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Tips for Fostering Innovation in the Workplace

Innovation: The omnipresent buzzword you probably haven’t gone a day in tech without hearing. A theme so instilled in our culture at WillowTree that we dedicate one hour weekly and a full day each quarter for it. So what are you doing to innovate?

Whether innovation efforts are within or outside of the workplace, innovators face several common problems. A lot can get in the way of an innovative effort that eventually causes ideas, concepts, and motivation to dwindle away or die out. It’s easy to feel discouraged or blocked because we feel we don’t have enough time. But is time really the problem? One of my favorite responses to this is a well known viral quote, “You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.”

With that said, time is not the problem. Problems innovators face are staying committed to something as general as “innovating”, exercising proper time management, and enforcing self-discipline and accountability. These problems are what often cause the feeling of being blocked from making meaningful progress. Conceptualizing an innovative idea is only a fraction of the effort. The indirect work it takes to support an ongoing and living innovative effort is what I have found to be the biggest obstacle. So how can one overcome these obstacles?

Here are a few tips I have with keeping the pulse going with innovation (that aren’t preaching about making time and sticking to a schedule).

Work with someone new

A word I like to associate with innovation is “pioneering”. What better way to explore uncharted territory than with someone new? We already gain so much perspective and influence from people with whom we regularly interact. Learning something new is often a natural consequence of working with someone new. There will always be several opportunities to discuss how you are innovating with people you interact with regularly. In fact, you should already be discussing your progress with your peers about what and how you are spending time to innovate. This fact should serve as an incentive to try and work with someone new.

Consider going to an office hours meeting that isn’t directly related to your day-to-day realm of responsibilities. Express your interest to learn more, especially as someone new to a given area of expertise. I was lucky enough to partner up with a fellow developer with a strong backend engineering background, Eric Rochester, for my innovation efforts. You’ll be surprised how many seasoned experts there are that would be stoked to take on a new project or innovative effort with you.

You don’t need to have an idea before innovating

Eric was happy to get on board with meeting regularly – despite the fact that I didn’t really have much of a concept or direction. I didn’t even pitch much of an idea before we agreed to start scheduling innovation hour meetings. I simply expressed that my backend development skills were becoming stale and that I really wanted to work with someone more experienced and current with backend best practices.

My original intention was a vague goal of possibly defining an onboarding path for people curious to learn more about backend development. This rough idea – with virtually no direction – was the perfect “spark” for igniting the fuel for future brainstorming and innovation. Find a good partner (or team) first, and worry about an agenda later.

Incorporate action items that involve learning something completely new to you

One of the biggest takeaways with innovating is broadening our horizons and feeding the desire to learn as much as possible. Once Eric and I started meeting regularly, Eric mentioned a backend effort he had been working on independently. His effort involved integrating data from two different internal tools that we use at WillowTree for allocation tracking and PTO tracking. After discussing this effort of his, we realized that this could be a joint effort where I would be responsible for developing a front end to his backend development.

We decided that a good approach for this would be for me to learn about the microframework, Flask, while also learning Python. Although I do have development experience, both Flask and Python were completely new to me. Because of this, a significant amount of our meeting times were spent learning and onboarding with these new concepts. We managed our time to focus on two areas: peer reviewing his backend code and working together on getting me familiar with Flask and Python. Because timelines are not something that need to be prioritized or enforced with innovative efforts, avoid incorporating hard deadlines and embrace open outlets for learning.

Ask yourself: What drives your accountability and ownership?

Life happens – and it’s okay if a scheduled meeting to innovate falls through when absolutely necessary, but find out what makes accountability feel as obligatory as possible. This is a critical discipline to incorporate for the sake of protecting innovation meetings and using them to the fullest. Action items to support accountability and ownership can either involve common efforts within your team or different independent efforts. Regardless of whether or not these team efforts are joint or independent, accountability and ownership should remain a static and shared result of these conglomerated efforts.

I’m a people person, so I feel the most pressured when my actions result in letting someone else down as opposed to putting off an independent effort. Perhaps it’s easier for you to make the meetings, but find it challenging to preserve flow during this time. Study how you have most effectively worked with others in the past and incorporate those elements during innovation meetings. Maybe working off of one laptop instead of separate computers positively pressures you and your partner/team to stay on track while innovating. Pick a normal meeting spot that promotes flow for everyone in your group innovating with you. How we decide to best enforce accountability might be different for everyone, so be sure to study what works best for you and your fellow innovators to keep a healthy convention of flow.

Stay dynamic and open to change in direction

As stated earlier, our original intent of wanting to define a backend development onboarding path changed to working on a front end + back end application for internal company tools. Don’t become too attached to ideas – even if it means changing goals and starting something over. It’s much more valuable to absorb knowledge with inconsistent direction than to enforce and limit how time must be spent.

Embrace the fact that innovation hour meetings should focus more on the takeaways than some arbitrary goal or deliverable. This is unallocated time where we can let go of deadlines and direction, and entertain our curiosities. There doesn’t have to be a goal for a concrete deliverable with innovation hour meetings. It can be just as valuable spending this time on something as vague as learning more about best practices. Don’t get too wrapped up in the idea of needing to strive for a concrete end result.

Welcome distractions

This is not to be confused with the concept of flow. There can be “healthy” distractions while exercising good healthy team flow. Every day doesn’t have to be a slam dunk with staying on track with current goals – this is your time outside of your project without limits or boundaries. Typically, most healthy distractions should happen organically, but there’s nothing wrong with kicking off an innovation meeting by bringing up something off topic.

A recent example of how Eric and I have welcomed distractions during our innovation hour meetings involved a test project I had to evaluate for someone that had applied for a test engineering position here at WillowTree. This test project involved automating an internal app we use for WillowTree applicants. Coincidentally, this test project application was developed by Eric, so it was the perfect opportunity to welcome an off topic distraction! We spent most of that meeting digging into this internal test project application, and I actually learned a lot about the development that was put into this app.

My takeaway from this meeting was monumental. A consequence of embracing this distraction was the crucial and invaluable knowledge I gained about how this application was written. Something as simple as an irrelevant distraction had the power to positively impact both me and WillowTree at large due to the change in how I will evaluate test projects for future applicants – applicants that WillowTree decides to hire/not hire based on my feedback of the applicant’s work. The butterfly effect at the fullest!

Go Innovate!

When innovating inside or outside of work, don’t let normal project stressors invade this invaluable effort to explore uncharted territory. Value the takeaway of each day over any strong attachments you may have with hard goals or deliverables. Recognize what is important in the now, and embrace any adjustment or changes that may come along the way. Keep an open mind, and share what you learn with others. The only failure that can come from innovating is quitting.

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