Innovation takes time


This interview was part of the Ergon Magazine SMART insights 2020. Order your free copy now ->

There is a massive array of modern technology available but adopting it all unquestioningly might not be the wisest approach. On the other hand, clinging rigidly to the status quo can spell disaster as well. Having the courage to step outside your comfort zone and deploy the right idea at the right time is the route to success.

What are your duties at Ergon?

I’m a software developer. My expertise is in architecture issues, cloud environments and distributed systems, and I’m actively involved in a range of different in-house technology committees promoting knowledge-sharing.

You were a driving force in establishing microservices within the Ergon portfolio. How should we picture this process?

I take an interest in topics that are on-trend and one of the subjects I got seriously drawn into was microservices. As part of an analysis I carried out wearing my tech hat – I had come to the conclusion that in some settings microservices might be a useful model for our customers in the future. To get a better handle on the subject, I focused on it during my sabbatical and created a blueprint.

And went off merrily to the next client project with all the skills you’d acquired?

No, it’s not that simple. Innovation takes time. Naturally, I think very carefully about which project I suggest something for and when I do – it has to be right for the job, add real value and be in the interest of the customer. But the customer has to be the right fit as well, and the risk has to be justifiable. In this case, it took two years to find a suitable project.

Sounds like a waiting game. Weren’t you disappointed that it took so long?

Of course, especially because, back then, trends such as cloud computing had led me to suspect that something like microservices would be required much more quickly and I had the feeling that we ought to get a move on. But introducing new technology just for the sake of innovation won’t work for every project. We are ultimately responsible for operational security and we have to be able to guarantee quality. My suggestion meant I had my work cut out to persuade people both in-house and further afield. Not only was I challenging their current approach, my proposal to introduce microservices architecture was also put through the wringer.

Does this mean that being innovative runs counter to delivering good quality?

I wouldn’t say that but any switch to something new will interrupt continuity to some extent and you don’t have the benefit of experience. You won’t have been able to learn and adapt from previous projects. There is a certain risk but that is precisely why you stock up on the technical know-how in advance and scrupulously check whether the client and project are suitable candidates for the intended system. If the customer is happy with the solution as it stands, that’s much more important than saying you did something innovative.

Pioneering or solid and reliable innovation – which is the better approach?

That depends very much on the initial situation. From a generic perspective, I would say a balance of the two – the middle path, so to speak. Advocates of rapid change lack all continuity, while the timid generally wait until they are 100% convinced or their hand is forced because the existing solution is no longer working. Sometimes, you can wait too long as well and miss the innovation boat entirely. When it comes to innovation, the sweet spot usually lies somewhere in the middle. The aim is to always create the best solution for the circumstances as they stand and not wait around with a change until you reach a point where it really is imposed upon you.

What sort of framework must an organisation have to foster innovation, in your opinion?

You need time and a good platform for open and respectful dialogue. You also need people who can shake themselves free of routine problems in the here and now so they can engage with more fundamental questions, such as: “What would be the best solution with the greatest added value, irrespective of time and budget constraints?”

Are you the sort of person who can do that?

I think so. I certainly try to be whenever possible. Of course, if I’m in the thick of a project, I will find it difficult to look at the big picture with the necessary distance. You can’t underestimate the time factor, either.

Are you happy with the state of Ergon’s microservices architecture?

We have made a start on a good number of projects and with some we are well on our way. We now have several people in the company with experience in the field. I find it particularly gratifying when people from whom I initially encountered considerable resistance now come up to me and tell me that they are using microservices successfully.

Why do companies benefit from people who think outside the box?

Digitalisation will inevitably lead to ever greater networking, both in systems and subject areas. You will be less able to rely on experience and familiar concepts will have to be picked apart and re-evaluated. Unconventional thinkers are able to cut this Gordian knot, or at least to loosen it a little. But a readiness on all sides to listen to opposing opinions is crucial when it comes to managing innovation.

This interview is part of the series "Lateral thinkers" in SMART insights 2020. You can find an overview with all interviews here.

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