License to Innovate: Building a Culture of Creativity
We all want to invent the next great thing. But with everything else we have to get done to deliver customer value and meet commitments, who has time to come up with something new? Especially in the busy world of tech, it can be nearly impossible to make time for creativity in an environment where it’s okay to try, learn and even fail. At Rally and now Agile Central, we dedicate a week every quarter to innovation. Yes, we really mean that we protect 8.33% of the year for everyone (not just devs!) to work on whatever they want as long as they follow two rules: follow your passion, and demo what you did.
Remember as you read – all of the projects we mention in this blog post are things that have been done in past hackathons. The possibilities for how you can hack are endless.
Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let’s all go exploring. – Edith Widder
What Is Hackathon?
Hackathon is our way of making space for innovation. Each hackathon is a dedicated week of learning, trying, collaborating and celebrating for anyone in our engineer/product/UL/UX organization that wants to participate. Here are a few musts for the week:
- It doesn’t have to be about work. While a lot of people work on their passion projects or ideas with our existing product, that is certainly not a requirement of the week. Following your passion can mean learning something new (which could be trying out some new tech or taking an online class), doing something technical that isn’t related to work (like creating a podcast about office culture), or doing something just for fun (like creating a music video and singing a cover of the company song).
- It’s okay to fail. The goal doesn’t always have to be creating the next great thing or even trying to do so. Hackathon is about exploring and learning, and breaking out of our comfort zones to try something new. Maybe you want to try a new way to create charts in your product: great! Or you want to learn a new programming language: also great! Perhaps your passion is around creating a new collaboration space called “Scotch Corner” with a fake fireplace, smoking jackets, and of course scotch: wonderful! Sometimes innovating is about pushing boundaries, going down rabbit holes, and doing something fun.
- Everyone must make the time sacred.According to SAFe (and what we do at Agile Central), the innovation week immediately precedes PI Planning. This means that we have to work extra hard to prevent meetings, critical customer issues, ceremonies, and other distractions from keeping us from hacking. Management needs to buy into the value of this time, but all of the hackers also need to make this time sacred and worthwhile. This is not only a chance for everyone to reset and recharge, but also to get their creative juices going.
- Swag is awesome.We all love a great sticker for our laptops, but having other swag for us to sport around the office keeps us thinking and innovating all the time. Some of our favorite swag ideas are t-shirts, sunglasses, pint glasses, or slap bracelets.
- Sharing is caring.Having an opportunity to show off your hard work is the best part! We’ve even added a rule that says you have to demo to earn your swag. While demo videos aren’t in everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s a great way to practice these skills and get creative with how you show off your hack successes and failures.
- Always keep your eyes and ears out for hack ideas.Ideas that inspire hackathon projects can come from anywhere. Sometimes you hear a customer request and think of a creative way to solve their problem. Or maybe you’re sick of not knowing where the office elevators are, so you add an accelerometer to determine which direction they’re moving. Whether you’re looking for a technical or non-technical hack project, inspiration is everywhere and your idea could be the next big thing (maybe the next big thing in office elevators!)
Now that you know the basics of hackathon, it’s time to get planning:
Before hack week:
- Recruit a committee– Hackathon is a team sport, and having a committee helps make the event a success. These people can help iterate on feedback, get everyone excited about hacking, design and order swag, and coordinate the various hackathon activities. Hack committee members can be anyone in the organization that is passionate about hackathon.
- Pick a theme – Themes, including anything from American Gladiators to The Big Lebowski, add some extra fun to our hackathon events. Not only does it give us some great ideas for swag but it can also inspire some creative projects and demos. A lot of our hackathon themes follow our PI/Big Room Planning themes, but it’s really just about picking something fun that gets people excited about the week.
- Kickoff event – The kickoff event serves as a way for everyone to get jazzed about hackathon, share their project ideas, and ask for help or collaborators. We schedule our kickoff the Friday afternoon before hackweek. It takes place in our game room where everyone can grab a beer and talk about their their ideas, no matter how far-fetched or half-baked, in whatever state they’re in. This discussion, feedback, and collaboration helps hackathon feel like a team event (even if you’re working on a team by yourself, you’re part of the greater Agile Central team of hackers).
During hack week
- Cancel ceremonies– To preserve time for hacking and since teams most likely aren’t doing regularly planned work (except in rare situations), all ceremonies are cancelled during hack week. This includes daily standup, refinement, retrospectives, steering, scrum of scrums, and anything else that could take away from hack time.
- Reduce interruptions– We do what we can during and before hack week to reduce the chance of customer issues interfering with hack time. This means canceling deploys for the week and delaying turning on new functionality for customers to keep from breaking/changing something that needs to be fixed immediately. Of course we make exceptions to this rule when it’s critical to customers, but taking a week off of shipping and toggling makes it easier to focus on hacking.
After hack week
- Watch the demos– The Monday immediately following hack week, we all gather to watch the demo videos together over breakfast. This can take several hours to get through, but it gives us a chance to celebrate what we all accomplished and share our learnings with each other. Demo videos can be as simple as adding a voice over of some screenshots, or as elaborate as creating a Mega Man-like demo featuring our favorite cartoon Yeti.
- Vote! – This gives everyone a chance to help decide which projects were the most creative, innovative, or fun. You can choose voting categories (like best product improvement, most interesting learning, best demo or best use of a yeti), or just leave it to popular vote.
- Hand out awards– We hand out awards at the end of our PI Planning event while we have customers in the room, which makes it one of our favorite parts of hackathon. Prizes tend to be trophies and a small Amazon gift card, but give us a way to show appreciation for everyone that hacked and are visual reminders about the importance of hackathon.
In a future post, we’ll tell you more about some the challenges we’ve faced with hackathon and some tips on how to ship hackathon projects to customers. But in the meantime, you can check out the hackathon webcast we did back in April:
Looking to bring hackathons into your organization but need some help getting started? Contact your friendly neighborhood account representative for more information on some of the services offerings we have around hackathons!
There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period. – Brene Brown
About the authors
Lead architect and hackathon champion Kyle Morse is crafter of artisanal JS, and enabler of customization & extensibility. Outside of work and promoting hackathons, he spends his time riding bikes.
Marianne Graham is a product owner and hackathon enthusiast that exhilarated by customer feedback. When she’s not advocating for the customer and enabling passionate developers, she’s a huge fan of hiking and volleyball.