Tom: We’ve had the opportunity to interview several of the Triad consultants and learn a great deal about how Triad delivers technology-led business improvement to your clients. Adrian, today we’d like to gain your perspective and insights about the technology-led business improvement space in general and maybe a little bit more specifically about Triad.
To get things started, I’m really curious to know what excites you most about this technology led business improvement space.
Adrian: I think it’s interesting because historically a lot of our projects undertook to replace systems. So we were making the systems work faster and better than they did before. But we weren’t necessarily creating any significant change to the business model.
Digital transformation is a hot topic over the past couple years. Nowadays I think what’s really exciting is there’s the potential to change the business model of an organisation, or even the potential to change the way a whole market sector operates. An example of major digital transformation for me is Uber. People now use the term Uber-isation as a reference to a kind of disruptive approach to a given market sector. Interestingly, people are not accepting historical norms as the way to move forward, and that they’re really challenging some of that traditional thinking coming up with new ways of doing business.
From our point of view at Triad, Uber-isation approach gives cause to innovate and to think much more around business outcomes and not necessarily just replacing a piece of archaic technology. I’ve always thrived on being excited by change and I think we have an opportunity to inspire our people in knowing they can be part of something quite different.
Tom: So what you’re saying is that over time there’s been a kind of a shift in how Triad views their client engagements. Rather than just repairing or working within a structure, it’s about more creative thinking and more emphasis on innovation.
Adrian: Absolutely. If we go back 10 or 15 years a lot of the projects our business would undertake would be around automating processes. For example, capturing information from what might be a physical paper form, and effectively the systems we were building were electronic versions of that paper based model. Whereas now with the advent of much more accessible technology and web based applications we can start to think in different ways about where and how things are done.
A good example at the moment of how we’re thinking in different ways, is an engagement where we’re looking at the way justice is being delivered in the courtrooms in England and Wales.
Historically work (from the courts) has been given out to administrative operators. We are now using various methods and techniques to experiment with data capture and ways of recording information. This approach can completely transform not just the process but the time frame when things happen and who does what. It can have quite profound impact on the whole value chain if you like; the whole way of working, the whole system of work in our system.
Ironically what we do more and more of is transferring the system’s capabilities to the hands of the end users that’s making it easier for them to do lots of the work. Whereas I think perhaps 15 years ago it was more around automation, centralizing functions, data processing, that kind of thing; today it’s much more now about real time transformation of information and driving results at that point of entry. So this is very exciting indeed.
Tom: I think what you just said a minute ago is that you’re doing some new experimentation. Can you give us an idea of what type of experimentation you’re talking about?
Adrian: What I was just talking about is an example. And again it’s within the justice system where there’s quite a complicated rules based system for recording information.
Our research approach is based on a lot of observation of what actually happened in situ(ations) with the current user base. Through our observations we realized that there was a high degree of repetition; but the type of repetition didn’t lend itself that readily to a traditional kind of flowchart based approach; one where you could say these are the steps that follow any distinct sequence. Many aspects of the process were repeated but they were not linear, they needed to be threaded together, almost like DNA, in infinite different permutations. The Triad embedded team made these observations and they came up with a very clever way of allowing the user input very short mnemonic codes that would build up a piece of information in real time. Let me illustrate how this mnemonic code approach worked.
There could be a particular phrase that would traditionally be recorded, and that phrase could be part of several of the phrases within a larger piece of work. Our guys have developed some very neat mnemonic codes that allow people to build that picture up in real time and to have that elaborated and expended in front of the person in real time, so there is instant verification. It means that things in what historically has taken a long time to produce, and therefore done offline, can be done in situ and in a legal process, in a courtroom process.
That opens up all sorts of possibilities because historically there would have to be hand-offs whilst information was processed; there would need to be adjournments and hearings would then be reconvened. But this real-time feedback is enabling things to happen in one continuous episode and it opens up all sorts possibilities in terms of the decisions can be arrived at more quickly. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we had not invested time in observation. The technique that seems to be the most successful now is actually the face version of a prototyping based approach where our guys would build something in a skeletal form, test it with prospective users, get their feedback but also observe it as well.
