In this interview of the series asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change, I spoke to Amit Kothari, CEO of innovative startup Tallyfy.

Amit Kothari is the CEO of Tallyfy. He spent over a decade in London, working on process improvement projects and disruptive technologies for some of the largest companies in the UK. Tallyfy is beautiful workflow software that turns your daily tasks and approvals into automated, repeatable processes – freeing up your time. Tallyfy went through the top two accelerators in Silicon Valley – 500 Startups and Alchemist, and has raised $2m to date from top investors in St. Louis and Silicon Valley.

“Consumerization of enterprise software is a manifestation of that trend where it’s just about “I Google something, I sign up, I use it” ”

Mike:
Amit, as co-founder of innovative business process management service Tallyfy I know you’re pretty busy so I appreciate you taking the time for this interview.

Amit:
No problem, it’s my pleasure.

Mike:
Would you say that the culture and future of organizations are things you take a deep interest in?

Amit:
Yes, and I think I’ll break it down to software being a manifestation of that culture which begs the question – if culture has changed, why hasn’t software changed? Yes, I would say I take a deep interest in that and try to break it down into the pieces we can control and can’t control.

Mike:     
Do you see major change in the way organizations run as being something which is pretty inevitable and probably essential to most organizations as we go forward?

Amit: 
I think that in the largest companies there have been attempts to change culture and I also think there’s cross cultural businesses. A business in the US would probably be quite different to one in, say, China, or India. There’s that to take into account but if we focus down to say “The West” for arguments’ sake then in answer to your question – I think people are battling with the self-governing or self-service type of expectation that employees have around what they expect at work when they get hired.

It is not just a millennial question, or a GenX or GenY question. I think it’s entirely different. Many people, especially at the top, are trying to do a top down approach to that change and in many cases investing millions of dollars in innovation, culture change and so on but I don’t think that you can manifest that in a top down manner. I think that it’s a grass-roots effort.
Now, what we’re trying to do is different. I guess we’re trying to enable that grass-roots movement to happen without making the people at the top feel that they have no control whatsoever. It’s a bit of a game between the three rungs of hierarchy in a company I suppose.

Mike:
Do you think that perhaps it’s not either one thing or the other? but there needs to be something happening on both sides?

Amit: 
I think there is stuff happening on both sides. I think the danger is the middle management sometimes who are stuck between this no man’s land of them needing control because they’re middle management – and yet people at the  top are telling them not to be more innovative or to embrace cultural change and yet they have teams below them that are that way. Many of them are not as senior as the people above so they’re kind of stuck in that sandwich I suppose.

Mike:
Do you see the kind of work that you’re doing at Tallyfy having a part to play in those changes?

Amit: 
When we take all these observations and then say “Okay, what does that mean?” then yes – understanding the dynamic is important to us. If every rung of the ladder could be getting a piece of software without asking IT, great. That means that the entire model has changed. Consumerization of enterprise software is a manifestation of that trend where it’s just about “I Google something, I sign up, I use it” which also means that UX expectations are entirely different. It’s not a list of features anymore. It’s about “do I understand it in two minutes? Otherwise, I don’t care.”

So, yes, it’s a great opportunity for us by seeing that this is the new way, that people want to work differently – and enabling that new way to happen. In our case being a BPM tool we had to remove the rigor of BPM as well. We feel that flowcharts are very 18th century because you’re not really going to pay someone a six digit salary to look at flowcharts and just follow them. We think the new wave of tools will embrace collaboration of course but the chat extreme of that collaboration – towards Slack and things like that are actually “too free” in the sense that you can just post whatever you want. I’ve seen channels of 50 people on Slack degenerate to 70 messages a minute where no one has any sense of what’s happening, or what is currently being talked about.

Mike: 
Like a mush.

