The Bifurcation of Technology and the Revolution in the IT Industry

Sometimes people start to use a phrase or word that captures a moment of change. You hear friends and colleagues using it, and it starts to crop up in the media. One such example I’ve heard several times in the last few weeks is bifurcation, as a dry shorthand for the current momentous transformation in IT and IT services. The trends I noted in an article (here) in the summer are accelerating, and fast.

A recent, excellent article in the Economist covers this well. The bifurcation is the dual-track nature of growth in IT. Services and products related to mobile and cloud are expanding, and sometimes with extraordinary growth rates. Conversely, traditional IT sectors are growing slowly or even shrinking”. The sectors under pressure include most types of hardware, traditional enterprise software, and classical IT services.

The combination of the differential growth characteristics means the IT industry overall is showing modest growth. The Economist quotes a number of 3% overall. Other commentators will give numbers even closer to zero. It is a challenging environment.

One result of this is the beginning of significant change in the corporate structures of IT suppliers. Larger companies are acquiring faster-growing companies. That is the usual cycle. More profoundly, some large companies will radically reshape themselves. As the Economist describes “HP’s recent decision to break itself up was merely the opening shot … Others will shed businesses that have become commoditised …IBM announced that it will pay Globalfoundries, a contract chipmaker, to take its semiconductor business off its hands.”

The changes in technology driving these changes in business are very real. Over the last 20 years, the relentless increase in available compute power, network bandwidth and storage capacity has moved us to a world where a wide variety of very powerful devices – not always operated by people, but increasing by other machines – can connect reliably to remote services of increasing breadth and sophistication.

And what this means is that such services can potentially take advantage of real economies of scale, and can be built and provided to the entirety of the universe of consumers and business with an ease that a generation ago would have seemed startling.

A new underlying industry architecture for software is forming. It includes a complex infrastructure layer that provides cloud services, which itself faces real change as the concepts of commoditized data centre and commoditized server becomes blurred. It includes a complex range of platform options that link humans and their devices to apps and cloud services. The architecture is crowned by applications and functional services – and it is the richness of these that will accelerate the change in IT. Importantly for established businesses, there is an explicit need to add an integration layer to the architecture – since we are on a decade-long transformation, and the interfaces with legacy systems will be key concerns. Overall, the concepts of Infrastructure-as-as-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) introduced by Gartner have served us well, but need refreshing as this form of architecture becomes dominant.

These changes in architecture also change the expectations for the delivery of software and services. New companies especially want their back-end support systems to be easily, immediately and cheaply available, and provided as elastic services that will grow with them. They do not seek uniqueness or differentiation here. Instead, they want innovation and rapid development of those services that face their customers. More generally, monolithic applications are being replaced by systems of services. This brings more architectural complexity, but it allows development to be parallelized and – if well managed – delivered in much more agile ways.

There are obvious dangers here for the providers of IT services (and you can include IT departments under this heading) who are sometimes surprisingly disinterested in the way they deliver their technology services, although this is often what clients are buying.

For example: a typical feature of large companies is operator dominance where a focus on cost becomes primary – growth in a changing world is much harder and requires fortitude. Taken to excess, the focus becomes optimization of legacy services, and too much focus on tools such as global delivery – wonderful as part of a toolkit, but most effective in combination with client-facing services that bring new technology opportunity into the heart of businesses. Indeed, the best India-based IT providers realize exactly that, and understand that conventional outsourcing now has a limited shelf life.

Another sign of dysfunctional effects are mash-ups of old and new which resemble failed experiments in genetic engineering. We all know of large projects where agile approaches have been introduced at too large a scale to deal with mad schedules, and client and suppliers try to handle this with conventional procurement approaches. Fixed-price contracts and flexible iteration can be unlikely bedfellows.

But real, sun-bright opportunity at scale also exists. An eco-system of service providers has appeared around the dynamic and fast-growing company Salesforce. Salesforce transaction volumes are in 9 figures daily, and much of these are via their platform technologies, showing people are building their own apps around its Software-as-a-Service core.

