There's an easter egg in our implementation of Scrum at FP: we call it "gold cards".

  1. Regular time for R&D benefits our business and our staff;
  2. The system isn't abused; if anything, we have to persuade staff to take advantage of it;
  3. Running the business in fixed timeboxes and tracking velocity is what lets us do this;
  4. Why restrict it to designers, developers and QA?

Effectively, they're a watered-down version of the Google "20% time" scheme: in every sprint, everyone at FP gets to take a day working on something of their own devising; with 2-week sprints, this works out as 10% of our time spent on R&D. We factor the time they take into our velocity calculations, so these days are included in our planning and accounted for.

Doing this as a service business is something I've found tricky before, both at FP and in my past life at Good Technology. It's really hard to justify "taking a day" out when there's paid work to be done, and even under our current scheme we see gold cards being taken far more often at the start of sprints (when the pressure is slightly less) than at the end. Far from being a drain on resource, I find myself actually having to remind our team that yes, gold cards are still something available to them and yes, you really ought to take one this sprint. Even so, they're skipped more often than they're taken. Duncan, the agile coach who helped us introduce Scrum, warned us that this might happen: what do you know, people have a conscience and feel they ought to concentrate on "the day job" :)

Not only does it feel good as an employer to be able to put my hand on my heart and say we have, and actively promote, such a scheme... but providing an explicit time for playful experimentation scratches lots of itches, is good for morale, lets folks show off a little (in much the same way as a Hack Day), develops new skills, opens up possibilities for collaboration between folks who may not have worked together on a "live" project, and has resulted in all sorts of goodies, including:

  • Our first Android and iPhone experiments, where we first started playing with these devices;
  • A suite of simple, skinnable Android games which we're doing some experiments with - more on that soon;
  • GPS tools which let us track paths and generally get familiar with co-ordinate systems and location technology - in the name of assisting a couple of keen geocachers, I suspect;
  • 3D J2ME apps!
  • A Faraday cage, still passing through QA;
  • Dougie's entry into the 5k app competition;
  • A couple of company-wide talks (on context-driven testing techniques and UI design for the iPhone);
  • The worlds first accelerometer-powered spirit level for J2ME phones :)

We don't direct what a gold card day can be used for, but we do prefer to end up with something demonstrable yet sketchy, as opposed to "1% of something that will be amazing one day, but can't be seen yet". To steer in this direction, we make a habit of gold cards being demonstrated during the sprint review meeting at the end of sprints. We don't allow gold cards if you've taken holiday during a sprint or if you work part-time, and we've only explicitly cancelled them just once, during our trip to China earlier this year: it seemed a bit rude to be flown to the other side of the world and then take time out for R&D :)

I'm happy with the results. We have a flow of "new stuff" which is learned and shown around every couple of weeks, some early prototypes which we quite often end up demoing to prospective clients, and we've managed to accommodate all this alongside paid work for clients. I don't know how we would've justified the time without having fixed timeboxes and regular re-planning days; when we've tried to do this pre-Scrum, it's never seemed possible... there's always been a good reason not to take today for R&D.

Next steps? So far it's only designers, developers and QA who've taken advantage of this scheme; I'm curious as to what some of our commercially-minded folks might make with it. And I'm digging into what the tax implications of this scheme might be, in relation to the legendary UK government "R&D tax credits" scheme...