Amit:
Yes, and so that’s where the organization piece has to work with software, not just chat but how can you constrain it into a context and then say “This is about this workflow” but it’s still a loose chat. It still has a structure where you see who’s doing what.
I think what you lose is predictability in work when you have too much free form in terms of your communication styles because the whole point of a process is that it’s predictable. I know who’s doing what next and if that is lacking entirely in something like chat then we’re the answer to that. We’ve got to fill that vacuum so that’s our mission – to make work predictable and easy.

Mike: 
So anyone can sign up for Tallyfy. Somebody in an organization could decide “Hey, maybe this’ll help me organize this process. Now I want to put this together with these three or four other people” and they can sign up and get the other people signed up to it and just start doing their own processes without a huge learning curve, or enterprise software licensing or anything like that, is that right?

Amit:
Yes, precisely and I think that such easy software, such needs that people have, should be at the bottom of a business “Maslow hierarchy of needs” if such a thing existed.
Yeah, it’s not just servicing that they want to do this but the fact that they need it as a  well-known pain point. They had to go to IT in the past. Now they don’t and we’re positioning for that do it yourself era.

Mike: 
Do you think leaders in an organization changing their own mindset is relevant to or necessary to making that kind of change feasible?

Amit: 
That’s an interesting question. It is contextual to the leader’s style, and their DNA and what beliefs they have but if we say in a mid-size company (rather than a large company) a leader had to embrace all this – it’s very difficult If they’re a middle management person. They’re stuck between what IT tells them to do and what their team really want. I think the real question is not what they want but how they can counterbalance those two forces. Leaders are supposed to be enablers for others.

Mike:
Do they need to change their thinking from being monolithic to being more open?

Amit:
Absolutely, like the classic leader that just says “Hey IT, buy some software and everyone will use it”, clearly has to change the way they think but the non-software side of leadership I think doesn’t change – aspects like humility, motivation, encouraging people. Humans haven’t changed even though software has. It’s just that the tooling which has changed substantially has to enable a human to be who they want to be.

Mike:
In that context what do the terms values and higher purpose mean to you? I hear them being spoken about in this context quite a lot but do you see them as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organizations?

Amit:
If we take higher purpose to mean a mission statement for example I think the most tremendous mission statement is written in plain English in ideally one or two sentences and that’s it. “We believe that people should not X, Y, Z, fill in the blanks” – it’s about the change you want to see in the world. I think that it’s also customer facing. It’s not about the organization. It’s about what the organization believes customers should have which also simultaneously puts a stamp on their differentiation to what they bring to the world.
In our case we think we want to be the only workflow tool that anyone can understand in 60 seconds. In contrast to many BPM tools that take sometimes months to implement and so on. I think that the mission statement has to be the product of service combined with the customer need combined with differentiation.

Mike:
That’s interesting because if I take Tallyfy as an example and your mission to produce this very easy to use business process management software,  that does have values embedded in it in a way doesn’t it?  What values would you say a company might be expressing by going down a route like Tallyfy?

Amit:
They’d have to be bold in knowing that flowcharts are not the way forward or perhaps they’ve tried them and no one looks at them ever again. They’d have to embrace that this whole “ready in 60 seconds” idea is actually possible. They’d also have to embrace that integration to other tools is actually drop dead easy now and you don’t need an army of engineers to write code to integrate software A to software B any more.
Such a leader, such a thinker probably is a good fit for us. We are quite selective in knowing that we picked those people out because we know we sit in that bucket.

Mike:
What kind of values do those people tend to have in common do you think, or are they all different?

Amit:
A typical such person tends to be looking for innovative things. They’re sometimes embedded in the start-up space. They get excited when they contact us. We can tell when it’s the right person. They then elaborate their pitch to us as if we don’t have to say anything. We just say “Here’s what we believe in.” Then they say “Well, that must mean X, Y and Z.” We just nod our heads and say “Yes, it does.” Then we know it’s a good fit.
Sometimes we do have to convince people because they have constraints from IT or so on but I think when they get excited they become the champions. They relay that to their teams and we actually make them a custom video after we talk to them once to say “Here’s a custom intro just for you that you can share in your team to build consensus for this approach.” I’ve recently taken to sending custom videos of me speaking to that person for just two or three minutes to introduce myself and tell them what I believe we can do together.

