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The art of innovating
Sprint without losing your sanity: How hack weeks can encourage innovation and creativity
The “tortured genius” is a creative cliché.
Books, films and pop culture tell us that innovation only comes from wrestling, alone, with a big idea or problem.
The startup version of this narrative involves a product genius who spends weeks in isolation, creating a Homeland-style pinboard of notes and images.
Finally, their office door creaks open. Smoke pours out and the haggard-looking visionary emerges clutching the new specs:
Here’s what we’re going to do!
The designers work for a while (ignoring most of those specs), then hand a prototype over to the developers. Months later, a thin and watered-down product is done.
It’s fine. Everyone shrugs and says “we did what we could.”
Sound familiar? This working style is also called the waterfall model — and as you probably guessed, I don’t think it’s effective.
I’m a firm believer in agile product development. More importantly, I believe that your team can be your best source of innovation.
If you’re tackling a creative challenge, don’t isolate yourself or your key people. Instead, get everyone involved and engaged in the process.
Innovation is an inside job.
A week of immersive exploration
At our company, we love hack weeks. These are five-day sprints that allow our product teams to focus exclusively on a single idea or problem, without worrying about day-to-day tasks or to-do lists.
Here’s how we run them, and how you can use hack weeks to inspire creativity, collaboration and originality.
1. Find the right time frame
A couple years ago, we started doing one-day hackathons. We were inspired by other tech companies that popularized these sprints.
A day never felt long enough, so we added a second day, which often stretched across the weekend.
I started to feel like the “fun challenge” was becoming a gimmicky way to wring more hours from people and add undue pressure (which wasn’t the intention).
Eventually, we settled on Monday through Friday hack weeks that don’t eat into personal time.
Try to set a timeframe that excites your team without leading to burnout.
If a hack week is too long, the project blends into regular work responsibilities. If it’s too short, teams can’t create a working prototype — and that’s always our goal.
It doesn’t matter how you build the model, and it doesn’t have to scale for 1,000 users. We’re cool with some duct taping.
But, aim to end the week with a functional prototype.
2. Work in cross-functional teams
Teams that include people from every different role are always more powerful.
If you’re trying stretch the boundaries, you need diverse skills and voices at the table.
Designers should work with developers, product specialists, UX and UI experts, and anyone else who can contribute.
When ideas flow back and forth, no one’s fixated on how the prototype looks or how to code the features. The group considers every angle.
3. Give your people some privacy
We’re talking four walls and a door that closes.
This small detail helps not only if there’s a competitive element to your hack weeks (more on that later), but also to help teams focus solely on the task at hand.
Instead of running from their desks to a meeting room, a dedicated space lets people talk openly and encourages deeper collaboration.
4. Set aside other responsibilities
A hack week should feel like being on an island with your team (in a good way).
It can strengthen work dynamics and personal relationships. That’s why we try to ensure the participating teams can focus in peace. The rest of us can hold down the fort.
Very rarely, something urgent comes up that requires a project break. We’ll take care of it and then get back to work.
It is critical, of course, to ensure that these creative explorations never get in the way of serving customers. That’s also why I don’t recommend scheduling back-to-back hack weeks.
Build in some breathing room between each sprint.
5. Establish a clear topic, problem or challenge
Constraints breed creativity. That said, there’s a fine line between feeling cornered and getting lost in the woods.
We’ve tried several different approaches. For example, our first hack week of 2017 focused on the essence of our product: What makes a good form? And what makes a great form? These are the questions we explored.
We’ve also done serious, technical explorations and wild-card hack weeks, where everyone looks 10 years ahead and builds for the future. If you’re not sure how to start, think about where you want to innovate:
What’s the core of your business?
What could make the biggest difference to your customers or users?
What would really change the game?
Use those broad focus areas to develop a more specific question, problem or challenge.
6. Encourage gentle competition
Competition is not code for fighting. Everyone should play fair. At the same time, it’s good to encourage some friendly rivalries.
A sprint project, for example, could divide up different parts of the same problem and ask teams to develop a solution.
