Zappos Labs is the small R&D arm of the online retailer, whose charter is "to explore the future of retail and build new things that are the next generation of retail experiences," according to Senior Product Manager Adam Goldstein. "It might be in the next few years, but usually not tomorrow."
Some of Zappos Labs' projects do, however, see the more immediate light of day, such as Ask Zappos, which was soft-launched in early June. The service allows people to take a picture of anything—someone's pair of shoes on the street, a scarf on a billboard model—and have a Zappos staffer find it, on Zappos.com or another site.
"We're building on Zappos' customer-service reputation by taking it beyond Zappos products," says project manager Virginia Ruff. "If you're anywhere and see something that you like, just take a picture and we'll find it at a store for free. Text, email, upload, tag a photo #AskZappos on Instagram."
What's notable about Ask Zappos, however, aside from it being a useful service, is that the entire project was created start to finish in 12 weeks, using a process of "one-week sprints." It's part of an Agile methodology of project management called Scrum that many software developers might be familiar with, but the philosophy can be applied to any short- or long-term project to optimize productivity and results.
In a sprint, a team commits together to finishing a set amount of work within the week. After an initial planning meeting at the beginning of the week, there are daily five- to 10-minute "scrums," or standing meetings, where the team quickly discusses what they're working on, are they blocked by anything, and what do they need to do next. Those meetings are tactical, while an end-of-week retrospective "is really a reflective meeting on process on what worked and what didn't," says Ruff. "My role as Scrum Master is to make sure those retrospectives are valuable. It's not good if they come back and say everything was fine. The goal is to have a whole bunch of notes come out of it." Her job is also to protect team members from external people not working on the project from coming in and trying to snag someone's time. "If it's important, we can look at it next week and possibly add it to the backlog," she says. "But this week, the team has committed to something and they can do it."
In the case of Ask Zappos, for example, the 12th one-week sprint before launch was devoted to making sure everything customer facing worked. "The integration points, the third party we were using for text messaging, tracking Instagram through a system were all tested and validated," says Ruff. "For the people answering the requests, we had to make sure all their tools were in place, that they could add the images, answer customers, and look at the data they need."
"As the manager, it's not about me saying 'I need you to do this'—that goes against the purpose," says Goldstein. "The team members say we've estimated this work and we're comfortable doing this. It's not about pushing."
"It's not person A dictating to person B," adds Ruff. "The team is choosing work and committing to themselves and each other what they're going to get done. They hold each other accountable."
In many organizations that use the process, sprints are typically two weeks each. But from experimenting in prior jobs, Goldstein found that shortening the sprint period to one week and adjusting goals accordingly actually accomplished more. "It really helps to focus people, when you know you need to get something done in the next 4.5 days," says Ruff.
"What I love about one-week sprints is that they're really flexible about changing requirements," says Goldstein. "We do customer interviews here in the lab, talk to them about things they like or don't like. If they don’t like something, we can change something very quickly on that Monday meeting. One thing we try to keep very sacred is that if there is a production critical issue that comes up during a sprint, the work that the team agreed to do is still what they do. We don't change direction on Wednesday just because someone says something. It's two days until a new sprint. It reduces planning error. With longer processes, you have a golden plan and may spend 12 weeks on something, and then talk to customers at the end and have to change. Increments that are validated helps us work smart."
And even though Ask Zappos is launched and seeing daily requests, the idea of getting a full product up and running in 12 weeks was to put something out that would inevitably change, and facilitate its improvement in the long run.
"A big part of the lab process isn't waiting until it's absolutely perfect for 100K to use," says Ruff, "but to let 100 people use it and then fix things."