In the example I just described we recorded the way people interacted with the screens and the tablets that we were introducing and used all of that information to refine and improve the outcome.
We were talking earlier about adopting an agile approach. But one of the major components of agile is to iterate quickly and use feedback to determine what your next steps are. This is a particularly good example of using iteration to come up with something that was never dreamed about up front but through that process it emerged as a solution.
Tom: I know something about how Triad approaches client relationships and often you’re embedded within the organization. Would you say that the practice of being embedded has facilitated the ability to observe, which is a concept closely connected with your ability to innovate.
Adrian: In fact, being embedded is a prerequisite to be able to arrive at that kind of intimate observation. It’s not the same sort of thing that can be done remotely or in an abstract fashion. To your point, part of the art of this consultancy method of ours, is that embedding within the culture of the organization and effectively being able to tap into the thoughts and the experiences of people working in the organization. Again, that’s something significantly different from a few years ago where it was a much more transactional kind of relationship; where people go into the customers and users and record information, take the information back their base and then translate that into some sort of solution.
Now what we’re seeing is this concept that we talk about as co-creation and design where the organization, the company and the supplier, Triad in this case, work together simultaneously on designing outcomes. It’s a different approach. It raises all sorts of opportunities, but (it also raises) challenges in terms of how you realize work in software and how our clients actually engage and produce things, because we are not certain at the beginning of what the outcome will be, or perhaps more importantly when the outcome itself will materialize. So starting out with some uncertainty is one of the challenges we face in order to get some of those benefits.
Tom: Another theme that comes out of our conversations with Triad is around the trust established with your clients. In my way of thinking the idea of co-creation is kind of the ultimate expression of collaboration and trust.
Adrian: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting because that can’t happen on day one; trust doesn’t materialize on day one. One of my observations is there’s a transition in terms of the balance in the relationships when we start an engagement. Often our clients will need to lean on us quite heavily to lead the way and to identify that this is how we’re going to solve this problem or exploit this opportunity.
(As stated), co-creation doesn’t necessarily start immediately. We would typically do discovery work and that discovery will help to inform us about the problem that we need to solve. But it also gives us a little feedback in terms of the way the organization operates. This enables us to put in place mechanisms like setting up forums where we can start the process of working together; and once we establish some norms there, the co-creation becomes a possibility. But my experience is there needs to be a warm up phase if you like in terms of getting the two organizations working together. That’s where some of the trust emerges from and then co-creation can come off the back of that.
Tom: When you start looking at it from Triad’s collective experience as an organization, and you individually because you’re part of so many different projects, the broader background that you bring in, is not just in terms of the technology, but the process of how to gradually begin this co-creation.
Adrian: Yeah. And a phrase I often use is the midwife syndrome.
In this scenario you have young parents coming in and they’re giving birth to their first child, and midwife does this day in day out and has that experience and can talk them through what’s about to happen. In some ways we’re very much in that role of midwife where we’re having to coach our clients, almost like prospective parents, as to what’s going to happen, where they can expect the joy to come from, but also where the pain might arise as well. And I see using that analogy (can give) the confidence and the ability for our clients to rely upon us to guide them through those early stages, which is something that we find is critical and it’s something that our guys enjoy doing very much. What helps new clients then is us being able to relate examples from previous engagements and to reassure them that some of the things they’re experiencing (are quite) normal.
Tom: We’ve been having a really interesting discussion around the technology-led business improvement space and the Triad approach. Now, I’d like to know what emerging technologies or approaches do you think have the greatest potential to impact businesses today?
Adrian: It’s an interesting question. I think in terms of approach, and if I can, I’d like to deal with that one first. Agile development / agile delivery, whilst it’s not new, it’s definitely acquiring critical mass now.
Agile, many people say it’s a mindset. It’s built on some fairly simple principles, but for me those principles foster that that sense of innovation and the ability to experiment, and I think that’s what’s key at the moment. For businesses to thrive and prosper going forwards there needs to be something different about what they do and how they do it. And to me the art of experimentation and managed innovation if you like, is very much facilitated by this agile approach.
