Back in April 2013 I found myself signing up for my first hackathon – the CIPD-MIX Hackathon, Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage. The idea of the Hackathon was to encourage CIPD members; and anyone interested in HR, OD and workplace issues, to join together and come up with creative ideas for increasing the adaptability of organisations to a fast-changing world. When I signed up for the hack I had no idea what to expect, I’d heard of hacks but I thought they were to do with technology, coding and software. In fact if you look up ‘hackathon’ on Wikipedia (as I did) this is how it describes the process:
A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software.
But as I found out, the approach has moved on, or to be more accurate evolved. See this write up in advance of an event last year in NYC for a great review of the many and varied ways the hacking mentality is being used. Nowadays, hacks and hackathons are used increasingly outside of tech circles to support innovation and creativity in a range of fields and disciplines. Some of the most exciting examples I have seen recently have been in the public sector, whilst some events have a specific technology focus, aiming to find digital solutions to persistent problems, others take a more inclusive approach and are simply looking for any type of solution to overcome challenges. In the UK a great example is the use of NHS Hack Days, the most recent was run in January in Cardiff and you can read more about the event here.
Like Chris Bolton, who writes the ever-informative What’s the Pont blog , I believe hack days and hackathons are a potential antidote to clogged up systems and clogged up thinking. What I’ve found most exciting about these events is that they move beyond traditional models of public consultation and engagement to inspire people and solutions. You don’t come along to a hack just to comment, complain or have your voice heard, you come to contribute to a solution. And at their heart hacks are about a collective coming-together to create solutions for the future. Invariably, at the end of a hackathon a number of hacks are selected as ‘winners’ and supported in some way (either through funding or corporate/organisational support) to ensure that the ideas come to be realised.
Like most hackathons, mine included a series of short sprints during which we were asked to first help refine the problem (see The enemies of adaptability for a summary of the issues identified during the initial sprint) and then to come up with mini-hacks (short descriptions of our ideas about what could help to overcome the problems identified), participants were then encourage to comment on the hacks and sign up to join hacks they were interested in working on. This was all managed on a simple digital platform created by the Management Innovation eXchange (who run global hacks tackling a variety of issues). Usually then teams begin work on speccing out the detail of their solutions, working collaboratively in whichever way suits the team. Ours, like many others, was global in membership so we made use of Google Drive and email to help share ideas and editing of the hack. The lead author has the responsibility for getting the hack into its final shape but it’s designed to be a collaborative process from end to end. For the CIPD hackathon this process took place over a three month period, for the NHS Hack Day it was completed in a much shorter duration. But the basic pattern is the same.
What’s so exciting about this model is that it thrives on collaboration and connection, bringing people together from a range of backgrounds, experiences and disciplines and it values everyone’s voice. This is heady stuff for public engagement. For me the CIPD hackathon was a chance to get more familiar with the new thinking in HR, OD and L&D and make connections with other people working in those fields. It did all of that for me, I was exposed to range of brilliant ideas about how to increase organisational adaptability. I signed up for two hacks and was challenged to think creatively about new and old issues facing the world of work. The final hackathon report is here and as you read it you can see how the ideas ranged from the creatively complex to those brilliant in their simplicity (see for example Chuck Out Your Chintz led by Gemma Reucroft aka @HRGem).
So why write about this now after all these months? Two reasons, Firstly I’m excited about the idea of planning an organisational hack in the not too distant future, I think the model is ripe for use in all sorts of workplaces to bring employees into the heart of organisational improvement. How often have you been pleasantly surprised by a colleague’s ideas for tackling a problem or issue? Hacking gives you a framework for capturing these ideas and then connecting people from different parts of the organisation to build solutions. That sounds pretty engaging to me and a more democratic way to solve problems than traditional project teams or committees. Don’t get me wrong to implement change you need plans and milestones and organisation but in the early stages when you’re trying to identify what’s going wrong, or not as well as it should be, why wouldn’t you want to have the widest discussion possible and get everyone involved? And if you’re looking for creative thinking and novel solutions why wouldn’t you want to hear from as many people as possible? If you can make use of simple platforms for sharing the ideas and creating the hack teams all the better. But not everyone in an organisation will necessarily be up for using digital tech to manage the hack so you can either go back to basics and do it without digital tools or, even better in my book, use the process to help a wider group of staff get familiar with sharing ideas and thoughts digitally, Now that would be a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned.
My second reason for blogging about this now is that a refined version of our CIPD hack ‘Corporate Earthquakes‘ led by Alberto Blanco and co-authored by myself, Matt Frost, Stephen Remedios, Conor Moss and Guido Rubio Amestoy has been chosen as a finalist for the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) Digital Freedom Challenge. The Digital Freedom Challenge team evaluated contributions from hackers around the world , in their words ‘looking for depth, boldness, originality, thoroughness, and the ability to inspire and instruct’. Our hack focuses on using immersive learning techniques to empower organisations to face up to seismic change, in doing so participants gain skills and ways of working for the future which will increase organisational agility to predict, survive and build positively on unexpected change. We’re very proud that our hack has been selected but in order to make it even better we need people to comment on the hack and give us their thoughts. And time is short so please do have a read of the hack and add your comments, we’d love to hear from you. I’m sure the other finalists would be interested in your thoughts too, see it’s never too late to get involved in a hackathon!