Organizing a Hack-a-day at work

I’ve always been fascinated with the hack-a-day or hackathon events that promote groups of people getting together for a short burst of brainstorming, prototyping, and coding to create something useful. I decided to organize such an event at my place of employment to see if I could provide value to the business with it.

The Objectives

  • Result of the work is something the business could use to grow revenue or cut costs. Some of results of the competition should turn into project and tasks.
  • Cross departmental collaboration.
  • Team building.
  • Spirited fun through competition and learning.

The Idea
Create teams composed of members of the IT group that work with a business partner from a chosen area within the business (Finance, Operations, Marketing, etc.). The IT members interview and watch the business partner work for two hours so they can see the business processes and tools that each member uses to do their job. After two hours the IT teams huddle to brainstorm, prototype, and organize ideas to help improve the work flow from what they observed. Then at the end of the day all the teams and business leaders assemble for the team presentations. Three neutral judges that are SMEs are drafted to judge and prizes are awarded to the winners.

I targeted a particular work area within the business to partner with the IT group during the event. I setup a meeting to explain the idea and concept and to see if they could support the event by providing a business liaison to work with each team. To keep the playing field even, I wanted each business liaison from an area in which they performed the same business function (i.e. accounting, procurement, estimating, etc.)

I also invited HR to the pre-planning meeting to get their buy-in. I was taking team members out of their normal jobs for a day!

After I obtained buy-in from a business group, I sold the idea to the IT team. Well, I should say I presented the idea to the IT team. They loved it of course. It’s a free day to compete with each other and do something a little different. Techies love to compete with each other.

We set a date and I emailed invitations to reserve the calendar spot.

I split the teams by having a member from each area of IT so that I could create equal diversity in skill set. For example, a programmer, a data analyst, a project manager, and in infrastructure member for each team. I looked at tenures and genders to create and equal distribution in company knowledge and diversity as well.
I did not announce the teams until two days before the event. This was to keep it a surprise and build some excitement.

On the day of the event, I had breakfast delivered for the participants. Everyone gathered in the break room to be paired with their business partner/liason. The teams left together and for the next two hours they asked questions, watched, and learned about a business process they may not have been exposed to in the past.

After two hours the teams were assigned a conference room to huddle and hack. This lasted for five hours (we brought in Pizza for everyone). Then for the last two hours of the day, the team assembled to present their ideas.

The presentations
There was a definite energy in the room as the teams presented. I had previously given them rules about how they would be judged (value to the business through revenue generation or cost reduction). Some teams elected a spokesperson while others had multiple team members present.

The presentations included everything from observations of challenges and problems, to specific suggestions for improvements. Some of the presentations included screen mockups for software updates. Other presentations included quick hit suggestions to help with automated workflows.After the judges selected the top two teams I awarded gift cards to winning participants.

Mission accomplished. Now the real work.
The feedback I received from employees was 100% positive. There are a few tweaks we’ll make before we do it again. The day was full of cross departmental collaboration that would otherwise not happen. I know the participants learned more about the business and felt like they could present ideas to help the business operate better.

It’s important to turn some the suggestions from the event into real work. Team members need to see that the event was useful to the business to drive their participation in future events like this. It has to be credible.