Another positive example:  I have come across one agile based company that hires the very best developers – aspiring for the top 1% – and undertakes only small projects with direct and strong business support. It seems to genuinely deliver the benefits of agile approaches, with great reliability. This emphasizes to me a coming focus on skills and expertise that can marry client need and the power of new tech. Like all times of change, smart tech-savvy people who understand clients and can integrate complexity will be at a premium.

And the growth rates of many larger consultancies are respectable, or simply plain good – reflecting client needs for advice and support in their transformations.

So, as always I end very optimistically. There are new opportunities for those technology service providers who can develop architectures and architects for the new world, and who can create app and tech services that can be reused across their clients. Good companies of the future will get to grips with better, more nimble ways of integrating, assembling and crafting solutions for clients as systems of services. They will invest in building the new skills and high-end expertise for 21st century delivery – both close to clients and in their global centres. They will create new types of career, and new types of personal opportunity.

I will be writing about these positive trends in future articles. Stay tuned.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Happy Diwali

This is a simple Diwali message is for all my Indian friends, and those – like me – that love India. Diwali also offers, in these challenging times,  a more universal message of hope, and renewal.

This ancient Hindu festival of lights is one of the great Northern Hemisphere harvest and renewal celebrations, at the start of a grand cycle that stretches through Christmas, and the Western and Chinese New Years. Before the key celebration, people will decorate and clean their homes. The main Diwali night is a time for wearing new clothes and lighting the diyas or lamps that give the festival its name. Then, in a traditional household, prayers are offered to Lakshimi – the goddess of wealth and success. Fireworks and the sharing of sweets will follow.

Like much about India culture it is multi-layered with myths and meanings, vibrant and bright with colour, and – above all – optimism. There are many underlying stories. The Ramayan describes Lord Rama’s glorious return to his Kingdom of Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile, marked by lighting of lamps. Diwali can mark Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon Narakaasura. It is associated with the story of the fall of Bali, a demon king conquered by Lord Vishnu. One major, constant part of the festival is the celebration of Maha Lakshmi – goddess of wealth and prosperity – through the ritual of puja (prayers), offering flowers, prasad (a food offering) and incense.

Such stories are a vehicle for a more spiritual meaning. Diwali signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. It is a time of cleansing, forgiveness and new beginnings.

So, a very Happy Diwali to all of you! Whatever your own beliefs, I hope the next twelve months is a time of new starts, new connections and opportunities, new achievements, and success.

Deepavali ki Shubhkamnayein
Deepavali Habbada Shubhashayagalu
Shubh Deepavali Diwalichya Shubhechha
Subho Deepavalir Preeti O Subeccha

The image with this post was sourced from Wikimedia, it is ‘Rangoli with Light and Shadow’ by Ramnath Bhat. 

Steam, War Computers and Social Media: Representing Technology in Film

The London Film Festival is currently on – running from 8th to 17th October across 17 venues, showing over 250 films. As always, it offers an extraordinarily rich program from filmmakers across the world, in a city that has now firmly become one of the movie capitals of the world.

Film, of course, is now a truly digital business. In the last few years, digital cinema cameras like the Arri Alexa have made physical rolls of films essentially redundant, and give very high-definition results of great quality. Production activities like data wrangling and conforming are tasks centred on managing video data that will seem very familiar to anyone who has dealt with configuration management on a software project. And when films are shown in a modern cinema, they will be stored as a Digital Cinema Package or DCP – a standardised collection of digital files. Everywhere there is also experimentation with digital distribution, the art of getting content to consumers in different ways on different devices, and the web’s video services have unleashed a vast wave of low-cost creativity. Technology is transforming filmmaking.

The London Film Festival itself exploits modern technology, including live streaming of its red carpet galas to cinemas across the country and use of its own BFI player for festival related content. London overall is a place where technical skills abound in the new digital crafts around post-production, special effects and 3D.

But this article is not about the digital revolution in the making of film; it is about how technology is increasingly part of the dramatic content of film, and how technology and especially digital technology is represented. The examples are – naturally enough – drawn from the London Film Festival.

The inspiration for the article was accidental. I had booked each film I wanted to see for the normal reasons – I liked the look of the film, or respected the filmmakers, or was interested in the buzz surrounding the movie. But, as I watched each of them – usually somewhere in Leicester Square – I was struck by how often technology intruded, and how often directors tried to find ways of representing technology in general, and specifically n the digital world, on screen.

