4 min read

Failure To Innovate

Failure To Innovate
That...was a much darker movie than I thought it was. All credit to Warner Bros.

Innovation forms a core part of the culture at Atlassian.

Thanks to this culture, I've innovated a few times, participating in ShipIt and spending entire weeks working away at something new and interesting (aka Innovation Weeks).

I've even managed to wring a few blog posts out of the experience.

Unfortunately, the last one of those posts was almost a full year ago.

So clearly something is amiss.

Well Lookie Here

There is a huge amount of value to be had from innovation.

It lets you get well and truly out of your comfort zone, work with unfamiliar and interesting people, try to solve some sort of novel problem, and learn how to to have fun as you miserably fail to do so.

On top of that, there is a small chance that you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams and make something that completely revolutionises the situation. Maybe for you, maybe for the people around you, maybe for the entire business.

I used to be good at making time for innovation at Atlassian.

I'd carve out the time in my calendar religiously and do whatever I needed to do to make the most of the available opportunities. It required a little bit of discipline and forethought, but that was a small price to pay.

The situation for my team was similar.

We'd hype up events ahead of time, brainstorm ideas, form into innovation groups and accomplish all sorts of cool things. Innovation events were something to look forward to.

Then the pressure to deliver made us compromise.

I Knew They'd Get You

We had just enough work to do that taking a breather to do something completely different just felt sub-optimal. When the innovation opportunities rolled around, not many people in the team would participate.

This was despite me saying that people should take the time to innovate and that it was okay if other things fell by the wayside.

Individually, each person weighed the benefits and detriments of spending time on innovation and made the choice that they deemed most appropriate.

I have a lot of respect for both sides.

For the people that compromised, they gave up a thing that was important to them for the greater good of our commitments.

For the people that pushed through, they prioritised putting effort into potentially game-changing ideas in the hopes of elevating the team as a whole.

As their manager though, I failed. Individuals should not have to make the decision about whether or not they participate. Instead, they should just be able to innovate without having to second-guess it.

The good news is that the dark days are over, and people mostly just take innovation time as a given again.

We did a bunch of things to accomplish this improvement, including:

But there is still at least one person who's not spending any time innovating.

With A Handful Of Nothing

It's me. I'm the person not spending any time innovating.

What a twist!

As an Engineering Manager at Atlassian, the amount of stuff that I need to do just continues to grow over time, seemingly without end.

One contributor to this is my own growing competency and knowledge. As I get better and better at handling the domains I'm responsible for, people come to me more for advice and direction. That is highly useful, but it takes time.

The other contributor is that the role that I'm filling has changed significantly since I started, so I just have more things to do. Being responsible for more people will tend to do that.

But the things above are just excuses. Pretty compelling excuses, but still excuses.

I've missed at least three innovation weeks over the last couple of quarters, and at least two ShipIt's and it makes me sad.

I'm setting a bad example for the people I'm responsible for by not participating. Even as I encourage people to see the value of innovation and carve out time for them to do it, I'm not doing the same for myself.

The irritating thing is that it's not like I don't have any ideas.

I have a bunch of ideas; I just can't seem to prioritise them over the day-to-day things that I feel like I need to do in order to be successful in my role.

I don't think anyone is going to change the expectations on me in order to make it easier for me to innovate either. If they did, I don't even know if I'd listen.

I'm irritating like that.

Really, I'm the only person that can solve this problem, and the solution discipline and consistency.

And being willing to compromise on other things.

Which I am very bad at.

Sometimes Nothing Can Be A Real Cool Hand

Writing this blog post is just a thinly veiled mechanism to encourage myself to be more innovative. To make time for it.

The process of writing makes me think about things more deeply than if I just mull them over in the back of my mind. In the process of creating this post, I've already solidified my stance that I just need to do the thing.

No-one is going to fix my problem but me.

Also, even though not many people read the words that I shout into the void, it's enough of a public declaration that I'll feel bad for not following up on it.