That partnership works but it’s a slice of all the people out there. I would definitely say there’s a whole ocean of people who are stuck in that decades old, “Well here’s a list of features and I don’t care what users want”. I hope that the pressure that users bring to IT help them realize IT isn’t a castle that manages service any more . IT has always been a cost but they’ve been an essential function in a company and leaders there, or CIOs, probably have to understand that as Software As a Service becomes Everything As a Service there’s no physical service to maintain. Their job will become running contracts for SaaS companies not running services any more – which is a very interesting change for IT as well.
Many organizations then aren’t looking at technology-first transformation in that respect and I think it’s the tech that changes a culture because sometimes the culture reflects the tech and no one wants to work in some place where horrible, ugly software is normal. It tells you what the place is like. It’s almost as if leaders are thinking “If the tools you use are cool and make everyone happy then our culture will be cool and everyone will feel like they’re in a cool place.” It’s really just like a tool-first thing because every day you’re staring at a tool. If you work eight hours a day – how many hours are spent staring at a software tool? It’s the manifestation of culture I think, the tooling itself, asides from all the human factors which exist.

Mike:
Do you think the technology choices that people make will tend to embody their understanding of the human values as well?

Amit: 
A technology choice … Well, it can be a mishmash. Many companies don’t have a universal platform but there’s a fight going on between the old and new all the time in big companies and, yes -the fighters will manifest their views as technology. They’ll say “Look, this other thing sucks. We need to get this new thing. Can someone please buy it?” Then at that point somebody will say “No, because we have this enterprise wide license” for some other software and therein the battle begins.
It’s an ongoing battle but I think in 10 years from now people will look back and realize that this was the age when self-service and the consumerization of software changed  everything. And that includes changing the culture from top down to just bottom up.

Mike:
Right, I have actually seen a very large organization spend 40 million pounds on buying a whole bunch of enterprise licenses (which were completely useless for what they wanted to do) because they were reduced from a hundred million.

Amit:
Yeah, there was a stat somewhere that 70% of all ERP implementations failed in terms of user adoption.

Mike:
If you were going to give one piece of advice to an organization that wanted to move towards a new and more complete kind of  empowered organization.  What would that piece of advice be?

Amit:
Let’s assume this advice goes to the top, to someone who can control everything. There’s basically just two pieces to work out in my mind. One is does our technology actually enable people? That doesn’t mean keep the lights on and just run IT. Does it actually enable people to believe in what they want, what we believe in as a company, but also – do they work faster, easier, better? That’s first and the second I think is – are we in a place where we can change? I think everyone wants to change and be innovative but if you have to run a nuclear power plant then there’s not that much scope to be innovative. It better not blow up, right?

Mike:
Yeah.

Amit:
It just depends on what sector you’re in. If you’re a tech company of course you can embrace this. You should embrace this but it’s hard sometimes for retail supermarkets say.

Mike: 
Or running cash machine networks.

Amit: 
Right, so that’s the second question. Are you ready? Is this even a fit? Then a third question is would all the middle management or the way they think, not the top – but the middle – actually accept this? That’s where I think the examination of what is real should occur – not what you think the culture is. If you walk around and actually ask people face-to-face about things then you learn the truth and too many people rely on trickle-up management reports to understand things. I think that’s my core advice, just literally walk around and ask the specific kinds of question to people who are actually at the coal face every day and say “Do you really think that we can be innovative? Do you think we can change? Do you think we have changed or should we change?”

Maybe you would not introduce yourself at all and not say that “I’m the CIO”, “I’m the CEO” or whatever. You would just say “Hi, I just walked in here. This is my first day on the job. I just wondered what do you think about this?” That’s when you get the truth and that’s when a leader should know this is the truth. Not just what I want – but this is the real truth, on the ground. Being feet on the ground on this is the only way to really understand how to change (for a leader that is). It’s ideal if no one knows your face or name.

