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How to Encourage Developers to Innovate

How to Encourage Developers to Innovate

How to Encourage Developers to Innovate

As part of Solutions Review’s Contributed Content Seriesa collection of contributed articles written by our enterprise tech thought leader community—Nishant Patel, the founder and CTO of Contentstack, explains how companies can help their developers find new (and smarter) ways to innovate.

We live in a world of rapid change, which puts enormous pressure on internal tech teams. However, in an increasingly digital world, these teams can do more than keep systems running. Developers, in particular, should drive innovation, helping build creative new customer experiences. McKinsey found that innovation differentiates successful companies from the competition, resulting in 2.4 times more profit. But this can’t happen independently—leaders have a significant role in setting the scene for developers to get creative.

There are two schools of thought about innovation and creativity in general. One is that you can create only when you’re struck by inspiration. That sounds great until you don’t feel inspired (which is most of the time for most of us). The alternative is to practice innovation. Innovation is a muscle. Just as you exercise to get stronger or practice an instrument to learn to play music, you can train to become more innovative. Here’s how I recommend leading your organization in exercising innovation.

Go Back to Your Core.

Telling everyone to think of something new is not really helpful. Instead, start by going back to your company’s core mission. What is it that your company exists to do? What does that mission mean to your customers? Embed those ideas in your team’s processes.

For example, if your core mission is pioneering the industry through technological advancements, find ways to encourage curiosity. Place requirements on outside learning, such as an hourly minimum per year, that everyone must log. You could also set aside some time regularly, maybe during a recurring meeting, for your team members to discuss what is new or exciting in your market.

Then, take that idea and brainstorm what you can do with it. What does that mean for your customers? Can you align your product or service to serve that idea better? Should you do that? To what kind of customer would that appeal? Take a step back, reorient your team, and see how you can better project your mission into the trends of your market.

Bridge the Gap Between Developers and Customers.

The point is to serve customers, right? The best way to do that is to find out what your customers actually want. SaaS developers often work far removed from the customers they ultimately serve, so you must find a way to cross that gulf. The best way for everyone would be to consider talking to your customer-facing teams or the department head yourself every few weeks to find out what customers are saying.

Tech and customer leaders have more in common than you might think; dig into shared challenges and opportunities. Discuss what customers need now and what they’ve mentioned as more wish-list items. You should also invite customers to talk with you and the Chief Customer Officer in an advisory session. Hear everyone’s opinions: fans of the company and those who have expressed discontent with specific features. Whatever you hear, take the top ideas back to your team and use them to guide engineering thinking and priorities.

Build Innovation Into Your Schedule.

You can’t force innovation on everyone, but you can encourage it. Developers are often so busy iterating or fixing bugs that there is little time to probe the unknown and create something new. Show that creativity is a priority by giving them the flexibility to work on creating the new.

Side-project time is not wasted time; you can’t truly anticipate how innovation could disrupt the market. (Where would we be without the Post-It Note, a 3M-sanctioned side project?) Accept minor delays in regular projects to give some time to innovation projects. If you plan well, the short-term inconvenience will be minimal, while the long-term payoff could be tremendous.

We are all facing massive technological changes today. Artificial intelligence (AI) is just the latest one on everyone’s mind, and the time spent on intentional innovation will help futureproof your organization. Some projects, maybe many, will fizzle. But some ideas could be critical to your company’s future success—if you don’t try them, you may never know.

Through this entire process, model the behavior that you want to see in your team. Many will be watching you, and, as leaders, we shouldn’t ask anything of our teams that we aren’t willing to do—or have done before—as well. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Give your teams the tools to exercise the habit of innovation now.

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