Creating a Culture of Innovation In Engineering
In their quarterly roundtable meeting, LA CTO Forum members share practices that have encouraged their teams to generate ideas to improve product, process and outcomes.
Create A Structure
Team members need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and the right structure can ensure that they feel safe and empowered. It’s imperative that you structure your culture of innovation by establishing a group that evaluates ideas, a process for submitting ideas and an incentive to submit ideas. Many organizations establish an Architectural Board, made up of leaders from different areas of the technology organization (engineering, DevOps, QA, SRE, etc.), that provide areas to ideate in and evaluate ideas submitted by team members. The board is responsible for giving feedback to everyone that submits an idea so they understand its value to the organization and the reasons it will or will not be implemented. Constructive feedback should always be given privately while great ideas should be praised publicly.
Identify and Define A Problem
Poor definition or direction is often the root cause of poor ideation, so make sure that you are clearly defining the problem(s) for your teams. You can identify problems by taking quarterly surveys with questions like:
- What are the biggest challenges facing you or your team?
- What keeps you up at night?
- What is one thing you’d do differently and why?
The answers you get back will help you identify areas for exploration. It is important to present your teams with the problem you want them to solve and ask them to develop the solutions. Oftentimes CTOs will simply provide solutions that they want their teams to execute, which can stifle creative thinking. Commander’s Intent is a way to structure the conversation between manager and subordinate that empowers people and keeps them aligned to mission. You want your team to function independently but to a common goal and Commander’s Intent is a way to achieve that. Details on implementing Commander’s Intent were recently presented by one of our Board members, David Subar, and can be found here.
Create Space For Innovation
Contrary to popular idiom that necessity is the mother of invention, innovation is often stifled by necessity. Engineers are going to allocate all their time to executing the tasks they need to complete unless management creates time for them to spend exploring, ideating and innovating. Sending people to conferences and requiring them to give presentations about what they learned and how it can be applied to your business challenges is one way to give people time and space. Another is to simply carve out 10-15% of an engineer's time each month to ideating on a topic or subject. You can allow them to pick their own areas or start by assigning areas for exploration. However you choose to do it, creating time for innovation will encourage staff and demonstrate the value your organization places on it.
Show people their ideas are appreciated through recognition, compensation and action. Publicize good ideas and the people that generated them to the entire company along with recognition from leadership. This provides social esteem for individuals while providing a model for others to follow. Establish bounties for solving critical issues. A little extra money goes a long way in motivating people. Hold internal hackathons quarterly to foster healthy competition. Ask yourself what would motivate you to participate and then ask your team leaders what they think will motivate their staff.
A simple method to kicking off this culture of innovation is by identifying a champion and working with them to develop the first idea. Then make it all their idea and start the process of demonstrating gratitude publicly and implementing the idea immediately. Letting good ideas wither at the end of a roadmap is going to discourage people.
By following these tips you can create a culture of innovation in your organization that will make your employees feel more valued and your business more successful.