3 February 2005
I've spent a lot of time of the last year wandering around Thoughtworks, talking to lots of people on lots of projects. One message that's come home really firmly to me is the value of rotation.
We practice rotation in lots of ways. One of the most notable is rotating around countries. We've put in a deliberate program to encourage people to spend 6-18 months in a different country. Living a good length of time in a different country does a huge amount to widen people's perspective of the world. I've benefitted personally from living both in the UK and USA, even though they are very similar cultures. This mental expansion is even greater for those that spend time in somewhere like India, where the cultural differences are greater.
Geographic rotation presents lots of challanges, particular for older people with familes. One of the things we need to figure out is how to make geographic rotation easier for people, so more people do it. Already there's a notion growing that to prosper in the company you need to spend a spell or two in a foreign office. But I wouldn't want this to be compulsory, because there often are genuine reasons why people can't do it.
My sense is that geographic rotation will be one of our key techniques to avoid the company dividing into national fiefs. We are very much of the lean belief that local optimization often gets in the way of global performance. So we need people to think of the company's success as a whole rather than the success of the office they work for.
As well as geographic rotation, we're also increasingly pushing project rotation. Time and time again I've listened to project teams talk about how bringing in new people with fresh ideas has invigorated the team. For those who rotate, there's also the benefit of more varied work.
One of the biggest difficulties in project rotation is that clients often don't like to lose known able people and get someone new and unproven. I quite understand this. With most consulting companies I would argue hard against allowing the consulting company to rotate - my mantra was "pick the people not the company". I came to this view when working for a Big 8 (as it was in those days) consultancy. The typical tactic was to send in a strong team for the proposal and then swap them out with a distinctly inferior team once the contracts were signed. (In one case a project manager was sold to a client when the company already had that PM allocated to another project in another continent. What's worse they pretended to the client that the PM was still working on the project even when he was thousands of miles away. Oddly they were suprised when the client was annoyed.) One of Thoughtworks's difference is that there's no second rate team - but it takes time to clients to learn that this isn't just a marketing slogan.
Project rotation is particularly vital to help in propagation of techniques and skills. It's long been my view that knowledge management and reuse are primarily human issues - not a matter to technology or process. Rotation is a practice which we've seen to promote knowledge transfer and reuse, and I think its efficacy is due to the fact that it addresses the human element.