We adopt agile as an organization in terms of how we approach our projects, which are largely software development projects. But I see the principles being applicable to all manner of business changes and the way organizations might look at product development for example. Since many products are software based nowadays, so there is a real synergy around the concept of applying the agile approach to many business changes.
I think that agile in the right hands, with experienced practitioners has a huge influence but it also challenges the culture of organizations as well. So in my mind if you really embrace agile you have to embrace also this notion of allowing for failure, and using failure as an opportunity to improve things. As is well understood in software development, failing fast and failing well is a very important part of that general approach. And then address question you posed earlier about technology, to me if you have an agile approach in the first place, agile really enables a safe experimentation and risk taking around new and emerging technologies; that’s what works.
On the topic of technologies I find interesting, something we’re looking at as an organization is blockchain as an emerging technology. Where we’re applying a particular aspect, is how might blockchain be used in ways other than the traditional uses, which would be currency.
So Bitcoin is an example of an implementation on a blockchain. So what we’re looking at with emerging technologies such as blockchain is how to discover different and innovative applications of that cool technology. And so, as opposed to a “me too” kind of approach where we try to mimic what other organizations are doing; we’re actively engaging with existing clients and other thought leaders out in industry to take a concept like blockchain,, understand the principles that underpin it, look at use case scenarios and business models, and try to establish whether there might be some applications that have a different set of benefits.
We have an example where one of our large clients is a consultancy that provides services to war-torn / crisis-torn countries and governments. They have a fleet of 2000 consultants around the world who are effectively delivering projects that are funded by governments through (what they call) foreign aid programs. We’re looking at blockchain as a means of demonstrating that those goods and services have actually been delivered at the point of need and that is a trigger then to draw down the funding. What that helps overcome is some of the challenges around foreign aid that is affected by this notion of corruption and funds not getting to the point of need. Blockchain could be a mechanism for completely bypassing certain potential negative aspects of that value chain and being a real force for good. So there is some excitement emerging there.
Another one of our client’ stations is involved in highways and roads, and they are looking at blockchain and the internet of things applied to toll roads for example and seeing whether there’s an application there. One of the roles we’re playing at the moment is facilitating their thinking. I’m really quite open and honest with our clients, this goes back to the point we made earlier about trust, we’re openly saying we don’t know where this technology might have benefits. What we’re finding is clients are willing to engage with us and have discussions where we can begin to see if there is some applicability. So for us it is interesting because this is a new technology but it’s actually creating new opportunities to write a different kind of consultancy with our client organizations as well.
Tom: So, what we’ve been talking about is Triad’s experience in innovation and having established somewhat of a process of innovation. Our conversation has gone down this journey that starts with Triad being embedded, which enables and progresses to co-creation. And so ultimately what’s happening is we’re in a world today that is changing rapidly. These emerging technologies have potential but to realize that potential within a specific business application requires a kind of openness to experimentation. Is that correct?
Adrian: Absolutely. And you know in terms of the expertise that we bring to bear, we have mastered techniques now where we can do pieces of work in very short bursts and produce something valuable at the end of that period; and that the value could sometimes be nothing more than some insights and feedback as to whether something is viable and has potential.
What we’re trying to do with our clients is break things down so we can say at the end of the short burst, or sprint as some people might refer to it, there will be something that you can put your hands around and quantify and make a decision in terms of moving forward or possibly taking a different direction. As we said earlier, it is perfectly possible for the outcome to be a decision not to progress any further, and in our minds that’s a successful piece of work; understanding when to stop as opposed to keep going.
So that’s the process for us and it’s fairly simple, it’s very repeatable, but it’s, I think, one of the other pillars of the agile approach; that transparency that lets people see through what is happening, and what the product of the piece of work was.
Tom: Your perspective on agile and emerging technology is very interesting. Moving forward here a little bit, we’ve been talking a lot about engagement, the environment of co-creation, innovation, and the agile approach. So in your experience working with a wide array of companies, what are some of the most common challenges organizations face in effectively using business enabling technology and perhaps new processes and methods?
