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Nutmeg team standup meeting on FedEx day

Finding time to work on those ‘bottom of the roadmap, but really exciting’ projects can be tricky, if not nearly always impossible. But we all know it’s important to spend time on these things — for our customers, company innovation, and employee morale.

Let me guess: if you work at a tech company, your product roadmap is pretty packed. You have more things to do than time in the day. Those things that aren’t obviously top-of-roadmap struggle to ever get worked on. It’s tough to create space to explore and learn and test new things with so many important things to get done. Individuals have plenty of hunches and ideas for things that would make life at your company better for your customers and employees, but not always the time to work on these.

Here at Nutmeg, learning new things and sharing knowledge is a key part of our culture. Finding time to explore ideas to improve our customers (either directly, or indirectly by improving our efficiencies or even just our work space) is how Nutmeg started in the first place, and underpins our value of ‘customer champion’.

Dedicate time to innovate

You’ve probably heard of 3M’s 15% time programme, or Google’s later 20% time policy. Wouldn’t it be lovely to devote one day a week to working on whatever people wanted? But the reality is you can’t give up 20% of your year’s productivity on speculative ideas.

So, what are some other options?

One of the ones we liked was Atlassian’s: ShipIt days, formerly known as FedEx days. Why FedEx days? Because every employee is given 24 hours to conceive, design, implement and ship something new. It’s not just a hackathon for engineers, it’s open to everyone. You don’t have to be able to code to take part.

We gave it a whirl recently and it was a great success, with 14 cross-business teams tackling diverse projects. These included trialling an Amazon Echo skill, adding a new authentication feature to make customer accounts more secure and thinking about how behavioural economics principles can help investors.

Some teams chose to focus on the Nutmeg work environment, including improving the remote working experience and related efficiencies. One project even involved making the office toilet roll dispensers more ‘user friendly’.

Word cloud of what people thought of the day

Word cloud of what the Nutmeg team thought of FedEx day

Here’s the format we followed, in case you’d like to give it a go.

FedEx day format

  • Planning: we scheduled in a date with plenty of notice, and ensured we had buy-in. We encouraged people to consider what projects/problems they may want to tackle on the day, ideally ones that would make Nutmeg a better place for our customers or us.
  • On our chosen date (which happened to be a Thursday), we kicked off at 2pm with 30 second pitches for projects to allow those interested to form teams. We also went over the schedule for the next 24 hours — mainly when pizza and breakfast was going to be served.
  • Anyone who wanted to take part then spent as much or as little of the next 24 hours working on their chosen project as they needed.
  • Exactly 24 hours later, at 2pm on the Friday, we rang the bell. Each project team did a 3-minute show and tell of what they tackled.
  • Everyone (those who took part as well as those who didn’t) then got to vote for their favourite project. The winner and runners-up were awarded prosecco and chocolates.

Top tips for your FedEx day

We learned a few things that will make it better for next time, and perhaps help you out if you’re thinking of running your own ‘24-hour ship-something-new-a-thon’.

Make space for people to participate
Getting 24 hours for everyone from their day jobs is harder than it seems. You’ll need executive support, and, even better, their participation.

Those in time-critical departments like customer service or operations may need to juggle time around in advance to be sure they can leave the day job behind, without impacting the business. It may be a case of not everyone getting involved in every FedEx day – teams will need to work out how best to take part, while still putting customers first.

Tackle rocks, not boulders
Don’t tackle something too big. A small success that’s completed and shipped during those 24 hours, is better than a large project that, on peering in, was too hard to make real progress on in 24 hours.

In the words of Keith Bohanna from the Bank of Ireland: “Don’t tackle a giant boulder that’s so big that if it topples over it will kill people. Tackle some rocks [or pebbles] instead.”

Think: ship, explore, or prototype
Making production-ready code of anything significant in 24 hours can be hard. Perhaps it’s worth redefining the ‘ship it’ end-goal to ‘ship to QA’. If it’s a code project it’s helpful to be:

  • small enough to be ready to ship to testing
  • an exploration, prototype or proof of concept
  • an opportunity to learn, perhaps trying out a new technology
  • bringing in a technology or tool you know well and love from a previous role.

Failure is good
There’s no stigma attached to failure. If you tried, and you learned, then you’re one step better off than before. As Dan Siroker of Optimizely puts it: “What would you do if the cost of failure was zero?”

Take care of the basics
Keep people well stocked with snacks, pizza, breakfast and ideally something healthy too. Play music. Create an atmosphere and have fun.

Pitch up front
Some people will be bursting with project ideas. Others will be keen to take part and not sure what to work on. To help join these two together, consider having a place to collect project ideas — we used a Google sheet — and having a pitching session, maybe a week before the day itself to help people form teams and get excited about projects.

Have a process to follow up
Not everything will get to 100% finished within 24 hours. Even the code projects that were practically complete will still need quality assurance and you won’t want to release them at 2pm on a Friday after just a few hours’ sleep. But don’t let the good work slip away. Keep up the momentum by figuring out what final steps are needed to get projects live and running in a session the next week.

And whenever possible keep it fun and motivating.

We hope you give it a go!