Fostering innovation despite the daily routines

It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in our daily work and routines, especially if you have a well-established team and product. If your company is growing, so are the expectations of your stakeholders, so you feel fortunate if you’re part of a well-oiled machine and if you have your individual fires under control. But wait. You need to innovate. You want to set your company and your customers up for long term success, and you can’t do that if you’re either complacent or constantly fighting fires. Let’s think about some things you can do to foster innovation without giving up your regular responsibilities.

ShipIt Days

I can’t say enough good things about what we at Hannon Hill call ShipIt Days, more commonly known as FedEx Days. While the logistics of the implementation may vary for each organization, the general idea is that each team member chooses a project to work on for 24 hours, either on their own or in collaboration with others (if it’s someone from another department, consider this a win), to produce a product of some kind. The result could be a new feature, a process improvement, a recommendation for a new tool to use, additional documentation for your users, or a brand-new company initiative. Don’t put any parameters on what your staff can select. Let them run with their ideas. Be sure to provide delicious and nutritious meals. After 24 hours, have each individual or team present their project. Part of the presentation should be to deliver a rollout plan. We actually just had a ShipIt Day last week, and I can honestly say that each project needs to be implemented.

Task Forces

One of the best ways to collaborate with people outside of your department is to join a task force. This could be any initiative that you feel passionate about, such as improving customer service, making the office environment more fun and productive, incentivizing a healthy lifestyle, or optimizing the QA process. Task forces allow your team members to pursue causes that they are passionate about, and they can really get people to think outside their daily routine and make suggestions that can be course-changing.

Team Meetings and Activities

I know, I know. You want to reduce the number of meetings. However, don’t underestimate the power of weekly team gatherings. If possible, have a catered lunch, as eating together is a nice bonding experience. In order to make those meetings more interesting and less monotonous, consider letting different departments take over as hosts. Maybe one day, you can all watch a TED talk together and discuss it afterwards. Another time, ask each team member to talk about their favorite productivity hack.

Team activities outside of regular meetings can also provide new perspectives. For instance, we do community service once a quarter, such as planting trees, or helping at an animal shelter or schools. Even though those activities have nothing to do with our software, giving back to the community refreshes our sense of purpose and gets us out of our own heads.


A change of scenery can invigorate your innovative mindset, and annual retreats are an excellent way to recharge. Be sure to mix fun and strategic activities. For instance, you can start off the day by dividing your team into groups and asking each group to work on a presentation on a specific topic such as “What are the top three challenges for our company and what do you recommend we do to overcome them?”. Once everyone has presented, the fun activities can begin.

Suggestion Box

The good old suggestion box can be an effective way to encourage people to share their ideas. You can also create a virtual box, which can be as simple as a Google spreadsheet. After every month or every quarter, have your team members vote on the best and reward the winner with a gift.

Understood Empowerment

Some of the most innovative ideas are born in an environment in which people know that they are not just allowed but encouraged to try new things. Whenever possible, let your team members spend time on special projects, celebrate change, let (fast) failure be okay, and have ad hoc conversations in which you ask poignant questions and solicit suggestions.  

When it comes to innovation, don’t just think about your product, but also about your processes, your office environment, your policies, and every aspect of your company. When done right, all of it will be reflected in better products and better service.

What about you? How do you encourage innovation while keeping up with your daily tasks?

Better interviews, better hires – Part Two

In last week’s post, I shared some thoughts on the types of questions you can ask during an interview. Always keep in mind that as long as the interview gives both you and the candidate clarity on whether this is a good fit for both parties, the interview was successful, even if it doesn’t result in a hire.

Today, let’s take a look some other factors that are important to focus on during the interview process.

The questions asked by the candidate

You want the interview to flow as naturally as possible, so refrain from continuously peppering your candidate with questions. Even more important than the interviewee’s responses is the types of questions that they ask. This includes the list of topics that they have prepared ahead of time as well as the follow-up questions that demonstrate a candidate’s active listening skills. You can even be intentionally brief in one of your answers in order to see if the candidate is inquisitive enough to dig deeper.

