How to Nurture Productive Freedom in R&D

Tom Schaefer
Nurturing Productive Freedom in R&D

Curiosity and creativity are two of the most important traits of a research and development team, but they do not arise naturally. They must be supported, nurtured, and protected.

We believe that people make their best work when they have creative freedom to explore even their most out-there ideas. Practically speaking, though, what are some ways you can actually do this?

Investment Time

At TEECOMlabs, we dedicate each Friday to what we call investment time.” This is time dedicated to improving ourselves, our team, and the community. 

The name is carefully chosen because, like all investments, we expect a return. We take a long-term approach to investing, and we define returns rather loosely, but we always seek to improve something. During investment time, you’d likely find our team doing some of the following:

  • Contributing to open source;
  • Writing blog posts;
  • Reading books or research papers;
  • Learning new programming languages or paradigms;
  • Brainstorming new approaches to problems we or our clients face;
  • Learning together during our weekly team coding session.

Investment time is great for these kinds of projects, but sometimes one day just isn’t enough time. How do we give our team a long enough creative window to take on big, out-there ideas?

Hack Week

Twice a year, TEECOMlabs hosts a week-long internal hackathon to learn and explore new technologies, hopefully shipping something in the process. Our distributed team gathers in a central location, and we get to work making something interesting.

Nurturing Productive Freedom in R&D

What makes a good hack week project? Just about anything, really! Here’s a taste of the ideas that have come out of our brainstorming sessions:

The point is that the kinds of projects we work on are varied in subject and scope. When innovation and creativity are encouraged and not stifled, some really interesting ideas can arise.

Nurturing Productive Freedom in R&D

Be Intentional About a Supportive Environment

Dedicating time to innovation with investment time and hack weeks is wonderful and important, but it is not enough. It is necessary, but not sufficient. To truly foster a culture of curiosity and creativity, it takes continuous investment and work by the entire team.

Every team is different, but if there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s to realize that your team and their ideas are paramount and must be protected.

This means that you are intentional about making sure everyone feels comfortable voicing ideas. It means that you support your teammates rather than shooting them down. Rules and guidelines are not enough to produce a safe environment for ideas to be shared. You must take action to protect what you value. 

Listening is integral to the preservation of this supportive environment. What’s the point of encouraging a free exchange of ideas if no one is willing to listen? If you are quick to dismiss your teammates’ ideas, you decrease the value of your team as a whole. Ideas are fragile. It is uncomfortably easy to dismiss an idea outright. It takes no work. It is much harder to protect an idea, let it sit for a while, explore it, and expand on it. To combat this, approach every idea with curiosity and every problem as a question waiting to be answered. Devote yourself to seeking new perspectives rather than asserting your own.

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Tom Schaefer
Tom Schaefer, Senior Software Developer

As a software developer on the TEECOM Research and Development TEEm, Tommy creates apps for buildings. Seeing a product grow from the ground up is what he enjoys most about programming. The skill combines language and technology, two of Tommy’s main interests. Tommy has always had an affinity for knowing how things work. To this day, he challenges himself to take apart electronics and put them back together again.