Monthly Archives: January 2012

How we do “innovation time”

This article is cross-posted from Blogs From The Geeks, the 7digital development team blog:

Assuming you had consent from up above*, you’d think it’d be a breeze to get an initiative like innovation time off the ground. Surprisingly at 7digital it took us three attempts before we got something to stick and speaking to someone else recently I found they’d had a similar experience. As we’ve had our “innovation time” initiative running successfully for over a year now I think it’s worth sharing how we’ve got it to work.

In our first two attempts we found the main reason it failed was putting too many barriers in the way.  We didn’t think it was right that you could work on production code, you shouldn’t do it on your own, it should be justified and approved by your peers, like a business case. Innovation really hates these kind of things. Ironically we thought having “sensible” rules like this would ensure people didn’t waste their time on things we didn’t think could be classed as innovation, but they were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how innovation occurs.

If you’re even slightly aware of your history regarding invention and discovery you’ll see a large proportion came about by happy accident, mostly when trying to prove something completely different. It’s such a common event it has its own name – serendipity. I strongly believe you’ve got to have a really open mind and shouldn’t have any particular expectations or goals in mind apart from innovation itself.

So for our third attempt we tried to really strip it down. Here’s the rules we agreed:

Conditions of use of innovation time

  • There is no jurisdiction on how you use the time.
  • If you’re working on production code, or any application or tool which supports production code, you must do it properly i.e. follow the development team standards.
  • If you’re working on something unrelated to production code or existing applications you may work in any way you like. However if you wish for whatever you produce to be used in anger it must meet the usual standards (i.e. either write it to expected standards to begin with or rewrite it afterwards).
  • We should put anything suitable in the public sphere e.g. on GitHub and hosted where appropriate.


  • You have 2 days a month you are able to request for innovation time.
  • Innovation time does not accrue – if you don’t take your allocation in a particular month it does not carry over.
  • If someone else does not use their allocation you cannot use it in their place.

Requesting innovation time

  • Request time through as “DevTeam Innovation Time” (we set up a special leave type).
  • It’s to the discretion of your lead developer (or head of development) to approve. (e.g. they may not approve if they consider that the ability for the team to function effectively will be compromised due to too many people being off or we’re really busy with something and need all hands on the pumps).


  • You must create a wiki page with the details of what you did and what you learnt.
  • For each day you take against a particular activity you should have a diary-like entry with the date and who was involved.

Using our leave booking system was a particularly inspired move. It means innovation can be managed just like holiday – it shows up in everyone’s calendars and allows everyone to plan around your absence. It also means we can pull out stats on how much time people have been taking:

Interestingly out of a possible ~456 days in 2011 189 were used, making it “4.74% time”. Another particularly surprising observation was people took less innovation time when they were not feeling motivated about their usual work (we had a very painful database migration in the summer).

It really helps that we’re very team focused at 7digital (pair programming is really good for this) so it’s no great loss when any one person is away for a short time. It also really helps that we try very hard to work at a sustainable pace.

As for what’s been done we’ve had some really interesting and diverse projects. Many of them have simply been around investigating new technologies and ways of doing things rather than new product ideas (but we’ve had some of those too). I think in this respect a lot of the benefits are intangible, but that’s one of the interesting things about innovation – if you tried to measure it you’d kill it stone dead.

*I’ve no intention of going into the justification for initiatives like innovation time here. That would be another, very long article 🙂

The Robber’s Cave experiment

Someone reminded me of the Robber’s Cave experiment last night. It was quite an amusing study with a serious motive of showing how easily opposing in-groups and group hostilities can form. It also showed how having superordinate goals can counteract this phenomenon.

Basically, if you’re finding yourself in the situation (as, lets face it, we often are) of taking sides and forming prejudice about other teams or groups a la Lord of the Flies you’re succumbing to base, instinctive behaviour which was probably quite useful when we hunted in packs, but has little value in modern society.

Next time you find yourself in this situation, think about what superordinate goals you share with the “opposing group”, so that rather than back slapping each other about how amazing your group is and how weak and feeble they are, you can all work together to get what you want.