Give your interviewee plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and beware of anyone who does not have anything prepared ahead of time. Sometimes a candidate will refer to their initial phone screening and say that all of his or her questions have already been answered by someone else. This should raise a red flag, because the individual is foregoing an opportunity to check for alignment and consistency and to get to hear your points of view. For example, your HR coordinator may be able to provide great insights into a role and your company culture, but wouldn’t you expect your candidate, at a very minimum, to ask their potential manager about those things as well? How about asking about the person who has been most successful in the role and what could be attributed to their success? What about directly asking the manager “What would separate a good hire from a great hire?” I’d also expect questions that are more specific to your company and that really show that the candidate has done their homework (“I understand that your main verticals are X and Y, but not Z. Is that by design? Why?”).

The demeanor

While body language and demeanor are important things to observe, always consider the type of role for which the person is interviewing, their level of experience, and the simple fact that each person is different. Curb your human propensity for over-interpretation in favor of asking insightful questions. That being said, you certainly want to pay attention to the person’s confidence, their ability to make eye contact and to articulate themselves clearly, and to present themselves in a professional and respectful manner. Does the candidate stand up or remain seated when you or another interviewer walk in the room? Do they throw away their cup or leave it for you to clean up after the interview? Does the candidate pay equal attention to everyone in the room or do they ignore someone altogether? Do they have their phones put away?

The written assessment

Regardless of the particular role for which you’re hiring, I strongly recommend giving each viable candidate a written assessment to complete. Good writing skills are crucial, whether you’re dealing with external stakeholders such as customers, or internally with team members. You may consider giving the candidate a few topics to research that are relevant to the role so that you can assess their ability to solve problems independently, their attention to detail, and their level of interest in the job.

The follow up

Follow-ups, or lack thereof, can be deal breakers. If you don’t receive a follow-up email, phone call, or card, it’s safe to assume that the candidate either isn’t willing to put in the minimal effort required to ensure that they’ll be a serious contender or that he or she is no longer interested in the position. When you do receive a follow-up, look to see if it’s a standard thank you template or whether it reflects that the candidate is not only genuinely interested in working for and with you, but understands the alignment between their goals and the company’s.

The ecosystem

Believe it or not, even if a candidate checks off all the boxes in what you had originally identified in characteristics and competencies of an ideal hire, it still doesn’t mean that you must bring them on board. Carefully assess how the individual would fit into and impact your ecosystem. A GM of a professional sports team doesn’t just indiscriminately put together the best individual players on paper but always strives to build a cohesive team to whose success each member makes unique contributions in order to achieve something that only this particular combination of players can achieve. Apply the same way of thinking in your hiring process.

Observe and coach other interviewers

Finally, use interviews as an opportunity to observe your team members, the interviewers. What types of questions do they ask and why? Do they listen and ask thoughtful follow up questions or do they disrupt the flow of the conversation with erratic topic changes? Do the questions they ask and the answers they provide show that they they understand what’s important for this role and for the company? After each interview, solicit their opinion on both the candidate and the interview itself, and provide your own feedback. Part of becoming better at your craft and at management is to continuously get better at interviews and coaching your team members to hone their interviewing skills

What about you? What are your tips for a successful interviewing process?

The diversity challenge

In my previous post, I mentioned that company culture was not about a specific demographic, but about how each person lives and breathes the company values. Too often, the concept of “culture” is misinterpreted. Sadly, a lot of times, people confuse it with a homogenized environment in different aspects, such as race, gender, alumni, and age. The truth is that diversity can be one of your biggest assets, as it makes your team members more adept in interacting with different people and it allows you to leverage each person’s unique strengths. So what can you do to create a highly functional, diverse team? What can each team member, regardless of their role, do, to harness the benefits of diversity? In this post, let me put special emphasis on age diversity, since this has become somewhat of an elephant in the room.

Have an open mind

A great start to making diversity work for you is to make sure that you as a manager have an open mind and that you also foster not just tolerance but the full embracing of differences. Why not make open mindedness part of your company values and have it displayed front and center in your office? In addition, consider ways in which you can help team members get to know each other better. For instance, at Hannon Hill, we have “hot seats” with the new hires. It’s important for new team members to show their personalities and for existing employees to show their interest in getting to know them. Questions may range from “what’s been the biggest surprise in your first week of working here?” to “what would be the title of your autobiography?”. If you’re a manager, you’ll want to pay attention to who is asking questions and shows curiosity.

Educate yourself

If you’re not willing to learn about people who are different from you, you are hampering your own personal and professional development and your company’s. When I started working with an increasing number of millenials, I made it a priority to read at least one article a day on how to work with them, what motivates them, what scares them, and how to create an environment in which they thrive. I expect my team members to read, watch videos, and listen to audiobooks in order to always get better at their craft and that includes being able to understand, embrace, and ultimately leverage differences. Be sure to make clear to your team members that this is what you expect of them.