Adrian: I still think the big challenge is around certainty and clients wanting to know that their investment will produce certain results; by certain, I mean quantifiable tangible results. So invariably large programs of work require investments on a significant scale and it’s completely understandable that the CFO of an organization will want to measure return on investment and other things like that, as well as other senior executives in the organization will ask what are we getting for this investment? I think the big challenge remains with some level of certainty we can predict those outcomes.
Again, trust is an absolutely valuable currency because most often at the beginning of an engagement all you can do is point to examples where you’ve done it before. It’s very difficult to persuade an organization to go with you if you can’t demonstrate how you’ve done that before.
But also from that point of view, we help our clients, not to be promising a return on investment, because sometimes it is critical to our brand to say to a client you’re not going to be able to realize that scale of benefits in that period of time, and that you may need to re-factor your thinking.
Tom: So, the challenge faced by organizations, and probably potentially this challenge is what’s inhibiting their ability to move forward, is that in order to tap into new processes and the different types of technology there is inherently some uncertainty, and that uncertainty literally stops progress. Through Triad’s collective experience you’re able to say to your clients coming into the engagement that you don’t have all of the answers, but to help build confidence for the client to move forward you can point to how Triad applied experimentation successfully in a similar situation in the past.
Adrian: Yes. I think that’s right. But I also think there should be progression through an engagement. The degree of uncertainty you would expect to be at its highest is at the beginning of whatever the engagement is and part of our job is to reduce the degree of uncertainty steadily as we go along. And for me what that means is again we have to be quite skilled at chunking down the engagement in a way that builds that confidence.
So you know, it goes back to something I mentioned earlier about managing risk, and that is why we advocate things like discovery processes where we can do an initial piece of work that identifies where the risk areas might exist, and develop strategies to mitigate against those risks or to change direction to avoid those risks. Where we need to be quite persuasive with our clients is to get them to buy into that incremental approach.
Many a time I think clients want Triad to say with certainty and gusto that we absolutely know that we know we can deliver all of this over this period of time for this budget, and organisations will sign up for that. From my point of view we might say that based on our experience we really believe it is possible, we believe it’s doable, we believe it’s feasible, but we need to increase your confidence and ours by breaking it down into steps and give people some opportunity to refine the approach and to release the investment incrementally.
We had a really interesting relationship with one of our clients where we used the notion of an investment stepladder. And what that involved was at certain stages in the assignment, they would need to take some kind of threshold, whether that was a progress indicator, a quality indicator or some completion of a particular deliverable.
And we encourage the senior management team then to use that accountability on us also as a mechanism to make themselves accountable in terms of the investment profile. So, they would release funds on a quarterly basis subject to the collective team (agreement). This is where the co-designer, co-creation approach can be quite powerful to achieve certain results. So we were working on a design, build, deliver quarterly cycle, and at the end of each cycle there would be a review process that says, ‘have we achieved success? Are we prepared to sponsor the next quarter’s worth of work?’
This approach actually became a really positive virtuous cycle where the board of this company was seeing on a quarterly basis that return on investment (the ROI), but they were also conferring on the project team their blessing to go ahead and do more. So it became a very positive working relationship that managed risk and showed delivery on a frequent basis and kept the stakeholders aligned without having to artificially implement stakeholder management. Meanwhile the stakeholders were involved in witnessing the progress that the team was making.
Tom: So in a sense what you have done is you’ve designed transparency into the process.
Adrian: Yes. And I think that’s very good for the clients, but being parochial for a moment as the supplier, that transparency helps to avoid any possibility of surprises and missing expectations because we go on the journey together with the client.
So from a commercial perspective by being transparent, and on the assumption that you execute well, transparency and execution means no commercial issues. And that for me is a very important part of delivery mentalities. We want to work on delivery. We don’t want to be worrying about commercial difficulties with our clients. We believe transparency is to the best way to drive change through an organization; but it does have some really important spinoff benefits too.