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Fostering a Culture of Experimentation

Company Culture
Team Processes

11 January, 2021

Sabeen Syed
Sabeen Syed

VP of Engineering at Ockam

Sabeen Syed, Senior Engineering Manager at HashiCorp, talks about how she supports her team to come up with all kinds of ideas and why creating a structure that would encourage these efforts is vital for fostering a culture of experimentation.

Problem

Free-flowing ideas and unrestrained experimentation are the cornerstones of innovations that companies are eager to embrace. As a manager, I should support my team to come up with all kinds of ideas and moreover, support them to work on them. Their ideas could be, indeed, different in kind -- they may help customers or make our own processes faster or more productive.

However, engineering teams are often too busy to work on those ideas. I want to make sure that my team knows that I would carve out time for them to work on those ideas whether they turn out to be successful or not. If they fail, we would take the learnings and move forward.

Actions taken

First off, I needed to create time for people to work on their ideas effectively. When someone comes with an idea, we should decide how much time they could dedicate to it within a sprint. On average, people should dedicate one or two full days within a sprint, but this would differ based on the existing dependencies or how large their project would be. I don’t want them to feel that they have to find some additional time to work on it on top of their regular sprint work.

A prerequisite for any further actions is to create psychological safety and build trust, that is a laborious and lasting endeavor but fundamental and inevitable. The first part of my continual effort to create psychological safety would be to make sure that people on my team understand that it is okay to fail. I would encourage them to dissect further the “failed” idea, deliberate on it, discuss alternatives and see how we can pivot from there. I would be unequivocally clear -- and repetitive, for that matter -- that they would not suffer any consequences for coming up with ideas that would turn out to be futile. However, verbally preparing the ground is always much more facile than acting upon it. For example, recently, we experimented with an idea and the outcome turned out to be not as we planned. I had to make sure that the team understood how important it was that we took great learnings from there, explored other options, and pivoted to a more fruitful direction.

Finally, I had to make the whole process more methodical and create a solid structure that would sustainably support these efforts. If a team member comes up with an idea, we would discuss it and based on the size and perceived effort, decide on the amount of time they should dedicate during the upcoming sprints. Then we would establish monthly check-up points to sync up where we are with the project and if we want to continue, modify or leave it. As we would go through the check-up points, we could decide if and when we want to demo it to the larger team or have a conversation with Product (if that is an idea worth pursuing).

Lessons learned

  • Make sure that your team members know it is okay to fail. Building psychological safety never comes for granted; you will need to be intentional and talk with every individual team member, assuring them that they are free to fail. Your proactivity will create a culture around random acts of experimentations.
  • Setting up regular check-up points will ensure that the idea will be actually materialized. I’ve seen too many great ideas that have been brought up and then the hectic day-to-day work takes over; they get shelved and set aside for better days.
  • Have a candid conversation. Many managers would like to appear nice and would greenlight the ideas that are not likely to succeed. You need to learn to deter people from going for “erroneous” ideas in a respectful manner. You can help them with honest feedback or a proposal on how to modify them.

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