote yourself to think what you want to do without any financial obligations. It makes sense. So you got these breakthroughs and you realised: “I can move it right now.” But moving back to these days, I see that there is a good growth and you've extended the team recently. And right now you're not only talking to a robot. What is the most pressing challenge you have these days?

Jason Little

A few things. One is having to learn how to work with people again. Sarika and I talked about this a lot, because she's done a lot of independent work to have been an independent coach, consultant, and trainer for such a long time. And I've been independent for so long.
Working with other people is something we both had to learn - how to rely on each other. We've known each other for probably four to five years, I guess, through Spark The Change. And she was in my workshop in Helsinki in 2017 or so. We've known each other for a while, and we've been back and forth for a while. So that was hard.
Because you know this too - as a founder, you're probably writing a lot less code now than you were. So you got to learn how to let go. And then if somebody is writing some code, and they're using the camel case, and you're like: “Hey, no, that's not the way I think.” But you get it, you got to let go. You got to just let things happen the way they do, which is hard. Because I think there's just a whole pile of things in there.
I've been working independently for most of the last 20 years and doing all the business stuff, so people are surprised. They say: “Oh, I want to create a digital credential programme. Can you tell me who designed your badges?” I'm like: “I did.” Or “I like your website. How did you create that little thing?” - “I did that.” All the graphics, all the brochures, all the training material - I have to learn how to let go and let other people do that stuff. That's definitely the hardest thing to do.

Sergey Kotlov

Aren't you afraid that in a couple of years, as you’ve already started and have just added one person and started learning to let go of some stuff, that you add another person, and another person, and whoops, you see yourself in a couple of years , maybe not an office, but in a virtual office with 20 people working. So you think: “Okay, I need to do something?”.

Jason Little

Yeah, to a degree. But I think though, the way that we're building it, it's very much like a now's pitch model. People wouldn't join to do a role. I would never hire a salesperson to do just sales. We've never actually had sales. I've never done any direct sales. It's all pretty much been word of mouth and social media engagement. That's brought it this far. But it would never be something that is departmentalized. I wouldn't hire IT related stuff. It might be an outsourced IT person that we have for 15 hours a month. And that's just to do stupid things. Like you found the SSL certificate on one of my sites, I'm in mid move. I do stuff like that myself: all the backup, the hosting, all the infrastructure, the robot maintenance,and all that stuff. I do all that because I like doing it. It doesn't take a lot of time. But I would never have an IT department with their sole function. They'd have to be a change person who's also technical. We all work together to figure out how to grow the network. So you know, Fiverr is a beautiful thing. There's a lot of easy ways you can run a global business when you need specialisation. You don't necessarily have to create a whole marketing department and all they do is crank out newsletters and stuff like that. You can hire somebody to build you an awesome template. I think the way that we're approaching it with the OKRs, and how we work together would help us avoid that problem down the road.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay, I see. Well, good luck with that. Because what you're building right now, it looks pretty awesome. I definitely wish you success with that. One more tiny question and we are going to wrap things up. So looking back at the very beginning of your company. If you could change just one thing to achieve this place where you are faster or to achieve some better results or satisfaction, what would you do differently?

Jason Little

Like 2014-ish, around the beginning of everything? Not far back?

Sergey Kotlov

No, I mean, when you decided to make it a full-time commitment.

Jason Little

I would say two things I would have liked to have tried, which I might try in the future. One is getting involved with an incubator, like a startup incubator or tiny capital or one of these companies that puts you through an accelerator programme to help you think through the ideas. Because a lot of the time it's me and my own brain. So having an outside perspective would have helped a lot. We'd be where we are today, probably, two years ago easily. I think just by getting that outside voice of reason.
You know, maybe funding. But it's always been self-funded, or it's always been revenue positive from the very beginning. So that's not that big of a deal, because fast growth was never really the objective.
Plus, it's the change industry. So the change industry still moves very, very slow. It hasn't needed to outcompete other people.
But I think that the one thing would have definitely been an incubator, a startup hub, or just getting more involved. Because I used to be involved in the lean startup community in Toronto a lot in 2012-2013-ish. And when this thing started moving, I didn't really go back to that community. Because it was more of a services thing, not so much of a product thing, but that would probably be the one.