Mr. Turner

Let’s start in an unlikely place with Mr. Turner. It is a marvellous film, from director Mike Leigh. It is a biography of perhaps the greatest English painter JMW Turner (1775 to 1851) who was known as “the painter of light” and who anticipated both Impressionism and modern Abstract Art.

Set in the first half of the 19th Century, it succeeds at recreating the period with a sense of truth that is unusually powerful – through its authentic and sometimes very funny dialogue, its recreation of the manners and moral temper of the period, and its careful choice of locations.

It shows off Turner’s art of course – and is visually rich and sometimes stunning – but the film also brings to life the man himself: a successful, eccentric and harrumphing curmudgeon born outside the establishment, who then became very much part of it. Turner is vividly played by Timothy Spall, with ungainly confidence and much humour.

But one of the most unexpected parts of the film for me was the way it shows an older Turner experiencing changes in 19th century society, and especially the impact of technology. Mike Leigh successfully conveys a deep sense of the move from the Georgian to the truly industrial Victorian era.

Examples: the means of passage from London to Margate changes from steamer to train during the film. There is a wonderful, funny sequence where Turner and his mistress are photographed by an American master of this new technology. He is armed with the latest cameras and equipment, including a head brace to help with long exposures. During this process, Turner ponders on the future effects on art.

And in one of the grandest sequences of the film, Turner and a group of friends watch the tall-masted and exhausted warship The Fighting Temeraire being towed to its break-up by a steam tug. This was to inspire what is one of the most famous, reproduced and loved paintings by a British artist.

During the scene, one of Turner’s companions looks at the great tall ship and remarks melancholically: “The ghost of the past.”

Turner prefers instead to observe the blackened, low shape of the steam tug: “No,” he shouts back, “The past is the past. You’re observing the future! Smoke. Iron. Steam!”

This presentation of technology, as a set of dynamic changes and images seen through the curious eyes of an artist is highly effective. The film ends up being as much a biography of the early Victorian age – a age of steam, coal, industry and transformation, with the young Albert and Victoria putting in an appearance themselves – as it is a biography of Turner.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game moves us directly into the first days of the digital era. Indeed a key moment of the film, set during World War II, is when Keira Knightly pronounces the phrase “digital computer” awkwardly, as though it is being said in the world for the very first time.

The film is a biographic study of Alan Turing, played with suitable coldness and fragility by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing was a taut, difficult personality often backwards diagnosed as autistic. He was a mathematician, cryptologist, and one of the first computer scientists, introducing many key foundations of that discipline. The name of the film itself is taken from one of Turing’s papers where he develops the concept of the Turing Test. This is a test for whether machines can ever think, and whether they could ever imitate a human mind.

It is a brilliant choice of title, since the film is about deceit at many levels – including the original Enigma codes, the hiding of the success of Allied code-breaking and the passing of false information to the Russians. Above all, there is the hidden nature of Turing’s own sexuality in a time when male homosexuality was a criminal offence.

The bulk of the film’s plot – with quite a lot of dramatic simplification- is centred on the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park. The resulting intelligence was labelled Ultra (from Ultra Secret), and Churchill would later tell King George VI: “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.” The film itself repeats the common suggestion that ultra shaved two full years of the war.

In the film, the core of this process is a computer-like device – a bombe in the terminology of the time – that eventually is successfully programmed to break German encrypted messages on a daily basis. Turing’s efforts to design, build and operate the machine, and manage the team around it, occupies much of the story.

The visual and dramatic vocabulary that the film uses to describe its technology is taken straight from 1950s Science Fiction. In some ways, this is a perfect choice, since the 1940s wartime acceleration of technology would influence the world-view of the 1950s. So, we have common archetypes such as:

  • The central character of a lonely, arrogant boffin, dressed in tweed, who has a mission to save the world. Indeed, Turing is warned several times in the film to avoid thinking of himself as God.
  • Plain speaking, slight dim military men who’s job seems to be to place obstacles in the way of the hero
  • Sudden moments of inspiration where a chance remark opens the door to the instant resolution of a complex problem.
  • Diagrams and mathematical text assembled in great linked masses showing the workings of another “Beautiful Mind”
  • The great machine itself, a clunking mass of cylinders and valves that rotate remorselessly – like a vision of a Babbage difference engine. It reminded me of the whirl of mechanical computation machines in the classic “When Worlds Collide”.