Have story sharing sessions

In one of our manager workshops, we went through a very impactful exercise: presenting our timeline. Each person was free to share whatever they felt comfortable with, and the idea was to present a timeline of the highlights and lowlights in their career and, if they so choose, their personal lives, and the lessons they learned from each. You wouldn’t believe how eye-opening it was, and the exercise certainly enhanced our appreciation for our teammates, and our admiration for and empathy with them.

Talk about differences

I understand the good intentions when people say “I don’t see color/gender/age”. But doesn’t that mean that you don’t see each person for the unique individual they are? Wouldn’t it make sense to acknowledge each other’s different backgrounds, personalities, and experiences and talk about them? I recommend fun exercises like personality tests. 16Personalities is a free test that only takes about 10-15 minutes. Discuss the results. Ideally, follow up with another exercise, such as having a small group present a concept (or even a sales pitch) to someone on the team with a specific personality type.

Accommodate preferences when and where it makes sense

Don’t use your background or personality type as an excuse for acting a certain way. Just because you’re an introvert doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stretch yourself and go to networking events. Just because you’re “not a morning person” doesn’t mean that it’s you should not make sales calls early in the morning. Be sure to make this clear to your team. That being said, accommodate your team members’ preferences where it makes sense. For example, if your millenial software engineer prefers a schedule that allows him to take a break for a couple of hours in the middle of the day to pursue his passion and it doesn’t affect other team members or the desired output, consider giving your team member this flexibility. Or if one of your team members wants to take a day off to celebrate a specific holiday, allow it if it doesn’t negatively impact other people’s work.

Focus on strengths

“Oh, those millennials are so entitled! They have no idea about the real world!” The number of times I’ve heard this statement is equal to the number of times I’ve been supremely frustrated with its narrow mindedness. Instead of immediately focusing on stereotypes, which often have a negative tendency, challenge yourself and your team to look at the positives of each characteristic. So when you hear “millenials are entitled”, think about how to find the best trait in this and how to make it work for you. What about “millenials are confident and fearless”? How can you leverage that part of the equation? When you hear “Baby boomers are stuck in their ways”, think “they bring so much discipline and hard work to the table. How can we best leverage that?” You get the picture.

Involve HR

Finally, make sure to have ongoing conversations with HR. Laws, rules, and best practices change all the time, and your human resources pros make it their mission to stay on top of it. Talk to them about your initiatives. Ask them what you can or can’t do. Be open to their feedback.

You would be doing your team members and your company a disservice if you didn’t focus on embracing diversity. Consider this a diversity 101 post and stay tuned for more to come.

What about you? What are you doing to embrace diversity?

Being there – Proactive accessibility as a manager

One of the greatest services that you can do to your team members and your customers is to make a genuine effort to get to know them. The first person I met when my company moved into our new home, the Atlanta Tech Village, was the head of security, who introduced himself as Jewell. He greeted me by my name the next morning. Later, he caught me in the parking lot and wished me good luck on my upcoming 10K. Turned out he knew everybody in the building, which amounted to several hundred people. And while Jewell may not be making this effort because he is managing all those individuals, but simply because he is an amazing human being, his ability to make connections is something that everyone, especially managers, should strive for. When you’re entrusted with the success of a department or a company, you are to a great extent responsible for the welfare of your team members (and of your customers, but that will be a separate post). That’s why it’s essential to find ways to make connections beyond your regular team meetings and one on one check-ins. Here are just a few ideas on how to accomplish that.

Be on the floor

Obviously, there are times when you need to work in a more isolated environment and retreat from the fray. But that doesn’t mean that you have to hide in your office and only be available during meetings. How about sitting out on the floor if you have an open office plan? Or carving out some time to work in a conference room and inviting others to join? Even if you’re an introvert, be sure to make a commitment to your team to stretch yourself, just like you’re expecting them to do things that are outside of their comfort zone.

Be there first

If you are the first one in the office in the mornings (or the last one to leave in the evenings), you create unique opportunities for one on one interactions. At a minimum, people know that this is a good time to talk to you without having to formally schedule a meeting. But interacting with team members when they first get into the office can also give you subtle insights into their routines, moods, and preferences. Even “small talk” can create a bonding experience and open up channels for other types of conversations when the need arises.

