This piece was originally posted on the Engineering at Earnest Blog. Check it out if you want to learn more about our engineering team and what they have learned while building our platform.
By Brad Henrickson, VP of Engineering at Earnest
After months of planning and crafting a special event to include people from across the entire organization, we recently finished up another successful innovation day at Earnest. While Earnievation Day (we playfully call ourselves ‘Earnies’) has its roots in a hackathon, this biannual event is much more than that. Earnievation Day allows us to play with new ideas, new skills, work across teams, and create a sense of speed we don’t have on a daily basis. At the end, there is a showcase and award ceremony to highlight what we can accomplish in just two days.
Why do an innovation day? This is a great question and something I’d like to focus on here. When creating this event we had some key goals, each with their own impact on how we ended up structuring the event.
In smaller organizations, you spend a lot of time working with people from a number of different functions. This cross-functional work gives everyone a better idea of what each team is working on, and brings a variety of backgrounds to each problem. We wanted our event to have broad participation and bring coworkers with different day to day roles together.
To do this we made sure our planning committee had broad representation. We were sensitive to the constraints of the other teams, whether that be closing the books or working around time zones. By making sure we took these and other factors into consideration, we made it easier for everyone to participate. We also wanted to showcase a variety of disciplines as examples of previous projects. There is a natural bias to writing code, so using examples which highlighted marketing, data science, or group performances helped people anchor their ideas away from just product development.
Find New Business Opportunities
The team at Earnest is very passionate about the business we are building and how it impacts our customers. By creating a space where people can explore new ideas without being hemmed in by the current execution of the business, we are able to think more expansively and explore new innovations in our product or even how we conceptualize our business. We didn’t have to create any incentives, just make sure people were free to explore what they are passionate about and give them a platform to present their ideas.
New Space for Ideas
While we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to move our business forward, at Earnest we also believe it is important to create space for people to play with new ideas and see where these projects lead them, without a clear business-oriented goal.
I’ve found that by explicitly allocating time for people to play with ideas, without focusing on outcomes, they reframe their thinking about the work that they do and problem solving. This is one of the core notions that you should be pursuing when putting an innovation day together. Don’t functionalize the event to driving revenue or giving people a break from the day to day. Make sure people can run with their ideas and then get out of the way!
Encourage Risk Taking
One of our awards is “Riskiest Project”. This is to encourage people to take big risks and see where it takes them. Part of creating an innovative culture is accepting that there will be some spectacular blowouts along the way. When these happen, don’t sweep these under the rug. Celebrate and highlight what goes well, as well as where people opted to try something risky. This allows the group to learn, as well as see the human side of trying to do something great.
Sense of Speed
We timebox our innovation event to only two days. This creates an energy and urgency to really move along and get a presentation together in a short time frame. You can’t focus on getting everything perfect, but you can focus on the core idea of what you want to get done. There is an incredible sense of speed that is built from this and it helps to illustrate Parkinson’s law, in that whatever you do will fill the time allotted to it. People surprise themselves with how far they can take a project in just two days and will be able to carry it back to their daily work.
Earnievation day ends up being a great way to reflect our company culture back at us. Seeing a diverse group of people present their ideas in their own way rejuvenates and helps us orient around our community. Many of the ideas that are shared end up becoming a part of how the company moves forward.
With our most recent Earnievation day, we changed how we plan company events, how we provision new machines for engineers, recorded our own between two ferns with our CFO, and so many other things. Your innovation day will have its own magical creations which you can’t really design for. Don’t get in the way of it and celebrate the successes and failures along the way.