How to set up a hack week

19 February 2020 -

How to set up a hack weekHack weeks are all about empowering your teams to make innovation happen. Could they work in your organisation?

Mark Rowland

If ‘hack week’ sounds like Silicon Valley jargon, that’s because it is. Hack weeks originate in the world of tech – data science to be exact. They are essentially a way to empower your team and encourage innovation; teams are given the chance to work on any idea that they believe will really benefit the company. That could be a new product or service, or could be a new internal process or system.

The people who try hack weeks seem to love them. Spotify, Dropbox and Adobe are all big advocates of hack weeks and have actively tried to persuade others to try them. Others have followed suit. “Working with new people with different perspectives taught me so much that I wouldn’t have been able to learn in my day job, and talking with the people mired in some of these challenges that we’re trying to solve with the smart workspace was really good,” says Daniel Horn, an engineer at Dropbox.

That’s all well and good for large tech companies, but can the idea work elsewhere? Hack weeks certainly have the potential to create a more engaged workforce and more collaborative culture, but it has to be done right. Just introducing it without preparation will not work.

Here are some tips to help you get it right.

Get your culture right

If you have a command and control-type management style, suddenly introducing a hack week will not work. Likewise, if you’re a meeting-heavy team, you might struggle.

Hack weeks are about staff autonomy: senior leadership must be completely bought into the idea – and must also completely stay out of it. An open, empowering and emotionally intelligent management style is the best foundation for a working hack week. If your team trusts you, and you trust them, that’s half the battle.

Encourage collaboration before it happens

When Spotify started doing hack weeks, one of their big objectives was to get people from different teams collaborating with each other. They encouraged people to submit ideas via a Google form and collated them into a shared spreadsheet, which all employees could see and comment on. The week before, they organised ideas-sharing lunches, where staff were encouraged to come in, get some pizza, and pitch their ideas to the rest of the company. Remote workers and teams submitted their ideas via video.

Alongside this, they ran ‘Tech Talks’ – short presentations to introduce staff to things that were going on at the company outside of their teams. All of this combined got people into the right mindset for innovation and encouraged them to seek out like-minded people outside of their teams.

Social media scheduling and analytics company Buffer takes a similar approach, with a call-out for ideas from all departments across the company.

Set clear goals

Spotify’s hack week eventually became ‘Fix It Week’. This wasn’t about bug fixing in the platform – this was a clear objective to fix issues with the product and within the company. It also encouraged more engagement from staff outside of the core tech teams.

Buffer started giving their hack weeks themes after the first few, which actually gave more focus to the ideas and actually drove engagement from staff. They let staff choose the theme from five options, preserving some autonomy over the goals.

Get everyone involved

Adobe started doing hack weeks with their engineering teams only. This, although productive, meant they were missing out on insight from the rest of the business.

You might not think that the accounts team has much to offer when it comes to product or operational improvements, but they may see things that others don’t. When Adobe opened up the process to all of its departments and encouraged diverse teams, they ended up with better ideas.

Follow up

A hack week is not going to work if you don’t follow up on the great ideas. Spotify, Adobe and Buffer have made it work because they make sure the ideas are implemented; Buffer has a ‘demo day’ on the Thursday of hack week to demonstrate their new products. If you work at a non-technology company that might not quite work, but you could still arrange for some presentations so that teams can explain how their ideas can be practically implemented.

Both Adobe and Spotify have abandoned demos in favour of ‘science fairs’, in which teams demonstrate their ideas at various stations across the office, or at a space off-site. If you only have capacity to take on some of the ideas, involve staff when deciding which ones to go ahead with.

Buffer surveys its employees once the hack week is done to find out how successful they feel the hack was. They will also put some of the best, completed projects into effect almost immediately, and where some good ideas needed more work, gave the team the time and resources to finish it.

So to sum up...

Legacy organisations are constantly looking for an edge that will help them keep pace with the tech superstars. All around the world, bosses will be drawn to innovation-unleashing ideas such as hack weeks. But when it comes down to it, the secret to unleashing creativity and innovation in your organisation isn’t the event itself, but the culture that lies behind it; the sense that this really is an organisation where solutions come first. Kris Ostergaard puts it nicely in his book Transforming Legacy Organizations: Turn your established business into an innovation champion to win the future: “... organisations recognise, on some level, that they should explore new things, but they don’t do it thoroughly, ambitiously, and strategically enough. That’s when they take the trip to Silicon Valley, or conduct a hackathon, or join an accelerator programme, all of which can be good and value-creating tools. But if you have not put forward a strategy for the future, these otherwise excellent initiatives end up being isolated events, a kind of innovation theatre, where you say and do some of the right things, but do not convert any of them into a strong innovation culture.”

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