Employee engagement and innovation


This is a guest post


Why Running Up A $10k Credit Card Bill Isn’t So Dumb

In 2002, two young Australian graduates decided to set up their own software firm. A firm that would compete with some of the big names in enterprise software, companies like Microsoft and IBM. So they made a shrewd financial decision, they borrowed $10,000 on their credit cards and set up a company called Atlassian, after the Greek God Atlas who carried the world on his shoulders.

Had I been around at the time I would have told them not to be so stupid and to go and get a proper job; however 10 years later Atlassian have over 220 staff; offices in Sydney, San Francisco and Amsterdam and a published revenues of $102 million.

Not too shoddy.

There are, no doubt, a host of reasons why Atlassian has been successful: ambition, drive, intellect and luck, but the one that is most often talked about is the way in which they innovate.

The search for innovation

One of Atlassian’s founders, Mike Cannon-Brookes, was worried that the company was become staid and inflexible like its mainstream competitors, Atlassian needed to stay innovative, so he set up an experiment. He threw down a challenge to his employees.

He gave them one day to work on whatever they liked, with whomever they liked, however they liked. To see what they could do.

Mike’s first experimental day was a success. It gave rise to numerous software bug fixes and a couple of new product concepts. Some software engineers worked right through the night to deliver their ideas.

Mike was so impressed he decided to make the sessions a quarterly event and the “FedEx Day” was born. So called as staff members had to ship something overnight.

Is innovation all about connections?

FedEx Days are lorded by many as a classic example if innovation at work, they allow connections to form between people and ideas in new and unconventional ways.

But Mike Cannon-Brookes thinks there is more to it than that. He has another perspective. In an interview in Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” he states that innovation is all about engaged employees. The way to engage people is to reward them, but not with money, with autonomy.

“We’ve always taken the position that money is only something you can lose on. If you don’t pay enough you can lose people, but beyond that, money is not a motivator. What matters are those other features.”

The other features are all to do with autonomy. FedEx days give Atlassian employees autonomy over whom they work with, what they work on and how they do it.

FedEx days didn’t last

Ultimately Atlassian moved away from quarterly events. They weren’t working.

Now all their engineers get a day a week to work on whatever they want. A day a quarter didn’t give the projects the momentum they needed.

Is that a risky investment of time and resource in unproductive time? Maybe, but then, to quote an Atlassian Engineer:

“I’m not going to ****ing do anything like read newsfeeds or do Facebook.”

All of which begs a simple question:

How much autonomy do you give your employees?

This is a guest post by James Lawther who writes about Employee Engagement, Process Improvement and whatever else takes his fancy at www.squawkpoint.com. You can also connect with on Twitter @squawkpoint

Thanks to agilegames for the image.

11 comments On Employee engagement and innovation

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  • Hello James

    There is no science of innovation – at least I have yet to come across it. When I speak ‘science’ I speak science as in the ‘laws of physics’ – which I studied at university.

    There is stuff that shows up in the world that we find attractive and we label it as ‘innovation’. What is the process that leads to it? From what I have learned it involves a set of ingredients: a curious person, free time to tinker, tinkering, involvement with other people – to and fro to discuss stuff related to the tinkering, more tinkering, persistence over the years despite no agreement from others who tell you that you are wasting your time, more learning, more tinkering and voila – success that is labelled as ‘innovation’ or failure in which case it leaves no footmarks in the sands of time/history.


    • Maz,

      It is interesting that you say there is no science, but there ingredients.

      I suppose that makes it like cooking, there are lots of ways to get it right, but you can also get it spectacularly wrong.

      Thanks for your thoughts


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  • That is not such a crazy company after all. Indeed money is not the only motivator in the company; if you want to know what drive or doesn’t drive employees in your company, start measuring.

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