Firebreaks on GOV.UK are similar to Google’s 20% time or Spotify’s hack week. For 1 week every 3 months, teams disband and everyone is given a chance to have some self-directed time to improve GOV.UK. We’ve had 3 firebreaks now: June, September and December 2017. This blog post explores why we do them, how they work and the benefits they bring.
Why we do firebreaks
Our teams work using iterative agile methodologies, and aim to deliver value to users incrementally and often. This way of working is intense. Nobody can sprint all of the time. People need some time to pause and recharge.
Firebreaks are not just for taking a break. They’re also an excellent opportunity for staff to pursue other work that’s of interest to them and of value to the organisation. This includes things such as prototyping innovative new features, fixing technical debt and trying out new technologies. There are a lot of talented people working in government, and we believe that giving them this creative freedom will generate value for us and make them happier and more productive.
Firebreaks also serve as a natural breakpoint as teams wind down their old missions and prepare to start their new ones. This gives us a bit of a buffer in which to resolve any niggling team formation issues that remain for the next quarter, and do other disruptive chores, such as seating reorganisations.
How we do it
Keeping the lights on
Sadly, not everyone can participate in every firebreak. Urgent support requests must be dealt with promptly. We have a rota to make sure that if someone missed a firebreak they will be free to participate in others. And we notify publishers across government ahead of time that only urgent and high-priority work will be done in firebreak week. Everyone else can participate in firebreak.
Set the ground rules
All firebreak work should meet the definitions of ‘done’, which means it should be:
- responsibly built (doesn’t add to support or tech debt burden)
- complete (no extra work required outside of firebreak)
- of value (leadership reserve the right to reject proposals, though this rarely happens)
Anyone can propose a firebreak activity. They need to write it up in a specific format, explaining: who you are, what you’re pitching, why it’s worth doing and what skills you need. We put all proposals on Trello so that everyone can view them.
On Monday morning of firebreak week, everyone who wants to form a team for firebreak does a 2-minute pitch to others on their proposal. At the end of the session, people select what they want to work on and kick off their teams or solo projects.
Doing the work
To help spot dependencies and avoid people stepping on each other’s toes, we do a remote firebreak stand-up every day over Slack. For proposals that involve development work, stuff has to be deployed to production by Thursday. We do this so we have time to correct any errors that might be caused by a deployment, a lead developer oversees the process.
Show and tell
On the Friday afternoon, everyone gets back together for a show and tell to showcase all the progress that has been made during the week.
We’ve achieved some amazing things from our firebreaks
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the things that have been achieved during firebreaks:
Experiments and prototypes
- crowdsourcing for user research
- automatic readability checking of content within publishing applications
Value delivered to users
- enabled admins to track missing links in content pages
- improved publishing process for service assessment reports
Technical debt paid down
- styling issues fixed in legacy publishing applications
- made the use of schemas more consistent in our publishing platform
- GOV.UK chrome extension improved to help teams identify design elements on pages
- Slack messages improved to assist developers in coordinating deployments
Training and guidance improved
- induction guidance for new joiners
- learning materials for junior developers
Some of the things trialled in firebreaks have been added on to our roadmap, and will be further developed by product teams throughout 2018. We’ve got no plans to stop doing firebreaks anytime soon, so we’re hoping for lots more valuable work to be delivered in the future.
Alan is a Delivery Manager on GOV.UK. You can follow him on Twitter.