Systems Development Gamified!

We had an issue: Our Engineering team expressed concerns about “Initiatives”, a process Warby Parker developed to request, prioritize, and assign development work—called into question were flexibility, empowerment, and effectiveness. As done with all processes, we looked to improve and iterate. This came in the form of selecting a cross-functional group of stakeholders to participate in an all-day working session, with the ambitious goal of suggesting how to revamp our approach. We first discussed the problems we had with the existing process to help pinpoint shortcomings. The result was to create a gamified, market-based approach to prioritizing and selecting work on an ongoing basis: “The Warbles Process”.

After soliciting feedback via broad surveys and interviews with key stakeholders, we learned that few people were completely satisfied with the way work was assigned to engineers. Key problem areas included:

  • Flexibility: The prior process relied on quarterly meetings in which specific areas of business needs were selected and prioritized for the upcoming quarter. While this process ensured that large issues received sufficient attention, often smaller or unexpected work struggled for attention. Given our fast-paced, quickly evolving environment, quarter-long blocks of time are simply too long. The time box also created situations where low-value projects were prioritized to simply “fill the gap” of time after big projects were complete, but the quarter had a bit more time.
  • Value-Prioritization: In the prior process, work was unilaterally prioritized by the business owner (typically department heads) that pitched the focus area. As such, the team felt selected work often appeared departmentally focused rather than company focused.
  • Empowerment: Teams were assigned to quarter-long Initiatives, and the priorities were selected by business owners. Although teams could lobby for assignments, they ultimately were not decision makers—and once assigned to an initiative, units of work were then dictated. We wanted empowered teams, and this process conflicted with that goal.

To solve these issues, we conducted a process overhaul to re-energize the team. With project managers, business analysts, software engineers, and business owners in the room, we kicked off with a group activity known as the Paper Airplane Lean Training;—a lean simulation using folded paper airplanes, designed to focus our process improvement effort. From there we divided the group into two smaller teams. Each team was then asked to imagine and map out its dream process. Halfway through the mapping exercise an interesting thing happened: it became evident that both teams had the same vision for an ideal process!

Upon this realization, we pivoted and the two teams joined forces to focus on building out a single idea. Several giant post-its and a few pizzas later, we had a completely new approach to prioritizing work for our Engineering team. The session concluded with a presentation to our VP of Technology and Director of Systems Development, who were both excited by the idea and eagerly jumped in to formulate and solidify details prior to sharing with our co-CEOs.

The Warbles Process was born.

The Warbles Process

It all begins when someone submits a work request, in the form of an epic, to a backlog visible to all within Warby Parker. Using this voting tool, managers across the company can up-vote, down-vote, or decline to vote for each epic based on what they deem the company’s top priorities at the moment. Each up-vote adds five Warbles, and each down-vote subtracts two Warbles. The result is a prioritized list of requests with their assigned Warbles values (think of Warbles as something of an economic value-form).

The Warbles Process empowers each of the engineering teams to select which epics they wish to work on; they do not have to select from the top of the backlog (or from the backlog at all). Each team is led by either a principal or senior engineer whose expertise tends to align with a specific business area. Under the guidance of their lead, teams select epics they can complete most efficiently given their specific skills and experience. Upon completing an epic, the team earns the corresponding Warbles. After six months, the team with the greatest average Warbles per engineer wins! The winning team then enjoys a special team outing and, of course, never-ending glory.

This value-based approach gamifies our work selection and prioritization process—and teams feel incented to select high priority work from the stream of requests without top-down or centralized assignment. Though it is still early, we find that it allows us to be more adaptable to our quickly evolving organization, plus it empowers our teams to select what they want to work on and helps to ensure that the most relevant work receives the most attention across the organization—literally floating to the top of the backlog, through votes.

We are actively assessing the success of the Warbles process. To date, Warbles have allowed us to tackle a variety of projects that would likely not have received attention in the previous process. We are also already seeing dramatically increased happiness scores amongst both our internal stakeholders and our participating engineering teams when compared to the other process. In addition, we are receiving positive feedback from those less involved across the organization—a win for everyone!

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