7 Building Blocks for an Engineering Culture of Continuous Innovation
Innovation and execution go hand in hand at successful companies. That’s why every one of our engineering teams does both.
When I say innovation, I don’t just mean inventing new products and services. I mean impressing upon our engineers to imagine how current products could be improved.
What can we do to make the customer experience better? Are there new technology capabilities that make our products and solutions better?
Our commitment to continuous innovation at VMware includes looking at every aspect of a product — and I’m proud that even our most senior engineers code. They dig into pieces of our software to make it better, whether that means running it faster or looking for the next big idea.
I think every engineer realises there’s a lot of hard work required to translate an idea from a concept. When it comes to engineering, I agree with Thomas Alva Edison that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
In my experience, building an engineering culture of continuous innovation stems from seven core fundamentals.
1. Instill a Customer-Focused Mindset
Solving customer problems must be at the core of engineering, but “light-bulb moments” are only the beginning. Serving customers also includes everything that comes after that initial idea.
In most organisations, a big customer problem requires all hands on deck. Of course, it takes prioritisation and a coordinated effort to resolve the incident, fix the defect or whatever the issue is. That’s an obvious customer-focused mindset.
A harder part of instilling a customer-focused mindset is establishing a culture where engineers balance their time between coming up with the next brilliant idea and supporting a product that is already in production. This broad view of innovation is necessary to offer the best customer experience over the long haul, but it isn’t always easy to keep teams thinking of the full lifecycle of a product. And that leads to a second fundamental concept.
2. Communicate Not Just How, But Why — And Overdo It
I know very few people who like to be told what to do. That’s why we focus our engineering communications on the rationale behind changes. Why are we doing this project? Why is it a priority? Why are our customers telling us they need these changes? Why do we need this timeline for delivery?
Sound, transparent logic leads to greater team buy-in, because our people are smart and capable. There’s trust in a culture of innovation. Communicating the end goal allows team members to come up with more creative and effective solutions.
Goals for communicating are:
- Achieve clarity on what we’re doing and why it’s important.
- Ensure each person recognises their role in the greater vision.
- Help each contributor understand what they need to do to accomplish their part.
And there is no such thing as overcommunication.
3. Establish Execution Requirements
Ideas and inspiration are great, but without execution, they won’t have any impact.
Let me share an example here. After we realised we’d have to deliver products and services at a much faster cadence, we had to prepare our teams to undergo a massive transition.
We used to deliver VMware vSphere every 18 months or so. Now, we’re delivering updates to the entire software-defined data centre (SDDC) stack every three months as a cloud service.
Our execution had to be flawless, and it took a lot of hard work to pull things together. It required dedicated leadership from the top down to support that kind of monumental cultural shift while still innovating and executing every step of the way.
We continued to communicate that customer expectations for faster service delivery were the key driver for change as we our updated processes. These included the need to be able to immediately fix problems when something did go wrong, versus waiting until the next major release. As a result, we have greater agility. That’s been a big change driven through our organisation.
4. Balance the Portfolio with Individual Projects
I think every engineer on every team should work on a combination of next-generation ideas and existing products. It’s a good balance of future innovation, incremental innovation and execution.
It is rare for us to have a group only working on new ideas. Why? Because the minute they release a product, that group would need to work not only on innovation but also execution.
5. Structure Innovation Programs
We established a variety of innovation programs where our engineers experience and share new ideas. We host periodic TechTalks, year-round hack-a-thons, RADIO (our annual R&D Innovation Offsite) and other similar events.
We also regularly reward members of the engineering organisation who accomplish something difficult and beyond their normal duties. It could be a process improvement or a customer solution. These recognitions are less about new ideas and more about engineers going above and beyond for the business.
6. Nurture the Culture You Build
New talent should fit your culture. Engineers come to VMware (and usually stay a long time) after learning what we’ve done and what we’re doing now, guided by our EPIC2 values:
- Execution, with a passion for our jobs.
- The integrity with which we do our work.
- Our focus on the customer and the community.
We have a track record of success and happy, tenured engineers who appreciate the autonomy they have to solve challenging and intellectually stimulating problems for our customers. Once engineers join our team, they become part of our continuous innovation effort.
Technology companies (which every company now is) can never be static. We must constantly be on the ball, continuing to innovate across everything we do. It’s critical to create a workplace environment where people feel like this is a great place to work. That’s what we have here.
Most companies have innovators. Fewer have cultures of innovation. I think it’s one of the attributes that continues to make VMware a trusted customer advisor and a great place to work.
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7. Establish a Culture of No Fear
One of the key principles of Edward Deming’s 14 points for management is driving the fear out. Psychological safety at work is a critical element to drive openness, authenticity and creativity. These are crucial components to stimulate creative and innovative thinking.
At VMware, we perform widely inclusive post-mortems for incidents and customer-reported issues. Also, code reviews are a key part of our engineers’ daily routine. All such activities require open conversation and accepting responsibility. This is only possible when you provide a respectful workplace with psychological safety.
We eliminate the notion of “history repeats itself” by learning from all the failures across VMware.
This article is the latest in the Leadership Voices series, sharing powerful perspectives from leaders driving change and transforming culture in their businesses.