We've had dedicated time as a team to explore new interests since the beginning of 2014. And on the whole it has been super beneficial and enjoyable. Almost all of our major breakthroughs as a company started in our R&D time.
At the beginning of 2017, I wrote a post detailing our latest approach to R&D and how we had changed the focus. If you've got a few minutes then read it here.
We'd rebranded our R&D time and called it 'What Can I Do For You' days. This gave us a focus for our time that we described like this:
“2 days per month dedicated to the continuous improvement of our company and our working lives."
The 'What Can I Do For You' day format has now run for roughly 18 months. As well as being a bit of a mouthful, we've realised over the last few months that it's time to change. This will be our fifth change of format in 5 years. That might sound like we're getting it wrong, but it's part of getting it right.
Why we iterate this process
When talking to other companies who don't have R&D time there is often the assumption that it's an easy thing to do. The only downside to it is the cost of lost 'working' hours.
That also leads to the assumption that the only investment is a potential loss of earnings. That, if your finances allow it, you give your staff the time and the rest is easy. If you can’t risk the loss of earnings then you don’t even touch R&D.
What I've found is that although R&D often starts off well, it's hard to keep momentum. Our experience is that even the very best, most driven people are self-organising... up to a point. And then we all need a nudge in some sort of direction.
What I mean is, every time we have re-focussed or reformatted our R&D time, we get a surge in activity and passion. That momentum lasts for a while, but at some point, we all hit a wall. We end up getting stuck for ideas and need a catalyst to get our creativity flowing again.
Our next iteration
Our next iteration takes us back to a core idea of R&D time. The concept of the 'side-project'.
Side projects are a common (and good) practice within development. The idea is that you work on smaller projects that allow you to explore a technology or learn something new. Projects may link to clients projects, but often will be completely different.
The easiest way to justify side projects is to look at some of the companies and products that have started from them. One of the most compelling is UnSplash. Go and read their story here.
There are many, many other companies and products that have been born out of side projects. GitHub, Groupon and GMail to name a few.
Trying out new projects keeps you fresh and ensures you don't get stuck doing the same old thing day after day.
And you never know, one day one of them might materialise into something big. And maybe none of them will, but at least you will have learnt something.
What it looks like for us
We're now rebranding our R&D time as 'BrightSide' days that we will communicate as:
“2 days per month to experiment, gain experience and explore through the use of smaller non-billable or personal projects.”
Oh, and for short we'll call them BS Days - which we find funny.
The time format is the same as we've run with for a while. We will do the first Monday and Tuesday of each month.
We do the first 2 days of a week for 2 reasons:
We all work remotely on a Friday and we want to be together for this.
We haven't gotten into client work yet and so there is less chance of being pulled onto something else.
We start the Monday with our normal bacon sandwich breakfast. While eating we do a retrospective on the last month for the whole company - read more about that here.
After our retrospective, we chat about our side projects and team up if we want to work together on them.
We have a lunch together on Tuesday. It gives us another chance to spend time together and see where everyone is at.
Types of projects
We've ensured that we haven't given too much guidance on our projects or what they should achieve. They can have almost any goal - as long as there is one!
We also aren't going to police our team on what kind of projects are justifiable to do on 'company time'. We trust the ethics of our team and they will get that right.
We're allowing our team to explore and there will be projects that start and get thrown away. Sometimes almost immediately. That's ok, we aren't looking for the next big idea here. (Although it's great if it comes along). We're looking to grow and that means making lots of mistakes.
Hey, we know this isn't the finished article or even the best way to do R&D. For all we know, we're on iteration 5 of version 1!
What we do know is that we will keep changing this process every time that it doesn't feel right.
And that is how we'll keep on growing.