by Crunch Tech

The importance of time to think in Software Development

Modern Technology teams operate in a fast-paced environment. With a Technology team of only 35 people, we average over 50 releases per week. We are rightly proud of our software when compared to our competitors that are 3–4 times our size.

To achieve this, our roadmaps are jam-packed with Client feature requests and enhancements. These enable our front-of-house staff to continue providing a personal service, at scale.

When faced with this expectation many technology teams choose to pause technical innovation. Continuing trialed-and-tested ways of working can be perceived as faster and lower risk. We found ourselves on this path. The irony of not having the time to keep up with advances in industry that almost always enable cheaper and quicker delivery wasn’t lost on us.

Our answer to this

We introduced an ‘Innovation Day’. Every team member is encouraged to take one day of the (typically) two-week Sprint to focus on innovation and learning. On ‘Innovation Day’ they are not contributing to the sprint goal.

This may involve investigating a new approach or tool that could benefit our development process, or building a proof-of-concept for a feature the business may not appreciate the latest technology has made possible.

To date, some example output from Innovation Days includes a mobile app, a Client facing ChatBot, significantly improved development efficiency, and an internal ChatOps tool.

It’s worth noting that this time isn’t used to tackle Tech Debt. Our PO’s understanding, and being able to qualify the value in clearing Tech Debt allows it to be ranked in the backlog alongside all other work items, and brought into a sprint.

Is extra governance required?

Responsibility for governing ‘how’ and ‘when’ a team member takes their Innovation day is left to the Product Teams themselves. Considerations include: incident response, Scrum events, campaign launches, and delivery cadence. We don’t ‘police’ how the day is spent from outside the team but do encourage sharing the output in our fortnightly ‘Tech-Talks’ or by writing a ‘Tech-Blog’.

Some developers are happy to take their Innovation day in isolation. Others appreciate guidance from their peers or mentor.

Our most notable output has derived from team members investing their efforts in joint ventures. This has allowed team members to broaden their personal networks, and experience other team cultures and ways of working. It also allows team members to experience a role other than their own in a safe environment i.e. Developer as Scrum Master, Javascript Developer as Java Developer.

Impact on the team

When initially discussing the concept with Stakeholders, it was clear there was some nervousness around diverting 10% of available effort away from the planned roadmap. However, we were confident that giving team members the freedom to innovate and find better ways of working would quickly restore any drop in velocity resulting from reducing the number of work-days in a sprint.

1 year on and this hypothesis seems to be correct. The impact this freedom has had on the team culture and motivation has been significant, and was something we hadn’t fully anticipated. Simply by offering the team more autonomy and the opportunity to work with the latest technology has been one of the most positive outcomes of this process.

In conclusion

The Innovation Day has allowed us to ‘look up’ on a more frequent basis and ensure we work smarter, not harder.

To stakeholders, we’ve found ‘1 day in every 10’ is very palatable when compared to the alternative of having large but infrequent ‘Technical Innovation Projects’ on the roadmap halting delivery for months.

If your situation is similar to ours, then do consider adopting this initiative. We’d love to hear about your experience or alternative approach. Other areas of our business such as Client Services are becoming increasingly savvy towards the benefits that Agile principles bring. We’re excited to see what innovation can be brought to their area too.

Team feedback

“Having regular periods where I can focus on new technology & strengthen specific areas has been invaluable. I find it better than going on the odd course as I can go at my own pace and focus exactly on what I feel is most needed.” — Mark, Front-end developer.

“I love what our technical team has achieved and this is yet another advancement on top of ‘continuous deployment’ with a staggering level of releases. Crunch has always been an entrepreneurial environment where the team contributes their ideas, and the Innovation Day is that perfect freedom to deliver the ultimate ideas — whether they be big or small. The team always knows best”. — Darren, Founder CEO.

Written by Jamie Hollis — Developer, turned Scrum Master, turned Development Manager.

Find out more about the Technology team at Crunch and our current opportunities here.