How GTD® Has Helped Monzo’s CFO Through Career Transitions and the Covid World - Next Action Associates

We discuss how Getting Things Done® (GTD®) has helped Alwyn Jones, CFO of Monzo bank, navigate career transitions, adapt to new environments and cope with the COVID world.


00:05 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. I’m Todd Brown. And today, a little bit of a departure from what we normally do. Robert Peak and I are normally here. I’ve got a very special guest, Alwyn Jones, and Alwyn is joining us… Alwyn and I have been in touch, working together for many, many years, and Alwyn is currently the Chief Financial Officer at Monzo. Many of you will be familiar with Monzo as a financial institution of recent heritage, of recent foundation over the last several years and one that has created a lot of stir. And Alwyn is, I’m hoping today, gonna tell us a little bit about what it’s like to navigate in his current world and also what it’s been like over the years adapting to new environments with GTD. So, Alwyn, welcome.

00:55 Alwyn Jones: Hey, Todd. I’m very pleased to be here.

00:58 TB: Have I done you justice in my little brief introduction there? Is there anything else that you’d like to tell people about you and your background?

01:05 AJ: Oh, I think I underpaid you. You did very well, very well. No, I started my career in investment banking and consulting and I spent a long period of time at Barclays before I joined Monzo. I’ve been there about two years and it’s been an absolute wild ride. We’ve grown, I think from about half million customers to 4.5 million in the last two years, and it’s definitely been a fantastic experience. So, no, you did a very good job at introducing me.

01:29 TB: Great, great. Glad to hear it. Just to give people a little bit of background, can you tell us, how did you come to getting things done in the first place? And where did you first hear about it, what were your early learning experiences of it? If you could just lay some ground work for us there, that would be great.

01:44 AJ: Sure. It’s a little bit of story actually, but when I was working at Bay in the management consulting firm, they do big trainings every couple of years for all of the various cohorts of consultants and managers, and they get 200 or 300 of you together in a big place in a hotel. And it’s usually some exotic location, so I did ones in Miami and San Francisco. And very rapidly, you find out, by the way, that spending a week looking at PowerPoints in a hotel room in San Francisco is just the same as spending a week looking at PowerPoints in your office in London. So it’s not quite as glamorous as it sounds, but the training is amazing. And I was very fortunate, you’re split into little groups, and the partner who’s looking after our group, a chap called Peter, was a very senior partner. He was actually about to leave Bay, he was gonna go to take his first CEO role. And he actually took a lot of time during that week that we were together to basically say, “Screw the schedule. I wanna teach you some of the things that I’ve learned that have made me very successful as a partner because you’re at a cusp in your career where you’re gonna start managing case teams.”

02:51 AJ: And he took us aside over dinner for various things in quite a few different aspects, but one of them was about how you manage your time. So he didn’t introduce it as GTD at that point, it wasn’t really branded, but he took us through what a weekly review looked like and his context list and his next action list, and really just sold me on the whole concept, because I could see it working in his inbox. I mean, first off, when someone opens up their inbox and it’s got two emails in it and they’re that senior at Bay, and you’re starting to think, “Well, how on Earth is this possible?” And it just seemed to make more sense. And then I think he shared one of the Outlook setup guides, so I hope I’m not going [03:30] ____ into too much trouble from a copyright point of view, which is where I found where this all came from. I also discovered actually, in North America, there was a whole chunk of [03:40] ____ who were advancing this agenda under the banner of, “Actioning as action,” so they branded it internally. And it was just everywhere and there were quite a few people who are doing it. And so I just got into it from that point of view, but that was about 12 years ago now. And then I got to know you from sitting in seminars and everything else, but that’s where I first got introduced to it.

