Encouraging innovation

One thing I love about software development is that it requires a balance between logical thought and creative thinking. Both are required to be successful, but this is really easy to forget, and it’s the creative side that often gets ignored. I would argue that ignoring the creative side is probably the worst thing that you can do.

When I say that, I’m talking to myself first. As you know, there is often a disconnect between what you believe to be true in your head and how you actually live. I feel like my busy, efficiency-driven life is forcing me in one direction. At work, I’m trying to become more efficient, reduce cycle time, meet deadlines, complete tasks. At home, I’m trying to balance having a family, trying to keep the house from becoming a disaster area, and trying to get enough sleep. Even now as I’m writing this, I know that I could be working and I almost have to tell myself not to. All this leaves little time and energy to be creative. (Proof of this is my drastic decrease in frequency of blog posts over the last year.)

Here’s the problem – it doesn’t really matter if you’re efficient at something if you’re being efficient at the wrong thing. Also, in this fast changing world of technology, what was the right thing yesterday might not be the right thing today. What gets lost when you’re too task-focused is innovation.

We’ve all heard of Google’s famous “20% time” where employees can work on whatever they want. You hear of other startups copying the same idea. This isn’t just another employee perk like free lunches and workout facilities. This is a calculated decision to give people time to innovate, because the company feels that the value of the innovations will far exceed the time spent. Many more established companies are starting to launch “innovation incubators” where they take smart people and let them go off an build innovative stuff without the drag imposed by bureaucracy, meetings, and big-company red tape.

For the rest of us who don’t work at startups or internet companies, innovation may not carry as much value. If you’re maintaining back office internal systems, your tasks are often straight forward and you’re probably not going to come up with a revolutionary idea that will bring in thousands of new customers. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no value in innovation. There are still opportunities to innovate in these work environments, because all software development is a creative endeavor. You still are creating something that will need to meet the needs of the users, and we want to come up with creative ways to do it better, faster, and cheaper.

Developers are strange creatures sometimes. Our quirkiness is often what makes us successful. We may seem to be very structured, logical people who just want to put on their headphones so that we can complete the ticket that we’re working on and move on to the next one. This is true, but developers are also impatient and lazy. We don’t like waiting for our code to compile, we don’t like using frameworks that make things hard to do, and we don’t like writing the same code over and over, and this can drive people to try and come up with creative solutions — if they have room in their head to do it.

I find that if I get overly task-focused, the innovation switch in my head turns off. There is a big difference between “today I’m going to work on X, Y, and Z” and “today I’m going to solve a problem”. One approach has the solution outlined for me, and the other one forces me to innovate. In both cases, a problem is going to get solved, and the solution might be the same either way. The point is that when I go to work with the innovation switch turned on in my head, there exists the potential for something great to happen. It might be completely unrelated to the task at hand, but the value of that innovation could far exceed the value of the everyday task I was working on.

For most companies, it’s not going to make sense to give your employees 20% of their time to work on whatever they want. But there are still things that you can do to encourage innovation.

Pose problems, not solutions

Chances are someone higher up than you in your company is deciding what you’re going to work on. This is good, but I’ve noticed a difference in the way in which these tasks can be handed down. Sometimes I’m given a series of tasks that solves a problem. Other times I’m given a problem and am asked to solve it. I greatly favor have the second approach, for several reasons. First, if I’m given a problem without a solution, I take it as a challenge to come up with a creative way to solve a problem. Second, I’m motivated to solve the problem because I can understand the problem and can see the value that is going to come out of the solution. Third, I just might come up with a more innovative way to solve the problem.

Encourage experimentation

One idea that we introduced at work was the idea of “experimentation time”, where someone can propose something that they want to try out, ask for amount of time to try it, and then go do it and report back the results. This could be anything from trying out a new web framework to refactoring part of our codebase to trying to find ways to run tests in parallel – pretty much anything goes, as long as the goal is to find a way to improve something that we’re working on.

While our IT leadership loved the idea, no one has taken advantage of it yet! I find that interesting because people complain that they don’t have time to innovate but then they don’t actually take the initiative to do it. I’m not working in one of these IT departments with ruthless taskmaster bosses that force unrealistic deadlines on people. I suppose this can be expected from people who typically are focused on getting things done and who are often rewarded and complimented for doing so.

Maybe we should start requiring people to take time to work on something innovative, kind of like how you might be assigned a project in school. Sometimes people don’t feel like they have the freedom to work on something that isn’t working towards meeting a deadline. We practically have to force some people to attend conferences (any other time, people would jump at a chance to take a free trip to a nice destination to learn something and have fun with their co-workers). If we truly value innovation, then we need to find a way to get that message out.

Start with yourself

Time to preach to myself again. How can I sit here and write all this when I’m not giving myself time to innovate and learn? I read this quote today:

Nothing creative will come out of your efforts if you don’t allow your best ideas to incubate. Follow the lead of Warren Buffett and allow time for quiet reading and thinking every day. I recommend devoting at least one hour a day to learning, as Ben Franklin did. Can’t find the time? While you’re commuting or en route to meetings, stay off the phone and listen to a podcast or comtemplate what you’re been reading. You’ll be surprised by what comes out of your brain if you give it a rest sometimes.
–Verne Harnish (Fortune magazine)

The most important things that have happened in my career this year were not because of things I accomplished, but because things I’ve read and heard at conferences, and things I thought about when I was in those spaces when my mind felt clear enough to think about the big picture. Some of these ideas have been career changing for me. Not only that, it reinforces what I’m doing on a day to day basis and gives me motivation to handle the task-based work that consumes most of my day. The challenge is finding the right balance.