Use Slack

When it comes to being there for your remote employees or part-time telecommuters, finding ways to spark and maintain communication can be a bit more challenging. Consider making yourself available on Slack, or similar apps, at least for an hour every day. Note, though, that it’s important to establish some basic protocols in terms of respecting availability as signaled by status notifications.

Host cross-functional lunches

Don’t just eliminate your own silo – break down silos within your company. Cross-functional lunches, in which you take 5-7 employees – make sure that there can be one and only one conversation going on between all participants – from different departments to lunch and facilitate discussions around each person’s responsibilities, ambitions and aspirations, and ideas. During these meetings, be a listener and facilitator first, but don’t be afraid to invite questions either.

Join task forces

There are plenty of other opportunities for you to connect with team members. For instance, you can identify an initiative within your company and invite employees to join a task force if the issue at hand is near and dear to their heart. For example, your task force could revolve around sustainability and how to make your company more environmentally friendly. Or you could create a task force to optimally foster your client community. The bottom line is that it’s an excellent chance to make and facilitate connections while solving problems at the same time. (Don’t forget to celebrate your successes!)

One final note. Being accessible is a great first step, but you can’t expect your team members to be the ones initiating contact with you. Be proactive in your outreach and approach your interactions with each person in way that best addresses their uniqueness.

What about you? How do you create and maintain connections to your team members?

From a hard core advocate of daily stand-ups

If you work in an agile environment, you’re probably used to daily stand-ups. These are quick meetings during which each team member mentions their top accomplishments, their priorities for the day, and any roadblocks that others, especially their leader, have to be aware of. It’s a model that has worked well for many years. Recently, I’ve seen a few posts questioning the value of “yet another meeting”, especially when you have tools like Slack as a means to communicate your priorities in an a-synchronized way. I understand the sentiment. I agree that meeting fatigue is real and needs to be taken seriously. But here are the reasons why I continue to be a hard core advocate for morning stand-ups.

Get fired up for the day

Let’s face it – nobody wants to come into work to a lackluster environment where everyone just strolls in, sits down and slowly eases into their day. This type of atmosphere would be detrimental to anyone in any department, but it can have an extra negative impact on your sales reps. The last thing they need is a low energy setting, as it will affect on their own attitude, and, in return, their performance. Morning stand-ups can be an excellent way to counteract this. Note that you can do variations of the standard procedure. You don’t have to rehash everything you did or everything you already posted in Slack, Yammer, or Jive. For instance, instead of the regular questions, you can change things up like this:

  • What was your biggest win yesterday? (Starting things off on a positive note)
  • What’s your strategy for today? (I found this particularly helpful for sales teams)
  • What do you need help with? (This could be removing roadblocks, requesting a certain type of collateral, or any other type of assistance)

Just like a sports team, your team needs a rally cry. Whether that’s “let’s make some money”, or “migration domination” – get your team fired up for the day!

Structure and discipline

No matter how good your intentions or new year’s resolutions are – without structure and discipline, it’s pretty challenging to not just do your best, but to get better every day. How I wish that everyone considered themselves to be a professional athlete, regardless of their profession. Without a routine, you don’t set baselines, goals, and you don’t hold yourself and your teammates accountable. Use your daily stand-ups to establish a routine, such as jotting down your strategy for the day, and don’t be afraid to talk about what worked, what didn’t, lessons learned, and how each team member will adjust.

Show team spirit

There are some departments that are more suited for asynchronous work than others. For instance, your engineers may be completely fine working from home two times a day. However, your sales rep need to feed off the energy in the office to maximize the impact of their calls. Whether your team works from home or in the office, it is of utmost importance that you get your crew together once a day to show that you guys are pushing for the same goals and pulling for each other. And for a chance to pay respect to your peers and team mates and show that you care about their accomplishments, their goals, and their struggles.

Eye contact for the win

There are nuances in face to face interactions that are simply no detectable as easily through messenger. As a manager, you want to take every opportunity to better understand what’s going on with your team members. Part of it involves involves a quick chat in the mornings about last night’s game, the weather, or plans for the weekend, and part of it is listening to what each person says in the stand up, and how they say it.

Yes, daily stand-ups require discipline. But they are not an inconvenience. They are a commitment – to yourself, your goals, your team, and your company.

What about you? What are your thoughts on daily stand-ups?