Build a community of innovators to become an elite software organization
Transforming your business with cloud computing is crucial to your company’s competitive future. The modern cloud is more comprehensive, flexible, and nimble than any predecessor. Yet like many new technologies, for example the Internet, seizing the benefits comes as much from employing new approaches as having access to a new technology.
A critical transformation like this won’t come from just top-down mandates alone. At Google and elsewhere, we’ve seen how bottom-up initiatives driven by communities of people who work closely with the business utilizing cloud services can accelerate transformation. Oftentimes, this transformation is spontaneous as much as planned—sometimes more.
For transformation like this to happen, leaders need to foster and empower these communities.
After building competence and seeing success within the incubator, teams graduate and join a cloud community—and its members help spread and accelerate transformation throughout your organization.
So how do you build a community of innovators eager to leverage the cloud? The most effective way we’ve found is by sponsoring an internal cloud incubator. This collaborative construct pairs small cross functional teams who understand your business with an experienced mentor to help them adopt the cloud. After building competence and seeing success within the incubator, teams graduate and join a cloud community—and its members help spread and accelerate transformation throughout your organization.
We’ve seen this approach work with a variety of companies, for example in retail at one of America’s largest grocers, at one of the world’s largest publishing companies, in the health sciences, and across other enterprises. The size and sophistication of the enterprise matters far less than the desire or competitive need to innovate and transform.
We aren’t the only ones who think so, either. The ongoing, multi-year DORA study on the state of DevOps finds that “focusing on structural improvements that build communities” is also key to becoming an elite software organization. While you may not think of yourself as a software organization today, as you adopt the cloud, software artifacts replace hardware. DevOps combines software practices with IT operations and is a best practice when adopting the cloud. If you don’t already have communities, then you should consider the approach described here.
How to incubate a cloud community
It’s best to start small, incubating a few projects each with a team of two to eight people, with the goal of releasing something to production in a few weeks to months. This time-boxed approach encourages rapid experimentation focused on the mentality of “good enough,” with the expectation that future iterations will make things better.
It also allows you to tune your incubator to meet your specific organizational dynamics while also spreading your efforts more broadly and avoiding the tendency to make just one or two big bets.
Engagement is generally more powerful if people have self-selected, versus being managed into the process.
So how do you choose which projects to incubate? Teams either propose a project with clearly stated business benefits and success criteria or are chosen through a process. Remember engagement is generally more powerful if people have self-selected, versus being managed into the process.
The question for anyone leading such an initiative is, how do I structure things? No two enterprises are the same, so implementations vary, but there are some guiding principles you should embed into your incubation program.
- Release code to production that solves real business problems.
- Embed mentors into teams so they share in the team’s success and failure.
- Embrace rapid experimentation where failure is seen as learning.
- Capture learnings and pay-it-forward from one team to the next.
- Build a community around a shared purpose.
Related: Learn how customer Magalu set up an incubator to accelerate the pace of innovation and scale their approaches throughout the organization
The teams chosen for incubation are often frustrated by what they perceive to be the company’s slow response to customers’ rapidly-changing needs and competitive threats. They possess the knowledge needed to test innovative solutions but lack cloud skills to do so.
This is where your cloud mentors come in. These experienced cloud practitioners should be embedded within the teams, where they perform three essential duties:
- They provide hands-on skills transfer, often using paired programming, to teach teams not just how to make use of individual cloud services, but more importantly how to learn new ones. This latter point is crucial, since teams often make use of new services over time.
- Mentors challenge teams to conduct rapid experimentation of multiple potential solutions without fear of failure. In fact, failure is encouraged as an inescapable part of discovery and innovation, and as a foundation for learning. Mentors reinforce this mindset by demonstrating how to rapidly perform experiments using on-demand cloud resources at minimal cost.
- Mentors should constantly push teams out of their comfort zones. Challenge them by asking why, why, why and likewise why not? They focus teams on meaningful change to the business and discourage change simply for the sake of technology alone.
One last thing: when choosing mentors, they don’t have to be experts in every aspect of the cloud. It’s not uncommon for mentors to be teaching teams as they themselves are learning. This models an important skill teams need to master.
Scaling out to grow your community
At this point, you have been successful running a few projects in the incubator model, you have tweaked the process and are starting to see the benefits. Now comes the time to scale the process, using what you have learned to get the flywheel spinning faster. As the saying goes, “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”
Scale your mentors. Recruit early incubator participants to become mentors. Remember, they don’t have to be experts, but they do need a community that can act as a lifeline when they get stumped.
Make teams self-sufficient. Encourage mentors to step back and not act as a constant crutch to the teams they mentor, otherwise teams won’t become self-sufficient. This also serves the purpose of allowing mentors to work with more than one team at a time.
Build a community. Make it easy for teams to collaborate and share what they learn with others by building a community. Start by having teams graduating from the incubator present their project to their community.
Don’t stop there. Have the incubator actively sponsor the community because it takes time and effort to build one. Each team you incubate grows the size and number of informal networks within the community, making it even stronger. Teams and practitioners should band together, tackling more challenging problems and honing their skills and knowledge.
This is a tipping point, where the community should become self-sustaining. It enables innovations by one team to be rapidly adopted by others, compounding the rate of innovation not only within a single team or department, but also across your entire enterprise regardless of organizational boundaries.
The community should also become the focal point for championing best practices, establishing policy, and shaping the norms that become the underpinnings for data governance.
The incubator, as the sponsor of the cloud community, must promote a sense of community through various ways like hosting chat channels, a wiki with FAQs, a blog site, and an inner sourcing code repository. It can also sponsor special events to bring members together, like workshops, hackathons, and outside speakers. The key is to foster the informal networks we all know play a powerful role in transforming organizations and driving innovation.
Your role as a leader
As a leader, you’ll need to champion the incubator, help teams overcome inevitable obstacles, and celebrate their success. You’ll also need to acknowledge teams that take risks and fail. True innovation and transformation requires taking risks. If teams never fail, then they likely aren’t trying new approaches or at best are only attempting those that aren’t too disruptive to the status quo. Without these new approaches, you may become far more susceptible to disruption by competitors, or simply fail to meet the ever-changing needs of your customers.
As you plan your transformation, it’s important to think about how to balance vision and direction from the top with bottom-up enablement for the teams who have to deliver on the vision. Embracing a cloud incubator is a powerful tool in striking that balance.
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