It may feel as though we have spent a small lifetime in lockdown, especially given the drift of days at home, even amid the radical changes that we've had to deal with in working remotely or not working at all in our normal day jobs. I've been lucky enough to work with a fintech business, for whom lockdown has actually proven, or in some cases disproven, a number of previously held assumptions about remote working. I think, for a lot of us, the process of going back to normal will see significant alterations to our time-worn habits. For example, Forbes expects home working in the US to double from 5% of the workforce to 10% in the next year or so, and in Germany there is a proposed "right to work from home" law being debated.
In broad, and necessarily simplistic terms, I've drawn some basic conclusions from our recent shared experiences, and in particular I've given thought to how we'll go about developing products and services in this changed world.
Let's start with some basics:
Igniting the sparks of innovation
One of the lessons I've learned working with both a large multi-national insure tech business and with a couple of emerging start-ups during COVID lockdown, is that delivery of known products, services, features and projects has actually been more effective. We've seen some our software engineering squads push their typical velocity up by 140%-160%. Where something is clearly understood and a team can work using good collaboration tools alongside good video and audio, then the folks are getting a lot of stuff done. Simple factors such as the ability to adapt working time around family, or having time freed up by not commuting to work, and removing water cooler distractions, have all contributed to high levels of delivery. The same is true of our consulting teams working on existing commercial projects, where April's project based billing has been surprisingly strong. We have focus and we have people who are willing to adapt and meet these present day challenges.
Do I see a deeper challenge?
The short answer is yes. What happens when the defined work, when the clearly detailed projects and feature backlogs start to thin and we need to ignite the sparks of innovation, be that in technology, in consulting or in sales?
In particular, when I think about software product development, I've found that product managers, subject matter experts, architects, designers and engineers need time and space to nut out the problems, to visualise options and to create the conceptual parameters and frameworks in which they can realise and build a great new product, feature or service. That process can work remotely, but even with great video and audio, with collaboration tools and virtual whiteboards, there is still something missing. It is, I believe, those whites-of-eyes moments, when a team swarms around a physical whiteboard or screen, that really matters. That process of talking, of reading body language, of laughing and getting frustrated in close physical proximity, is the kindling that gets the fires of innovation roaring.
That doesn't mean that time at home is not valuable when thinking about innovation and product development. Taking those whiteboard sketches home where you can, hopefully, sit and think and work on the detail, is clearly also a valuable step in the process. With modern technology we can easily access information and tools that help to make those strategic and tactical decisions about a product or a customer, but again we are at a stage where there is definition to the work, where we have established the parameters and specification through collaboration and can now get down to the nitty-gritty. Being productive at home needs, in my opinion, that human interactive spark that comes by sharing space and time together.
The more I think about the process, the more I think that the basics of product development remain largely unchanged whether we work at home or in a collaborative space. Typically those steps might include:
Gain insight - identify and explore potential markets, segments and opportunities
Identify potential product and service configurations - but don't try to design the solution just yet
Try to understand the size and shape of the opportunity. What does success look like?
What does longer term success look like? Is this a one-off opportunistic hit or is this an opportunity with legs?
Do we have the people, the skills and the resources to address this opportunity?
Can we acquire customers in a cost-effective way?
Personally, I like to take these insights and use something like a 9-box grid to rate different aspects of the proposed configurations. Which elements really drive the numbers?
We are, of course, in uncertain times so we also need to look at contingency. Can the business deal with the present stresses and strains. What is our capital position? What is our real capacity to deliver new things looking like? Do we have a really clear understanding of our priorities?
What does it mean?
Overall, then, I think that our response to COVID does not change the core principles of product and service development. We still need to answer those fundamental questions driven by our insight into a rapidly changing set of markets and societal norms. What does change is the space and the time in which we apply these foundational principles. Based on the evidence provided by my own teams and colleagues and contacts, I think we will, where it is practically and effectively possible, embrace remote and home working. Getting in to the detail works brilliantly if you have a clean space, free from distraction, in which you can work. For those of us in enabled business sectors, I believe that our use of office space will finally shift away from the "bums-on-seats" mentality of yesteryear, and become much more focussed on short burst collaborations. I can easily see technology product teams spending three days a week or sprint in the office doing that thought and innovation stuff, but working on the nuts and bolts of delivery from home.
I do wonder, though, what we'll end up doing with all those soon to be redundant corporate desks, banks of monitors, property leases et al?