When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s the journey that matters more than the destination

Tom Williams
June 9, 2020
8
MIN READ

If we’ve learned anything in the last 3 months, it’s that no one really knows with absolute certainty where they’re going, we just think we know where we want to get to. With this revelation it’s clearer than ever that doing the journey well was always more important than the destination.

The privilege of working with clients

One of the reasons we love working with — rather than being — the client, is the diversity you get from working with different companies, their cultures, their processes, their history and becoming part of their journey. This is a privilege.

We’re constantly meeting new people, building relationships and often making friends, we succeed and sometimes fail together, but ultimately we’re always learning new things. This is a two way street. While we learn a lot from our clients both good and bad, ultimately we are able to share what we’ve learned with our clients and hopefully contribute to them achieving their goals. -Or at least making the journey more enjoyable.

The magnifying glass of a pandemic

It goes without saying that in nearly 15 years of Ostmodern, we’ve never experienced anything like Covid-19 before, no one has. It’s been a fascinating lens through which to look at ourselves and our clients. Everyone is having to adapt to our new reality, the uncertainty of not knowing, the disruption of not co-locating, while trying to deal with the impact of significant change in so many areas.

All of our clients have all been disrupted to one degree or another; our sports clients have the obvious challenge of no product to sell, our commercial broadcast clients are in the paradoxical situation of having unprecedentedly high demand coupled with unsustainably low ad revenue. All of our clients have needed to adapt to new goals and this has tested their preparedness for change in a way that they didn’t expect.

As we’ve experienced on previous occasions, it’s not until times are challenging when the value and strength of the relationships you have with your clients become exposed. For us, we’ve been pleased to find that the investment we’ve made in building strong relationships with our clients has made navigating this uncertainty easier.

We don’t often talk specifically about individual clients but recently we’ve spent some time thinking about one in particular, who we feel is an example of a client relationship that has adapted particularly well, despite being the most physically remote. By understanding what’s contributed to our collectively successful adaptation, we hope we can ensure we’re better prepared in all our relationships for the continuing change we expect to face.

There’s something about New Zealand!

We were delighted when, about a year ago, Sky NZ chose to use Skylark as a component in the architecture of their new digital infrastructure. Since then we’ve been working in partnership with their internal team and a couple of other vendors to launch a newly built ‘from the ground up’ OTT product into their domestic market.

Being a relatively small market that is geographically isolated, makes New Zealand fairly unique with both some very specific challenges and natural advantages, many of which have undoubtedly contributed to their ability to handle change well. Something that’s even more pertinent in the week that New Zealand declares itself to be free of Covid-19.

Being brave and trusting each other

From our initial conversations with Sky it was clear that their intention was to build a modern platform from the ground up, using an agile approach. While we were excited about the opportunity to be involved, we had some reservations about what an ambitious undertaking that was. From our experience ‘old school’ satellite TV companies aren’t renowned for being modern or agile.

It’s rare to see a client using ‘agile’ in the right way, it often seems to be a cover for delivering what you want when you want, but on starting the project it became clear that from leadership to developer, there was a shared belief that starting from a blank sheet and having the right objectives, people, partners and processes in place would ultimately lead to the right destination, and be the fastest most efficient way of getting there. In our experience, this sort of trust in large organisations is rare.

As part of the extended team we mirrored Sky’s processes, having the team engage when needed, configuring our product in parallel with their development cycle. This has necessitated working without the millstone of ‘fixed scope and set deliverables’, rather the trust that as the Sky team progresses we would be on hand to support with new configurations in Skylark as needed. This model to only configure once Sky NZ was certain on the solution design and needs has minimised the inefficient need to configure and reconfigure.

How has this approach worked out for Sky NZ? Well with a small team (around 20) working away in a small satellite office in Auckland the team at Sky have been able to stand up a robust technical solution and working BETA with VOD and Linear Streaming Content in a matter of months. By trusting their team and processes, not only have they moved quickly but they’ve built something that is genuinely flexible and this has served them well in the face of recent change.

Building empathetic relationships

With a small fast moving team, Sky knew that they needed to work with partners and that those partnerships would require extremely good communication.

As anyone who has visited NZ from the UK will know, it feels like a very very long way away. Not just the flight time of nearly 24 hours but also the fact that you don’t share a timezone with any other significant populations, makes you feel fairly cut off from the rest of the world. This means that in order to feel connected with the world, you have to work hard to maintain the kind of communication meaningful relationships require.