04:02 TB: Great, and it’s interesting, as you’re telling the story, one of the things that we do find is that there are these sort of grassroots organizations in a lot of places, these internal mailing lists or these internal… These days, they might be Slack groups or Teams groups or something like that, where people are, in various channels, keeping up on, “What are you using? What kind of tools?” So quite often when we’ll come into a new organization, we’ll already find this group of people who are keen and ready to go, as it were. Okay, so then, your experience of it at… Could you tell us a little bit about what life was like for you at Barclays, which is where you and I got to know each other first. What was helpful about GTD, and if you could tell us a little bit about your role and what GTD brought to the table for you there?

04:55 AJ: Yeah, well I had several different roles at Barclays. I started off in strategy, which was a natural segue from management consulting. So I ran a couple of strategy teams, including the group strategy team for a couple of years before I moved into P&L line management. So eventually, I ended up running the consumer lending business and part of the premier global clients group. What really helped for me was just the change in context and making sure that nothing dropped. So Barclays is a big organization, there’s a lot of things we have to do to get right in that kind of environment. It’s a regulated environment, and you really can’t afford to just let things slip. So by the end of my time there, I was managing probably teams upwards of 50-70 people, from sales forces, to conduct risk, to legal teams, to managing regulators, and all of that just needs to stick together in your head. And if you try and keep it all in your head, it just doesn’t work.

05:53 AJ: And so what was really helpful for me was just being able to funnel all of that in through the weekly reviews to a series of projects that I knew I had to progress, and I could make sure I was keeping progress on all those fronts at the same time. And I used to use Outlook pretty much as my exclusive tool. I thought I was a bit of a power user by the time I left Barclays. And it even got to the stage where my wife knew that if she wanted to get something done with me, that getting it into my email inbox was probably the best way to make sure that I actually actioned it. So it’s just really helped me to keep that level of complexity tamed and in one place.

06:28 TB: Great stuff, great stuff. And I’m keen to bring the conversation as it were into the recent Corona world a little bit, talk about how GTD has helped you in this environment. So if you could tell us a little bit… Many of us will have seen… Monzo’s been in the news quite a bit, and some of us will have seen some of that, but if you could just tell us a little bit about what’s been going on for the organization and for you individually, and how do you think your GTD practice has supported you in what would’ve been pretty turbulent times?

07:06 AJ: Sure. Monzo is a very, very different environment, as you’d expect. So we’re doing a lot of things from scratch for the first time, we’re growing very, very quickly. So when I first joined, my team was about five people, it’s now about 35 directly in finance, and I’ve picked up other responsibilities as we’ve gone through the past two years. And that puts a lot of incredible challenges on the organization and on you personally. We’re doing things very often for the first time because we’ve got big enough to do them, or that we’re trying to rethink them in a new way and deliver value for hopefully our customers but also all of our stakeholders in the right way. And all of that means that the velocity of work is just very, very high. With that, as well, is also a completely different toolset. So we’re on G Suite, a whole new toolset for me to use, but Slack is really the nervous system of the entire organization.

08:01 AJ: So I had to get used to an entirely different way of asynchronous working, which, as you know, pose some challenges and it’s a very, very different way of working. But once we got into Corona, I think the… Every company has been affected, and all of them in their own different ways. And we were going through financial year end, which is quite a challenging point in time for me, so how do we think about all other statements on our accounts? But also just operational questions of, what does it mean to close our office? How do we keep running some vital processes, so things like processing checks for customers? So, how do we keep serving our 4 million customers at that point in the way that we want, and how are their behaviors and needs gonna change? Because we just don’t know. And you could be looking at complete lockdown, is it a week? Is it two weeks? Is it six months? When does international travel come back? How does that affect the overall business? So a massive increase in uncertainty.