Lead a session – a great path to self-improvement

As you might know I’m Programme Chair for the SPA Conference. In the past I’ve also done this for XPDay and presented or run sessions at both (and others). I find it a hugely rewarding activity, particularly because it feels like I’m giving back to communities which have helped and inspired me so much in the past. However there are plenty of other reasons why running sessions or presentations at conferences or community events is a good thing:

Free entry
Having a session accepted at SPA means free entry. In some cases like Agile 2012 (submissions close Feb 19th) this also includes travel and hotel expenses.

Use it as an excuse to learn something like a new language or concept
My friend Willem did this at SPA last year – he wanted to learn Puppet so he organised a session about it and went away and learnt it.

Try your ideas out in front of smart people
SPA particularly attracts a wide range of people, most of them very smart and experienced. Running a session around an idea or technology is a great way to exploit their knowledge (people are generally more than happy to do so if it’s an interesting idea).

Improve your self-confidence and communication skills
There’s nothing like standing in front of 15-50 extremely smart people – and being appreciated for doing so – to boost your confidence. Having considered myself deeply inferior to the likes of those who presented at conferences I was tricked into submitting some proposals only to find they all got accepted. Even more amazing was they actually went down really well.

If I see on someone’s CV that they’ve presented sessions at community events they rise up in my estimations greatly and I’m sure that’s the same for pretty much anywhere.

SPA Submissions finish at the end of January. You only need to have the idea formulated now. The conference is in July so you’ve got 6 months to make it sweet. Get it in this by Sunday and you’ll benefit from the feedback process which starts next week.

What are you waiting for?


Productivity = throughput and cycle time

This article is cross posted from the 7digital Blogs From the Geeks:

I see lots of articles and discussions on how you measure the productivity of a development team. Having worked with cycle time and throughput for a few years now I’ve come to the conclusion that when combined these very simple measurements are a highly effective gauge of productivity.

Cycle Time

We measure cycle time as the count of working days between work starting (“in progress”) and completion (“done” or “live”) and is shown below per item over time. The chart below also shows a trend line (going down, nice) and error bars for the standard deviation:

Ideally you want to see the trendline on your cycle time chart going down, but more importantly you don’t want to see it going up. Shorter cycle times suggests we’re delivering value to the organisation quickly and do not have money unnecessarily tied up in inventory (unreleased code). It also means we’re more predictable and able to respond quickly to change.

To be truly useful (and much more difficult to game) cycle time has to measure the time it takes for things to really be done, not some “potentially shippable” nonsense. It’s also very simple to measure – you just need to track when the work starts and when it ends. We say a piece of work starts when it’s taken off the top of the prioritised queue and done when it’s been released to production (and verified). Sometimes we’ve done the analysis and requirements before hand, sometimes we haven’t (I don’t really care to be honest as we never allow more than 5-10 items in our prioritised queue so it’s not like we’re doing loads of unnecessary up front analysis or consider it a huge time drain).


We measure throughput as a count of items completed per month:

Obviously the more work we do (with the same man power) the better (but probably less bugs and more features).

Individually these measurements are useful, but can be misleading if considered in isolation – cycle time going down is great, but if you’re only delivering one piece of work a month it’s not so great. Throughput can go up or down, but could be because you’ve more or less people in your team.

It’s hard to say if productivity can really be measured by just cycle time and throughput and being witness to metrics being gamed in the past (or causing undesirable behaviour) I’m wary of trying to improve them directly. However as a couple of really simple measurements we can track over time they’re a really good guide to support or refute anecdotal evidence as to whether anything we’re doing is having an impact on our ability to deliver. A great example is the two charts above. In around Sept/Oct they show one of our team’s cycle times going down and throughput going up, which was largely a result of changing tack and spending a considerable amount of time improving the build process and removing/fixing flaky tests.

What can you try to increase your team’s throughput and reduce cycle time? What can these measurements tell us about the impact of X happening?

There are of course many other ways to judge the effectiveness of a team and I wouldn’t want to get too caught up with just these ones, but it certainly pleased me greatly to see how the team above’s measurements improved and it certainly corroborated with the mood of the team since they managed to turn things around.

I’m of the mind increasing throughput and reducing cycle time is A Good Thing™. It generally means we’re getting more done, more quickly.