Each group “owns” a piece of the puzzle, but they’re ultimately tackling the same challenge.
There’s competition, but also a sense of shared experience.
7. Finish with a demo day
During every hack week, I always look forward to Thursday afternoons. The office feels energized and slightly electric.
Teams are in deep concentration, polishing up their work and preparing for the Friday presentation, which is an essential part of the process.
If there’s no final lap or finish line, the experience feels incomplete. It falls flat.
Be sure to create some kind of review, demo or presentation for the participating teams. Let them show what they’ve developed and field questions.
This can also be a great way to see new opportunities, based on how other employees and participants react to the demo.
The benefits of running a sprint project
Even if you don’t have multiple product teams, or enough people to run the business during the sprint project, it’s important to block out time for innovation.
It won’t happen by accident. You need dedicated time, space and focus in order to move the needle.
Creative exploration is powerful. If you’re still on the fence, here’s why it’s time to plan a sprint project ASAP:
1. They build stronger teams
Collaboration fosters trust. I’ve seen struggling teams that suddenly get and work more cohesively after a hack week.
Internal competition also reveals strengths and weaknesses; teams see where they shine and which skills they could improve.
2. They make your company more fun
Sometimes even interview candidates will say they’ve heard about our hack weeks and look forward to participating in them.
Nothing builds culture like working toward a shared goal.
Sprint projects are exciting and motivating. They also give our employees a chance to set aside their day-to-day responsibilities and expand their skills.
3. They allow you to experiment
I often mention that Jotform is bootstrapped. If we had outside funding, we’d be rushing to hit targets. There wouldn’t be space to dream and explore.
But in my experience, hack weeks actually save us time. Without them, we’d be working on the wrong things.
We’d get stuck behind other players in our highly competitive industry. And we wouldn’t achieve our potential.
4. They promote agility and creativity
It’s a point worth repeating. Instead of that tortured genius sitting in a room, struggling to solve creative problems, there’s magic in collaboration.
I’ve watched it happen many, many times — and I’m sure you have, too.
Chasing a shared target can accelerate innovation.
Ideas develop and take shape faster, and everyone gets a chance to become better.
That’s worth every hour of our time.
Conformity kills innovation: embrace your company’s black sheep
Mission: turn the U.S. Navy, an organization steeped in rules, hierarchy and conformity, into a hotbed for innovation.
To some, it might sound like a mission impossible.
But that’s just what a young naval officer, Ben Kohlmann, managed to do.
Kohlmann, who was known for questioning long-standing military practices, took the initiative to assemble a group of fellow naval “rabble-rousers” and created the Navy’s first rapid innovation cell for idea generation.
As Adam Grant writes for Harvard Business Review, Kohlmann sparked an organization-wide culture shift. By fostering group discussions and organizing visits to groundbreaking hubs like Google headquarters, Kohlmann helped to usher in a new, non-conformist way of thinking.
The result was a wave of Navy innovations, like the first robotic fish for stealthy underwater missions.
Breaking free from conformity isn’t easy. Even in the startup world, it takes courage. But, as I’ll explain, being a black sheep can lay the groundwork for innovation.
I love this sentiment from Dr. KH Kim, professor of creativity and innovation at the College of William & Mary:
With conventional thinking, an EXPERT can only reinvent the wheel. By thinking a different way, an INNOVATOR can combine the wheel with something else, or extend the wheel or its use.
At my company, Jotform, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We provide customers with online forms to (hopefully) make their lives easier. But even with a service so seemingly straightforward, continual innovation is vital.
To stay competitive, we’re always looking for ways to make our products even more useful for customers — and creating a culture of nonconformity is a big part of that mission.
That’s why I’m sharing some tips on how to foster a nonconformist culture. But first, a quick exploration of how conformity became the modern-day default.
Where did the herd mentality come from?
As it turns out, many employees believe, mistakenly or not, that their companies value conformity.
In a survey of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino found that nearly half the respondents said they worked in organizations where they regularly felt the need to conform. More than half said that people in their organizations did not question the status quo.
