Rebecca Parsons is Chief Technology Officer at ThoughtWorks, a privately owned, global technology company with 43 offices in 14 countries. It provides software design and delivery, and tools and consulting services. The company is closely associated with the movement for agile software development, and has contributed to much content of open source products. And as the practices of innovation and agile have changed so dramatically over the last year, how has its technology lead approach growth and development during a disruptive period?
“To begin with, our clients came to recognise that actually we don’t have to sit next to each other to be able to get work done,” she began. “In fact, ThoughtWorks has worked relatively remotely since the year 2000 so we’re used to disparate teams. Many clients weren’t, however, so we spent the early period helping them learn the things we’ve practiced.”
One oft cited aspect of innovation is collaboration. In a remote context that has, counterintuitively, made some aspects of communication easier—democratizing Zoom call participation—and other aspects harder—creative debates. Couple that with, as Parsons describes, “time-zone fatigue” and large, global businesses are finding themselves powerless against something they just can’t innovate around.
“We have an internal group called Doppler that puts together our technology radar and meets twice a year,” she reported. “They’re spread across the globe and in the past we would meet for one intense week in one city. We’ve now had to make that virtual—and it was painful!”
Parsons herself had to start at 4am, but her Australian counterparts had to shift their work days into nights to fit into the remote schedule of the Doppler meeting.
“If you’ve got a global team and you want them all to collaborate, someone is going to have to pay the price in terms of time-zones,” she added.
Another important aspect of innovation is, of course, people. And especially for the creation of new and inventive ideas: new starters. But one thing common to all businesses this year, large or start-up, is the trouble with onboarding into remote teams. How do you encourage the same bonding and team spirit between people who have never met physically? And how do you manage that going forward into a hybrid environment?
“We’re struggling with onboarding new individuals,” said Parsons. “We are having to develop and nurture relationships where normally we would have done that in person. That’s one of the things what will extend beyond the pandemic: the default assumption is that when you meet someone it will be in person, even if it means getting on an aeroplane or a train, the default is in person; now there’s a recognition that things don’t require in person experiences.”
Who has the head start?
As the interview continued it became clear that those organizations which had had experience with remote working had a huge head start. They already had the tools in place and integrated into people’s ways of working so they hit the ground running back in early 2020, whilst developing even more efficient avenues of growth in the process. For Parsons, innovation lies in the subtle interactions between individuals and is actioned in the clear cut processes laid out by mature companies. Even though remote working significantly reduces the opportunities for casual conversations, for example, there are a number of technologies that can act as a useful stop gap.
The questions regarding innovation in the next normal is exactly when the next normal arrives. Short and medium term solutions will be seen as necessary adaptations to external forces—but longer term? It’s rare for humans to create solutions that will knowingly help us farther into the future, but it’s also true it hasn’t been this unpredictable in living memory.
This interview is brought to you in partnership with Tata Communications, a Digital Ecosystem Enabler, helping teams stay connected, productive and focused on driving secure customer experiences.