Most New Zealanders have experienced the other side of this during their travels or periods they’ve spent living in other countries. With an estimated 15% of New Zealanders living overseas, they understand and accept the importance of empathy in maintaining good communication with friends, family, colleagues and in our case partners.

Despite Sky having a close-knit co-located project team working in an agile and collaborative way, we’ve never felt like we were at arms length. Through a combination of using the right tools in the right manner and a shared understanding that timezones may mean more flexibility is needed on either side we have found a highly effective remote working model.

Knowing what’s really important

Another thing that we’ve noticed working with Sky is that there are a lot of talented and smart people who have cut their teeth in the US, Europe, Asia or elsewhere and then moved back to NZ to enjoy the benefits of raising a family in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

It’s quite common, from within the goldfish bowl of a big market, to become slightly deluded by a collective sense of self-importance about the work we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Ultimately we make OTT products, which is a good business, but it’s not life and death.

Now that we’re actually faced with a life and death situation, working with the team at Sky NZ who are talented and committed but have a healthy perspective on life and what’s important has been a breath of fresh air during this period. Their first thoughts were about our welfare and connecting on a human level, which has meant our commitment to go the extra mile on a professional level that much greater.

I think we’ve all probably reevaluated what’s important to us over the past couple of months, but it’s clearer than ever to us that having a good work life balance isn’t just good for our families and our welfare but is actually better for business.

An objective perspective on the market

Existing outside the gold-fish bowl of a big market also has other benefits.

I first experienced the benefits that a different perspective brings when I studied graphic design at Falmouth College of Art. Falmouth is a fairly remote town in the UK and despite the fact that it’s a bit tricky to get to and had fairly primitive night-life, as an art student it had the benefit of not being in the maelstrom of the London art and design scene.

In that sort of environment, you get to look at the world at your own pace, focus on process and fostering strong ideas, be influenced by the things you choose and not get caught up in trends or fads. This philosophy has always been central to Ostmodern and the minute we started working with Sky it was clear that they also had this approach.

Sky NZ isn’t new to OTT, they already have a comprehensive suite of existing digital services, so they were able to learn from past products and projects and approach this new platform with the benefit of that experience.

This undoubtedly played a role in their decision to start from a blank sheet of paper and while they looked at the market for context they didn’t assume that what other people were doing was right for their proposition. Instead, they spoke to their customers and put them at the centre of their process and by doing so they underlined the importance of all the disciplines, from research, insight and UX&D to solution architecture and engineering.

Enabled by a skilled team and an enthusiasm for taking calculated risks, they opted for a best of breed approach where they owned the architecture and integrations. This enabled them to select partners who provided exactly the sort of flexibility and interoperability they needed, maintaining a clear expectation of the role each component plays in delivering their unique value proposition.

In-built self sufficiency

All of this has instinctively led Sky to a solution that is adaptable to change.

It’s not possible for everyone to work this way. If you’re launching your first OTT platform then it’s unlikely that you’ve got the operational or technical experience to understand where to build flexibility into your infrastructure, or the capability to get the best out of a combination of vendors. In those cases there’s often a reliance on a single vendor and a more inflexible solution.

Sky’s experience however, meant they were able to approach their architecture with a clear understanding of where to invest in the flexibility to adapt to future unknowns. This means their teams can be adaptable and flexible, accommodating for significant changes to be made to the end product vision without requiring a rework each time.

For a market that has its own unique characteristics, but is greatly influenced by external factors this is an approach that makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately it’s had an unexpectedly early opportunity to demonstrate its value.

A true partnership

As a vendor to Sky NZ, we’ve found ourselves in the fortunate position of having a relationship with a client that is built on trust and reciprocity — something that can genuinely be called a partnership. This means that they work with us to iterate on our product, challenging our assumptions of how features should work, but also accepting limitations and the gradual process under which a product needs to evolve to meet new requirements.

Who knows what will happen in the future. For a sports mad country whose main industry is tourism, the only certainty right now is that there are going to be some major challenges ahead. However, from our experience of working with the team at Sky, if there’s any population who are well set-up to deal with the change we’re faced with in the coming years, then it’s our friends in New Zealand.