How to Inspire Innovation
16 June, 2021
Senior Engineering Manager at LinkedIn
One of the problems I have seen too often is that engineers would start to lean too much on the requirements PMs deliver to them. Essentially, whatever they are told to build, they would build it. Over time, that turns into an inescapable loop that starts to erode innovation.
With time, engineers start losing their inherent disposition toward innovation. Their default behavior would be to step back, reflect on the problem, question given solutions, and come up with alternative proposals if needed. They should also be able to project their plans far into the future and develop solutions that would save them time and effort later on. Or come up with an entirely different perspective from what PMs have and propose solutions with impactful business applications.
I use hackathons as the main event to drive innovation in my organization. I would have the team work for two days on whatever they want, even if it’s barely related to our work. I would have them go wild and experiment and then share with the team what they had built. To motivate them further, we would organize a panel consisting of three judges -- from our organization and from the outside -- who would vote on the first, second, and third-place winner. Also, the team can vote, and their vote would count as a people’s choice award. A great many things we built over the years came out of hackathons, and at least four of those things ended up in production. Most of those things would never find their place in the requirements delivered by PMs but were nevertheless valuable and successful.
The other thing that helped us immensely was to brainstorm together. Sitting together down as a team would help us bounce some ideas off, contrast different perspectives and challenge each other’s opinions. We would also brainstorm on prospective (or even hypothetical) problems. For example, we would assume that this much traffic or this many people would be onboarded on our platform, and then we would work to solve those problems proactively. Or it could be something we are working closely day in, day out, and a new, innovative solution could make our life easier. Brainstorming has proved to be a pretty effective method to generate new ideas.
We would also set aside some time to do Engineering-driven initiatives. When PMs would be coming with their roadmap, we would ask for 20 percent of the roadmap to be dedicated to stuff Engineering has to do in order to make our system more robust or fix a recurring issue. That would allow us to focus on some of the problems unrestrained by product requirements and be as innovative and creative as we want.
Blocking some time for Engineering-driven initiatives is tightly connected with involving engineers in the planning process in the earliest stages when PMs are still thinking about features. Ideally, PMs would pitch the idea to engineers and ask for their opinion on how it should be built. Engineers have a unique understanding of what things would be easier/ harder to build, which can inspire innovation and have them come up with new ideas that would be easier to build but with similar functionalities.
- Hackathon is all about giving engineers time and space to go wild and experiment. I know some are still skeptical of the idea and think of it as “wasting” two days, but the ROI of hackathons is significant. Ideas that were born in hackathons are worth a detour from regular work.
- When PMs involve engineers early in the process and give them more say in the roadmap planning, they allow engineers to be more innovative. Engineers will be inspired by being part of the team while exchanging opinions with their product counterparts will create a stimulating environment for innovation.
- Brainstorming sessions are truly inspiring. One would start with an idea, and people would be adding to it. A person after person would build on the idea until a contour of a solid proposal would be coming into shape. After a few rounds, we would have a proposal that not a single person could alone come up with.
- Giving engineers ownership over a particular problem is what encourages innovation. When they feel that it is their problem, they are encouraged to come up with an innovative solution.
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