INTERVIEW: THE POWER OF REFLECTION AND HOW TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. A CONVERSATION WITH ALEX ATKINS, DIRECTOR AT CROSS 8

“To be honest, I’m a strong believer in looking forwards and I’d say that the biggest thing I’ve learnt in my career is to remove the fear of failure. Sometimes things will go wrong but what’s actually important is what you do afterwards. Mistakes are shaped by what you do next.”

Welcome to the world of Cross 8 Director, Alex Atkins. From his beginnings on a production line making concrete tiles, Alex soon found that the space where data met process and people was where he belonged. We caught up with Alex to find out why culture is so important and how to handle pressure when the stakes are high.

Can you tell us a bit about your role at Cross 8 and what it’s like to work there?

Yes, I’m a Director and my focus is on business transformation. I look after large programmes and support our team in the initial mobilisation phase. We’ll dive into things like how we engage with the client, what their real problems are and what they’re facing. 

Once we’ve got a really deep understanding, we’ll work out which skills we need to help solve the problem. We’ll look for the people in our team that can make a real difference to that client, bring them together and add oversight and governance.

So my role is really about transition and transformation. It’s about getting to grips with a business problem and making sure the outcome that’s needed is truly delivered.

You seem really passionate about your work. Why do you think you care about business transformation so much?

Transformation is just really interesting because it’s about making a real difference. For some businesses, transformation is an absolute game changer if you get it right. It puts them ahead of their competitors and can lead to massive success.

On the other hand, if you get it wrong, it can be disastrous. There are plenty of examples of organisations that have been brought down because they couldn’t deliver in a certain area and were then at a huge disadvantage.

I just find it a fascinating space. You have to get it right, you have to understand what the problem is and you have to deliver on the outcome that’s needed. At Cross 8 we’re striving to leave every client in a better place than where we started.

Is it fair to say you’re keen on projects where the stakes are quite high?

I think if I look back, my early career was quite pressured. I started out on production lines making concrete roof tiles. You had to make quick choices minute by minute because if you didn’t, you’d be digging three tonnes of hard concrete out of a hopper.

So yes, I suppose I got used to pressure from the start and I believe that you have to use it in the right way. Pressure is inevitable but it has to be reasonable. If you’re consistently running at the level where you’re up sending emails at 3 o’clock in the morning, that’s not sustainable.

We can’t ignore that we’re working in a high pressure environment – it’s just much better to acknowledge it and have an open conversation about it.

How did you get into the world of business transformation?

I’ve always asked myself what I’m good at and enjoy and tried to find more ways of doing those things. I came from a background in mechanical engineering and ended up in production where I started to see how important it is to optimise a process and the relationship of that to data.

I then did a Masters in Computer Science and realised over time that although I enjoyed coding, what was more interesting was trying to marry data up into a programme of work. That led me into project management. I would say that I see the world logically and enjoy breaking things down into logical steps that are achievable.

What would you say is the most interesting project you’ve worked on to date?

We did a B2B project moving customers to half hourly settlements which sounds fairly simple but it took a significant amount of change from meter readings to customer service.

It was highly technical because of a massive data migration but people-focused too because we were changing roles and structure. And that’s what’s so interesting, that intermesh of business and technical change. Even if you do a great technical change, if it hasn’t fundamentally landed with the people you haven’t really delivered the project. People have to understand and own what’s different about their world.

When you get that right, even projects that are horribly complicated and fraught with danger, are so satisfying.

What’s that like? The feeling when you’ve delivered a really good project?

Well, you have to make sure you notice that moment. That’s a key thing. We work in a world of rapid change and it’s all too easy to not pause and do that reflection, to not feel the glow of success or reflect on the failures or challenges.

But it’s so important. The most successful programmes I’ve worked on have built that time in to reflect and allow success to be recognised. Just moving onto the next thing isn’t very productive. You haven’t allowed yourself to think about what you’d do differently next time and how you can improve.

Are there any particular trends or changes going on in your industry at the moment that interest you?

Maybe it’s a bit obvious but it’s all about how we’re going to apply AI. The challenge at the moment is that the technology is moving so fast that most businesses can’t see how they can apply it. The minute you think you understand, there’s a new wave and it’s overwhelming.

It’s a big question. How are we going to take this emergent technology and understand what the application might be? Or how are we building that into the day to day operation to make a difference?

It’s all about understanding how AI relates to people too. The fear is that it will replace us but when you look at most automations they actually free up the human parts of the process so that you can add more value. It’s a great opportunity to take away mundane tasks and the things we do badly.

How important would you say that culture is when it comes to transformation, and why?

Yeah, culture is fundamental. For us at Cross 8 we have a very flat, non-hierarchical structure. And I think the best teams I’ve seen operate in this space over the last 20 years work in that way. They allow information to flow freely and there’s no such thing as a bad idea or limits on who can have the good idea.

When you’re part of the team at Cross 8 you’re constantly working alongside other experts. We’re not trying to take each other’s roles or play in each other’s spaces. We have a great team with incredible expertise and culture is just so fundamental to that.

It’s open, there’s a very healthy respect for one another’s specialisms and that allows for a very collaborative approach. We’ll come at things from a mindset that if we get it wrong we’ll iterate, keep testing and evaluating and go again. It’s a reflective approach like I mentioned before.

I think we’ve all worked in teams where you look across the table and you’re not sure you can trust that person to carry through. That’s a very hard project environment to work in. You can’t deliver with the wrong team in front of you.

If you had your time again, is there anything you’d do differently?

To be honest, I’m a strong believer in looking forwards and I’d say that the biggest thing I’ve learnt in my career is to remove the fear of failure. Sometimes things will go wrong but what’s actually important is what you do afterwards. Mistakes are shaped by what you do next.

I’m not sure I’d go back and do anything different because every lesson has shaped my later life. There’s always going to be more to learn and even if you feel you made a less than perfect choice, it can take you to a much stronger place. These experiences have led you to where you are today.

If you could land a dream project for Cross 8 tomorrow, what would that look like for you?

Well, we always enjoy a challenge and a strong, clear business outcome. We love to get under the skin of problems and ask what the real thing is that we’re trying to achieve. When you can set out a path forward and remove the fog around a large-scale business it’s a magical moment.

We bring our knowledge and experience to bear, we break down every step and then bring in the team, which is the really enjoyable part. It’s a pleasure to know people with so much expertise and bring them in.

So for me, that dream project could be lots of things but it would definitely be something that didn’t have a clear path forward but would make a big difference. If you talk to the team you’ll find again and again that we love working together. We love what we do and I know I’m not unique in that. The ability to be a specialist and come together as a team, alongside the client, is what great projects are made of.

If you would like learn more about Alex’s passion for business transformation, connect with him here

 

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