Long development and testing cycles in the run-up to feature releases can make it difficult for software engineers to maintain focus and creativity. Introducing an “innovation week” to your workflow can revive busy engineering teams while producing valuable solutions for new and existing products.
The list of upcoming features to build can often feel never-ending when working on a software team.
As engineers, we know the dangers of coding for extended periods or rushing too quickly into solutions. Both situations can lead to burnout, tunnel vision, and an overall lack of clarity on the positioning of your work in relation to your company’s roadmap.
It’s why we held our first Innovation Week back in 2020. We felt it would provide a valuable pause for engineers between long feature release cycles.
The benefits of Innovation Week
Disrupting our usual sprint cycles with Innovation Week gives our engineers the space to explore ideas, concepts, and technologies that they usually wouldn’t have the time to research while providing a much-needed break from intense focus work.
The findings from these week-long creative sessions are potentially integrated into our products if we feel they’re strong enough to implement
We try to keep the technologies we explore loosely related to our work here at VisibleThread, but there is a lot of creative freedom to tackle complex issues in more detail and to have fun learning something new.
Engineers can bring new solutions to product development, infrastructure, or some of the computer science issues we tackle, like natural language processing, big data processing, or optical character recognition.
The findings from these week-long creative sessions are potentially integrated into our products if we feel they’re strong enough to implement. (We don’t plan on developing a VisibleThread blockchain anytime soon!)
To understand the value of Innovation Week, let’s look at how we usually work on VisibleThread’s Engineering team.
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How we work at VisibleThread
We follow the “Scrum” methodology, and complete work in two-week sprints in an agile environment. For each sprint, we divide our roadmap into functional requirements that become epics or stories in our backlog:
- Epics are more significant features that are then broken into smaller steps (stories)
- Stories are the smaller steps or requirements written from the perspective of our users
We prioritize these epics and stories during our backlog review and sprint planning sessions. Each two-week cycle has deliverable stories or tasks released on completion at the end of the sprint.
An agile retrospective is held at the end of each sprint to review any learnings or blockers and optimize workflows for the following sprint. Over time, this ensures less friction in our development cycle.
How we run our Innovation Week
As I’ve mentioned, Innovation Week provides a break in our usual development cycle to ensure we don’t get too stuck in our ways and to help our engineers recuperate after a busy period.
A week before Innovation Week begins:
- Our VP of Engineering, Eoin Wren, sends an email to let the team know it’s time to brainstorm and to add suggestions to our shared ideas board on Confluence (our collaboration tool).
- Engineers share as many ideas as they want with the group and add additional suggestions for others to take to the board. This is a great way to ensure everyone has a good choice of options for the week and encourages collaboration and creativity.
We kick off the week with a meeting to review our ideas board and ensure everyone has an idea to explore. After this, engineers decide on the deliverables they can realistically produce in a week.
A prototype, a lecture, a workshop, or even a simple PowerPoint are all valid deliverables to present at the end of the week. To help engineers get started, we suggest identifying two or three well-defined questions that they want their work to answer. This helps them scale down the scope of their projects to fit the timeframe.
After three days of research, we meet to present our findings and deliverables to each other. Some of the projects we produced during our last Innovation Week were:
- Researching Storybook to use as a tool for documenting React components
- Using WebSocket for real-time suggestions in VT Writer
- Analyzing event-driven architecture with Apache Kafka to understand the requirements to shift from a monolith to microservices for report generation
If any ideas are considered viable and in line with our company objectives, we put them into development. Last year’s Innovation Week produced the low-level proof of concept for our Word Add-In for VT Writer. This has been developed into a full product feature, which we will deliver later this year. This demonstrates the clear value that lies in creating a pause for our Engineering team.
Failure to implement an idea is a welcome option as it is always valuable to find out what technologies won’t work with our current tech stack in a controlled environment
But it’s not all success stories! Sometimes our engineers discover that they can’t implement their idea. We document the pros and cons of their findings and any questions that arose during the presentation in Confluence.
Failure to implement an idea is a welcome option as it is always valuable to find out what technologies won’t work with our current tech stack in a controlled environment.
Creating a culture of innovation at VisibleThread
The learnings from Innovation Week allow us to reflect on the path we are taking in Engineering and help us make more informed decisions about the future.
We’ve seen the value of pausing between busy development cycles. It allows engineers to do deep work on more complex ideas that they usually wouldn’t have time to tackle.
Innovation weeks provide a collaborative and safe environment to test new ideas without impacting your day-to-day operations
Alongside this, one of the most important aspects of holding our Innovation Week is that it provides an essential element for creativity–the freedom to fail.
Without this, people remain risk-averse, which blocks experimentation and can cause your team to stagnate. Innovation weeks provide a collaborative and safe environment to test new ideas without impacting your day-to-day operations.
They empower our engineers to think outside the box with a fresh mindset to produce bigger and better ideas that positively impact the whole business. Overall, we believe they are a brilliant way to keep our engineers invigorated, creative, and focused on excellence.
Want to join the VisibleThread team? Check out our latest open roles for more details or to apply.