The vision of technology here is cold, hard-edged and relentless – similar to Turing himself. Overall, the film succeeds – it is a good,moving and watchable piece of work, with strong performances throughout, but perhaps the plot works itself a little too mechanically, simulating the code-breaking machine at its heart.

Men, Women and Children

This film – by Jason Reitman and starring Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner and a large ensemble cast – is completely contemporary. It is about the lives of middle-class Americans, and how modern motivations and complexities are wired together by personal and social technology. It is based on an original novel by the controversial author Chad Kultgen.

Technology is represented in two ways. Firstly, there is a sequence of digital special effect sequences of the Voyager missions to the outer solar system, narrated by Emma Thompson. The connecting link between these sequences and the rest of the film is through the use of words – at the very end of the film – that Carl Sagan wrote about the “Pale Blue Dot” photo. This famous image was taken by one of the Voyager probes of the distant Earth as a final act of observation. The sequences are beautiful, and the narration sometimes very funny, but this part of the film feels a little contrived and unnecessary.

 The second representation of technology – of websites and social media – is much more relevant and direct. This is not achieved through conventional shots of a PC or smartphone screen, but via pop-up windows on screen that represent what is being shown on a device. These appear beside the main antagonists in the film, popping in and out of existence like speech or thought bubbles. This is effective, and helps the narrative flow. It soon seems strangely natural. It is also provides opportunities for real humour, when people text what they really thinking of the person they are talking to.  

The themes covered are those social issues generated or amplified by technology. One example plotline: the character Tim Mooney (played by Ansel Elgort) is a schoolboy football player of real talent. But he quits the sport – to the vast disapproval of his father Kent (Dean Norris) – to obsessively play online games. He also learns of his absent mother’s new marriage via Facebook. Increasingly alienated, he finds solace in a relationship with intellectual, book-reading teenager Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever).

Her mother Patrica (played with steel by Jennifer Garner) is one of the strongest characters in the film. Her obsession is the Internet life of her daughter, which she monitors, restricts and controls with total authority before she finds out that her daughter has a secret and rebellious alternative web identity. This sets up a near tragic incident, where Patrica impersonates her daughter to persuade Tom that their relationship is over. As a consequence, Tom takes an overdose that he barely survives.

Another examples of the film’s threads include a teenager so corrupted by pornography he cannot form a normal relationship, a married couple who organise parallel infidelities via websites, a teenager who damages her life chances by putting too racy images on the web, and another – borderline anorexic – who gets advice on extreme dieting from virtual friends on the web.

There is much humour, especially at the beginning, but in the end the film takes a grim view of humanity. However, the representation of the technology works well, and allows parallel threads of plot and meaning to be shown on screen. It is a successful recreation of people’s abstract virtual lives.

Dearest and Rosewater

Both these films are reconstructions of real stories, where technology is part of the story, but not the prime driver. Both were – for me – unexpectedly moving, and illuminated very different cultures.

“Dearest” is a Chinese film, directed by Peter Chan, which covers the sensitive subject of child abduction in China. Although fictionalizsed, it is based on a true story that Chan came across in a TV documentary. It is well acted, humane and gives real insight into the social world of modern China.

Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo) and his ex-wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) lose their child PengPeng through abduction. They spend three years searching – using the web as a means of communicating across the vastness of China, and connecting with others in their situation. Eventually, they locate their son in a remote village. The film then – remarkably and successfully – switches its point of view entirely to the heartbroken woman Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei) who has been looking after the abducted child.

In Dearest, the technology dimension is treated entirely conventionally, with the focus always on the actors. It is well made, and a delightful film, but rooted in traditional filmmaking.

“Rosewater” is the story of London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) who was detained in Iran for 100 days, while his British and pregnant girlfriend waited for him in London. It was written and directed by Jon Stewart, who was connected with the case.

