Internal hackathons can lead to big cultural changes

Hackathons are those mini focused events where groups of people look at a problem and solve it in a free-to-do-as-you-please manner. Basically, teams hack a problem – i.e. manage to solve a problem, by proposing validated, detailed ideas. Some may involve code/tech, but not necessarily.

Hackathons come in many shapes and sizes. From the large public events where anyone can join, to the closed corporate event where employees can focus on new problems.

Hackathons are great. Not only do they break boundaries and get teams to work together, but results can be meaningful and very real. However, for them to have any impact on real improvements, you need to follow a few key steps. Here are a few things we need to keep in mind when suggesting an internal, corporate hackathon.

Safety – Employees need to feel that if they mess up, they will be fine. Failing is fine. There are no KPIs for hackathon participants under than experiencing and learning. And let’s face it, many failures were successful eventually (for example – bubble wrap was initially designed to be wallpaper!)

Timing is key – Look for that week where teams have more time on their hand. Timing is really everything. Setting up a situation where teams are focusing on a hackathon and yet loads happening at their office will result in greater stress and not much innovation.

Death by Frequency – I love prawns. Love them. Juicy succulent stuff. Give me prawns every day and will hate them very quickly. Hackathons are great but only do them as often as possible, and not more.

Hackathons are not lost development time. Hackathons held monthly may be overkill. Try and look for that balance and start small. Think about each hackathon as a big deal, and avoid letting them become another boring Monday innovaton thing that your staff doesn’t get. Keep them excited!

It is a priority – Let’s face it, if something is not made to be important, than it is likely to never happen. Is there CEO buy-in? Does your staff feel that what is being done is important? Is it appreciated? Is it easy to get out of it? Show that this is not a team building exercise but a strategically important event that aims to change the way you do business. (Yes, it can be that important!)

Give it a theme – Themes are great! It gives some focus. Do not give requirements.

You want to give themes a framework for the event, but you do not want to give teams a list of requirements. Themes allow teams to go down similar paths. Requirements ensures they all end up in the same place. Worse still, requirements lead to manager pointing fingers saying our staff is not innovative!

Winners are important – Let us face it, competition is a great driving force. We all want to win, or at least, no one wants to lose. Therefore have winning teams! Give prizes! Yes, give prizes!

Mentors work – Teams often come together by ideas and energy, rarely by perfectly matching skill sets. Give teams mentors. External mentors may add an extra spin. Give them energy to feed off of. Mentors go a long way!

Make it count – Hackathons need to be part of a process. In isolation they are great, but ideally you need to know what happens next. How do projects come alive? How are they managed? What happens to the employees that thought about the new ideas? How are they treated? How are they involved? How is the new idea reintegrated into the company? How should teams work on the new idea? How are resources going to be allocated? How are road blocker type of people going to conform to change and new ways? How are you going to make good ideas become a reality yet diminish risks?

Have you ever tried an internal hackathon? Was it a success? Would love to hear your comments below if it was grand or ‘meh’!

What I learnt while giving an innovation workshop

[As seen on LinkedIn]

A few weeks ago, I was giving a workshop on innovation and creativity. The client wanted to foster an intrapreneurial way of thinking with their staff and asked for an interactive session. The workshop was held at a hotel on a sunny Friday morning.

At 8:30 am, employees from a client of mine started to walk in. Different departments, ages and backgrounds. All struggling to wake up. From their mannerisms, you could tell the varying motives as to why they were there.

Some were there because they had to. Others wanted to win brownie points. A ‘few’ were generally interested in the topic.

The event started and it was clear that a lecture style ‘workshop’ was expected. They were wrong.

Bored audience

What I did was try to bring ‘start up’ culture in the room. I made them pitch, talked about pivoting ideas, explained the concept of an MVP. I gave examples of awesome startups that had brilliant ideas and execution. I explained how most had mediocre ideas that became brilliant over time. I explained lean thinking and approach.

The atmosphere in the room changed. They were excited. Even the Facebook-obsessed few at the back of the room were interested in what their colleagues had to say. They started to challenge each other. They got up to pitch ideas. Most importantly, they got excited.

