“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Rob Siltanen, “Think Different” campaign, Apple (1997)
Software development is a truly creative endeavor. Teams will often emotionally connect themselves to the products they produce and given the creative space will do some amazing things to create things no one has ever seen before.
I have actually had the great fortune in my life to work with some fantastic teams and individuals who have helped me truly appreciate the software development profession and the skills within it. I have worked with these people directly and we have together produced things that I have been proud of when launched.
The rub is often these teams are so focused on building for an organization, that a “creative itch” may start to develop and go unscratched as the result to the focus and effort they are giving to their work. It simply gets moved to something they want to explore and gets shelved for a later date to be determined.
One way that organizations have approached giving back to their software teams is the idea of “fixed creative capacity” (items such as 20% time, made popular by Google; but actually around since the 1950’s conceptually) that defines a specified period of time for developers to work on their own project. This approach employed at Google resulted in several toy products I that became product ideas fodder for flagship products such as Gmail.
The idea of having a regular portion allotted to letting team members self-invest has always been something appealing to me. So, in designing our sprint cycle approach we ensured that we included a “breath” between sprint iteration cycles of 1 day to have what we call “lab day”. This not only allows the team a downcycle of a day from the last sprint but the ability to focus on personal areas of self improvement, focus on implementation of retro actions or to level set themselves for the upcoming sprint.
This has been a great success in our environment and allowed us to keep ourselves engaged in learning, make room for some exploration and create a nice pause before the next cadence (therefore making the cycle a natural rhythm to teams). One of the main drawbacks to this is that ultimately, 1 workday is truly a small amount of time to get into any level of depth for any real exploration.
So, this left me with a question, how could I provide an opportunity for development teams to have a more extended timeframe so that they might actually explore an idea and build a working demo? After doing some research, I came across an idea being used in private industries called originally called “FedEx Days” (“when it actually has to be there over night”) and later more widely renamed to “ShipIt Days“. One company that has been really public about the use of these has been Atlassian.
What does a ShipIt Day Look Like?
To start with, you will need a small team to plan and be a point of guidance for the event itself. The event should be announced with the general guidelines (which should be minimal but you may seek to align it to the company mission) outlined. This should be with enough time that people can begin to generate or solidify ideas to participate but not so much time that the anticipation loses that creative spark effectiveness (we are looking at 2-3 weeks prior). Let them roll some ideas around on how they want to unleash that creativity and start conversations to merge ideas or refine thoughts.
Define the guidelines for the event such as demonstration of a working demo and create a mechanism to surround this (such as a brief lightning talk or petchakucha with the demo and keep it time boxed). Adding an explanation of the goal coupled with a talk has a side benefit of encouraging people to talk about what they do. Add some competitive spirit to it and keep it fun!
Develop some mechanism to get the ideas into the wild to solicit team work (I am considering use an open marketplace, an idea I am blatantly stealing from the open space technology concept). Make ideas visible and work to generate conversation and buzz.
I am a huge fan of the power of creative teams being able to form around an idea, but don’t make it a requirement. If a sole team member has a great idea to explore, don’t stand in the way. There is no right answer here.
On the day of the ShipIt, make it a grand kick-off. Assemble the teams and make it a big start. Plan to serve breakfast if possible (a few eggs and bacon or fruit and bagels are cheap and is a great way to start the day) and reiterate the guidelines of the event. Then officially kick it off! Make sure that time clocks ticking away the remaining time are visible to all teams so that they can stay focused within the remaining work time.
Once the time elapses, have a closing event. Maybe serve breakfast or lunch to everyone. Invite those that make sense to the closing event (I plan to invite everyone from the division). Have a mechanism for voting for the group. Have some definitive judges. Make sure that you have a way to give bragging rights to the winners but create a memorable event for all involved.
So how do I possibly sell my company on this?
This was an initial struggle for me personally.
“Hey guys I want to provide some creative space for teams to just be creative. There are no guarantees that anything they produce will be directly product related. It’s more akin to R&D for ideas. You guys don’t mind footing the bill for this do you?” Sounds nuts, right?
But let’s think a moment. Are we investing in people here or in products by this? Potentially both. Some ideas may spark innovation in product lines but bigger than this potential, you are giving a creative voice to the people that are the ones creating your product lines. You are telling them, I appreciate and respect what you do, so much so, that I want to create space for you to exercise that creativity in a personal manner. That is a powerful thing to offer to someone. These types of actions can often help your employees feel more connected just by the sheer fact that you are trusting them and recognizing the value of the work they do.
“I trust you and respect what you do and want to see your personal innovative thinking and am willing to invest in what you think about”.
I am very fortunate that my leadership here knows I am a thinker. I am constantly turning ideas over in my head to see how I can make them beneficial. I have far more ideas than I can ever possibly undertake but I do take a few and make them a personal mission for me. This type of event is one of those for me. To ensure that I was not totally “off the rails”, I actually pitched the idea to someone outside of software development (I actually picked our human resources director). Their reaction was not only overwhelmingly supportive, but I was reminded that this was one of the reasons why I was hired here. To think differently.
I am going to launch our first ShipIt day in the new year and if it goes as planned, to make it a recurring part of our culture as a whole. I’ll post some highlights from the event when it occurs to share with you all.
I leave this post thinking about a quote I really enjoy:
“we cannot solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” – Albert Einstein
Be creative, be disruptive, be open to change and think differently.