The film starts with Bahari getting increasingly involved in the events around the Iranian presidential elections, and their violent aftermath. He is arrested and spends four months in solitary at Evin Prison, being interrogated by a “specialist”. Since he is blind-folded, his experience of the interrogator is through the scent of rosewater that surrounds him.

Technology threads itself through the film in two ways. It is shown as one of the motors of change in Iran, with the opposition fluent in use of the web and internet. TV news has also connected Iranian youth to the wider world. At one point, Bahari is introduced to a “university” that is simply a vast array of satellite dishes, hidden from the security forces. The last scene in the film is of a small boy filming the destruction of the nest of dishes by police. He is using a smart phone.

There is also a sequence that starts with Bahari in the depths of despair. He is convinced that the world has forgotten entirely about him. He has been told that his girl-friend has not contacted the Iranian authorities. But then a security guard mentions that Hilary Clinton has been talking about him. In that instance, he realises he absolutely has not been forgotten, and he is actually famous and the subject of much outside debate. That awakening is captured in the use of an animation sequence that shows information and keywords spreading around the world. It is out of kilter with the naturalistic feel of the rest of the film, and reminded me of the use of maps to show travel and the passing of time in films from the 40s and 50s. But it is effective, and a compact means of making the point.


Technology, and a sense of technical change and opportunity is everywhere in society, and everywhere in the world. That is influencing the mirror of film – only one of the films above was directly about the use of technology, but technology pervades all of them. This presents filmmakers with a challenge – especially when the technology is digital. How we represent the drama and rhythm of lives that are part virtual becomes an interesting and essential question. Soon I suspect someone will make a breakthrough film which tackles and answers that question head-on.

I look forward to it


When Speed and Agility Matter: Moving with the Lightning

Episode 3 of the Masters of Delivery

 The Problem of Time

I’ve spent much of my career focused on how to plan and manage one of the most precious and complex resources: time – and especially how time relates to project scale and complexity.

In software development and technology-driven business projects, one of the clearest and most dramatic trade-offs is between speed and cost. There is a simple rule: the shorter the schedule, the bigger the total effort, and associated cost. The dynamics of organizing and connecting people around common processes will become increasingly stressed when time is tight. The scope for error and rework increases significantly.

Indeed, there are schedule and scale combinations that are simply impossible to achieve, for which – to coin a phrase from the great Fred Brooks – there is no silver, magic bullet. Rome, an Olympic stadium, and even average size software projects cannot be built in a day.

 When faced with demands for impossible schedules, where the balance of scope and schedule simply do not fit, I normally take people through the complex dynamics of time and teams. I stress the need for a proper amount of time to understand a business and develop a design, and the option of delivering function in iterations so that some benefit can be gained earlier.

One Year Vs. Five Years

Conversely, as Peter Drucker once said: We greatly overestimate what we can accomplish in one year. But we greatly underestimate what we can accomplish in five years.”  

Five years or more gives enough time for big change, enough time to create a business or even a market.

One personal example of that is when I was part of the team that founded Accenture’s India Delivery Centres in 2001. We had a short-term plan focused on 200 people, but I also drew out a longer-term plan on a whiteboard that spanned three to four years and would get us to 10,000 people in multiple cities. It captured our strategic intent. We would meet both plans.

Moving with the Lightning

However, there are times when magic will work, when external events demand a schedule that is improbably short and – even more remarkably – the right team with the right motivation and the right support achieves that timescale. Such moments can create real belief in a program or team, leading to greater success at ever larger scales. The insights learned from these experiences can also help people think through agility, an increasing demand from many senior leaders in our hyperactive era.

So, it is those moments when teams move with the lightning, when great things are done fast, that I want to explore in what follows. Let’s start with the inspiration for this article – a spaceship.

America’s First Spaceship

I was researching the history of NASA Mission Control. This was for a potential film project, and also out of simple curiosity about how the great and mighty NASA machine of the 1960s and early 70s was created.

One of the key sources is the book Flight: My Life in Mission Control by Christopher Kraft who conceived and built the first versions of NASA mission control. It is a book that tells the human and organizational story of the space program, and one I would recommend to any student of delivery.

The following sequence jumped out at me, around the Request for Proposal or RFP process for America’s first manned spacecraft – the Mercury capsule.

