HOW TO IMPLEMENT A CULTURE OF INNOVATION WITH FREE TIME

 In Careers, Blog, Recruitment

As featured in the Forbes Technology Council Blog

At SilverRail, we recently completed our first annual Interchange Sprint, where we provide the product delivery organisation with free time to drive innovation, collaboration and a culture of continuous improvement.  This resulted in a wide array of new ideas spanning from innovative voice and travel applications to explorations with blockchain and distributed caching frameworks. These projects were delivered by 15 self-formed teams that established new relationships, perspectives and shared learning across 4 different continents. Too see more of the great work from our teams, check out the work on SilverRail Labs.

To learn more about the value of free time and how to implement within your own organisation, I have put together a brief overview of our key takeaways and top tips.


Leaders often struggle with an approach to innovation, in part because its meaning can range from creating greenfield new solutions to finding a better approach to solving existing problems. All too often they conclude the need to establish an innovation team, believing that they’ve found a shortcut to what typically amounts to a broken portfolio management process. While there are situations in which these types of teams are effective, they should be approached with awareness that it often leaves the rest of the organisation grappling with the question of what it means to not be on the innovation team.

A better solution is an “innovation is everywhere” approach, which combined with a culture of continuous improvement, builds an environment of empowered teams doing what they do best – solving problems. In contrast to a single innovation team, this approach fosters a highly collaborative, open environment through pre-planned free time, where the entire product delivery organisation self-forms into teams to work on projects of their choosing.  

Executing dedicated free time requires thoughtful planning and buy-in from the entire organisation.

Follow these 7 steps to ensure yours is a success:

  1. Get Executive Buy In

One typical reaction to free time is “what if they pick the wrong things?” Highlight the value of shared learnings, operational efficiency gains, clarity on ideas stuck in the backlog and of course cool new apps.  Connect the dots showing how time for ground-up improvement and exploration is an accelerant for the next generation of value delivery.

  1. Plan

In organisations with aligned sprints, the sprint calendar is the heartbeat of the organisation. Use this to your advantage by picking one or two sprints per year for free time. Dedicated sprints maximise the potential for new relationships, shared learning and new perspectives. Pick dates that fit well within you delivery calendar and avoid major holidays or year end to maximise participation.  

  1. Define the Rules

Devise a simple set of rules to serve as guardrails. “Make the company better” and “No teams of one” are two that help drive the selection of ideas and ensure collaboration.

  1. Establish Stakeholders and Rally Teams

At least two months ahead of your free time sprint send a formal announcement to the organisation with key dates. Provide transparency into key opportunities and challenges facing the organisation by rallying stakeholders from other departments, such as Support, Sales and Operations, and provide them with time to pitch their ideas to help seed potential project teams. Establish a central location for team self-formation and provide ongoing support and encouragement.

  1. Execute the Free Time Sprint

SilverRail Interchange SprintHold an official ceremony to kick off the event. Cancel non-essential recurring meetings. Ask the engineering leadership team to take over front line escalations to provide the teams with uninterrupted time to execute.

  1. Conduct the Sprint Review

Conclude the free time sprint with a special sprint review. Plan time appropriately and focus on demonstrable features to keep your audience engaged. Highly technical projects are best suited for a “science fair” following the sprint demo but can be advertised during the meeting through a brief video.   

  1. Conduct a Retro and Iterate

Follow the event with a formal retrospective or survey. Find out what worked well and what needs improving and incorporate it into planning for the next free time sprint.

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