Training and Innovation Days

Published: 29 January 2020

Author: Martin Rowan

It’s easy to say that you "invest in your people" and provide "training and development opportunities". It’s also easy to create an environment where everyone feels overloaded, under pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines so that they feel unable to take advantage of any opportunities that are suggested. It’s hard to make a personal-growth commitment to everyone in the team and stick to it.

Making the investment

At Highlight we try hard to maintain a culture of continuous learning and development. As we shared previously in "Software Engineering: A Learning Curve that Never Straightens" we are building upon our Friday cake-powered “Watch and Learn” sessions by adding monthly Training and Innovation Days. Like the meetings that make up our Agile development process, the Training and Innovation Day is now part of everyone’s regular schedule. It’s a day booked off in the Sprint resource plan with the whole company aware of it to help minimise distractions.

The day was put in place not only to deliver on our promise for continuous individual growth but also to provide an avenue for the engineering team to test ideas and feed suggestions into the product backlog. Without this avenue, the team were becoming a software implementation factory, delivering the ideas generated by others and the business was failing to reap the full benefits of our talented engineering team.

Hackathons have become commonplace within the software industry, ranging from public organised gatherings to internal pizza-fuelled 24-hour events culminating in winners, prizes and recognition. However, most people now agree it's incredibly rare for these events to generate a new innovative and successful idea, such as the Facebook "Like" button, as that's not how innovation typically occurs. Worse, the competition may discourage creativity and innovation from those who feel their efforts won't be recognised.

Hackathons may generate some short-lived excitement, some companies will run or host events as a form of "Innovation Theatre" (Steve Blank). Others will curtail the events when they fail to deliver on their innovation goals, failing to see payback on their investment.

What does lead to innovation is time, freedom to explore and often, people working together from different backgrounds and disciplines.

Setting guidelines

For me, it was necessary to think about how to make our Training and Innovation Days a long-lasting part of the Highlight culture and not an "event". By investing in the team, we'll get more back in return. After all, we don't measure the ROI of the locally roasted, Surrey Hills coffee beans we use for our much-needed coffee, nor the impact from the abundance of fresh fruit in our kitchen. We just know they make a difference. So to make TI Days "stick", we wanted to remove things that would get in the way, and ensure everyone would make the most of that essential thing we can give them - time. To that end we have just two basic guidelines:

  1. No expectations

    When there is an expectation to show something at the end of the day, it encourages a short-term mindset. Expectations mean developers are more likely to explore something simple that will easily succeed in the time available. This restrictive mindset discourages investigating difficult problems that might take longer or might fail to produce something tangible. Besides, a focus on showing something discourages those who would prefer to focus on training.

  2. No direction

    Setting themes or requiring approval to research an idea once again applies unnecessary constraints. We’re open to anyone looking into anything, even if it’s not directly related to what we as a company are doing (it may be relevant in the future). By allowing everyone to choose what they want to research, they'll focus on something they are interested in, which ultimately delivers a better outcome and is more rewarding.

These simple rules provide empowerment and demonstrate trust in the team, which in turn provides long term benefits after this day.

Ahead of the day, people share what they think they may work on, allowing collaboration where there is a shared interest. The day after, we provide a brief update during the morning stand-up and sometimes people set up an open meeting to talk through what they've done, when they feel they have something worthwhile to share.

Reaping the benefits

To date the team have used the time for both training and exploring ideas. Many topics are directly related to the Highlight product, as Andy Strong (Principal Software Engineer) noted: "We found the choice of many developers on the Training and Innovation Day was to address issues in the current product that had not been prioritised high enough to be officially taken into the backlog". Some of the time has been used to tackle problems that had been ruled out as "too difficult" or "it won’t work" in the past. The team can test those assertions, overcome previous objections and solve the problems. Some experimentation has led to immediate benefits, applying newly acquired knowledge to solve a scalability problem we were experiencing with a new feature. Others have led to work items being created in the backlog, but with proof of concept code now available.

There is an eagerness ahead of the next Training and Innovation day, with the team often having multiple competing ideas for what to explore next. They describe the process as "liberating", enabling experimentation without needing to debate all the details. The company has embraced the process, welcoming a new source of ideas and increasing the level of engagement within the team.

Jamie, the newest member of the team, has taken part in two Training and Innovation days so far. "I've enjoyed the Training and Innovation Days, investing my time in learning technologies that will help the company and me in the long term", he says. "I am currently focusing my efforts on learning React. It is great to have the uninterrupted time to concentrate on expanding my skills."

The program has also seen positive feedback from other parts of the organisation, Mia Worthington, Product manager at Highlight, notes "The team seem energised after a Training and Innovation Day. They’ve had the chance to explore a niggling problem and are now more focussed on completing the sprint work."

Continuous improvement

To date, the investigations and ideas generated have been mostly internally focused. The program will continue to evolve as our amazing engineering team gains more knowledge of our customers and the challenges they face. How we increase this will be a future story for this blog.

Planning time for thinking, innovation and self-development is an important part of the Highlight culture and everyone is reaping the rewards.

If you're interested in joining our team, check out the opportunities on our careers page.

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