You're probably wasting your most valuable resource

Posted by Gabriel Couture on July 20, 2016

There are many factors that go into developing and sustaining a successful company. Arguably, the most important is making the most of your employees’ skills and abilities.

Some believe that employees who are driven, focused, and creative are hard to come by. What’s missing from this perspective is that employees who feel inspired and empowered to excel at work might be rare because their work doesn’t provide them the environment to live up to, and exceed, expectations. Now you may scoff at that, opine that great employees shouldn’t need any babysitting or specific environments in order to thrive, but the more we learn from science about human behaviour, the way our brains are wired and what promotes motivation, the clearer it’s demonstrated that an employee’s work circumstances plays a large role in dictating their likelihood of success.

At Hackworks, during our events, we see examples of employees outperforming expectations all the time. In June, we organized an internal Tech Jam for one of Canada’s big banking institutions. Leading up to the event, there was some concern among the bank’s organizers about the ability of participants to come up with ideas and deliver interesting mobile applications for the challenge. Unfamiliar with hackathons, they could not anticipate the promising output of a group of engaged employees with a tight deadline and nothing to lose. After 40 hours of ideating, discussion, inspiration, compromise and development, fifteen teams of employees from different departments, who didn’t know each other, with diverging interests and expertise, presented their solutions in an expo style format. We watched the bank’s organizers and judges go from team to team, listen to their presentations, and saw the smiles on their faces - grins of delighted surprise. The employees hadn’t spent their time on mediocre, run-of-the-mill mobile applications, instead, these were elaborate, well-thought-out, implementable solutions to challenges the bank had presented them. Suffice to say, the organizers left impressed; emboldened at how talented and innovative their employees proved to be.

So what took place during the hackathon for that successful outcome to take place?

  • The bank decided to take the risk of trying something new. They had never organized a hackathon before; in fact, they weren’t quite sure what a hackathon was, and yet, they invested a great deal of resources and time to make it a success.

  • The bank put their faith in the power of crowdsourcing, bottom-up innovation. Your staff may consist of 5 or 5,000 employees; either way, the cumulative brain power of a group is greater.

“Crowdsourcing is an executive—not marketing—capability. It’s something your CEOs need to engage in.” – Sean Moffitt, Wikibrands

  • The bank provided a challenge to their employees - to create and prototype digital mobile applications that would improve employee productivity, connectivity and mobility - that was neither too narrow nor too broad. They had already identified specific problems they wanted to work on, but chose to leave their employees to problem-solve on their own terms.

  • The bank invited employees from different departments, with different skillsets, perspectives and knowledge, who didn’t know each other, to come together and pool their collective knowledge and abilities and learn from each other. Everyone came in on equal terms, with no hierarchy, free to express their opinion and add their two-cents.

  • The bank organized the event in a location that was unique and different from their usual offices. They chose a physical environment that was modern, unique, and fun. It provided a different space for participants; a clean slate that would promote creative thinking.

  • The bank made sure to send important executives as mentors and judges in order to demonstrate their commitment to the initiative and inspire participants to give it their all.

  • The bank was able to promote itself, in this case internally, to its employees, offering them a different perspective on the company they work for: less risk averse, more innovative, more exciting, more connected…

  • The employees volunteered their time to try something new. A survey after the hackathon revealed that the leading causes for participating were learning new things, being curious about trying something new, and the opportunity to network with other employees.

  • The employees were still 'working', but they were unshackled from “the burden of day to day processes.”* As a result, they benefited from “seeing and experiencing how effective they could be”* when provided with the opportunity. For many, the hackathon improved their sense of self-esteem and confidence, which is absolutely key to self-motivation at work.

“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” -- Sam Walton, Founder Walmart and Sam’s Club

  • The employees took ownership of their solutions, and proved committed to developing useful and valuable products. After the hackathon, they had something to show and share with colleagues, an experience and story to tell, and a sense of personal and professional accomplishment they could be proud of.

“The most empowering relationships are those in which each partner lifts the other to a higher possession of their own being.” ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French idealist philosopher, Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist

  • The employees, by engaging with employees from different departments, got a better sense of the functioning of the institution as a whole. Too often, employees develop tunnel vision regarding the organization they work for, forgetting the various complex pieces needed for it to be effective.

  • The hackathon provided a space where failure and the process of improvement through iteration are celebrated. Without the pressure to create something that is perfect, with great UI/UX and fully functional, the employees were empowered to use their intuition, brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other. Under normal circumstances, especially in large organizations, this kind of opportunity is non-existent.

  • The hackathon provided employees face-time with executives and, as a result, a more tangible sense of belonging to a larger family.

  • The hackathon provided employees explicit time for reflection about work, about the processes they use everyday, about what works and what doesn’t. They were freed to use their innate analytical skills and by doing so, better understand their position within the organization, the building blocks that make it work, and the opportunities available if they act proactively.

  • The hackathon provided the bank with 15 unique, employee-driven mobile applications over the course of a 40 hour event. A single person, let alone a team, dedicated to innovating can’t deliver those kinds of results. And the costs of organizing the hackathon in comparison with having a large team dedicated to innovate is cheaper. One advantage of this approach is your innovation team can focus on modernizing the work culture and implementation of innovative ideas instead of coming up with them as well.

  • The hackathon was also an opportunity for the bank to do a bit of recruiting. They were able to gain insights about the different strengths and weaknesses of the participants. In other hackathons we’ve organized, whether internal or external, many of our clients use the hackathons as a talent identification and recruiting tool.

I could go on. Ultimately, your employees are almost always your most valuable resource. Immersing them in different activities; empowering them to prove themselves; having them establish contact with others in the organization and learning from each other are but the tip of the iceberg of what a good employee management strategy can offer.

Here’s a bit of food for thought:

The Anthropology of Experience: that identity is created as it is performed. Everyday actions and practices – like taking public transit, attending business meetings, eating meals, or posting a status update on Facebook – are actually public performances that allow us to create our identities by telling stories about ourselves, to our-selves. The Anthropology of Experience is interested in how the little rituals that make up our daily lives help define who we are and how we relate to the cultures and groups we belong to. https://miscmagazine.com/win-experience-economy/

Have you put thought in the stories your employees are telling themselves about them-selves? Do your employees have access to action and practices related to their employment that is helping them develop pro-active, motivated and dedicated identities?

If your answer to the above questions are no, we should talk.

*Quotes from participant survey following the hackathon.

Hackworks