Mike:
Thanks for that. You’re a busy person. Do you want to give us a brief summary of what a typical day might hold for you or is there no typical day?

Amit:
Yeah, I guess it varies but I think a lot of customer demos. My day starts at 6:00 AM CST on GitHub. GitHub is a tool that we run all our source code, and an hour or two is spent with our devs – since we’re a product-first company. I use an hour or two to just catch up on tickets and answer questions and then the day starts – which is demos, mostly. Then I try to have an hour for just whiteboarding. I tend to just draw things for no reason. I go into a room alone and just draw things. Most of them don’t make sense. I take photos of the ones that do make sense and then always sleep on it until the next day to understand them.

Lately we’ve been thinking about an app store – so how would Tallyfy have an app store where you can install apps inside Tallyfy just like you can on the Apple store and what would that mean? How would it work? I suppose it’s not so typical.

I plan my day around understanding that there’s three buckets of knowledge. (1) what you do know (2) what you know you don’t know and (3) what you don’t know you don’t know. I really try to spend my time understanding that third bucket by having advisers, and having investors help us. By just asking a question that I know is wrong but knowing that my question will be rephrased into another question – will be much more illuminating.

Mike:
You do an awful lot of exploring in fact.

Amit:
Yes, I suppose I have to so that we can differentiate ourselves. I do sometimes have an issue with the rest of my team who have to do what they have to do, their operational stuff. I have to be careful presenting ideas to them especially if they’re not fully fleshed out.
That’s not my day but I guess that’s roughly my week in some way.

Mike: 
Thank you very much. What kind of question should I have asked about organizational change that I haven’t asked you that you would really like to answer?

Amit: 
I think you’ve asked fantastic questions. I think you’ve covered the human aspect of the cultural change and I think that would be the Ying. I think I’ve come in with a Yang – with the tooling aspect of that change, which is my end of the bargain I suppose.
I don’t claim to know much about the actual cultural change that occurs but I do think that some exploration around what real users want and their true motivations around the tooling they use to manifest culture is something that’s understudied and not really understood too well because culture isn’t just “Hey, here’s a culture, please use it.” You don’t buy a culture from a supermarket so what is it really? Is it the tooling or is it the mission statement?

Mike:
Maybe it differs from organization to organization as well.

Amit:
Precisely, so is there a sectoral difference? Does size make a difference?

Mike:
You’re reminding how I got into a lot of trouble in one of my first consulting contracts many years ago.

Amit:  
I don’t doubt that you got into trouble.

Mike: 
I went and asked the users what changes they would like to see to their system to make it easier for them to use. I remember the IT director saying to me “Why are you asking them?” in an outraged tone.

Amit:
You should reconnect with that IT director now and just say “Well, how’s it going?” It’s hard and I think tech people are changing. I have faith that they are going to. It’s just that we continue to make decisions from a purely tech perspective. It’s a very bad idea in this day and age.

Mike:
So what Tallyfy is really doing in terms of business process management, is offering something which is slightly subversive in a way because you’re saying “Hey, whoever you are, wherever you come from you can sign up for this and give it a try.”

Amit:
Yeah and I think strategically it’s company IP. If someone walked out the door because they go fired or they left – how would you know what they did? If they haven’t documented their processes – how would you have any IP in your company other than human capital – which just keeps moving around? It’s another aspect that is strategic.

That’s what our play is, not just the ease of use. If you want to sell your business you can’t sell it without systems. No one seems to be realizing this. People are just like “Well, let’s hire more people to make that problem go away” but people are getting more scarce. Hiring here in the US is tougher and tougher these days because there’s less and less people to hire. This is when systems come into play. You’ve got to understand that it’s not just people. Can your business run through thick and thin? If everyone just leaves –  can it still run? I think no one has done that risk assessment in our area or looked at it and said “What if everyone in our company left? What would we do?”

Mike:
Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to do this and sharing your thoughts with us.

You can check out the amazing easy to use Tallyfy BPM software at https://tallyfy.com/