It was this:

  • 1st October 1958, NASA created
  • 7th November 1958, RFP Published and RFP conference
  • 12th January 1959, contract awarded to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation
  • Early February 1959, McDonnell sign contracts

By today’s standards, this is extraordinarily fast. It is genuinely astounding. This is not the RFP for an IT system, or office supplies. It is an RFP for a spaceship.

In a matter of weeks, the direction for America’s first manned space program had been set and a partner selected. The Mercury program had initial challenges – such as an infamous unmanned flight that reached a height of 4 inches – but overall it succeeded completely, and with the knowledge and expertise created America would reach the moon less than 11 years after NASA was created.

Kraft himself summarizes the spirit of the times with That can-do, will-do attitude preceded us everywhere we went.”

This incredible example demonstrates some of the themes we will explore later in the article: strong mission, strong leadership, great skills and motivation.

Above all it shows that there are times when great things can indeed be done quickly.

The Move: 3 Weeks and 300 Very Busy People

This example is not nearly so grand. It didn’t change broad history, but it did help create a major technology delivery centre, and a new business. It was, by normal corporate standards, a magnificent achievement.

We had started our new business in a charming, worn art-deco style building beside the Thames. We were in the midst of a major software development, with 300 people designing, developing and testing releases of a major software product. The work in total was tens of thousands of days. Testing in particular is very sensitive to environment – the software configurations, networks, workstation and server technology need to be absolutely correct, and the physical space needs to support intense teamwork on the grand scale.

Although the building faced the river, it was cheap to rent. And the reason it was cheap – which I didn’t know at the time – was that there was a one-month notice period in the lease.

Our facilities people had deemed it unlikely to happen. Their judgement was usually faultless, but this time they were wrong. The owner wanted to rebuild, and start demolition soon.

So, one day we faced just over 3 weeks for a move – with no target future building and no plan, and 300 people working hard on a tough schedule for multiple clients. As we expanded, we would develop true business continuity and would be able to handle loss of a facility with ease, but this was early in our history.

We had an immense problem.

The first task was not to panic, or analyse quite why we were where we were. As we have seen in previous articles, status is to be understood with blunt honesty, and issues are there to be managed.

As for the next task, I asked a true Master of Delivery – “RK” – to plan and execute the move. RK had an exceptional grasp of the full technology stack – from the wires to the complex distributed software environment. He also understood what an objective meant, and would work with enormous passion towards that.

I asked him to target just one day – the move day – of down time for the team. RK smiled.

Key Strands

So, we created a plan around a number of parallel strands that RK would operate with complete authority.

Strand 1 was creating the mission, and instilling a sense of belief about the date. We wanted people to feel that their efforts would help make a little corporate history.

Strand 2 was about people. We staffed key roles immediately with some of our best, taking a short term hit on other activities. We chose those who had general management skills, and precision, since we needed delegation to be effective. We would expect everyone to be hands-on – acting much like people do in start-ups.

Strand 3 was a search for a suitable empty space. We looked in what in London is called mid-town, between the West End and the City. It was less fashionable then than it is these days, and we found three spaces of the right scale and cost. Two were dreadful – cramped spaces in out-dated concrete buildings, that would require much work. One, however, was acceptable. This was the key piece of luck we needed. We had found our future home – an Edwardian building near London’s legal district.

Strand 4 was design. We established the minimum design around building layout, furniture, a LAN, working servers and wide area communications. That was placed under firm control. Any change would be reviewed carefully.

Strand 5 was to focus on logistics with true military precision. We analysed lead times, placed orders – leased and borrowed equipment that wouldn’t arrive on time – and asked our suppliers to make the extra effort to support us.

And then, came the daily grind of execution. We met the deadline, and had people working effectively on the first day of operation of the new building. We lost only a few hours of productive work.

And it turned out that the technology design was not only effective … it was near perfect. RK had poured all his knowledge into the design, and we had no time for the usual compromises.

“500 in 5”

This is an example that I come back to repeatedly in my thinking, a key moment in my experiences in creating large delivery centres in India, and a lesson in how to get teams to do incredible things.

