Disrupting your own developers

How digital platforms allow companies to respond quickly to crises

Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 crisis took on global proportions, employers found themselves facing previously unknown threats to their workers’ well-being. From boardrooms to NGOs, from SMEs to nonprofits, one question was in the air: Are my people safe?

Seeking reliable answers, many executives turned to International SOS, a trusted leader in medical and security risk assessment and mitigation.

“We’re a source of intelligence and information to our clients,” says Domenic Bell, senior vice president of global product management at International SOS. “They look for our recommendations. They look for us to support their organizations. They trust us.”

Founded as an emergency airlift service in 1985, International SOS today advises more than 11,000 global clients in 85 countries on crisis and risk management. Even in the most peaceful times, communicating effectively can literally be life-or-death.

Though they already had a complete suite of tech solutions that addressed most client concerns, International SOS quickly identified a demand in the market for a new, COVID-specific product.

“The impetus really came from our clients,” says Bell. “They came to us and said, ‘Here’s my problem. What can you do?’”

Answering the call, Bell’s team built WorkReady, a user-friendly application that helps managers assess whether their employees should return to work amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

To deliver the app quickly, Bell and his team adopted an agile development mindframe designed to shorten development cycles and accelerate time to market. They also decided to build WorkReady on the ServiceNow platform.

The app was built in just a few months—an astonishingly short period of time for something of this scope and scale.

“This was an opportunity to help clients get on with business,” says Bell.

Keep reading to learn how even well-established, global organizations such as International SOS can learn to become more responsive in the current climate.

Define The Demand

Of the many challenges when building a new product, accurately identifying market demand is often most difficult.

Not so with WorkReady. In the earliest days of the COVID-19 crisis, International SOS’s clients were already knocking on their door, asking for trustworthy tools to help them navigate the pandemic and its myriad effects.

“Straight off the bat,” says Domenic Bell, “we had a couple of dozen clients who were literally ready to go. We sold them before we built the tool, so to speak, and we were not disappointed with the followthrough after that initial interest.”

With so many COVID-related apps and services already in the marketplace—even just weeks into the global pandemic—why such a great demand?

“The vast majority [of apps] are aimed at the consumer, not at the corporate level,” Bell says. “We were thinking of the manager’s problems. How do we give them visibility to the status of their employees in order to keep the business running while managing risks to individuals?”

Confident in the market need for a new application, Bell’s team got to work.

Focus On The Mission

Traditionally, new consumer products were designed, developed, market-tested and perfected—then, and only then, were they released to the general public.

In the digital economy, this is outdated thinking. Today’s developers race to build their minimum viable product, or MVP, and release it to the public as rapidly as possible. Then, based on user feedback and performance metrics, they continually improve their apps, software and platforms.

Likewise, for Bell and his team, it was more important to identify what was critical to their users and perfect those fewer experiences.

For example: “Imagine you get a message in the middle of a natural disaster and your life is at risk. The message is a simple SMS that reads, ‘Are you okay? Press one for help.’ You’re not going to worry too much about your user experience. You’re going to just reply.”

In this example, there’s no need to dedicate time and resources building a flashy user interface.

On the other hand, Bell advises, “If you’re being asked by an app to volunteer information about yourself, about the state of your health and who you’ve been with, the user experience needs to be great.”

Takeaway being: For an agile development cycle to succeed, one must identify what’s mission-critical—and back-burner everything else.

Find Partners On The Platforms

Build it, or buy it?

It’s the classic question asked in the early stages of new product design. Buying off-the-shelf software is quicker but typically more expensive and may require compromise. Building in-house affords more control but often introduces greater risk and complexity.

To develop WorkReady, International SOS chose a third option: platform it.

A long-time partner for IT and help desk workflow solutions, ServiceNow’s platform was a “no-brainer” for WorkReady, says Bell.

“When you build on a platform, it’s low code, or no code, because we’re using as much of their functionality as possible,” Bell explains. “This allowed us to move very quickly. “

Building on a platform also makes it possible for International SOS to create unique experiences for its users.

“To meet individual clients’ needs, you’ve got 500 different applications to maintain,” Bell says. “The beauty of a platform is it allows us to effectively build once, and then spin off instances with relative ease and speed. You’re still really only maintaining one application.”

Opting for a platform environment “continues to be validated by every client we implement and the conversations we have with them,” Bell says.

Launch, Improve, Repeat

By definition, the agile mindset is focused on reaching the market as quickly as possible. This, of course, can introduce risks in the form of bugs, oversights and other flaws.

If anyone is equipped to understand and accept these risks, it’s an international firm that advises clients on often-life-threatening perils.

“There are going to be imperfections and there are going to be elements of risks that otherwise, in normal circumstances, no one wants,” Bell explains. “But the important thing is putting something in the client’s hands and soliciting their feedback.”

Like it or lump it, hands-on client feedback is the most important part of the process.

“I prefer good feedback to bad,” Bell admits, “but bad feedback is part of the journey. As I tell my team all the time, feedback is a sign of an engaged client.”

Indeed, negative feedback makes the agile methodology even more powerful.

Because WorkReady was built on an integrated platform, Bell’s team can present new features with every sprint. In this way, a piece of negative feedback can create a more satisfied client.

“They’re buying a solution, not just a piece of software,” Bell says, “and they love the solution.”

Advice For The Agile-Minded

For executives who believe their organizations should build and deploy more quickly but are unsure where to start, Bell offers four key takeaways.

Design for integration

Agile development is designed to shorten development cycles and accelerate time to market.

Moving too fast, however, has its own pitfalls, including working in silos and building products that don’t play well with others—especially within well-established organizations.

“We weren’t looking to develop a library of standalone applications,” Bell notes of his time building WorkReady. “Most of our clients will actually use this and many other things that we offer.”

Sell your secret sauce

Nowadays, pretty much anyone can build an app. For International SOS’s clients, the specific technology wasn’t the point.

“Our clients don’t look to us as a software company,” Bell says. “They’re interested in what’s in the software. It’s the expertise behind the questionnaires and the algorithm. That’s what they’re interested in.”

The same should hold true for any commercial relationship. Identify your true value, and design your products around that.

Pick your partner wisely

International SOS considers itself a “perpetual partner” with clients. “We don’t deliver a single solution or a piece of information and then disappear,” Bell says.

Likewise, International SOS considers ServiceNow a long-term partner that’s positioned to grow and evolve with them.

“There was a little leap of faith there, when time was absolutely critical,” Bell says. “But it’s an amazingly good fit. It’s a partnership we’re going to focus on a lot more, especially in these times.”

When it comes to adopting a new, more agile mindset for product development, International SOS doesn’t claim to be unique.

“It’s happening everywhere,” Bell says.

Indeed, in planning sessions and kick-off calls around the world, once-standard practices are revisited, reexamined and, more often than not, sent packing.

Now is the best time to adjust one’s frame of mind away from traditional development models and toward a longer-term way of thinking.

“Agile methodology is a journey, not an event,” Bell says.