Fostering Creativity In Engineering

I recently co-hosted a webinar about the intersection of creativity and tech with creativity strategist Natalie Nixon. While “creativity” is not a word used often when describing R&D organizations, “innovation” is. Deciding to put aside semantics and focus on the actual value, I will use creativity, innovation, and novelty interchangeably in this context.

When companies are very small—literally as they are starting-up—innovation abounds. Team members of all disciplines regularly come up with ideas that involve ideas that span across the company and not just their craft. There’s a constant need to keep trying things out and tweaking. Virtually, everyone understands that the team is experimenting. I have witnessed this with dozens of startups in my work as a consultant, and it is always an exciting time.

However, it is apparent that with every additional organizational layer, people tend to paint themselves into particular boxes. Their ideas no longer encompass the entire context. They stop tweaking and focus on execution—even if the company has yet to reach its product/market fit and still requires constant innovation. And, obviously, there’s a point at which a company can just stop improving itself.

I wholeheartedly believe fostering innovation and novelty is a way to induce self-actualization in teams and create world-class engineering organizations. Here are some of the principles I advise clients about to maintain and increase their creative output.

Incorporating Play

A big part of being able to innovate relies on having an awareness of what actions and options are available to you. In R&D, that usually means knowing all sorts of nooks and crannies of our tools and keeping abreast of new advances in technology. I typically call this Tool Mastery, and for someone to possess it, she does not need to remember by heart all the different configuration options available. She does need to have knowledge of the possibilities. You should be hearing things along the lines of “I recall that they made changes that allow treating these things differently a year ago let’s check the changelog.”

One rarely gets such deep Tool Mastery from executing on tasks. Those certainly help, but we tend to default to using tools and options we are already familiar with. Instead, creativity happens when regularly take new paths. Play with the features introduced in the new version, even if you’re not sure you need them. Take the time to try out a new tool once in a while.

Tinkering is when we learn best—and this isn’t just me saying, there’s a bunch of research on the subject. That’s why hosting meetups, having mini-hackathon afternoons, and so on are all greatly valuable in the long term.

Creating Safety

For your people to play, tinker, and suggest new ideas, there has to be a culture of safety to try new things and for it to be ok to fail. In a recent podcast episode, I talked about making it safe to fail spectacularly. The gist of it is that you have to make taking the initiative and trying things that might not succeed a welcome activity.

Taking well-considered risks is how we progress. No one should be regularly betting the company on a new tech stack that’s used by two people on GitHub—but occasionally taking an extra day to try out a new way of doing things? Sure.

So reward the right things—not just when a creative effort works, but also when it fails, but it was an effort worth trying. Celebrate this year’s craziest idea.

Binding Business and Engineering

Only having Tech Mastery is not enough, as it might drive you people to use tech for tech’s sake. We are after business results, and not just stars on GitHub or upvotes on Hacker News. For that, your team has to regain that broad perspective of how the business operates, that context that quickly gets lost as the team grows.

Cultivating such Product Mastery takes time and is something that the organization has to update constantly. The initial steps I recommend include:

  • Coders without borders: break down silos and do not accept pointing fingers at different teams. Partnership with every stakeholder and team working alongside you is essential.
  • Customer friction: have your people shadow Customer Support once a quarter. Let them watch user interviews. Have Sales discuss how the sausage is made.
  • Transparency and direction: You and the rest of the executives should provide the team with clear and understandable focus and direction. They should not just be aware of the roadmap but also of the context, how it translates to your overall strategy, and why something is important.

Equipped with Product Mastery, your team will understand the underlying needs of your customers and will naturally come up with ways to improve things for them. As a CTO recently told me, “since we had engineers added to the customer support rotation, they’ve been coming up with so many new ideas and no longer resent being approached.”

The Trade-Off

I will conclude by addressing the Pygmy elephant in the room. Of course, you cannot let your team play all day, make them feel so safe to fail they never meet a deadline, and have hackathons weekly.

You have to strike a balance, and that is hard, but no one said leadership was easy. However, in my experience advising executives, it is clear that most err on the side of no space for creativity or way too much space without the above measures to provide it with direction. Keep all the practices above in mind, and you will reach the equilibrium much more easily.