Unstructured Time at Sage
Unstructured time is becoming a common way to stimulate innovation and creativity in organizations. Basically you give employees a number of hours each week to work on any project they like. They do need to make a proposal and at the end give a demo of working software. The idea is to work on projects that developers feel are important and are passionate about, but perhaps the business in general doesn’t think is worthwhile, too risky or has as a very low priority. Companies like Google and Intuit have been very successful at implementing this and getting quite good results.
Unstructured Time at Sage
The Sage Construction and Real Estate (CRE) development team at Sage has been using unstructured time for a while now. They have had quite a lot of participation and it has led to products like a time and expense iPhone application. Now we are rolling out unstructured time to other Sage R&D centers including ours, here in Richmond, BC.
At this point we are starting out slowly with 4 hours of unstructured time a sprint (every two weeks). Anyone using this needs to submit a project proposal and then do a demo of working code when they judge it’s advanced enough. The proposals can be pretty much anything vaguely related to business applications.
The goal is for people to work on things they are passionate about. To get a chance to play with new bleeding edge technologies before anyone else. To develop that function, program or feature that they’ve always thought would be great, but the business has always ignored. I’m really looking forward to what the team will come up with.
Crazy Projects at Google
Our unstructured time needs to be used for business applications, but I wonder what unstructured time is like at Google where they seem to come up with things that have nothing to do with search or advertising. Is it Google’s unstructured time that leads to self-driving cars, Google Glasses, military robots, human brain simulations or any of their many green projects. Hopefully these get turned into good things and aren’t just Google trying to create SkyNet for real. Maybe we’ll let our unstructured time go crazy as well?
I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and recently read his novel Anathem. Neal’s novels can be a bit off-putting since they are typically 1000 pages long, but I really enjoy them. One of the themes in Anathem are monasteries occupied by mathematicians that are divided up into groups by how often they report their results to the outside world. The lower order reports every year, next is a group that reports every ten years, then a group that reports every 100 years and finally the highest group that only reports every 1000 years. These groups don’t interact with anyone outside their order except for the week when they report and exchange information/literature with the outside world. This is in contrast to how we operate today where we are driven by “internet time” and have to produce results quickly and ignore anything that can’t be done quickly.
So imagine you could go away for a year to work on a project, or go away for ten years to work on something. Perhaps going away for 100 years or 1000 years might pose some other problems that the monks in the novel had to solve. The point being is to imagine what you could accomplish if you had that long? Would you use different research approaches and methods than we use typically today? Certainly an intriguing prospect contrasting where we currently need to produce something every few months.
So why am I talking about Anathem and unstructured time together? Well one problem we have is how do you get started on big projects with lots of risk? Suppose you know we need to do something, but doing it is hard and time consuming? Every journey has to start with the first step, but sometimes making that first step can be quite difficult. I’ve had the luxury of being able to do unstructured time for some time, because I’m a software architect and not embedded in an agile sprint team. So I see technologies that we need to adopt but they are large and won’t be on Product Manager’s road maps.
So I’ve done simple POC’s in the past like producing a mobile app using Argos. But more recently I embarked on producing a 64-Bit version of Sage 300. This worked out quite well and wasn’t too hard to get going. But then I got ambitious and decided to add Unicode into the mix. This is proving more difficult, but is progressing. The difficulty with these projects is that they involve changing a large amount of the existing code base and estimating how much work they are is very difficult. As I get a Unicode G/L going, it becomes easier to estimate, but I couldn’t have taken the first step on the project without using unstructured time.
Part of the problem is that we expect our Agile teams to accurately estimate their work and then rate them on how well they do this (that they are accountable for their estimates). This has the side effect that they are then very resistant to work on things that are open ended or hard to estimate. Generally for innovation to take hold, the performance management system needs a bit of tweaking to encourage innovation and higher risk tasks, rather than only encouraging meeting commitments and making good estimates.
Now unlike Anathem, I’m not going to get 100 years to do this or even 10 years. But 1 year doesn’t seem so bad.
Now that we are adding unstructured time to our arsenal of innovation initiatives, I have high hopes that we will see all sorts of innovative new products, technologies and services emerge out of the end. Of course we are just starting this process, so it will take a little while for things to get built.