My group is trying something different as part of our development cycle. Currently we're in the testing phase with our software while also beginning to think and plan about software that we'll write next year.
Typically during the planning phase the task of brainstorming about future efforts is given to a privileged few (e.g. senior architects).
This year we decided to follow the corporate lead and hold our own internal innovation contest within our business unit. While any type of idea could be submitted, we were really looking for very targeted and specific ideas for next year.
Our deadline for ideas was mid-June and voting for ideas was closed out yesterday. From what I've seen so far, a well-run idea contest can be an integral part of the development cycle.
The contest software we used was based on the "open innovation software" known as Idea Torrent. Earlier this year my co-workers in China customized Idea Torrent to make it more consumable inside of EMC (e.g. integrated it with internal single-sign-on servers).
The Idea Torrent framework does all of the things that social-media savvy users expect (tagging, commenting, and searching) as well as a great Digg-like voting mechanism. This allowed our developers to search for tags and search strings that were relevant to their interest, find overlapping ideas, and add comments to the proposals.
Participation spanned three different locations: two in the US (Mass and NC) and St. Petersburg, Russia.
For the two weeks that idea submission was enabled, there was a steady stream of submissions, including the "hockey stick" of ideas that arrived on the last day of the contest. The voting mechanism resulted in several humorous exchanges between developers, especially when it came to the politicking and promoting of ideas as part of the everyday banter of work.
Not suprisingly (to me), participation was highest at our St. Petersburg site. I believe the contest was viewed as a way to propose (and perhaps potentially own or drive) new, exciting work for the future.
Now that the voting has closed there are a variety of conclusions that can be drawn:
- The most popular ideas were the ones that addressed common pain points experienced during development.
- The most common pain points were often "process-based", addressing inefficiencies in the software development experience that were taking too long to complete
- Many of the ideas were development tools that would save time
- Many ideas were "ease-of-use" improvements for the product
- Many ideas re-introduced the projects that were put on the "back burner" during development.
A number of the ideas were so straightforward that we've decided to hire a few interns to try and implement some of them this summer.
Contest Next Steps
Ever create a project plan? Well, the best and/or most promising ideas will be tracked as part of the project plan for our release next year.
What do I like best about this? It forces everyone to "pause" and re-evaluate their way of doing things, and collaborate together on common pain points. This informs the managers that a certain percentage of the work for next year falls into the category of infrastructure and process improvement. This aspect of project planning often takes a back seat to feature and function in the software itself.
The timing of our contest also dovetails quite nicely with EMC's global innovation contest (which is running in parallel but lasts a much longer time). Ideas generated by our developers can be fed into the global contest as well.
The experience has been positive to the point that I would definitely recommend "innovation-by-contest" as an integral part of the software R&D cycle.