09:00 AJ: And I think one of the things that was really obvious to me was, is because a crisis does two things at least. One, it changes the context in which you’re operating quite significantly, and that’s true for your system. But two, the sheer volume and velocity of what you’re having to deal with just goes up dramatically. And so keeping track of more stuff coming at you across multiple channels with shorter timelines was really a key challenge. I didn’t always do very well at that, but one of the key things that helped with GTD particularly, was do I have a complete set of projects? Am I taking time every week to try and plan to make the week go well? Because if you don’t do that, you start a week behind. You’re not going to get the serenity of mind that you need to, because you then get into a very reactive mode. And for me, the real benefit of the disciplines of GTD has been when I take the time to do a good, thorough, weekly review, when I take the time to make sure I’m advancing all of my individual projects and I know I have a complete inventory, I feel like I have more time on the ball. When I don’t do that, I feel like I’m chasing it, and that’s the difference in that kind of environment.

10:11 TB: That’s interesting. As you’re talking about it, I’m just reflecting on something that seems to have become fairly common with a lot of my clients, which is this… And again, tell me whether this is something you might have thought about or maybe implemented, but this whole idea that, as you say, “More is coming at us, more is coming at us more quickly,” and especially in your business the challenges were heightened, the volume was higher. So what a lot of my clients in similar situations have chosen to do is, in addition to the things you’ve talked about, make sure you’re doing weekly reviews, make sure you’re getting that kind of perspective that you don’t typically get if you don’t do it. They also started to keep track of the things, they started to be a bit ruthless about the prioritization of the projects that they had, and they started… One client’s coming to mind who created a… Basically, a form of an incubation list or someday, maybe list, which she called, “After Corona.”

11:11 TB: So what she chose to do was, say, “Look, I’m gonna be really realistic with myself. I walked in middle of March with this projects list to the office one day, lockdown came. I really need to be very clear in my own head, ‘What are the things that I really can advance in the current reality in lockdown, and what are the things that really are just gonna have to wait?'” And she found that her words now… She found that very liberating. So again, I’m curious if that’s something that’s something you’ve either thought about or done?

11:40 AJ: Yeah, absolutely. That’s true. So the immediate crisis always forces you to do that kind of prioritization exercise anyway. There’s only so much you can do, and it forces you to make some kinds of adjustments as well. You’re working in a very different environment, so you have to reflect that in terms of what you’re able to get done right now. So yeah, we delayed some product launches that we didn’t think were appropriate, but we know we want to bring those back. We reconfigured some of what we were doing in terms of our financial planning, we ditched some projects that just weren’t going to work anymore. But the other thing was also planning for after Corona. And what’s really helpful about methodology is, yes, you can make a conscious decision to park something on a someday-maybe list or incubation list where you know it’s okay for you not to look at it for a period of time. But the other thing I’ve been doing is thinking about, “Well, what are the 10% or 20% of projects that I need to keep moving for when we return to some kind of normality?”

12:43 AJ: I was really struck actually. I was watching with my daughters on the weekend, ‘Apollo 13′ that just turned up on Netflix. And I was really struck, there was a period of time there where they’re working the individual processes after the explosion on the spaceship, but they’ve also got people in the simulators trying to figure out how to get the spacecraft to land. And that’s something they knew they needed to get to, but that was 72, 48 hours hence. And similarly, there’s things we know we need to get on with when the world returns to some kind of normality, whatever that is, and we can’t afford to let those slip. So just being really clear of what horizon you’re operating on and where you’re mindful about putting stuff on the incubation list, it’s been incredibly important.

13:29 TB: Now, back to this whole idea of, what is your commitment? And I think quite often I find that people, once they put something in their system, somehow the contents of the system become sacrosanct, and somehow they have this sense that it’s now no longer negotiable, right? I’ve committed to doing this because I’ve defined it as a project or I’ve defined it as a next action. And that always reminds me of a great quote from David Allen, and David basically says, “Look, whatever is in your system at any given moment is your best working hypothesis about what’s important, and we shouldn’t be so beholden to those past decisions about what we were going to do if what that means is that we don’t have the flexibility to bring to the current world and make good decisions about what to focus on next.”

