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Managing Innovation for Watson Orchestrate – Creating a Safe Space to Experiment

By DAVID Jenness posted Fri August 06, 2021 12:24 PM


Continuing the series of blogs on the making of IBM Watson Orchestrate, I followed up my interviews with Salman Sheikh, Allen Chan, and Sebastian Carbajales with a conversation with John Mourra, Program Director for Development of IBM’s Digital Business Automation portfolio.  John’s team delivers the workflow products as well as the low code authoring tools, App Designer and other elements of Business Automation Studio for the Cloud Pak for Business Automation. Since Watson Orchestrate is a brand-new way to use Natural Language to trigger workflows and tasks on the fly, John’s team was the natural choice to build it. 

John Mourra, IBM

While his team understands the workflow technology underpinning Watson Orchestrate, John explains there was another reason for the assignment.  “I ascribe to the saying that luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” he explained. “Back in 2018, I started an incubator squad. I called it the Business User Intelligence squad and the goal was to incubate ideas that pertain to infusing machine learning into our Workflow offering. I hired engineering talent specifically for that squad. People with the right skills to be able to dream up ways to infuse AI into workflow.  When Watson Orchestrate got the green light, we were a natural fit. So I just shifted them to this new mission.”

However, Watson Orchestrate is not business as usual for John’s team. “We’ve been developing easy ways to model a workflow by dragging and dropping things onto the screen, but with Watson Orchestrate, we’re creating a way to use natural language to orchestrate a set of tasks, just by asking your “sidekick” to do it for you. That’s really what the Watson Orchestrate spark is all about: making automation accessible to the masses through natural language, without having to model anything. So it is something very new and different for us.”

As you might imagine, Watson Orchestrate is the kind of project that gets Developers excited. It’s a chance to completely rethink Business Automation and create something new, but it also presents a new set of challenges.  “One of the new elements for us is working with Research, which we don’t usually do,” he explained. “Research dreams up new ideas, which is their job, without necessarily worrying about creating a product. They’ll come up with a Proof of Concept and say, ‘There you go.’ Then it’s our job to turn it into a product that’s ready for production in all the different environments presented by our customers.’”

In addition to Research, John’s team is also working closely with Design. “Research provided the new technology that enables the Natural Language interface, then the Design Team focused on the user experience. Together, they develop a set of requirements and it’s our job to figure out how to develop and implement the technology behind it, to satisfy the requirements.”

John says managing innovation requires a special touch, because it’s never a straight line to the destination. He even suggests that it requires a certain personality type. “It was actually a very interesting exercise, to see who became nervous from uncertainty versus those who saw uncertainty as an entrepreneurial opportunity,” he said. “I started seeing the entrepreneurial spirit come through in certain parts of the team, and my goal is to reward it. Because, you know what? It's risky. It's uncertain. But it has to be that way, because if it wasn't, then someone else would have figured it out before us.”

Not only does John find ways to reward risk-taking, but he’s very conscious of creating a safe environment to experiment and try new things, which requires that he and his squad leaders provide “air cover” for his team. “You've got to show that you're willing to stand up and say, ‘We tried it and it didn’t work. But I chose to take that risk, because it was worth it.’” He declared. “You can’t under commit and over deliver. That's not conducive to innovation. You have to over commit and maybe under deliver in order to innovate. But if management doesn’t encourage and reward it, it won’t happen.”

Stay caught up on the latest in regards to Watson Orchestrate at