Mikko Sjöblom // April 19 2017
Secret methods for global innovation while maintaining sanity: Time warps, Hot-air balloons and extreme diversity
How do you work in collaborative mode with a customer that is located in different country, on different timezone? Especially when the work is being carried out simultaneously from four different studios? Co-creation becomes a logistical challenge when people are distributed in different geographies, but united culture and common ways of working are great assets to beat the challenge. Not to forget the unexpected involvement of hot air balloons in the creative process!
Although we normally staff projects and assignments so that delivery is carried out from one office, there are some good reasons why it is sometimes better to do exactly the opposite.
Some reasons for staffing a project from one site only
If the site is close to the customer it will be better for collaboration. No way around that one: good old-fashioned face-to-face beats teleconferences any day of the week. Another reason is that the team´s internal communication is better and silent knowledge gets utilised more easily when team has a chance to discuss things also informally over cup of coffee or lunch. Visualising an idea is also so much easier on a whiteboard than in a teleconference.
Reasons for going multisite
If the customer is operating internationally we can do research close to the actual markets. For instance if clients main focus is in UK and Canada there is no point in doing the user research in San Fran or Helsinki. Let’s use London and Vancouver instead. When working from multiple locations we have the ability to work on multiple time zones and turn them into advantages, like for example spread best practices among the offices since collaboration is the best way for knowledge sharing.
Having a network of studios is a huge asset also for our customers and makes us more appealing for clients who have global reach and multiple markets on their minds. One of the added values that Ixonos provides is also the incredible spread and depth of different competences. Few companies of our size can provide their client an access to multidisciplinary team that consists of worlds leading talent in such differing areas like business design & consulting, UX design, software development, IoT architectures and device hardware design, to give an example.
Example of extreme multi site & multicultural project
We are currently working on an in-venue delivery for a client that is based in a country where Ixonos does not have an office. When we started assembling the team we thought foremost that who will be the best person for a given role, their home office location was purely secondary consideration. During the project the team composition is always alive as needs change and project evolves, but there has been a distinct multisite, multicultural and multidisciplinary flavor to the team: project manager from Oulu, a Swedish UX designer now living in London but working as a consultant at our Ixonos Helsinki, quality assurance lead in Tampere, a Greek technical architect working at Ixonos London, Finnish design lead with multiple years experience of working in Germany and now working at Ixonos Helsinki. UI designer originally from Columbia but now living and working with us in Helsinki, software developers in Oulu, London, Helsinki, Tampere… You get the picture. And to top of this truly united team the customer has offices in four countries and their team is almost as international as ours. There are Scandinavians, Germans, Spanish and Americans. But that’s the way it has to be because their customers are international too… Quite often the project telcos sound like Eurovision song contest: “and next we go to London”, “Bon pour vous Oulu, dix points”…
But how to go about solving the multi site delivery challenge? There are few main strategies that can be used by them or as a combined approach:
1 Set up pop-up studio on-site
Pop-up studio basically means that we occupy a room from customer premises or close-by and set up a temporary office there. This approach works very well especially in projects where we are doing customer research or lots of co-design with customer. AirBnB has proven to be a great source for pop-up office space. In any larger project a mandatory phase.
2 Strong process
Another asset that we have is the strong understanding of the delivery process in our focus areas. As we concentrate our sales and marketing efforts on these specific areas we also get to do more projects in these areas. This in return leads to accumulation of visionary know-how on how to deliver a project, say for instance in in-venue area. We can plan the project and design process so that we can fix the on-site days in advance. This has also the added benefit of helping our customers to plan their time. After all we are in the business of working with our customers and not only for them. This naturally requires also their participation in the process.
3 Divide project phases per geographies
Third approach for doing things smartly, perhaps most traditional one, is to divide the work into “chunks” and then consider which pieces can be delivered remotely and which ones need to be delivered on-site with love and care. Separating software development into such work package is the one that comes to mind most easily, but this can be applied also in design and research. Usability testing for instance can be easily done at our Helsinki lab even if the rest of the project is carried on for instance in US.
Working in differing time zones is often seen as a hindrance as it causes some natural boundaries for collaboration and communications. However in some cases the time zones can also be made to work in our favor. I recall a recent project that we carried out for large company in the USA. Our design team from San Francisco studio was engaged in the project during day time and worked together with client in concept and UX design. However when design workshop day ended in San Fran the sun was just coming up in Finland and when our architects and developers came to work they could start directly implementing the visions created by the design team on another continent. Thus when client and our design team came to work next morning they already had working prototype or implementation of the previous day’s design. For our client it was like magic, they had never seen such combination of quality and speed. That customership grew to be one of our biggest and most loyal customers.
4 Relying on telcos
This one comes with a strong caveat: use at your own risk only! Consulting is a delicate and complex work that requires intimate knowledge of the clients business, good personal relations and a strong sense of trust between the parties. Cultivating any of these properties over a Skype for Business session is extremely difficult and unlikely to succeed. However we have had good experiences of telcos with offshore clients with whom we have already established a good relationship. With these customers we can meet face-to-face for instance monthly or every quarter and otherwise work more in telcos. Sometimes we also travel to clients nearby office and use their hi-fi teleconference equipment there to connect to their more remote locations in other countries.
5 Customer can be moved too (and often are!)
Increasingly we are also seeing our customers coming to our studios for the workshop and planning days. This often provides them a welcome change of perspective when they get some distance between their daily work. After all it is difficult to think strategically in the middle of everyday humdrum. Someone sitting in their car in five o’clock traffic jam sees pollution, bumper of the car in front and feels frustration, while a man looking down from hot air balloon starts more easily to see solutions. Perspective can make a world of difference.
So there really is no single magic bullet for planning and managing the complexities of working with multisite international customers and with distributed teams. However we have learned quite a lot over the years in various projects and that helps us to adjust our tools and processes to each case and project. More often than not we also adjust and adapt our approach and processes during the project.
This flexibility, customer-centric approach and our ability to adapt to changing situations unlike any larger consultancy also makes us the perfect partner for companies who want a digital transformation partner that actually gets stuff done in challenging environments. Looking forward to the next new multi site project with united, multicultural team!