In mid-2008, we were tasked with changing the engine of a car that was running at 100 miles an hour, without stopping the car or hurting the passengers. We needed to build and replace the core operational systems of the company across all the 33 countries we operated in by the end of 2010.
This involved consolidation of more than 100 legacy applications and databases into a single modern application suite with the migration of operational data for close to 200 business units to the new system whilst ensuring full business continuity. At the same time, revamping the underlying technologies and processes to enter into the modern age.
With the first pilot delivered in a record seven months, towards the second half of the programme, we rolled out one business unit virtually every week. At the same time, we were also rolling out an incremental release of the product every four weeks. It took us 12 weeks to build a new release, so, at any given point three releases were in progress in parallel.
While we were at it, as if this was not challenging enough, we also proceeded to roll out a revamped digital strategy for our businesses across 33 countries worldwide, in excess of 80 websites.
We started with a team of five in mid-2008 and ramped up to an engineering team of close to 250 excluding the in-country business change, training and readiness teams.
We delivered all of it and more and delivered every single agreed milestone, consistently.
This was a huge personal achievement for all of us. But, not because we delivered the outcome of the programme that was expected of us. We were paid to do that.
THE HIGH-PERFORMANCE CULTURE
We created a machine. A high performing delivery machine that perfected the art of achieving success on a sustained basis. We also perfected the art of creating a high-performance culture.
We defined High Performing Culture where everyone delivered beyond his or her normal duty due to a deep desire not to let others, in the team, down. The performance was not delivered by external force or financial incentives but by appealing to the natural, positive, human instincts.
When issues occurred, as they always do, rather than dis-owing the issue, everyone pitched in to help out. In fact, I had to pull people out by saying it does not need five people to solve the same problem.
There was an on the pitch, off the pitch culture. When we made mistakes, there was never a discussion as to whose fault it was, the top priority was to solve the issue. After the issue was resolved, we would look at how we can improve the process or technique rather than finding fault with an individual. People took personal risks and initiatives to deliver beyond what was expected of them as they knew that it is OK to make mistakes.
The manager on site, irrespective of the seniority, was always the most empowered person when implementation was going on. Only she had the honour to declare the system go live, nobody else.
Credits for every success was given out to the team and ownership for every failure was bagged by the most senior manager.
We said, we will run fast but we will not leave anyone behind. We will carry you on the back if we have to but we need to reach the summit as a team.
If you walked on the floor for 30 minutes, just by observation, without speaking to anyone, you can work out who is not pulling the weight. The energy was so great that it energized even the most laid back person in the team. So, anyone twiddling their thumbs just stood out like a sore thumb.
I could not have been more proud, this was a story that you can tell when you get really old!
But, there was something that we had lost.
After three years of high octane, non-stop, head down journey, when I came out of the trenches, the world had changed.
Most of what we had delivered, was sort of already outdated, in a philosophical way. At least in my personal view.
The systems and products that we delivered fulfilled their purpose and put the organisation at the front within our industry. But we, as users of technology had moved on. Moved on quite a bit.
You see, systems do not become outdated, user expectations move on.
After the democratisation of information by Google in early 2000, during 2007–2011/12, the smartphone had democratised access to technology. Everyone had an iPhone, iPad or another smartphone in his or her pocket and their expectation of how he or she wants to interact with technology sort of changed overnight. They expected a similar experience with the systems they used at work, and fast.
Everyone suddenly had an opinion on UI. Overnight, nobody wanted to fill lengthy forms. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the likes became the benchmark of how good or bad the systems that we delivered are. If they liked a feature on Amazon, they wanted a similar feature in our products.
The machine that we had so meticulously created could not deliver on changing user expectations fast enough. It was not designed to.
More than this, there was a whole paradigm shift in how you approach the delivery of technology to consumers. Our users were now also consumers. Consumers of technology in their personal life.
Traditional command and control approach to project delivery was being replaced by a more collaborative and facilitative approach.
It was not Build anymore, it was Integrate, Collaborate, Test, Trial, and Rollout. Within weeks and months.
Partner ecosystems started to emerge and suddenly you needed to be the master of every new technology that was being used by these new startups founded by highly technologically aware, very smart young people.
The perfection of a feature was no longer the most important request. Good enough was enough as the speed of delivery was more important.
We should no longer implement systems, but deliver products. And products evolve. They evolve on an ongoing basis. So, in theory, a project to deliver a product would never end.
Projects cannot be years long, they need to deliver a viable product in months if not weeks. And then continue to iterate.
Infrastructures needed to auto-scale as the data being generated by us started to grow at extra exponential speed.
The attention span of a typical user reduced to a few seconds.
Staying ahead of the competition was not a one time job, it was an ongoing battle to deliver fast and then deliver something new even faster before someone has the time to catch up with what you have already delivered. If you stood still, you get left behind and you are only as good as your last success.
So, in addition to a High-Performance Culture, we needed a culture of innovation, self-learning, and risk taking.
We had created a High-Performance Culture. We had created a lean and mean high performing machine, that produced intended output like clockwork.
But, we were no longer ahead of the game. We were in serious danger of becoming irrelevant in the new and evolving consumer-centric technology world.
We needed to re-invent ourselves, whilst preserving our core.
We needed to innovate and do so on an ongoing basis.
We needed Agility.
We needed to be Agile.