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Pausing for Innovation

Arjita Ghosh

Director of Engineering at Zillow

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Problem

Though notoriously under-resourced, startups are widely considered a hotbed for new ideas. However, their fast pace often makes them lose sight of innovation. Delivering the product is not nearly enough; if your product is not innovative is not competitive.

As a company, we are in a continuous CI/CD pipeline where one delivery is followed by the next, which goes ad infinitum. In that kind of hectic environment, intentional pausing for a week can help instigate innovation and boost productivity.

Actions taken

I decided to introduce week-long, team-wide pausing during which engineers, designers, and PMs from one team would come together and brainstorm. For the first day or two, they should bounce their ideas off and compare them with what the competition would be doing. Then, on the day three and four, people should translate their ideas into concrete projects. This phase should resemble hackathons and would culminate with a demo presentation and a retro of the process on the day five. The whole process would be guided by what the team would need and want to solve, and they would be provided space to explore, try different approaches, and build what they would believe would be the best solution.

During the demo on the day five, a PM or a Product Analyst would assess if a proposed idea would be feasible and if it would have the innovation potential. They would also apply the RICE scoring model calculating reach, impact, confidence, and effort. Only after those results would be studied, the team would start planning a full-fledged project.

I find intentional pausing to be a critical component in this process. It allows your mind to escape day-to-day work and focus on things you are passionate about. If your team takes a collective break and distance themselves from mere delivering, they would be able to identify gaps and potential they went unnoticed in our fast-paced environment. Also, pausing helps us connect our daily work with a broader picture and helps us understand how our daily efforts contribute to it.

For example, one of my team was working on the problem of student onboarding. Though they were exceedingly productive, they were not getting the number of users they were hoping for. We decided to pause for a week, forget what we were doing and explore new ideas within that scope. First, we looked at what the competition was doing, which led us to conclude that we were failing to reach out to our students when they needed us the most -- before starting a semester or before an important exam. The brainstorming helped us crystalize how important it was to reach students at the right time, and we decided to try different push mechanisms that we never tried before.

Lessons learned

  • Pausing helps people change their vantage point and see a bigger picture. It helps them identify opportunities missed in the fast-paced environment of our daily work.
  • Pausing is not only about slowing down. As you slow down, distancing yourself from the daily work, you will be galvanized by new ideas pouring in and will soon experience an adrenaline rush that resembles the one in hackathons. - The time limit only adds to the positive pressure and excitement. When you are trying to build something in a time constraint environment, the process gets hackier than your regular development cycle.
  • Since you do not release into production, you don’t have to follow all quality checks and configurations, and you can move exceptionally fast trying out different new ideas.

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Arjita Ghosh

Director of Engineering at Zillow


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