Hacking often has negative connotations, the anonymous tech wizard stealing your online identity or the scurrilous journalist hacking your voicemail. In light of this it was a bit of a surprise to find myself involved in hacking in 2013. In April last year I signed up for my first hackathon – the CIPD-MIX Hackathon ‘Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage’. CIPD invited anyone interested in HR, OD and workplace issues to join this process to generate creative ideas for increasing the adaptability of our organisations. Almost 2,000 people signed up from across the globe. We were asked to consider ways in which HR could be the catalyst for increased adaptability and how, as HR practitioners, we could play a role in spearheading change in our organisations. The aim of the hackathon was to create a practical set of bold actions that could then be applied to our own and other organizations. When I signed up for the hack I had no idea what to expect. I’d heard of hacks but must confess 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 hackathons have moved on, or to be more accurate evolved. Nowadays, hacks are used increasingly outside of tech circles to support innovation and creativity in all types of areas from health services to political activism. Whilst some hacks retain a technological focus, and focus on finding digital solutions, others take a broader approach and are looking for any type of solution technological or otherwise. Some of the most exciting examples I have seen recently have been in public services. NHS Hack Days, which retain the traditional focus on technological solutions, are a great example of the use of the hackathon model for developing public services. What are we really meaning when we talk about hacking an organisation or a process? Well it’s more than simply applying a structured approach to problem solving. It’s also about adopting a certain creative mentality and mindset. It’s what Tanya Snook (aka @spydergrrl) describes as ‘playful cleverness’. I really like this depiction of hacking, she says:
When you seek, in your everyday lives, to deliberately find opportunities to be clever, ethical, to enjoy what you are doing, to seek excellence, you are hacking. Now the key here is that this behaviour is deliberate. Not a happy accident. If you aren’t acting this way deliberately, then we need to change your thinking and behaviour a little bit in order to make this your default MO.
A similar point was made by Catherine Bracey in her TEDCity talk on ‘Why good hackers make good citizens’. For me, hacking is about thinking differently as well as doing things differently. You have to tackle problems and challenges in new and alternative ways to have any hope of solving persistent problems or barriers.
What did my CIPD hackathon look like? Like most hackathons, mine included a series of short sprints. This was managed on a digital platform created by the Management Innovation eXchange and participants were supported by hackathon guides who wrote blogs, took part in hangouts and recorded videos to encourage further our thinking. Interestingly, the concept of Hackathon guides was the most controversial element of the whole process with some participants feeling it created a hierarchical structure of experts which was counter to the spirit of hacking. The hackathon process took place over a twelve week period, for NHS Hack Days it is completed in a much shorter duration. But the basic pattern is the same and you can design the hack duration to meet your needs. I’ll run through the process to give you a sense of what participation involved:
- First, we were asked to help refine the problem, this was referred to as ‘swarming’ the problem (a lack of organisational adaptability). The 120 barriers to adaptability we came up with were then synthesized in to twelve main ‘enemies of adaptability’.
- We were then invited to share our ‘moonshots’, descriptions of projects we thought could help to overcome the enemies we had identified.
- Following this, we completed short mini-sprints commenting on each others ‘moonshots’ and signed up to join hack teams to work up the specific moonshots we were interested in.
- Then we entered the main sprint. Once in teams we specced out the detail of our hacks working collaboratively in whichever way suited us. As our team was global in membership we made use of Google Drive, mural.ly and email to help share ideas and editing of the hack.
- The lead author had responsibility for getting the hack into its final shape but it was designed to be a collaborative process from end to end.
I signed up for two hacks and was challenged to think creatively about new and old issues facing the world of work. The title of this post refers to one of those hacks, ‘Corporate Earthquakes‘ led by Alberto Blanco and co-authored by myself, Matt Frost, Stephen Remedios, Conor Moss and Guido Rubio. Our hack focused 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.
The CIPD hackathon created a wide-ranging set of bold, practical hacks that were shared with participants, CIPD members and published for other organizations to try. The final 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). Personally, I found it a great chance to get more familiar with new thinking in HR, OD and L&D and make connections with other people working in those fields. I was exposed to range of brilliant ideas about how to increase organisational adaptability.
So why am I still excited about hackathons, what makes them different to any other form of staff or customer engagement?
