Voluntary Adoption in Action: HBC Digital Adopts Slack

2 min Read Time

Musings on Decentralised Control and Voluntary Adoption in Large Organisations.

When I think of Slack, I think first of the great book by Tom DeMarco on the organisational “slack” we need to play, innovate, get big things done. It’s an amazing read, and I recommend without reservation. More recently, when I think of Slack, I think of the massive grassroots movement at HBC Digital that switched us from HipChat to Slack in just a few short weeks, without any top- down edict or stop-the-world migration. We acheived this by leveraging the simple idea of ‘voluntary adoption’: if a technology, framework, tool or service is really good then your teams will adopt it naturally, without coercion. The corollary of voluntary adoption is that if you find that you’re having to push a solution on a group of people and they’re resisting, pushing back, or not getting it, then it’s a good sign that the solution might not be as good as you previously thought.

Through merger and acquisition, we found ourselves in a position with multiple tech teams using different chat solutions, creating artificial divisions and cross-team awkwardness. We could have mandated a move to one of the incumbent chat solutions at HBC and dragged everyone across the divide: a solution that would have been a long hard march. Instead, we looked about at the current most- loved tool, Slack, kicked off a couple of channels, invited some of our teams in, and said, “hey, try it out.” Within days we encountered some interesting effects: first, people loved it; and second, they wanted clarity to know if everyone could just move there together. Without having to force or coerce anyone, we’re now all together on one system: Slack.

So what do we learn from this application of voluntary adoption? First, we got the outcome we wanted, fast, and it stuck. Second, but perhaps more interestingly, was that we traded off one kind of organisational stress for another. Top down, authoritative control offers clarity and a sense of control, and the expense of individual choice. “Everyone, we’re using Tool X” has a clarity, but smart folk quickly reject being told to use a tool they don’t like and that leads to stress and angst. “Everyone, we don’t have an agreed standard yet so why not try this as well as the current solutions?” feels rudderless and perhaps somewhat chaotic for those in the midst of it: adoptees are confused and wonder which one to choose. However, this approach unleashes a Darwinian process of natural selection: a decentralised, collaborative optimisation process that will either squash a bad idea up front or elevate a good idea into something grand.

We apply voluntary adoption at multiple levels - in our open-source offerings, internal libraries, tools, and how we work together as teams - and the ramifications for voluntary adoption for us as engineers and product innovators are profound. If you’re going to invest time into building something, spend time on making it a dream for the newcomer: easy to use, surprising, delighting. Think: you are not in a position to force your solution on someone; however, you can make your solution something that’s a dream to adopt. Voluntarily.

Adrian Trenaman, SVP Engineering

As SVP Engineering, HBC Tech, Ade leads the engineering and infrastructure teams in New York and Dublin.