14:16 AJ: I think that’s true. And one of the things I’ve struggled with a little bit with the methodology is precisely that, where some things will maybe sit on my next action list for a very long period of time, and I have to then use that as a prompt to ask myself, “Well, why is that? Is it that I haven’t actually defined that very well as a next action? But we’re not quite in the category of mum for birthday party or everything else, which I know is the classic example,” but if there’s something blocking you and you haven’t correctly identified the next step, it’s not going to move. Equally, it may just become irrelevant, and because I committed to do that thing, it may be as simple as just writing an email to someone to say, “Hey, I’m no longer gonna be able to do this,” or “Can we do this again in several months’ time?” and just being free to renegotiate those commitments.

15:06 AJ: The lists are very helpful as a prompt to say like, “Well, how long has this been here?” And then are you really progressing it in the right way that have you thought it through? And it’s again part of that weekly reflection of, “Have what I’ve got on my to-do list, have I got on my on list the right things? And what should I be demoting and actively managing down?” And it’s very easy to get into the trap, as you rightly pointed out, once it’s in, it’s staying there, and that doesn’t mean actually that’s the case. You should be paying as much attention to what you throw off your project list as what you bring onto it, and that’s what the someday-maybe list and the different horizons to focus give you.

15:42 TB: Yeah, I’m so with you, I think that that sort of quality of being nimble is what comes to mind for me, that you really do need to be nimble and use your… A phrase that we use an awful lot in the seminars and the coaching is, “Be kind to your future self.” Which is something I say a lot, and that’s, at its core, that’s an awful lot what GTD is about, right? I’m making decisions now to clear my head and set my future self up so that he can be as productive and as stress-free as possible. But at the same time, I think we should also not be slaves to our past selves. Our past selves made decisions about what went into the system and what our commitments were to it, but as the world is evolving, we need to be ready to challenge those decisions, as you said.

16:28 AJ: The different elements… Sorry, but just to finish off that point…

16:31 TB: Go for it, yeah.

16:33 AJ: Yeah. The different elements of the system also come into play at different times, right? So one of the things I tell people about GTD is, there’s a lot of information when you read the book, and there’s a lot of different tools that David Allen has put together, and they’re amazing, but you don’t have to do all of them. You have to do sufficient to you to get to the point in state that you want to be. It’s not a case, your goal here is not doing GTD, it’s getting clear, and if that requires you to use all of the toolset, then that’s fantastic. If you can get by with just a next action list, a project list and a weekly review, that’s also fine. But I think sometimes people can be a little intimidated by the sheer volume of good ideas that they’ve been encountering in a seminar or going through the books.

17:15 TB: Great way to put it, the sheer volume of good ideas. And I’m with you, we did, those of you out in the podcast community here who have been listening to us for a while may recall the day David Allen came along to a podcast that Robert Peake and I did. It’s gotta be three or four years ago now, where we talked about how is GTD different from other productivity and effectiveness approaches, and David’s point was absolutely echoing what you’ve just said, which was at the end of the day, we don’t tell you that you have to have a someday-maybe list, or that you have to spend time thinking about what your life purpose is, but what the methodology does offer is, if you’re drawn to that thinking and you see value in it, then we help you to figure out how does that fit in with everything else that you need to be aware of in your world? If I do choose to go through the exercise of figuring out where do I wanna be in three to five years, what we would call sort of vision level thinking, then I can figure out with the help of the tools that GTD provides me, I can figure out, “Okay, well, having decided that that’s something that I wanna make happen by the end of 2025 or whatever it is, what do I need to be doing now and in the intervening time in order to help to make that happen?” So I think it’s a really important point.

18:36 TB: And it also reminds me of a reaction that quite often people have to some of our public seminars, and when I think back to the work that we did at Barclays and also to the work that we’ve done at Monzo, sometimes people come away from those seminars a little bit overwhelmed, as you say, because of the volume of good ideas, and I think it’s really, it’s incumbent on us as the people who are helping people to implement GTD to make it clear to them, we’re laying the whole smorgasbord here, right? The buffet is out and what you choose to eat is really up to you at the end of the day.