I’m excited about the idea of planning an organisational hack in the not too distant future, I think this spirit of ‘playful creativity’ can be used in all shapes and sizes of workplaces to bring employees into the heart of organisational growth and development. Simply I believe hack days and hackathons are one potential antidote to clogged up systems and, more importantly, clogged up thinking (see this excellent blog from @whatsthepont for more on this) .
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. At their heart hacks are about a collective coming-together to create progress. 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. It’s heady stuff for public engagement.
How often have you been pleasantly surprised or inspired by a colleague’s ideas? Hacking gives you a framework for capturing these ideas and then connecting people from different parts of the organisation to build solutions, grow new projects, develop new approaches. That sounds pretty engaging to me and a more inclusive, connected way to solve problems and create momentum than traditional project teams or committees.
If you can make use of simple digital platforms for sharing the ideas and creating the hack teams all the better. 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 their ideas and thoughts digitally. Now that would be a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned…
I’ll leave you with Spydergrrl’s useful list of ways you can start hacking for an agile organisation, and you can hear to her talk about these issues in this video
- Hack yourself: Redefine barriers as a source of motivation in their own right: instead of being frustrated by “the way things are always done,” challenge yourself to do it differently this time. Use yourself as a guinea pig: Work in a way that is outside your own norm. Challenge yourself to think outside your own box. Do something that scares you. Take a risk.
- Hack your workspace: make it suit your workstyle (art supplies, toys, blank spaces, whiteboards, room to move, a library, whatever you need). Or better yet, leave it. Grab the equipment from your desk and spontaneously hijack boardrooms for weeks at a time in order to collaborate with your team. Work from home. Work from anywhere, any time.
- Hack communications: Stop attaching documents to emails. Find creative ways to share knowledge in your team: Do daily stand-up meetings (time them!), use chat. Use visuals to share data. In the office where I currently work, you’ll find whiteboards in common areas, win boards to celebrate team wins, libraries to share resources, outlines/ slides/ diagrams taped up in common team spaces with comment sheets so people can give feedback. We still rely too much on email, but we’re trying.
- Hack your department: We’re not Google but we can still innovate. We can be strategically agile: we can identify trends, we can see challenges with the way things are done and change them. If the required changes seem too big and too bold, we can start small: take the opportunity to make a minor tweak to a process and see if you make an improvement: Find creative ways to use existing systems, to produce better outcomes. Take a risk. Propose your ideas: go ahead an include your bold idea in your deliverable. Even if it gets removed in the next draft, at least you planted a seed. And if it doesn’t, you may incite change.
- Hack silos: Begin and end all projects in collaborative spaces: check them for drafts, lessons learned and other information sources to expedite your progress, ask the Twitters, Google solutions from other [organisations] in other countries. Share your learnings organization-wide at project close-out. Crowdsource plans and strategies with internal stakeholders and then test your ideas with counterparts in other organizations. Make internal collaborative tools and sites your default tabs in your web browser and use them every day.
- Hack your training: If you need to learn a new skill and can’t get the training at work, look for free training resources, meetups or other learning opportunities. Better yet, just do it. Take on projects that stretch your skills and knowledge. Can’t get approval? Do it anyway! Help a colleague with their project in their department. Or form a working group and do it for the whole of the organization.
- Hack your career: Figure out how to work horizontally in a vertical environment: take a job in another stream or classification to expand the depth of your knowledge. Find a project you just need to be a part of and go be a part of it.
- Hack your perspective: Empathize with your user. Find opportunities to be the client, not just the implementer. Go sit with a program team for weeks or months to better understand the challenges they face using systems in their day-to-day work. Take an assignment and see how the other half works and lives: If you work in a program, go try out enterprise-level projects. If you work on enterprise projects, go work in a client branch to really understand how enterprise-level decisions impact internal users.
- Hack your network. Become a reverse mentor; teach an executive to use new tools or just chat with them about the realities of working differently. Join groups that work in another discipline or area of interest. Talk to our counterparts outside the organization to find out how they are solving the same problems.
- Hack your work. Work differently. Every day.
That’s the key for me, the best thing of all, you don’t need permission for hacking, you can start in small ways with yourself, your mindset or your workspace, your approaches – as Doug Shaw would say:
Let us know how it goes…
With special thanks to Andrew Jacobs and others for comments on previous drafts and the rest of my Corporate Earthquakes team. Photo by sobczak.paul under Creative Commons Attribution licence