Changing Culture – A Case Study

The most innovative and Agile organisation I have worked in during my entire career was Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, DrKW ( Formerly DrKB Benson ). DrKW had an innovative, competitive and risk managed culture. This was not an accident. It was not some kind of freak accident. It was the deliberate creation of Al-Noor Ramji, which was built upon by JP Rangaswami. Without doubt, the two stand out leaders (so far) of my career. DrKW was not a happy clappy place. It was an extremely disciplined organisation whose IT department allowed it to punch above its weight and compete in markets that similar sized banks could not.

Al-Noor did not inherit DrKB IT in that state. It was an IT department formed of a conservative German Bank and a traditional English Merchant Bank that had massively under-invested in IT for years. The first thing Al-Noor did was raise the bar which was a painful process for those who did not make it, and for those that survived.

In retrospect the key thing Al-Noor did was reduce the power distance gap. Subsequently JP destroyed it all together.

Power distance? DrKW had the hardest recruitment process I ever encountered. Getting into ThoughtWorks was a breeze by comparison. You had to give up an entire Saturday to do tests, including how you worked in a group. And you had to score higher than the average of everyone already there. The bar rose and rose. The final step tripped up many. You had an interview with Al-Noor himself. Al-Noor had an office on the trading floor. The hottest piece of real estate in any bank. It also meant he was close to the business in case they wanted him, or he needed to hear what was going on. The only question I remember was “Chase Manhatten* is a rich bank with lots of money, how will you cope here where we have very little money?” In retrospect, it was perhaps a question about innovation, I just assumed that Al-Noor was trying to put me off. A while later a candidate I put forward called after after his interview. He had passed but did not want the job because “he never wanted anything to do with that a**hole again.” I asked him if he had ever met his current or previous CIOs. I pointed out he had had a one to one with CIO. If he wanted another, they knew each other, though he would probably have to make an appointment. Al-Noor reduced the power distance gap.

Every night JP finished work at five o-clock. Regular as clock work he went to the same place. If you needed to speak to him, you knew where to go, no appointment necessary. JP destroyed the power distance.

Delivery? We had one rule. Deliver something of value to the business within three months or you lose your funding (and your job). This was back in 2000 before Agile was mainstream. This was the hardest learning for me as I was used to six month and one year projects. Al-Noor declared victory at an all-hands. He reflected that the challenge to change thinking on IT had been hard. But it had taken the business a lot longer to make the transition.

Learning? Dresdner was a highly competitive environment. One day, Al-Noor asked everyone to do brainbench tests. Lots of muttering and dissent. A few did it begrudgingly. They shared their scores. Within an hour everyone was doing Brainbench tests. You would not believe how competitive people could be about their knowledge about “Harry Potter”. I won a digital camera for scoring second on SQL skills. Learning and being honest about your ability became cool. Pure gamification.

Mastery? We had three day hackathons. Four teams of six that merged into two after the first day, and became one for the last day. I was team lead when we learned about C⌗ (in beta at the time) and Bandwidth trading. My team lost but the real headline was the play fight JP had with one of the guys the night before he was announced as CIO. Power distance index?

Innovation? Al-Noor demanded that we think of the IT department as an incubator. We were asked to examine our systems as candidates for start ups. DrKW spun off several including Yolus that I encountered at subsequent banks. DrKW also released its best software as open source. Open Adpator and Bhavaya. Early forms of the practices known as Feature Injection, Specification by Example and Staff Liquidity were all practiced at DrKW. Developed through necessity without budget. Something about the coffee?

Mentorship? I had a lot of one to ones with JP about Strategy. The truth is he was my first mentor. He gave me books to read including Jim Highsmith’s “Agile Eco Systems” which started me on a path to Agile. As Business Analysts we were the first involved in many projects. I was a good way of hearing news from the front, and influencing direction.

Loyalty? I only remember two one to ones with Al-Noor. the first, my final interview. The second at Heathrow airport. Market conditions and I had made me redundant at DrKW and I needed a job. Al-Noor said I was one of his and asked where I wanted to work. I just had to do a test. At the time Al-Noor was CIO at QWest where Jane Tabeka and Michael Spayd met him.

Unlikely as their need would be, if Al-Noor or JP needed my help, I would instantly hand in my notice.

So for those who say it impossible to change a culture. I say hire Al-Noor Ramji or JP Rangaswami. Or at least raise the bar and destroy the power distance.

*I worked at Chase Manhatten before DrKW.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

4 responses to “Changing Culture – A Case Study

  • Mike Woodhouse

    Interesting stuff. I did the Saturday thing (loved it) and all the subsequent examinations but turned down the offer in the end. I confess I did it mainly to see if I could get Al-Noor to break his minimum 2:1 rule. He did – sort of – but stipulated that I’d have to finish my degree (I’d been in the business about 16 years at that point) which seemed, well, daft, to be honest. But I was tempted.

    Also interesting, JP has turned up at Deutsche, where I currently ply my trade.

  • bibhuashish

    Loved the case. And it has all ingredients to be referred as a case study in case some one is really looking to understand and create a culture of learning and innovation. “Either you deliver value in three months or you loos the funding”. What can be more crisp than this. Performance metrics should be as clear as this.

  • Step away from the office, and join the team! | The IT Risk Manager

    […] previously wrote about how Al-Noor Ramji and JP Rangaswami reduced the power distance index at Dresdner. At Skype, Mark Gillett was even more explicit at […]

  • Yoko Chung

    Great article. Changing culture in any organisation is probably the toughest challenge for everyone involved – it takes time. I have fond memories of the DK Saturday test because I came away with the bottle of champers. But like you and probably many – I don’t think I’ll ever forget my final interview with Al Noor 🙂

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