BT’s R&D uses Hothousing in a big way
BT has for some time had special spaces designed to support small problem-solving conferences, used for ‘problems to fix’ and ‘[new] concepts to market’, but also for reviewing and developing strategy. They are now being used as the precursor for all R&D teams, where projects are divided into 13-week stages, and are all prefaced by a Hothouse – an intensive workshop designed to search out new approaches for the ensuing stage of the project.
Suites of rooms have been built in two locations, where 40-50 Hothouses a year are run, each focused on a significant business problem or opportunity – identified by a Business Unit of BT (‘tangible outcomes are essential’). Expensive though each is (they can involve 50-100 during the Hothouse itself, though less both before and after,) they are seen as the only solution to the waterfall approach (the project handed on down the line to its next stage), in which the danger of an unforeseen problem arising late in the development process can and has involved expensive iterations and missed opportunities.
These are better described as small problem-solving conferences than workshops. Between three and eight teams (each of 6-8 people) compete (for small but significant prizes) in the presence of the problem owner, other stakeholders, his boss (and often his boss). Participants are chosen to fulfill a specific mix in a team and while fully briefed beforehand, they may or may not have hade previous experience of Hothouses. Teams are composed through an electronic auction; and the 3-day process is marked by presentations at the end of each day, and the presence throughout the proceedings of a carefully chosen panel of judges. Each team’s space in the large communal break-out area has its plasma screen and white board; and Microsoft’s Sharepoint Online software is used for enabling each team to share material, with two other programs for sharing software in development. The Facilitator will regularly call very brief ‘stand-up’ meetings to ask about progress, obstacles, needs, and resources that might be made available.
The ‘conference’ space is institutional and Spartan (no toys – what would their bosses think!); and the process is intensive and full of energy. There are no signs of any input – either of people or materials – from outside BT, (though that will apparently depend on the business problem, and no doubt customers will often form part of the process); indeed the technical members of the teams ensure that use is made of relevant existing BT platforms.
The main uses are currently for ‘Troubles to fix’ projects – whose aim to overcome obstacles in the development process; but now that the tide has turned a little for BT, there is increasing interest in ‘Concept to market’ Hothouses – about the development of new products, services etc.
All of BT is now being equipped with these large plasma screens, interactive white boards and video conference facilities (round half the outside of a circular conference table), around the perimeter of which project teams are co-located, enabling their members to conference or hothouse alone or with fellow teams eg in Ireland or Bangalore.
Formalised methods more than experience or expertise in this type of activity distinguish BT’s Hothouses; and they are very process-driven.