Protecting innovation

Why we care, how we do it and what we gain.

Ways of Working

Written by Patrick Bateman and Simon Welland
18 December 2020

In any organization, tough choices abound. Take innovation: although highly valued, it's often crowded out by more urgent demands. By choosing to commit regular time for cross-tribe creativity, Access Worldpay has resolved this conundrum, reinforced its culture, improved products and processes, and made itself more sustainable.

Set up to design, build and deliver a global payments platform from scratch, Access Worldpay's leadership team had to move fast to settle the basics. Besides agreeing ways of working, they quickly decided to combine product and engineering specialists within cross-functional teams tasked with delivering specifically customer-oriented products. "It's a great way to get a tight ship that's focussed on the right things," explains the Co-Lead, Simon Welland.

Empowering at scale

Because the platform had to be easily scalable, so did the Access Worldpay tribe. This meant developing ways to leverage good ideas and align best practice - which, in turn, tangled with their wish to avoid top-down management.

To resolve this challenge, the leadership decided to reserve 10% of their time - one day per two-week sprint - for bottom-up, cross-functional work. "We asked our people to choose how to spend this day," Simon explains. "Over time, it became more focused on innovation."

Longer but fewer

Admittedly, the solution was imperfect: each innovation day required a rapid and challenging change of mental gears away from product engineering and service operation. Fortunately, a temporary interruption enabled a rethink. "Our people told us how much they valued this time," says Pat Bateman, Head of Engineering: "However, they wanted more continuity - a chance to get something done over more than just one day."

As a result, they switched to quarterly, four-day 'innovation sprints'. For convenience, these took place near Access Worldpay's offices in Cambridge and Heathrow (which prompted them to be renamed 'Terminals'). "We created a series of topics to work on and asked the teams to vote themselves into one of these areas," Pat says.

Tackling common problems

The first event involved cloud, quality assurance and software engineers working in cross-functional teams to share knowledge and tackle broader issues. It also gave them a chance to socialize with colleagues they seldom encountered, particularly over board games. "Besides the social side, people loved having continuous time together to get more traction on the issues," Pat says. "Some of that work ended up informing our day-to-day activities; it helped us move forward on standards and some engineering practices."

Spurred on by this success, the next Terminal grew to include the whole tribe. "We went out of our way to mix people up, so you'd get engineers with product owners, and so on," says Pat. "We wanted to get cross-pollination across all those practices and functions."

Refine and protect

Although Terminals worked along very similar lines to Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) Innovation and Planning Iterations, the tribe has realized how a little fine-tuning might help. Specifically, following SAFe guidelines by holding a Terminal at the end of each Program Increment (PI) "doesn't give us enough time to refine the takeaways to use in the next PI," explains Pat: "Now they'll be smack-bang in the middle of the current increment to let us bank some of the results in time for the next PI."

Nevertheless, Access Worldpay does follow SAFe protocol by protecting Terminals from the 'tyranny of the urgent'.1 "In other SAFe organizations, the innovation week can quickly cave under the pressure to deliver on the incremental goals," explains Pat. "We've found that committing to time where we take people out of their normal work environment and put them in a place where they can focus is very valuable, so we've chosen to really protect it."

Adding up value

Indeed, the value has increased noticeably since Access Worldpay launched the four day Terminals. "These longer, dedicated events have brought real momentum," says Pat, who points to the final-day presentations where teams show the tribe what they've done. "Some demos always blow my socks off," he continues: "You think WOW - how on earth did they do all that in so little time?"

In addition, the demos often generate direct improvements in Access Worldpay's products and processes. For example, work produced during a 2019 Terminal became Access Insights, which provides customer dashboards to promote transparent, data-driven decision-making. The same event delivered groundwork for a tool to test a merchant's integration with Access Worldpay; produced ways to use APIs to distribute Alternative Payment Methods; formalized SAFe ways to prioritize work; and more besides.

The broader view

Such improvements are very welcome and highly valued. However, the events deliver broader benefits, too. For starters, they reinforce Access Worldpay's culture. "There aren't good recipes for building culture but the key thing is having the right people," says Simon. "By cutting across the day-to-day, Terminals help the culture evolve from them." And the social side is crucial, he says - including the games: "I know it sounds a little bit Hogwarts, but it's genuinely opt-in - nobody has to do them."

What's more, Terminals provide valuable mental space from the intense, controlled nature of Agile development. "In a sprint context, everything is about small, just-enough, incremental change which offers minimal time to be creative outside the next job coming at you," explains Pat. As a result, he says, giving people a regular opportunity to think more broadly brought benefits from the start: "It was always clear that people really cared and that this safe bit of time was where they could get their opinions out there."

The longer term

Fundamentally, protecting this safe time underpins Access Worldpay's business model, Simon argues. "Our whole approach and operation demands amazing dedication, so we can't pretend to do two things at once," he says, highlighting how the need for 100% reliability requires the tribe's engineers to be available 24/7 to fix any problem, anywhere, any time.

Such intensity and dedication is only sustainable longer term if Access Worldpay is willing to support its people, as well as its own ability to continue innovating. Terminals do both, says Simon: "Sustainable product creativity requires a lot of structure and discipline - that's why providing this environment where we encourage people to use a different side of their brain is so important," he argues. "Equally, our way of working has to be sustainable, so we have to make space for all these aspects that are essential to us, not just as professionals, but as humans, too."

1 Scaled Agile Framework