Our team recently had a 'firebreak'; an exercise to pitch new ideas, prioritise and deliver value over a set amount of time.

The firebreak analogy speaks to the team getting a chance to have a 'breather' and do something other than the major pieces of work (epics etc.) planned throughout the year.

This can help prevent burnout from churning through stories/tasks associated with big pieces of work continually. GDS have used this model to good effect in the UK, and we wanted to give it a try.

The firebreak process

Initially, we ran a one week iteration to test how it could work. This involved the team:

  1. Submitting and presenting pitches (17 pitches in total)
  2. Self-filtering (if pitch reasonably not achievable over the sprint), and grouping similar ideas
  3. Voting on what they wanted to do
  4. Committing to delivering to the top ideas
  5. Assigning themselves to work

The idea pitcher owned the work and was responsible for delegating tasks etc., with a delivery team facilitating throughout. The teams updated everyone via stand-ups each morning, tracking progress and plans, talking through the work. The team demoed the work at the end of the sprint.

Pitching session with team members gathered around listening intently to speaker in front of whiteboard The pitching hour :)

Overall review

As a first iteration of this, it was a success and was well received by the team. Within some constraints, momentum was built up and value delivered.

Examples of deliverables included:

  • New govt.nz design option prototypes - looking at future models that answer pressing user needs
  • Migration of product codebase to github - enabling us to use Circle CI optimally
  • Copyright attribution analysis - investigating use of key assets across govt.nz, auditing this
  • Automation of consultation listings - research and outreach with the Canadian government, informing further work-plans

"You're the firestarter, twisted firestarter. I'm a firestarter, twisted firestarter starter."

Next steps

The firebreak has become part of the way that we do things. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and we have a model on which to improve, with many ideas already on how to do so including:

  • Using this time to test a Design sprint, where team will deliver a tested prototype
  • Encouraging more participation at demo, pitching sessions from our business and user communities
  • Better communication around what we do during firebreak, tangible outcomes etc.

We'll take what we learned into a 'full' firebreak during May and with the team already primed, we look forward to delivering more of the good stuff, improving services for our users along the way!