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Mariana Southern shares her experience of building and running William Hill’s Innovation Lab — what guides her, what challenges her and…
Mariana Southern shares her experience of building and running William Hill’s Innovation Lab — what guides her, what challenges her and what keeps her team working brilliantly.
By Maria Southern, Head of Innovation, William Hill
When asked to write an article on building and running a digital team I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was the right person to do this. I have neither the credentials, nor the formal qualifications, nor any published works on this subject. My professional background is in User Experience and in previous lives I was a Food Engineer and a Cognitive Psychology PhD student. But building and running William Hill’s Shoreditch Innovation team is what I’ve been trying to do for the last year or so, so all that is written here is from hands‐on experience.
Most people who are put in charge of building something new and worthwhile probably feel like I do most days: blindfolded, feeling their way around, arms stretched out forward in hesitation. To add to that teetering feeling, good decisions are usually discovered in hindsight. My way of getting through it is sticking to three guiding principles: 1) build nothing that doesn’t add value to the customer or more importantly, make their lives better in some way; 2) look after people over throughput, profit or any personal agenda and 3) question everything — how you work, what has been done so far, how it’s been done, what tools have been used, job roles and titles, team structures and so on.
When it comes down to it, it is the culture you instill that will eventually underlie the value you add to the customer.
Besides these core principles, my main working tools are gut feel and empathy. Believe it or not, empathy is an extremely effective, hard business tool. People respond to empathy. Using it both when considering my customers and my team drives motivation and eventually leads to remarkable digital experiences (which, in essence, are built by people to be used by people).
One other constant in the context of digital and innovation is change. A tautology, I know, but an important one to keep in mind. Customer behaviours have changed dramatically and so have (or should have) long‐ standing disciplines such as UX, design and project management, to name a few. In the day‐to‐day you have to go with what works for the team and let them choose how they work, what tools they use and create selfless T‐shaped roles. In our team, besides their main job, everyone does a little of everything. We have lost many of the two‐letter roles you can usually find in ‘traditional’ digital teams like the BA, PM, SE, PO and are continually questioning the roles we still hold, including my own.
Also important is ownership. Everyone owns the product and everyone is present in all the meetings, demos or stand‐ups. We don’t have separate ‘business’, ‘product’ or ‘tech’ meetings, and we are constantly revising what our meetings are for. We have retrospectives at the end of each release, where we self‐evaluate and adjust what went wrong.
In order to innovate and change we had to become autonomous, both in terms of process and technology. The more you integrate innovation into the main business, the slower it gets. And ultimately, William Hill will fail to innovate, and so will we as a team. So as the innovation team, we have to operate independently from the organisation. A good example is when we found that using current release processes and technical infrastructure was too cumbersome for us to be lean, so we built our own platform for release.
The more you integrate innovation into the main business, the slower it gets.
This independence from the organisation is both our biggest luxury and our biggest challenge, as we come up against the vacuum between the way we work and the way the rest of the company does alongside trying to integrate what we do into the existing product, structure and tech. William Hill is a large 80‐year‐old organisation that has learned to do something really well and naturally opposes the forces that are trying to do something differently. We often don’t have the roles and documentation that is ‘expected’ as standard and our work can be perceived as less serious than the rest of the company’s. Besides, everyone is busy with their own roadmaps and often see us as an unwanted distraction.
Because of this, I spend much of my time insulating the team from politics, working hard at our internal PR, promoting transparency and building relationships. One such way is to invite people from other teams to our demos to see what we are doing and ask them to raise ideas or issues.
Perhaps this way of working can only operate in smaller teams within the context of smaller builds. But if we know it works — and so far I don’t have reason to believe it doesn’t — maybe we should only create small teams that work in small builds, even in big businesses.
We are learning to work better as a digital innovation team, but a lot needs to be done in the wider context of the business and how it commits to innovation. As you get the within‐team answers, the challenge is likely to be the between‐teams dynamic. And the between‐teams dynamic often fails for the reasons I mentioned earlier. I believe that a clear umbrella culture of selfless collaboration across all teams should be the starting point to address a lot of the issues. And if you read closely, culture has been the constant thread in this article.
When it comes down to it, it is the culture you instill, the values you hold, communicate and transfer to everyone in the team that will eventually underlie the value you add to the customer. And hiring people who value that same ethos is equally important. They need to fit culturally and they need to be nice. They need to be selfless, relentless and believe anything is possible. They need to be comfortable with risk and uncertainty. They need to be OK with throwing away the rule book.
They say culture eats strategy for breakfast… I say culture eats everything for breakfast. It eats strategy, process, hierarchy, roles, rules and reward systems. And culture too, needs to keep changing.