What is innovation?
Innovation is a rather generic word that can describe many things, and it’s most definitely not only R&D.
We can define innovation as anything that can enhance our projects, processes or understanding of problems, and it can be achieved by an individual, a team or the whole company.
One of the essential attributes of innovations is the generation of responses that, rather than answering or serving the item, provide an increase in the general perception of the problem, as well as providing tools that manage this new level of perception.
More generally innovation drives positive change, force people to question solutions already in place and gives software engineers a chance to solve a problem while feeling supported by the business.
Many big companies made a fortune from their innovation projects, like Google News, Amazon Web Services (started as a small project in a South African office) or the whole digital migration of Netflix.
Problem statement — Assessing Innovation in YNAP
After many years working in the Yoox Net-a-Porter group I felt that innovation wasn’t as supported as before in in many areas, fading year by year.
This is inevitable when a company experiences fast growth, a merger, acquisitions and difficult migration processes, and we had it all.
It suddenly started feeling like all we did was just follow an overgrown backlog and try to meet more difficult deadlines with no time to properly reassess and refactor solutions.
I thought that engineers soon enough would’ve felt like not having control of solutions, quality or being proud and excited of their work.
As many will know, personalising giant 3rd party products like HCL Commerce or Coremedia CMS works, but doesn’t really require much creativity or use of lifechanging cutting edge technologies.
What I really wanted was to make sure engineers were comfortable with their work, their ability to influence solutions and code lifecycle, keep retention stable and increase the growth of talent across our domain of 200+ people.
To assess if we had a problem, I conducted a survey to understand what our status around innovation was, asking if we were still dedicating enough time to it, or if it stopped, and what were the main reasons or implications — here are some of the result gathered.
After checking the results, it was pretty clear that something had to be done, so I studied how other companies were tackling the same issue, interviewed friends working for the giants in the industry and built a framework that would reintroduce and facilitate innovation throughout our eCommerce & Content area.
Defining an Innovation Framework
I had to start by defining what innovation could look like for us, so I combined a few great rules that I found reading other studies about this subject:
- Innovation shouldn’t be executed only for business, but should be directed towards problem-solving and proposing solutions for aspects of everyday demands
- Innovating is not a purely technical or economic mechanism, but it must have a social dimension where all individuals have the possibility to express their creativity, needs, and desires
- It is not always easy to find organisations with appropriate organisational structures that foster innovation, so we should try to promote it
- The implementation of a culture of innovation in an organisation implies a reassessment of products, services and processes, and is the best way to give the organisation greater longevity and adaptability to the constant fluctuations of the market
Then I identified some tools to support the whole process:
After that, the most important part was defining the minimum building blocks of the framework:
- 10% innovation time in every team
Every team in the area to have the chance to invest 10% of their time for innovation, this could mean one Friday every sprint (of 2 weeks).
This time is managed by the DM of the team, collecting ideas, opinions, areas of improvement and allowing people to analyse solutions, create POCs, Spikes or meet with stakeholders.
To avoid roadmaps taking over the whole available time again, this needs to be included in the objectives of managers and software engineers
- Sharing Forum
The sharing forum is a 2h monthly event that I organise asking everyone in our area to present ideas, projects, processes reviews and business cases that come from that 10% innovation time.
This not only rewards engineers with a voice and a stage, but also collects interest, shares solutions and technology to avoid reinventing the wheel in many teams, and allow other teams to use the same generic purpose solution on areas like cost cutting/monitoring, performance, infrastructure and so on…
- Governance Committee
Once many new potential projects are starting up, we need to review these projects and understand both the feasibility and advantage of them. A Governance Committee of five to ten people is introduced, helped by one Subject Matter Expert per team. This acts as a golden gate, guaranteeing governance across our area, technical guidance and a broad architectural review of every new cross-team project
- New Initiatives Demand Forum
Once a project is technically approved by the governance committee, a business case will be created, the Commerce and Content Principal POs will review it, assign a value in terms of savings or earnings and prioritise the initiative in our global company roadmap
Framework Lifecycle and process definition
The four building blocks described before works following this lifecycle:
It all starts with the idea during innovation time within the team where a project follows a deep analysis and even a POC.
It then moves into the sharing stage where people can comment, join the project or just suggest amends.
This is followed by a review phase by the Governance Committee, which passes the solution as feasible and approved, making it easier for the next step.
The New Initiative Forum will then quantify a value for the project and suggest the best time to market and priority.
As a last step, the engineers will be able to work on the innovation project, build it and push it to production.
It all started 6 months ago, when I started the framework by introducing the Commerce & Content Sharing Forum, I’ve since got the 10% innovation time approved within every team of the area and along with very committed colleagues we moved forward through defining the Governance Commitee and finally the New Initiative Forum.
Since then we’ve had amazing results, we had the chance to share and discuss solutions like the use of GraphQL, Kubernetes, Microservices, Elastic Search, new caching techniques, how to reduce tech debt, but also change our team structure, introducing DevOps within delivery teams or introducing automated processes to understand our infrastructure costs and ways to define who is accountable for it.
Many projects moved forwards from a team design phase through to the technical and business approval process, and are now in our global roadmap, where a new dedicated team is making sure they get the resources needed to be delivered on time.
If you feel like talking about innovation is a taboo in your team, area or company, or if the success and the constant expansion of the business swallowed all the time not leaving any space for improvements or reassessment of solutions defined tactically, share this framework internally and try it out.
Innovation starts from a culture change, making sure engineers are satisfied with current solutions and the quality of the products they maintain. Making sure not to be shortsighted and invest solely in quick turnaround tasks, but focus as well on the vision that will guarantee your company a profitable and exciting future.