Innovation is a difficult thing.
Many companies desire it, because great ideas come from the most unexpected places. Said companies talk about innovation all the time, they invest in it, make time for it and generally try to foster a culture that generates it.
But its a wily, elusive beast.
To me, innovation requires space. Space to try something different. Space to fail and then space to reflect and learn from that failure.
On an entirely unrelated note, guess what I just did!
The Whole Point Of An Innovation Machine
Its no secret that I work at Atlassian.
I haven't been here very long, but I get the sense that innovation is highly valued, what with all the blog posts. Its more than that though, the company regularly makes space for innovation.
For example, I've participated in two focused activities relating to innovation in the last couple of months:
- A ShipIt
- An Innovation Week
If you're not familiar with the concept of ShipIt (or Hackathons in general), the idea is to take a rough idea and make it real over a 24 hour period, then demonstrate said idea to other people. The goal being to show the value that it provides and maybe get to finish it off for real.
Innovation Weeks are similar, but different.
In their purest form they are a manifestation of 20% time, where people are encouraged to carve out some time to focus on an idea that personally interests them. Unlike ShipIt, they are not company-wide, though they are a common pattern followed by many teams.
In both cases, the thing that you're working on could literally be anything. The only real condition is that it is backed by a hypothesis that it will help the company.
It doesn't even need to be technical, which is great, because I don't even know if I have any technical skills anymore.
But I do have plenty of ideas.
That Is An Astonishingly Good Idea
I had a pretty great video game experience at my last workplace.
Every lunch time, almost without fail, we would play Mario Kart in the common area. It was a very social thing, provided a great break in the middle of the day to rest and recharge and is the origin of a lot of fantastic memories.
It was popular enough that when we moved offices, a critical part of the new office layout was a gaming area, specifically for Mario Kart.
Of course, when the pandemic hit all of that went out the window, because while the barrier to entry for playing Mario Kart in an office is low (a single console and four controllers), once things go remote, everyone needs their own system and the barrier becomes almost insurmountable.
So the gaming died, but the memories remained.
And it was those memories that spurred me to use my innovation week on an idea that I named Social Gaming for Cultural Gainz.
It was simple enough: Find a way to incorporate regular gaming into the culture of a limited subset of Atlassian (my org, Production Engineering). The desired outcome being additional social cohesion in a primarily remote environment which would ideally increase happiness, satisfaction and maybe even productivity.
As far as ideas go, it was non-technical, risky and complicated.
But that's what innovation week is for, trying something new and taking a chance.
I Assured Me This Wasn't Going To Fail
Long story short: I did not accomplish my goal of embedding social gaming into the cultural fabric of a group of 100+ people in a single weeks worth of effort.
Shocking I know.
That's not to say I didn't accomplish anything in a week, because I definitely did. I just didn't get to where I wanted.
Interestingly enough, I think that is actually the root of the problem: I didn't really know what I wanted to accomplish in a week. I knew that I had an idea (games! people! fun times! social cohesion!) but I didn't really have a plan for how to bring that idea to fruition.
At the start of the week it was obvious that I had a proper project on my hands, so I decided that I should treat it appropriately. I expect other people to do good project management, so its only fair that I have the same (or higher) expectations for myself, right?
Turns out its pretty hard to kick something off, especially when you're doing it entirely by yourself. For me, I get serious analysis paralysis when I don't have confidence or clarity in what I'm thinking. Having other people around helps to mitigate that.
So a day or two into the week I rallied a small group of people around the idea.
With people to bounce ideas off, I got a bit further, but was still struggling, so I turned to an internal project management framework to help me get things moving.
Of course, using a brand new framework has a learning curve, so that was more time gone. Though it did help me to generate some artefacts and solidify some of my thoughts.
Finally I realised I needed to know more about what my intended audience thought, so I pushed through my fear of putting the idea out there and sent a survey to the entire org. Honestly, I should really should have done that right at the start, because the feedback was good and spurred me forward.
But then the innovation week ended.
I Won't Condemn The Whole Program
So that was my innovation week: lots of thinking, some planning, a lingering sense of "what did I actually accomplish" and full immersion into the early, uncomfortable phases of a project.
It felt like a failure.
But maybe not, maybe I should learn to stop worrying and love the bombs, because the bombs are where you learn and grow.
I now have a small group of people interested in the idea. I work best with other people in the mix.
I now know more about one of our internal project management frameworks. That will only help me in the future.
I now have more empathy for anyone who is trying to kick something off by themselves. I can help with that if I see someone struggling.
On reflection, bombs are great.