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Aug. 23, 2011, noon

NPR tries something new: A day to let managers step away and developers play

Serendipity Day gives coders and designers the freedom to work on…well, anything they want, if they’re willing to show it off afterward.

Birds flying in formation

“The first version of Gmail was literally written in a day,” said its inventor, Paul Buchheit, in 2009. Of course, Gmail would be developed for five years before Google finally peeled off the Beta sticker.

Whether Buccheit came up with it during Google’s famed “20 percent time” is unclear — the Gmail press release says he did, but Buchheit is said to have dismissed it as “myth.” Nevertheless, Google’s policy is a classic example of a corporate culture that embraces worker autonomy over structure.

Could it work in the news business? NPR is experimenting with something called “Serendipity Day,” wherein everyone on the technology side abandons their day jobs to work on…whatever they want. Bugs that need squashing, scratches that need itching — the ideas that never get to the top of a to-do list. The managers step back, available only if the workers need anything. (I need a designer, I need a room, I need a bagel.) The only rule: In the end, you have to share your work.

“There were no guard rails. Everyone here is really smart, and they’ll find fascinating things to work on,” said Sarah Lumbard, NPR’s senior director of product strategy. “We got everybody together and it was like, Go! The energy level in the room just went through the roof. And the biggest thing we heard from our team is, ‘When are we doing this again?'”

In May, on the first Serendipity Day, 30 employees generated 25 useable ideas, she said. Lumbard calls it super-rapid prototyping: You can only accomplish so much in a day, so no one gets too attached to a project. But it’s just enough time to see the potential of a good idea.

Serendipity Day is actually spread out over three days — and for something labeled as spontaneous, there’s a lot of planning. The staff is given two or three weeks to think about what to build. The ramp-up begins the afternoon before Serendipity Day, and the presentations happen the morning after. That way, all eight hours of the main day are spent building.

Lumbard said the managers had toyed with the idea of adopting Google’s 20 percent time, but they concluded it wouldn’t work for NPR. Google has thousands of employees and extraordinarily deep pockets, which mean it can afford to let employees take a day every week for side projects. Plus, Lumbard says, 20-percent time puts the emphasis on individuality, whereas NPR’s approach values teamwork.

“Pretty much everything we do — this is not surprising for public media — is really done as a team,” Lumbard said.

“That’s where we’ve found the greatest explosion of innovation and creativity, when we bring in the different disciplines together. And we wanted to find a way to create an opportunity where all those people could work together at once. And those groups tend to be working on different rhythms.”

Lumbard said it all started when someone forwarded a fascinating YouTube clip. It’s an animated adaptation of a talk by author Dan Pink on the science of motivation. At the 5:35 mark, Pink mentions Atlassian, an Australian software maker whose quarterly “FedEx Days” challenge workers to deliver something new overnight. (Get it?)

“It turns out that that one day of pure, undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software, a whole array of ideas for new products, that otherwise had never emerged,” Pink says in the talk. He argues that motivation derives from autonomy, mastery, and purpose: the desire to control one’s own destiny, to get better at something, and to serve a greater good. FedEx Day — and Serendipity Day — exemplify all three.

An Atlassian employee reflected in a blog post:

When you compare the results with the goals, every FedEx Day nails it insofar as expanding people’s skills and creativity. Of course, it’s awesome when a FedEx Day project grows beyond concept into something fully fledged, but we’re careful to maintain the spirit of FedEx which is about having fun while learning and team building.

Likewise, as Gmail inventor Buccheit wrote in 2009: “The real value of ‘20%’ is not the time, but rather the ‘license’ it gives to work on things that ‘aren’t important’.”

Lumbard didn’t want to get into too much detail about the best ideas from Serendipity Day, since they’re under development now. She said the team worked on everything from improvements to its CMS to new donation models to an aggregation tool that sifts out irrelevant content when one newsmaker has the same name as another.

The next Serendipity Day is scheduled for September, and she hopes to make it a quarterly event.

Oh, and one more lesson: “You have to feed people! The biggest management tool I’ve recently learned is donuts,” she said. “We also did a retrospective on what worked well from everyone’s perspective and what did we need to improve. And one the things we needed to improve is — we ran out of food.”

POSTED     Aug. 23, 2011, noon
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