19:12 AJ: Yeah, I think my goal with all of this is to do enough work that I don’t have to do too much work. One of your colleagues, I think, had said, this is the amount of work I need to do to stay sane, but no more. And if you’re getting obsessed about the system or you’re saying that it has to be implemented in a particular way, actually you’re a little bit missing the point. So for example, I’ve taken a step back once we’ve got a little bit of breathing space in the crisis and thought through how my system is working or not, because frankly, there were quite a few cracks in it.

19:48 AJ: So for me, now I’m working from home, obviously for lockdown, context lists are just less important. I’m here, this is my context, so having a commute list or an errands list is less useful for me right now. Similarly, I didn’t realize that one of the downsides of Slack… And Slack has many benefits, as I said before, the nervous system of our organization and we couldn’t work without it. But it is the equivalent of almost having 400 or 500 inboxes on your desk, and so I’ve reverted to paper to make sure that I’m capturing actions as they come through during the day, so I know I have a very robust collection point, and then I migrate those into a digital system later on. But don’t be afraid to make those changes. Just because a suggested approach is you will have at-computer context list or at-calls list, they may or may not be useful for how you’re working at that particular point in time. In a major turbulence event that hits your organization or hits you is a very good time to reflect on, “Do I need to tweak systems or actually not use a particular part of it, because it’s not working for me in this context?” The goal isn’t to have the complete system, it’s to have a system that works, that you feel a peace of mind that can come from making sure you’re complete and outside your head.

21:08 TB: Great stuff. So we should resist being slaves to our past selves also in the sense that we… It’s not just about the contents of the system, but it’s about the structure of the system and the tools we’re using. We should be flexible about all of that as well. Great point. Great, well, we’re coming to the end of our time. I’m curious, as we’re starting to wrap up here, for someone in a position like yours, senior management position, what kind of advice would you have for other people who are senior managers or aspiring heads of big pieces of organizations, what advice would you have for them in terms of the benefits of getting things done, not just for you, maybe, but also for their team and their organization? How do you think about the benefits of GTD beyond your own practice?

22:03 AJ: Yeah, that’s a good question, Todd. And I’m not sure I’m necessarily a role model to aspire to, but thank you for posing the question that way. I think where I found it helpful is if I’m clear on what a project is and I’m clear on what needs to happen next on that project, then I’m a much more effective manager. And it could be that the next thing that needs to happen on a particular project is, I tell someone to go figure it out, and so it doesn’t need to be much more prescriptive. But it’s really around… Are we being clear on what needs to get done on our commitments to each other and where we’re expecting things to show up again? So a waiting-for list becomes progressively more useful. And that, to me, has also evolved into a delegated projects list. So a lot of projects, I was discovering, where my next action was talk to Todd because I needed to get the update of what Todd was doing at this particular point in time. And so, keeping track of who’s on point for various things and who’s managing that commitment for me, and so I could be clear with them and also give very clear levels of autonomy.

23:19 AJ: I think it’s just been incredibly powerful. And being able to know right where is Project X going to be, and when am I gonna see it again and is that the right time that I want to be seeing it? So I’m meeting my commitments both to the team and the organization, has been incredibly useful. And that’s where actually I spend probably now half my week through review is, looking at stuff that I’m not necessarily doing, but I’m responsible for and making sure that I’m all over those responsibilities to know what support the team needs to get them done, and that they are gonna get done to where we need them to be.

23:57 TB: Good stuff. Listen, Alwyn, thank you very much. Thank you for being with us today. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve known you a long time, so it’s been really good to dig into your practice and your thinking about how GTD has helped. That’s been very valuable for me, and I’m sure it has been for the folks out there in the audience. For all of you listening, as always, if there’s anything that you’d like us to be talking about, in terms of you getting things done practice, getting things done and supporting you in the current reality, you know, whatever it is that you think might be helpful, please do let us know. As we always say, we’re very happy to take requests, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time. Bye, for now.


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