This blog is part of a series that delivers insights from the monthly meetups of Bugsnag’s Apps + Coffee Connection (ACC) community.
While many companies aspire to create a workplace where employees have both the freedom and time to think outside the box, fostering a culture of innovation can be hard to achieve. The ACC meetup in October honed in on some organizational challenges that throw up barriers to innovative thinking, but participants also shared management strategies to encourage and promote employees’ original ideas.
A common assumption is that innovation exists primarily in billion-dollar ideas that lead to transformation on a large scale. This misconception is hardly surprising since the word “innovation'' is often used in reference to new technologies, products, and services that disrupt industries and fundamentally change how things are done.
However, participants were quick to point out that innovation is not size-dependent. “I don’t think it has to be a wild and crazy new idea. It could be something you’ve experienced outside your environment or a best practice you’ve seen,” one participant stated. “I think of innovation as a new approach that you’re introducing to the environment you’re in.”
For example, innovation is found in solving everyday engineering challenges, especially if outcomes include improved employee morale and more efficient ways of working. These incremental changes are examples of innovation that can have a sizable impact within a defined space.
“You can reimagine boring processes, and that can be very good innovation,” a participant said. “It’s about turning that wheel into a nice shiny wheel again.”
Employees must feel like they have the space in which to explore new ideas, regardless of the outcome. To promote workplace innovation, participants emphasized the importance of letting teams know they can always ask “why?” and question the processes in place.
One participant pinpointed psychological safety and building trust as two key components for success: “Individuals need to feel comfortable bringing ideas forward. If you build that psychological safety into your processes, people will feel they can get support within the company, rather than thinking that perhaps they should go off and start a new company on their own.”
Another way to encourage ideas is to create space for employees to improve the way they work and engage with each other. “How do teams build psychological safety? By giving people autonomy over their work environment and the ability to work between teams on new ideas,” a participant explained.
Of course, promoting innovation means making it inclusive and enjoyable. “If you really want to foster innovation, you have to keep it fun and engaging across the board but yet be responsible enough to make everyone feel involved,” a participant said.
One way to promote original thinking is to provide structured “innovation time” within planned sprints. By prioritizing this type of thinking in the agile process, engineers are more likely to feel like there's a reliable format and regular cadence within which to innovate.
Another idea was to supply a physical or virtual place where people can submit ideas. However, participants were quick to note that the format for submitting ideas is very important. If it’s too informal (such as in a Slack channel where ideas may get buried), it can feel like “faux” psychological safety. If no one responds to an idea, then that contributor’s motivation to share may falter.
One participant put forth the idea that giving employees the complete freedom to create whatever they want isn’t always the best way to approach things. Sometimes employees need guardrails within which to contemplate ideas. “Some of the best creativity comes with some regulations around it. By guiding what creative ideas should be inside of or connected to, you provide an instant connection to why it’s valuable,” the participant said.
This idea extends to assigning problems to an engineering team and encouraging them to build solutions around these issues, rather than just assigning development work. By explaining the importance of the problem and why it needs to be solved, engineers can start to see the value in thinking innovatively. That work may be customer-focused and promote the roadmap, or it can be internally-focused and provide automation for tasks.
“How do we create efficiencies as engineers? How do we build systems and processes that make it easy to maintain and scale?” one participant asked. “You have to give people an area of autonomy and ownership and then some latitude to say, ‘Here’s what I hear we need to do, here’s how I’d propose we approach it, does that work?’”
Finally, one participant questioned the need for broader structures if managers take on the task: “To some degree, it’s on the manager to encourage people to extend, develop, and explore ideas. If you’re encouraging your people in weekly conversations with individuals, do you need the same structure? More likely, you just need a queue or bucket in which to throw ideas in.”
When examining a bunch of innovative ideas provided by employees, how do you determine which ones should be given resources, space, or encouragement? And how do you give feedback to things that aren’t appropriate for right now?
The advice shared by participants: acknowledge every idea, encourage employees to keep submitting them, and provide thoughts on what to consider in order to reframe or iterate on an idea that doesn’t work right now.
“Feedback cycles, agency, and ownership are usually how I think about encouraging innovation and allowing people to improve where they’re at,” a participant explained. Another chimed in: “I think embracing failure is really important for innovation. Not every swing is a hit. If you’re not taking a risk that doesn’t have a component of failure, are you really innovating?”
A big challenge for managers is keeping employees engaged and motivated, especially QA testers whose role involves repetitive work. Because engineering employees don’t often work directly with customers, there can be a disconnect between the daily grind and why it’s important.
“Developers will solve the problem at hand, but they often don’t question the ‘why.’ Once they understand the why, the cognitive cogs start moving faster,” one participant said. “Rather than focusing on what they’re trying to do and making their daily processes better as an engineering team, they have more empathy with the end user.”
Suggestions for building up this empathy include organizing a “day in the life” where engineers and testers spend time on-site with customers to see how solutions are used in practice. This customer-centric approach can help employees appreciate what the user is trying to accomplish, engage employees in the problem, and give more meaning to the everyday work.
“Understanding the importance of the work means seeing what that functionality is used for, understanding the users who depend on it, and finding out how many lives it touches,” a participant explained. “Work can feel very manual if you don’t uncover the story of why your work is important or what impact the software has.”
The topic of the “pain wall” was raised again, which was discussed in the previous ACC. As a reminder, the pain wall is a visual list of developer pains—usually the top five or ten things that the team is struggling with—that is coupled with the full autonomy and dedicated time to work on these items. This concept provides flexibility and doesn’t require management oversight, which gives engineers a sense of control over their destiny as a team.
The question was raised as to whether the pain wall is different from technical debt. And the answer provided was “Yes!” because the pain wall can include anything. Whatever the team decides is preventing them from doing things better should be listed. For example, it can be the desire to change the office chairs or provide better food in the kitchen, or it can be a request for more training days. The pain wall doesn’t need to be limited to technology.
In summary, it’s important to remember that innovation will look different at every company. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and it’s different for every organization and team. You have to keep it fun, and you want to have trust and open collaboration,” a participant explained. “It all feeds into happiness and celebrating successes. And happy employees are more productive than those who are frustrated with their work environment.”
Interested in participating in conversations like this? Join the monthly discussions with the Apps + Coffee Connection community by registering here.