Friday, November 8, 2013

Innovation -- trying to break out beyond the buzzword

Innovation is the poster child of buzzword bingo.


It's hard not to have an allergic reaction to people that talk about it, because you can't talk about innovation and do it at the same time.

So why am I talking about Innovation instead of doing it ? :)

A couple of months back, when we were revamping our development process, basically going from 'Scrum-in-name-only' to something much more genuine (and I've got to do a post on that), we wanted to give people a block of time to do something completely different from their day jobs. We wanted them to work with different people, outside of their usual teams, on ideas that they (not we) thought of. We wanted to break down some of the walls that naturally occur when you section large teams into smaller units to get work done efficiently.

We're sitting on some amazing data and have built some great infrastructure to manage it. These people are on the teams that are work with that data and use that infrastructure day in and day out. They're smart. I know they have ideas on new data products, or tools to make getting insights easier, but no time to actually work on them. Most importantly, I know their ideas are good ones, because I've seen multiple people make those ideas happen in spite of having no time to work on them. We have products that we've built because people have championed their ideas into the delivery stream. I wanted to make that easier. You shouldn't have to be Rocky Balboa to get a good idea off the ground.

In other words, that kind of effort shouldn't happen on nights and weekends, against all odds -- we need to reward that kind of creativity during business hours -- while balancing the delivery needs of the business.

'Innovation Week' is our collective attempt to do just that. One week a quarter is enough time to stop business as usual and try something completely different. Innovation Week is very much an experiment, one that could go well....or not.

The overall plan:

  1. Before:
    1. Announce the week. 
    2. Send out a 'request for ideas' email
    3. Review ideas in as many sessions as we needed:
      1. the idea 'author' presents their idea canvas.
      2. We go over the canvas, ask questions, offer suggestions.
  2. During: 
    1. Everyone sells their idea.
      1. key in the selling: they need to ask for help where they need it.
    2. People provide their first, second, third choices.
    3. We assign people to ideas -- the reason we arent going to just let people choose is that we don't want imbalanced teams, and we want to make sure groups were diverse. 
    4. The teams work on the ideas -- we are available to unblock any issues and provide guidance if asked. 
  3. After:
    1. Every team presents their work.
    2. The group stack rates all ideas. 
    3. The top 3 get prizes. 
    4. The management team gives separate awards for 
      1. Business Value
      2. Completeness of Effort
      3. Disruptiveness (of the idea, of the technology being used, etc)


As the saying goes: 'no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy'. I was fairly nervous. What if no one had ideas? What if the team could care less? What if they were as allergic to the I-word as I was?

Our first idea review meeting was last night. Instead of the 1 or 2 ideas we had predicted, we have (at last count ) six. Instead of the vague, tech-aspirational ideas we thought we were going to see -- things along the vein of 'I want to play with technology X, here is a contrived attempt to justify that', we saw carefully thought out resolutions to problems our team was either working around or about to go through.

The discussion around the ideas was very positive and constructive -- the ideas that were presented got a lot of feedback and suggestions about how they could be better. The best part was getting individuals that they had good ideas and that exposing them to the group would make those ideas better.  The best moment was when one of the most quiet, most unassuming engineers got up and proceeded to unveil a completely awesome idea that was completely out of the box and completely powerful. At that point the energy in the room jacked up like a big wave.

After a while, work becomes work. We're lucky enough to be in a profession that requires as much creativity as it does precision. I wanted to put some meaning into what has become a term that is only applied with heavy irony.

We are early on in the process.  I am going to document how this first Innovation week goes -- expecting the unexpected, of course.

Right now, as noted, we are at the beginning. The management team has put a lot of work into setting up the idea generation, and we need to follow through by setting the teams up for success, picking the best ideas, then ruthlessly evangelizing those up the chain. It's a long journey but I think we made a great first step.



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