How friendly competition sparked innovation

Posted by Aaron Smith on

Over the last two months, our team launched a few dozen usability improvements and innovations for web and mobile products. What made this notable was that we did this work above and beyond the day-to-day work from our prioritized queue. The team was empowered and the energy was contagious. Here’s the story of how we got here.

A few years ago I got into the habit of going on a long run each Saturday, then cooling down over breakfast to side 4 of the Frampton Comes Alive album. Maybe not the coolest music choice, but it has a live music energy that gets me going. As I began my run on this particular Saturday, I had a few thoughts on my mind.

At Grubhub we have Learning Friday, which is an afternoon per week set aside for team members to learn and innovate. Although some people make good use of this time, many of us let our day-to-day tasks consume it. I had begun wondering how we could use Learning Friday more effectively.

My thoughts about Learning Friday were spurred by something cool I’d witnessed the day before. A developer had approached a product manager with a product idea to help us make progress towards our DAGs goal. “DAGs” is an acronym for “Daily Average Grubs,” which measures how many incremental daily orders we’ll get for a given A/B test winner. DAGs are essentially our currency for tracking conversion improvement. When we implement a winner, Finance tallies the results and banks the DAGs against our annual conversion goal.

I was excited about the engineer’s initiative because we had just set an aggressive new annual conversion goal. The holy grail was to get the larger cross-functional org behind this goal, knowing how much more we can innovate with everyone brainstorming and collaborating. This engineer’s action was a sign we were on the right track, but had plenty of untapped potential.

Anyway, I was well into my run when an idea popped into my head. I was excited enough upon completing my run that I preempted my usual Frampton ritual with a quick exercise to knock out a 1 page “Dagathon” contest proposal. The rules for each entry were simple:

  • Complete over 5 Learning Fridays
  • Include at least 1 representative from Engineering, Design, & Product
  • Launch as an A/B test
  • Winners determined by our standard process of measuring DAGs

These events are not always easy to get off the ground, so I was pleasantly surprised with the enthusiastic support for the idea at Grubhub. It didn’t require a single meeting to get a green light. I received feedback from my team via Google docs, got same day approval via email from 2 very supportive executives, and had hallway conversations about it with a half dozen peers across the org and with my HR business partner. I launched the Dagathon by email on Wednesday morning, with promises of mystery prizes and eternal glory. Promotion was limited to an email per week: no posters, flyers, or t-shirts.

I’ll admit that I waited until the second week to send out a spreadsheet for tracking entries, hoping it wouldn’t look too pitiful with limited activity. To my surprise, there were already a number of ideas added to the spreadsheet by the end of that second Learning Friday.

By following our standard process instead of a one-off contest process, people were completing innovations outside of the prioritized queue, but with the normal checks and balances between Engineering, Design and Product, resulting in quality features and organized A/B test launches. Also, we were following a process that the broader org was now empowered to use for designing, developing, and launching their ideas to production at any time.

The results were nothing short of amazing. These self-formed teams brainstormed 39 ideas and launched 24 of them to production in our websites and mobile apps by the end of the 5th Learning Friday. More are underway and will be completed in the coming weeks. This was all in addition to the day to day work being accomplished in our sprints.

It was especially gratifying to hear people turn “Dagathon” into a verb.

Employee #1: Hey, it would be cool to try Idea XYZ. How can I get that prioritized?

Employee #2: Let’s just dagathon it.

People like the accolades and prizes, but what they value most is empowerment to take their best ideas and get them done. A clear path to put together a little team, and innovate without red tape. I’ll conclude with a quote that I shared in one of the Dagathon emails:

My observation, is that the doers are the major thinkers. The people that really create the things that change this industry are both the thinker and doer in one person… And a lot of people of course – it’s very easy to take credit for the thinking. The doing is more concrete. But somebody, it’s very easy to say ‘oh I thought of this three years ago’. But usually when you dig a little deeper, you find that the people that really did it were also the people that really worked through the hard intellectual problems as well.

Steve Jobs, 1990