December 6, 2016
by Robert Rose
In January, Facebook held its 50th hackathon, a 24-hour Red Bull- and coffee-infused get-together where coders work on innovative applications or new features for existing products. These kind of events are legendary in Silicon Valley, of course; Facebook isn’t the only company to conduct them. Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and just about every open-source organization on the planet has been holding hackathons for years.
Why do companies embrace hackathons as a way to help techies develop product ideas but resist the idea of creative people getting together to do something similar to develop content or customer experience ideas? One explanation could be that companies value hackathons for the output: the code that gets generated. But that can’t be the whole reason. Even at Facebook, where some of the code produced by the hundreds of participants eventually makes its way into the product, the majority of hackathon code never gets used.
In the Fast Company article Exclusive: Inside Facebook’s AI Hackathon, here’s how Facebook’s CTO Mike Schroepfer describes the value of the hackathon: “[The code is] all on one source control repository … I think that enables a level of creativity that in other companies you wouldn’t be able to have, because sometimes they silo off the technology between teams.” The author reports that “over the course of 50 hackathons … the bar has [been] raised for what ships, and it will keep on getting higher.”
If we tweak this wording, we reveal the opportunity that awaits businesses willing to experiment and innovative with content. Imagine saying this someday about your company:
The content experience ideas are all in one repository, enabling a level of creativity that’s impossible in companies that silo off the content between teams. Over the course of many create-a-thons, we’ve raised the bar for the value of the stories we publish, and that bar will keep getting higher.
Imagine the business impact of raising the bar for what your company publishes.
To clarify, I’m not talking about opening up access to the enterprise’s live content. I’m suggesting holding events that give people access to that content in a sandbox environment where they can play together without fear of messing anything up and can see what possibilities emerge.
I recently cajoled a client into holding just such a create-a-thon. Even though this was a software company, getting approval was surprisingly hard. It’s funny – the prospect of a bunch of employees taking time off to play, laugh, and generally goof around makes executives fidgety.
The kind of create-a-thon I’m talking about differs from a hackathon in some ways. Coding (and perhaps writing, too) is best done in isolation, with headphones on. While there is conversation at hackathons, they can be very quiet affairs. Our create-a-thon was not focused on the act of writing. It was distinctly unquiet. Writing certainly occurred, but the participants were all about collaborating on stories that would create value.
Like a hackathon, though, our create-a-thon had a mission. Our mission was for cross-functional teams to examine the current corpus of (in this case) marketing and customer-service content to hack innovative, creative, differentiating stories that could be fused, teased apart, or smashed to smithereens and created anew.
As I love to do, we used John Cleese’s creative framework to structure the event.
- Space: We decided to hold the meeting offsite where there would be no work distractions.
- Time: Our session would last 18 hours; we did not want to go all night. We allowed for one full day, an evening of recreation, and a short time on Day 2.
- Time (again): Cleese’s framework addresses time twice. The second aspect of time has to do with “giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original” – time to ponder, to wonder, to tolerate the discomfort of indecision. Ultimately, decisions must be made, but creativity can’t be rushed. This is why we gave ourselves a second day: to let ideas bake overnight.
- Confidence: We agreed that nothing was off limits. Brand promises, budgets, politics, rules, governance, existing content – everything was on the table. There would be no such things as dumb questions, dumb ideas, or mistakes.
- Humor: As Cleese says, nothing gets you from a closed mind to an open mind (“from the closed mode to the open mode”) faster than humor. We set out to encourage laughter. Nothing about our mission was sacred or overly serious.
Was our create-a-thon a success? Perhaps not – if you define success in terms of usable output. But output wasn’t the point. We did succeed in generating ideas that participants were excited about. Some ideas had to do with improving customer service content. Other ideas may result in innovative content marketing initiatives and marketing campaigns.
Here were our hopes: foster de-siloed ideation experiences; develop the team’s creative muscle; and, yes, enable the team to emerge with one or more innovative solutions that could, in the words of a product manager, “ship to the customer.” That client is on track to see all those hopes fulfilled. Even if not every hope is fulfilled, those 18 hours were energizing and, I’d argue, deeply productive.
To put that time commitment into perspective, if you held an 18-hour create-a-thon once per quarter, you’d siphon off about 3% of participants’ working hours.
Yeah, you can afford it. I recommend it.
Photo credit: Flickr user ThomasLife