Lab Days

“Curiosity.  It keeps us moving forward, exploring, experimenting, opening new doors”

– Walt Disney

When I first was asked to build a new culture surrounding software development for my organization, I knew I had a few guiding principles that I was unwilling to compromise in doing so.

  1. We would create an agile culture focused on building software with self-managed and self-organized teams making working collaboratively and owning the commitments they make (and taking this ownership as a trust between people). We used the scrum framework to allow us to do this.
  2. I would hire the “right people” and in turn trust those people to do amazing things by handling details outside of doing what they do and getting out of their way.
  3. I would consciously ensure that continual learning and experimentation were a core component of how we worked.

This article is centered around this third value of which I think is important to how our teams function.

I outlined our sprint cycle in a previous blog post. In this post, I talked about our use of what we call “Lab Days”. I wanted to explore the topic a bit more in depth, talk about where it came from and why we have included it in our standard development cycle.

So what is Lab Day?

Our lab day is the final day of our 13 day sprint cycle. It is a moment to “take a breath” between sprint iterations and allow for additional self and team focus. The idea of making it a brief pause between iterations was something that some of my most senior developers and I liked the idea of as it makes for a more natural state of transition into the next sprint cycle and allows the team to have a moment to focus on the people, not the product. Plus, I personally feel that if we want to foster innovative thinking, we have to reinvest into allowing this time for creative thought.

Just to put some more shock value into business owners, this is an investment into the people we hire to reinforce the skills the need or more deeply explore the skills they possess. Sometimes it boils down to merely “scratching a creative itch”. What I am alluding to is that the activities for this day are self guided and we trust our shared cultural beliefs and an understanding of this investment to inspire people to use it wisely.

This is a self-guided activity and there is no expectation of some sort of delivery. It is an investment in the people you have hired and an opportunity for them to build upon themselves, collaborate with others on side projects or just briefly explore an idea.

Giving people a day of self-guided learning? That’s crazy!

Is it? Is it really? Backup and take a brief assessment of waste in your company(and let’s be honest as ALL companies have waste). All the perks to make out offices the “hip” are great but it fades unless it has a more intrinsic benefit that “that thing”.

Having a foosball table is something that makes envious of those who do not have it but what does it do for the people you hire? All those pointless meetings or retreats where everyone goes off site but really gain little from the experience? There is always some waste. And this is far from waste. If I am going to make a significant investment in a company, it will be into the people that are delivering the value to the company and fostering lack of fear and encouraging people to explore so that they can help us find new ways to do amazing things. If we accept that people are our greatest commodity and drive our success through value delivery, how can we not invest back into them?

Lack of doing so seems crazy to me!

Lab Day is not unique.

As early as 1948, the company 3M provided exploration time to its engineers. This allowed them to think and experiment to create new and exciting ideas that might be future products. One such product that I am certain you are familiar with came about through a collaboration of two engineers in 1968. It was later branded and sold as “Post-it Notes”.

Google has been known in the past for use of the 20% time (which officially they have abandoned in  favor of a dedicated exploration group looking at “moonshot projects” called Google X). I a not convinced you can totally abandon something  that was part of the cultural fabric and especially when it comes to bright, motivated creative people. I think that the feedback discovered that people, for the most part, were doing “120%” by tacking on these items to their work without any reduction in capacity. I actually cannot say for certain but can understand how this could happen. But during its usage, products like gmail, ad-sense and others came out of this allowance to focus energy to individual endeavors.

Viget, labeled as a group of designers, engineers and strategists, has taken another interesting spin on this idea and formed a shadow faux company called “The Pointless Corporation” in which they house ideas for an innovation lab within Viget itself. Check out their Pointless Corporation Website for an idea of how they approach this.

I truly think it’s pure genius! 😀

So this is how we use what we call “Lab Day” in my organization. It has been woven into the fabric of our process and in support of cultural values we hold for ourselves.

It may not be the thing that you can start in your own company but get creative, talk with others and see what you can do to promote a continuous investment into people to grow, innovate and invest in themselves. Maybe it starts with a hackathon (which is awesome as well, see my post entitled hackIT Code Week. But the main thing above all else is find a way to invest.The investment will come back to you and the investment shows your culture that you respect their growth.