ALI2019 Keynote Interview – Barry O’Reilly

With Agile-Lean Ireland 2019 just around the corner, we had a chat with one of our keynote speakers, Barry O’Reilly, to find out more about his new book, Unlearn. We also got his take on topics such as hypothesis driven development and the biggest transformation challenge he commonly sees…


ALI: Can you tell us a little about your journey to date – what was your path from Ireland to working in Silicon Valley?

Barry: It’s been anything but a direct line. I’d did my J1 in San Francisco working for a startup called We had the idea of putting local businesses on a thing called the Internet in the late 90s. I could write HTML so that made me an experienced programmer—I was hooked!

That role got me started and excited of the possibility of technology. After that, I helped start a mobile games development company in Edinburgh. Then onto Australia, where I worked in education on an internationally funded initiative to teach kids how to learn new languages, skills and methods through experiential learning with digital games. The content was distributed throughout Asia to schools, colleges and universities. It was a very rewarding experience.

Following that, I moved to London and joined the consultancy ThoughtWorks, where I focused primarily on business model innovation, product development and culture transformation with clients. Working at ThoughtWorks gave me the opportunity to write Lean Enterprise, with Jez Humble and Joanne Molesky, which captures our experiences helping enterprises innovate at scale.

My latest step has been to return to entrepreneurship and San Francisco to start my own business coaching executives, business leaders and teams in pursuit of breakthrough innovations.

I’ve had to learn a lot, but more importantly unlearn a lot of thinking and behaviors that made me successful in the past with each transition I’ve made.

ALI: In your Lean Enterprise book, you talked a lot about hypothesis-driven development. What are the benefits you’ve seen from implementing this in the field?

Barry: Put simply, my clients are seeing double or triple digit returns on their innovation investments. Building more of what works, and less of what does not. I’ve written a blogs on Value Engineering with Outcome-based Bets ( published a number of case studies on the topic ( from businesses in highly regulated industries, such as air travel and finance to show the results.

The evidence shows the benefit of taking an experimentation approach to innovation, and how its leading to exponential returns for businesses that take that path.

ALI: Outcomes over outputs is an approach most people agree sounds common sense, but many organizations struggle with. Why is this?

Barry: Most companies and leadership teams poorly define the outcomes they are seeking—most don’t do it at all—meaning employees are often lost about the desired results the business is looking for.

Secondly, when you can’t attribute your effort to impacting the outcomes the company has defined, the easiest way to defend all the effort you are putting in is to talk about all the work you did, eg. your output. So that’s what people do, or more importantly, all they know how to do.

Shifting to outcome-based measure of success requires defining your work in terms of what to achieve on quantitive terms, eg. increasing customer retention by 20%. It cannot be done by defining your work in terms of what you will do and when it will be delivered, eg. we built an App and launched it January 1st—so what? Did it increase customer retention or not? That’s what matters.

Outcomes enable experimentation and adjustment, based on what you discover from launching the output you created. Only communicating in output limits your ability to develop good experimentation, test,  learn and iterate.

ALI: From the organizations you’ve worked with, what have been some of the most common challenges associated with Lean or Agile transformations?

Barry: Fear. Fear of letting go of the present or fear of not knowing how the future will change. It’s a powerful force, and once of the reasons safety is so important in any transformation.

ALI: Where do you see the role of financial practices, for example annual budgeting, in enabling or blocking an innovative enterprise?

Barry: For most people it’s the only system they know, and one of the most significant ‘ways things have always been done’. Annual budgeting has it time and place, but when you have a one-size-fits-all method for anything you’re going to struggle in a world changing as quickly as the one we’re in.

Understanding that is the first step, next is identifying where smaller, faster investment cycles could be beneficial, and start experimenting with new funding and governance methods. I’ve written case studies on about this for people to read more on. There’s also a great case study in my new book, Unlearn, from the NHS and how they used the constraints of the budgeting system to help them innovate their funding process. 

ALI: Can you tell us a little about what your new book, Unlearn, is about? Who should read it? What were your motivations to write Unlearn?

Barry: My inspiration to write Unlearn came from what I frequently find to be a significant inhibitor for high-performance individuals to improve. It’s not the ability to learn that holds them back, it’s the inability to unlearn old mindsets, behaviors, and methods that were once effective, but that now limit their success.

Highly effective leaders are constantly searching for inspiration and new ideas. But before any real breakthroughs can happen, we need to step away from the old models, mindsets, and behaviors that are limiting our potential and current performance. While most people agree that we struggle to adopt new techniques to improve, fewer recognize that our existing knowledge and knowhow can also inhibit us further.

Unlearning is the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviors. It’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding knowledge or experience; it’s a conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively taking in new information to inform effective decision-making and action.

It’s been read by executives, athletes, and every day folks trying to improve. Following #unleariningstories to see how many people have been inspired in all sorts of ways.

ALI: We heard you talk a little recently about unlearning to write a book – what would be a couple of key pieces of advice you would give anybody to write a book?

Barry: Writing a book doesn’t mean you have to type all the words. The outcome of a book is to create content. Creating content doesn’t mean typing. I found the most effective form for me to create content was talking about it, transcribing it, then editing it. That was one of my unlearning moments as I wrote the book.

ALI: What are you looking forward to most about Agile-Lean Ireland 2019?

Barry: It’s as close to a hometown gig for me as it gets—I’m from Skerries—and it’s always nice to get back to Ireland for events.

ALI: What can ALI2019 attendees expect to hear in your talk?

Barry: Challenging tips to get them comfortable about getting uncomfortable.

Barry will be one of our keynotes speakers at Agile-Lean Ireland 2019 at Croke Park, Dublin, on April 25-26th 2019. Don’t miss you chance to see him by getting your tickets now, and also to get a ticket for his Lean Enterprise workshop on April 24th.