This was a revelation for me.

Creativity, innovation, startups, thinking outside the box. They are achievable for anyone. All you need is to be excited for a long (long) period of time, and that eventually becomes a passion.

This means that every company can become innovative, no matter who your employees are.

Knowing that, the next question I asked was, should they? Should businesses challenge the way they do things and be innovative? Should processes change to allow for creativity and not just efficiency. Should companies think motivation, rather than just KPIs.

An easy answer for most, yet so few companies adopt it. Fear or knowledge? This is the next question I need to answer.

Got thoughts on the subject? Leave a comment below!

Innovation, the new average


[As seen on Times of Malta, 21st November, 2013]

Innovation is an overused and abused term. From political figures to businessmen, innovation, as a word, is thrown in as part of their remit or mission statement. Innovation has been so overused that as a term, it today has a negative effect or, worse still, means nothing more than mainstream or average.

In fact, when I read a press release, mission statement or advert and the word innovative appears, I immediately understand it to mean an aspiration rather than a fact. Even though that company might have something worth shouting about, the term simply doesn’t do anything for me.

When entities, political or commercial, use the word innovative or any of its variations, what they are trying to say is “we think it is new and worth taking a look” or “look how clever we are”. Statements such as “Our innovative solution” or “innovative design” adds little value to the subject and is a case of blowing one’s own trumpet.

Innovation in its entirety does not say much about value add. Then what is all the fuss about?

Innovation that matters exists when it is used as the tool for successful entrepreneurship. It is a process of solving a situation or challenge in a different way, even if that innovation is a minute property of the problem. The measure of innovation, would be the change or impact on positive results within the delivered solution.

Therefore, innovation is a process or tool that delivers potential new products or services that can reap financial, or otherwise, rewards. So yes, worth fussing about. A country with a culture that values innovation will most certainly increase their chances for economic growth.

An interesting challenge exists in developing a behaviour that is entrepreneurial and innovative. Such shifts in behavioural patterns to develop these qualities are often the most challenging, as a lot of its makeup has to do with culture.

Interestingly, because innovation is a process, it can therefore be planned. It most certainly is not some eureka moment, or flash of genius, while sitting in a dark room smoking an intellect’s pipe. Innovation comes about through the constant challenging of a status quo, whatever that may be.

The most important aspects of being innovative are essentially understanding how innovation is derived, and after, how it can be validated.

Eureka moments for an innovation happens after a process of recognising a potential solution to a problem that has never been done before. Commonly, the problem is seen from different perspectives, in different domains, through a rigorous challenging process of questioning and through research. Yet the key point in all this is not only the process, but the strict focus on a single idea or problem.

In fact, even when an innovation is deemed noteworthy and is launched into a market, it will most likely be a cyclical process of tweaking and re-innovating. This is due to the fact that once a solution is launched, customer data can be gathered and used to develop solutions of fit within a market, or in other terms, innovations that add value to a market.

This is no newly discovered scientific process of deriving innovation.  Sir Alexander Graham Bell was not trying to invent the telephone but rather was making improvements to the telegraph in a cyclical fashion. The interest and persistence in such improvements came about due to his mother’s gradual deafness which resulted in his research in acoustics.

The process of labelling an innovation comes with customer validation. Proving it within your market fit will deliver the necessary positive change for it to be felt, measured and therefore quantified.

The technology industry has understood this clearly. It understands that innovation is felt mostly once it is used, as value can be transposed or associated with such an innovation. Therefore, tech companies offer 30 day free trials and other taster forms in order to prove its innovation and value and then win the sale, without ever mentioning the term innovative.

So when should we use the word innovative? Innovation is like proper management. Every company needs it, though writing it all over your office walls is nothing more than cheesy.

In Malta, innovation through the entrepreneurship model is beginning to emerge. A quietened murmur of tech start-ups can be heard within the economy as well as an increasing availability of individuals with entrepreneurial spirit. It seems that the stars may be lining up for Malta’s emergence as an entrepreneurial society, which means that the likelihood for real innovation to be seen will be on the increase.