The word Innovation is frequently thrown around in the software and tech industry. Used most often as a marketing tool, the word seems to mean something different to everyone. When thought of from the perspective of a technical team, however, it has very specific intent. In order to survive in a fast-paced industry, we must be agile and adaptable to the market. Deliberate innovation is the best way for an organization to avoid growing stagnant like so many tech giants before us.
Examples of organizations implementing “Innovation Time” include Google’s 20 percent time, LinkedIn’s internal incubator, and Facebook’s Hackathons to name just a few. Although these companies do not follow a shared process for innovation time, they all understand that innovation time is a wise long-term investment.
We recently ran one of our periodic Hack Weeks, and the discussions surrounding it bears similarities of the latest issue of MISC Magazine from Idea Couture. In the issue, Vurain Tabvuma shares a couple of great lessons from Thomas Edison about creating a safe environment for experimentation:
"During the innovation and creative process, it is important for people to feel accepted, respected, and have the freedom to take risks without facing severe negative consequences."
Ideally, this would be true all year round, but that is easier said than accomplished. We all have deadlines to meet, customers to satisfy, and fires to quash – urgent matters that may not feel particularly innovative. And therein lies the mental trap. In actuality, these moments are all perfect opportunities to be innovative; we simply have not strengthened our “creative muscle” and so we are less inclined to use it during these high-risk situations. To avoid this trap, we spent significant time studying what must be in place to allow creative sparks to catch fire. We’d like to share what we’ve learned with you.
Support from the top
First and foremost, an organization needs buy-in from all levels starting with the founders and executives. There must be support from those who run the business or any front-line employee initiatives run the risk of derailing due to process inertia. In our case, we are fortunate to have a CTO (also our founder) who is excited about nurturing a team that runs with new ideas and challenges the status quo. One of our core company values, “We trail blaze in everything we do,” illustrates this support from our decision-makers. We want our teams to feel that this is a safe place to make calculated risks. It may be difficult to transform an organization from bottom up but it is crucial that your leaders support any variation of an innovative environment.
Bake into day-to-day operations
Like all software companies, we run into many unknowns when building something new. While we may not have the skillset available (yet!) to solve a problem, the block leads to investigation. In Scrum methodology, unexpected experimentation is known as a “Spike.” A spike can be needed anytime during an iterative engineering process, and the initial reaction is often to avoid it or to pursue the workaround for fear of how deep the rabbit hole of research goes. Scrum teaches us that these spikes are a healthy part of adding new value to your product. Conveniently, Spikes can lead to Knowledge Sharing which is another core value we espouse to ensure innovation spreads amongst team members.
We regularly run lunch-and-learns for anyone who is interested on a wide range of software (languages, architecture, security etc.) and non-software (health, hobbies, etc.) topics. Open knowledge sharing allows for ideas to infiltrate the minds of our employees and keeps them thinking about how they can use the new skill they just acquired. When a new employee is added to the team we make sure to elicit their feedback even more than we would with the most senior members of our team. A new employee is coming to us from a different world and will likely bring new ideas our daily routine may have left out. We encourage new members to question and fail more-so than experienced members because the value-added is questions we may have never asked. This day-to-day habit will not happen overnight which is why leadership and senior members need to foster the behavior.
Make deep investments in change
Over time, every company tends to accumulate old concepts, deprecated code, and out-dated processes. Think of it as not just technical debt, but also the business equivalent. You may hear someone say, “That’s just the way it is” in such an organization. That phrase is poisonous to an innovative environment, especially if it’s the only reason given. The only way to address this is to periodically review systems and invest in change. A great example would be NetSuite’s legacy code; while some of it has been around for a long time, we don’t hesitate to go deep and change the foundation of our product as we know it is a good long-term investment. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the old code/concepts/processes are simply debt – a tool that got you this far. You should neither hate it nor worship it – rather let it retire gracefully. This is the best way to encourage change, but also respect between new and experienced team members.
Create spaces and times for recharging
Being creative can be exhausting. For most people, inspiration doesn’t arrive on command, but is discovered when they are relaxed or recovering. Knowing when to walk away for a few minutes is helpful and should be encouraged. Unfortunately, recharging can sometimes be confused with procrastination – to avoid this misinterpretation, your office culture must encourages these breaks.
At NetSuite Waterloo we provide breakout rooms, couches and benches to encourage changing up your workspace. There are healthy snacks provided to fuel the mind and games rooms to distract it when necessary. The ability to work remotely when one needs to focus is also helpful. You never know when an idea will hit you and being able to capture and act on it in your workspace makes it more likely to become a reality. We even provide Lego in meeting rooms to give people who like to fidget with things while thinking.
Be disciplined about taking time for exploration
It was mentioned earlier that our Hack Week is what started us thinking about all this. To reiterate, you should not expect a change overnight and this is where setting patches of time aside will help. Hack Week at our organization is a type of innovation time that has evolved through the years. We hope to spread it beyond our space at NetSuite and share lessons learned about the process in a later blog post. Setting a date that allows for the majority of people to act on their innovative ideas and experiments requires commitment from the organization. It’s well worth the investment though - it can break the routine grind and the play of experimentation can increase morale. The biggest lesson we can share is that any innovation time is about trust. We are explicit in communicating that we trust our employees to set priority and work on something that’s best for the company, whether it’s a feature, a bug, or them developing a new skill. Without that trust, it’s impossible for an employee to truly experiment. Our guidance to them is: in the spirit of innovation just try it; if it doesn’t work try something else.
While all of these lessons and approaches are encouraging and nurturing, it’s crucial to remember that innovation is an imperative not just an option. It’s important to remind your employees that its not just “OK” to innovate, it is an expectation of their role. Like all such expectations, if you hope employees to fulfill them, you must provide opportunities to exercise and hone the skill – we hope this post and the next will help you do so.
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