At a time of economic uncertainty, tech companies may pump the brakes on experimentation and the conditions needed to achieve it in favor of cutting costs and maintaining the status quo. While this is an understandable gut reaction to threats of a softening economy, it’s also a missed opportunity. A commitment to innovation can actually inoculate brands against the wiles of an erratic market while keeping employees engaged and energized.

4 Tips for Maintaining an Innovation-First Tech Team

  1. Embrace a team-led model.
  2. Put process into practice.
  3. Adopt company-wide policies that support innovation.
  4. Think long term.

How so? Well, innovation is necessary to provide the most value to users, responding to their latest pain points and staying ahead of the competition. Not only does user-first innovation set a company up to successfully maintain and grow market share, but it creates an environment where your engineers can thrive — helping you attract and retain great talent. 

Here are a few suggestions for engineering leaders aiming to foster a culture of innovation in their teams and advocate for it company-wide.  


Embrace a Team-Led Model  

To set teams up to be their most innovative, leaders must build an environment that cultivates trust, allows for autonomy and promotes balance. Without this foundation, engineers and cross-functional partners won’t have the space and reassurance they need for bold risk-taking, the lifeblood of innovation.

Taking a team-led approach to processes will help you achieve this state. This framework turns the idea of managers setting standardized processes on its head. Instead, processes are determined by what the team needs to succeed for a specific project rather than a manager’s personal preference. A one-size-fits-all approach stifles innovation, often leading to unnecessary meetings, arbitrary steps and missed opportunities for improvement.

The role of a manager is to help determine a goal and guide the team. A team-led process recognizes that your engineers are the best ones to identify the path to get there. Your team’s ability to innovate relies heavily on being in a state of optimal challenge but not burning out. With the team-led approach, your employees can find and maintain this balance for themselves. While it can be challenging to give up a certain level of control, I’ve found that this approach at Grammarly provides the mindshare engineers need to be their most innovative and productive.

While leaving project processes in the hands of the team, managers should not overlook the basic tactic of one-on-one meetings. These dedicated moments for mutual feedback and relationship-strengthening build the foundation of an organization that is comfortable with operating as a team and taking risks. One-on-one meetings benefit not just manager–employee relationships but also peer and cross-functional relationships.

When engineering leaders regularly meet with product managers, designers and other partners, they set an example of collaboration within and across the organization. These meetings are also an opportunity for leaders to understand what motivates and demotivates their teams and colleagues to ensure maximum engagement.

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Put Process Into Practice

With a team-led process in place, engineering leaders can further facilitate a commitment to constant innovation by making sure team goals are ambitious enough to push people but reasonable enough to feel realistic. They can do this by evaluating the anticipated impact of projects, stack ranking them accordingly and assigning the necessary staffing and prioritization. 

Here’s an example of a real-life situation when the engineering team at Grammarly put all these methods to the test:

  • An engineer identified a gap in access to our services and suggested to their manager that we build a desktop product to meet that need.
  • We conducted a risk/opportunities assessment and found a high anticipated impact of such a project. So, we stack ranked this as a top priority and shifted all engineer focus to the desktop application.
  • Leads were assigned to meet each goal and develop a team-led process to own execution. 
  • A cross-functional team tracked goals weekly to develop blockers, motivate the team and provide a feedback loop without infringing on autonomy.
  • Executives met monthly to resolve company-wide blockers.

The power of 1:1 connection and team-led processes allowed us to ship Grammarly for Windows and Mac on time in November 2021. 


Adopt Company-Wide Policies That Support Innovation

Once your engineering organization is operating at peak innovation levels, engineering leaders and team members can encourage these innovative practices and policies within their organizations—and look for them when considering new job opportunities. 

  • Keep hiring: To stay ahead of the curve, companies must commit to hiring to solve the problems you haven’t even started thinking about yet. At Grammarly, we opened a hub in Berlin, which has helped us tap into a wider talent pool.
  • Be flexible: Hiring outside geographies where you have offices allows companies to tap into the best talent. A more distributed workforce brings fresh perspectives, better reflects user bases and helps mitigate geographic and other biases in a product. 
  • Prioritize in-person time: The cost of flights, hotels, meals and other expenses for in-office time may seem like the easiest thing to cut from the spend sheet, but collaboration is a critical aspect of innovation that fosters trust and creativity. 

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Think Long Term 

The short-term reflex of scrimping on moments promoting ingenuity will follow companies back to a bull market as a long-term loss, hindering the product and talent development that brands need to survive. Companies must keep innovation at the center of their engineering approach regardless of the S&P to tackle the user challenges that lie ahead across industries and use cases. 

Ultimately, a SaaS organization’s growth and success are tied directly to its ability to create a culture that promotes innovation. It’s up to engineering managers to champion this with the right frameworks for day-to-day work, major product launches and everything in between. Those that do will soon find innovation breeds innovation and the contagious spirit of risk-taking makes for better products and places to work. 

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