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Why you should try a Hack-A-Thon

By March 17, 2011One Comment

In product and software development organisations there is very often a deep sense of needing to justify all the time we spend working on things.  I catch myself doing the mental arithmetic: is what I’m doing now really ‘adding value’? This is not such a bad thing; we should be striving to create value and generate profits… But I think there is an unintended side effect. Often this desire leads to product development and governance processes that can make development feel like a carefully planned military exercise.  Orderly, neat, no colouring outside the lines but probably not how you would choose to spend your weekend.

Street Performers in Trafalgar Square - People are amazing, unlock their creativity and see what's possible

A Hack-A-Thon (Fed-Ex Day, 20% time or Howhardigras) is a great way to break this culture and remind yourself that passion and invention are powerful and yet often intangible forces that really should try and tap into.  Here’s how you do it:

The Rules:

1) Everyone gets 24 hours.
2) At the start everyone has to give a 1 min pitch of what they are going to try and do.
3) At the end everyone has to give a 5 min presentation of what they made or learned.
4) (optional) Beer and pizza should be served.

Simple eh!  Now this is the bit where you’re going to feel uncomfortable. Don’t have a theme; don’t try and guide or cajole your crew to work on things with a ‘business value’; please, please do the opposite.  Encourage your team to experiment with things that have nothing to do with their day job or write something in a language your company doesn’t use.  Trust me on this and trust your people.

Having done this with countless teams I am still surprised each and every time at just what is possible in 24 hours.  Sophisticated iPhone apps with backend integration finished and ready to upload into the iTunes store.  Sysadmins teaming up with UI developers to overhaul interfaces based on what the admin knows from obsessively watching web-server logs.  Developers learning a completely new programming language and writing significant applications with it.  Product features which would never get through the rigours of a regular governance process and yet go on to be hits with internal and external users.

Allow your teams 24 hours, set them free and you’ll be amazed what they can do.

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