We had been in operation for around 18 months, reaching 500 people. This had required sustained effort since our business was then not widely known among our target talent pool. We had worked hard with candidates, even explained ourselves to their families, and organized dedicated training and conference days to attract people to apply. Overall, with a little difficultly, we had balanced demand and supply effectively. Our HR team had made a brilliant start.

Now things were changing and demand was increasing. We were beginning to see supply challenges.

I wanted to understand trends – I always want to understand trends since part of any leadership role is looking ahead – and went through the data in detail.

The reason for the new demand for people was a large, recent increase in active and potential clients. We had established a successful business. We were seeing the early days of a much larger future increase – the work at each new client would likely grow, and need more people.

Exponential Change

We had reached a tipping point. Roughly speaking, we were seeing the beginnings of an exponential, non-linear trend. Most people will naturally plan around linear and steady change, but with positive feedback, human enterprises can go through remarkable and fast changes – creating echoes of the growth of the Internet, the progress of a hit single, or viral video. The topic of exponential, human change is a topic I will be returning to in later articles.

The good news was that we had what seemed to be the start of a tremendous opportunity. The bad news was that we needed a non-linear response.

Setting the Goal

We had a talented local leader who was strong, charismatic and a true business builder. Our local HR lead was one of the most positive and dedicated professionals I have ever had the privilege to work with. They had been carefully chosen, and in their different ways they were both Masters of Delivery. They would go on to make very major contributions.

I asked them this. Although, it has taken eighteen months to grow to 500 people, we need to hire 500 people in the next five weeks. Can you do it?

Those who have built and worked in start-ups know how hard an ask this was. Talent is the key resource and often the key constraint.

And the mood of that meeting? When a world of pain and hard work was opening up before us. It was tremendous – full of energy and laughter. They had that can-do, will-do attitude” Chris Kraft had seen at NASA.

They went for it. We briefed the team … making it their moment of making history. We hired good contractors to support the core professionals. We arranged for virtual interviews from people across the globe. We created a large war room, dotted with white boards to record real-time status.

And then we filtered CVs and held interviews, thousands and thousands and thousands of times.

By the end of the period they had made 526 offers to good candidates. They had beaten the target. They had made their own piece of history. And after that, the team knew what they were capable of, and created one of the best large-scale recruiting engines in India, eventually capable of hiring many thousands a month.

General Principles

So, what general threads can we pull out of my three very different examples? When can a leader or business ask for remarkable efforts in a remarkable short time frame?

My conclusions are as follows (although I would also be delighted to hear your thoughts). They are similar to the Ten Commandments we saw in Episode 2 of Masters of Delivery, but tuned completely to very rapid execution.

  1. This cannot be business as usual. Remarkable effort should be reserved for times of remarkable need. The examples we have looked it where against the background of the space race, or clear, urgent, business challenges.
  2. But in such times, it will sometimes pay-off enormously to have ambition and the courage to ask for that remarkable effort.
  3. Judgement is essential to make sure the undertaking has the right characteristics to succeed. Suitable examples include:
  • The work can be undertaken by a small number of experts. For example, it was possible to create a high-level spacecraft design in weeks. Building the spacecraft would take another two years (superb in itself).
  • Or the work can be scaled and duplicated across people and teams – as in our recruiting example.
  • It is self-contained, with few external dependencies.
  1. There must be a clear mission, a worthwhile purpose. This must be communicated to everybody. And people enjoy doing great things; enjoy making their own pieces of history – so communicate to inspire.
  2. The mission must be understood, valued and supported by the team. It’s hard to ask people to work long hours. It is much easier and much more effective to ask them to work for a goal.
  3. Assign the best team. It is remarkable how many projects fail, even mission critical ones, because hard choices about resources are not made. When timescales are fundamental, staff your best people and clear their decks. Less urgent issues will wait.
  4. And “best team” means people with experience – in every one of our three examples,the teams were led and staffed by people who had prior experience of great relevance.
  5. Above assign a qualified leader – a leader and subject matter expert – and concentrate authority in that person.
  6. Create a simple plan, simple reporting – whiteboards can be the most powerful tool for management – and a simple decision making process for issues and changes.
  7. Look after the team – get the key stakeholders or senior executives to spend time with them, deal with food and transport issues generously, give them support staff without hesitation.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
 Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.