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Learning to live with uncertainty: Key lessons from Thoughtworks Live UK 2020

A few companies may still be holding out hope - but if there was one thing the business and technology leaders who gathered for the 2020 edition of Thoughtworks Live UK were in agreement on, it was that there is not likely to be a return to normal. The good news is that with the right capabilities and mindset, this is a reality enterprises can learn to embrace rather than fear.

As the pandemic forces organisations to grapple with unprecedented conditions and customer demands, many are “almost going through stages of grief or loss,” Gina Miller, co-founder of SCM Direct and a renowned campaigner, shared in our discussion during the opening session of the conference. “As a society, as business leaders, not everyone’s at the same stage, but the sooner we get to the acceptance that there isn’t going to be the old norm, it will be a new normal, the sooner we can use our energies to positively decide what that new normal will be.”

Planning for the unpredictable

The events of 2020 have rammed home a truth that most organisations are aware of, yet often fail to act on; that “the world is less predictable than we thought it was,” Ben Davison, Interim Executive Director of Product Development at NHS Digital, remarked

Like many public sector organisations the NHS tends to plan in one to three-year cycles. Yet “at the height of the pandemic, quite often, we didn’t know what was going to happen in two to three weeks, let alone in six or nine months,” he said. “It has taught us that we don’t have control necessarily over what’s happening, and we have to have a delivery model, that extends to clinical systems, that allows us to be fundamentally more nimble and agile.”
For Ben and other business leaders, priority number one has become enhancing the organisation’s ability to absorb, and even benefit from, the unexpected. This requires transformation on multiple fronts - technological, organisational and cultural. “You can’t just focus on one of those blocks,” Kathy Gettelfinger, Digital Transformation Principal at Thoughtworks North America, noted. “You have to look across the whole landscape to achieve your desired outcomes.”

Experts at the event zeroed in on several key characteristics that allow enterprises to thrive even when external conditions are volatile. The first is the ability to scale rapidly in response to those conditions.

“In the peak month of the pandemic we had 500,000 registrations in one month - approximately half of what we experienced last year,” Ben explained. “Our turnaround times went through the roof. We rapidly had to pilot in new levels of automation that we hadn’t foreseen we would need prior to the pandemic … all our services we now build effectively as if we’re in a hostile environment, so they can scale in a fully elastic manner.”  

Going where the data takes you 

Elasticity means “bending rather than breaking” when customer needs change, when data calls business strategies into question, and even “when the capabilities that were just a few years ago regarded as exhaustive of your core capabilities, now barely touch the size of what’s required for you to compete in a digitally charged environment,” noted Luke Vinogradov, Digital Transformation Principal at Thoughtworks UK. 

The digitally charged environment will throw up sudden shifts as a matter of course. Our speakers emphasised the need to eliminate hierarchies and internal silos that can provoke organisational paralysis when those inflection points arrive, to pave the way for more ‘frictionless’ decision-making.

“To survive, organisations may well decide to become much flatter in their organisational structure,” Gina advised. “That will mean leaders will actually be closer to the employees, which I think psychologically and physically is a better thing as we go forward into a more progressive future - because that will make leaders more responsible.” 

In a ‘flat’ enterprise, leaders are more willing to entrust decisions to the people and teams best placed to make them. “Gone are the days where leaders sit in a room and dictate and direct,” Simon Badley, CEO of leading insurance software developer Open GI, said during our closing session. “Leaders are not perfect and we’re certainly not all-seeing. As soon as we recognise that, and unleash the power that exists in our business and give people the closest to the opportunity to drive the change, we’ll get where we need to be quicker.”

A defining trait of effective digital leadership is the recognition that effective decision-making “has got to be data-driven,” he added.

“To be better around reacting to unpredictability we need to have a better understanding of what’s happening out in the field, what the data is telling us, and to be able to pivot very quickly to respond to that,” agreed Ben Davison of the NHS. 

With data playing a more prominent role in organisational strategy, enterprises need to develop the infrastructure and skills to not just gather and store information, but turn it into intelligence worth acting on. 

“We have been very good at collecting large volumes of data, transforming and sending it out,” Ben pointed out. “But the ability to collect large data sets and understand how to join them to drive (change) means you have to have very strong data science, analytics and data engineering capabilities.” 

Simon noted that in looking to enhance those capabilities, businesses don’t have to go it alone. “One of the strong aspects of leadership in the future is the humility to recognise when you need help,” he said. “But you need help from the right sort of partners. You need people who are your critical friends. Somebody to say “you’re going in a wrong direction, you’re making the wrong choices, you need to do things differently - and that’s what we’ve got with our partnership model with Thoughtworks.” 

A change in perspective 

For Ben, even as it embraces short-term changes, an effective digital organisation should be thinking for the long-term. Progressing from a project to a product mindset is key to striking that balance. 

“I see the role of product management as maximising the value that services can provide out to the consumers, whilst minimising the time and cost associated with delivering those services,” he explains. “When you operate on a project mindset, it’s quite often easy to lose sight of that equation. You don’t make some of the long-term investments that you need to make because (they don’t) make sense in the context of those finite business cases.” 

With product vision, on the other hand, “you start to think about things from a more sustainable and long-term perspective,” he added, investing in teams and processes to  ensure they’re as efficient, effective and, crucially, as happy as possible. 

People need to be fully on board as enterprises transform because ultimately, “technology is an enhancer rather than a replacer,” highlighted Gina. “We do need the human touch.” 

Having buy-in for change is also vital because “change always takes longer than we expect or anticipate,” she added. “It’s going to take tenacity.” 

“People look at transformation as an event,” agreed Kathy. “It can’t be an event. Transformation is happening every day.” For any business looking to a more resilient future, then, the goal should be “just to build that muscle to be able to adapt and change all the time.” 

You can access all the event’s full keynotes in our Thoughtworks Live hub.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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