lightbulb-narrowmarginAtlassian is built on the bright ideas and efforts of our team because we’d grow stagnant as a company if we relied only on the ideas of a select and blessed few. Indeed, our long-term survival depends on our ability to continuously improve through change.

You’ve probably heard the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. For a company, the opposite is true.

It’s insane to think you can keep doing the same thing and expect it to be successful every time.

Jose Morales, our head of business development and Fred Armisen impersonator, spoke to a packed house at the Gartner ITxpo last month about how we build a culture of innovation, and how your company can do it too. You can watch the entire presentation right here, but there are a few points I wanted to expand on.

Jose Morales speaking on innovation culture at Gartner ITxpo in Orlando.

What a culture of innovation is not

Fostering a culture of innovation isn’t about providing ping-pong and free beer. Those things may be a manifestation of culture – our offices feature both, which has it’s roots in our “Play, as a team” value – but without more structure, their impact will be neither meaningful nor long-lived.

And it’s certainly not about top-down pressure to work longer hours in the (misguided) hope that the inspiration for “the next big thing” will somehow arrive if only you’ll just power through past 8pm. Rarely does such inspiration strike bleary-eyed employees who haven’t had a Saturday to themselves in a month. Our best ideas come to us when our minds are relaxed (like when you’re in the shower or out walking your dog) and our bodies are healthy. So at Atlassian, we foster a culture of innovation by giving employees the space to have a life outside the office, explore the world, fall in love, fall out of love, play, stumble, get back up, and, well… just live.

Go beyond 20% time

20% time, first made famous by Google, gives employees permission to work on special projects with 20% of their time. It’s a great source of innovation, and we encourage it. But it’s easy for all your time consumed and be left with 0% to work on that cool idea you have.

One of the first things we did to encourage innovation was to start ShipIt days: 24 hour hack-a-thons where everyone is invited to drop what they’re doing and make something awesome. Ad-hoc teams form, ignoring all the artificial borders drawn by org charts. So not only do we get to pursue whatever wild idea strikes, we get to join up (and bond) with people who we maybe don’t know so well. Mixing it up means we’re exposed to fresh ways of thinking about the problem at hand and have access to a different blend of skills for implementing a solution.

Not all ShipIt projects actually ship in our products. In fact, many projects aren’t technical at all. But no matter. The point is to do something novel that will make life better for our colleagues and/or customers. Some of my personal favorites include:

  • Jira Service Desk (yes, one of our biggest products started as a ShipIt project!)
  • A guide for making our in-product copy sound human and friendly
  • A Halloween-skinned Hipchat
  • Fixing conference room chairs that wouldn’t lean back
  • Converting all our networks to IPv6

Hire people who share your values

At Atlassian we call this the sidewalk test. When we hire someone, it’s not enough to have a great resume and experience. You have to value the same things we do: transparency, customer service, work-life balance, initiative, and fun.

In other words, if passed each other on the sidewalk some sunny Sunday afternoon, we’d actually want to stop and talk with you. Why is this so important? Because if you like the people you work with and value the same things, you’ll spend more time with them and collaborate more.

This doesn’t mean you should just hire a bunch of people that look and sound and think like you. That leads to a homogeneous workforce, which can actually stifle innovation. Hiring for “values fit” leaves plenty of room for hiring people of diverse backgrounds, interests, ages, etc. while ensuring that what you have in common are the things that really matter.

Bring people together

The only thing more powerful than an individual is a team. Bring people together at parties, in chat rooms, on documents, for lunch, snacks, and celebrate the hell out of everything. If you visit Atlassian on a Friday afternoon you’ll see our new hires cruising around on bikes serving drinks and snacks. Why? So they can meet everyone in an informal, easy way.

Ok: maybe free beer has a little something to do with it…

It ties into everything we do. ShipIt is all about getting diverse people working together. So is hiring people we like being around. The more we can bring people together, the better the chance that the conversations we have – whether about work or play – will spark an innovative idea.

Be radically transparent

We’ve all heard of the silo problem: where teams drift off on their own and get out of touch, and out of sync with the rest of the organization. At Atlassian, we combat that by doing just about everything out in the open (though mostly still within the company). Every project starts with a page in Confluence that is accessible to any employee by default. Even the Jira Software instance that we use to track bugs and enhancements in our products is open. As in, open to the public.

When we have all-hands meetings, people submit and vote on questions to raise during Q&A. It’s not surprising that people ask brutally honest questions, but it is refreshing when they’re answered frankly. At a recent company meeting a question was asked, expressing frustration over a parental leave policy that didn’t feel fair. Our exec team’s response was that the questioner was right: what we had in place wasn’t good enough, and a few weeks later launched a new program that made everyone much happier.

Transparency breeds respect. And when you respect the people you work with, it’s easier to be honest with them. Which, in turn, means you’ll give (and receive!) candid feedback that helps you build better products – no drama, no bullshit.

Culture changes – values don’t

As a business grows, it inevitably changes. So does the culture. Not radically, perhaps, and maybe so slowly that you only notice it in retrospect. And that’s ok. A strong set of shared values lets you flex and adapt and roll with the changes – and still have the mental, physical, and emotional bandwith innovating thinking requires.

In my capacity working with the Atlassian Enterprise family of products and services, I get to work with companies that are experiencing explosive growth, or have already grown to tens of thousands of employees. We help them scale Jira, Confluence, and the other tools they rely on to work efficiently. I won’t say that’s easy, necessarily, but it’s child’s play in comparison to scaling culture.

Because culture isn’t just one thing. It’s a lot of things working together. We find that when teams have the autonomy to solve problems and visibility into what’s going on around them, they’re able to come up with some pretty darn innovative ideas.

I hope this peek behind the curtain has given you some innovative ideas you can bring back to your team. And if it has, please share it on your social network of choice so others can start building their own culture of innovation. Thanks for reading!


Inside Atlassian: building a culture of innovation