As humans, we’re naturally vulnerable to social pressures. You might remember when I wrote about the seminal Asch experiment, in which about one third (32%) of the participants were willing to conform with the majority choice — even when it was clearly incorrect.
To cite a real-world example, Volkswagen came under fire in 2015 for installing software in diesel vehicles to manipulate emissions tests and illegally sidestep pollution standards. Though a VW representative claimed that only a couple of engineers were aware of the shady software, many were skeptical.
At the time, Volkswagen employed around 583,000 people. None of them were willing to question the company’s illegal practices. Instead, they followed the majority.
So, if we believe that our company values conformity, and we don’t see any of our colleagues challenging norms, the chance of going against the herd — questioning how something is done or proposing a new idea — is minimal.
Gino also cites the “status quo bias,” which is our tendency to stick with familiar actions and thought patterns. Apparently, people naturally give more weight to the potential losses of status quo deviations than the potential gains.
Rather than going out on a limb — such as suggesting a new client intake system during a meeting with your boss — you stay quiet, regardless of the potential value of your idea.
As a result, your company sticks to the same formula, and competitors slowly edge you out: a phenomenon we witnessed in the last couple decades with companies like Borders, BlackBerry, Polaroid, and MySpace.
Why it’s worth overcoming our conformist nature
What do Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, and Nikola Tesla have in common? They were all innovators and notable nonconformists. They weren’t afraid to question the status quo in order to advance their ideas — even if, as in the case of Galileo, it led to an untimely end.
Progress depends on the Galileos of the world. Being a nonconformist also benefits the individual, by increasing confidence, engagement, creativity, and performance.
In one of several field studies, Francesca Gino and her researchers instructed one group of employees to behave in a nonconforming way (by voicing disagreement and expressing what they felt) and another to behave in a conforming way. They asked a third group to act as they usually would.
After three weeks, the first group said they felt more confident and engaged. They also displayed higher levels of creativity and were rated higher by supervisors on performance and innovativeness.
It seems that once people feel comfortable speaking up, even if it means going against the grain, they gain momentum. And it makes sense: how many meetings have you held back in? How did you feel afterward? Compare that with a discussion in which you’re outspoken or even playing the role of devil’s advocate. There’s no doubt, it’s energizing.
Customers prefer nonconformity, too. While studying a company that was considering dozens of new product ideas, researchers found that customers preferred the most creative ideas — not the ideas that company employees thought would be most feasible or profitable.
As any entrepreneur will tell you, it’s crucial to listen to what customers want — even if that means paying less heed to more practical considerations.
How do I build a nonconformist culture?
Start by encouraging employees to be their authentic selves — whatever that means to them.
As leaders, we should tell employees what to do, then step out of the way and let them figure out how to do it. Give them the opportunity to be resourceful and let their innate qualities shine through.
Southwest Airlines’ executive vice president Colleen Barrett exemplified this hands-off approach. Under Barrett’s leadership, Southwest flight attendants were encouraged to deliver safety instructions in their own style and with humor, a philosophy that helped make Southwest a top performer in terms of passenger volume, profitability, customer satisfaction, and turnover.
Just check out these happy passengers during the typically yawn-inducing safety demonstration.
Encouraging employees to question the status quo is another way to promote nonconformity. Rather than accept things as they are, employees should constantly consider how things could be.
Wharton professor Adam Grant calls this “vuja de” — when we enter a familiar situation but see it in a new way.
You’re standing in line waiting for a taxi and you see these cars passing by, which all have empty seats in them,” he explains. “You’ve seen them a thousand times before you start to say ‘why can’t I have one of those seats?’ And Uber is created.
Grant also recommends that managers solicit ideas from employees individually, rather than holding brainstorms. In group situations, the loudest voices tend to dominate, and less outspoken team members often hold back or conform.
Instead, managers can follow the lead of industry-disrupting eyewear company Warby Parker, which asks employees to submit a weekly “innovation idea” to their managers.
Writes Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal:
Although it could sound like a startup cliché, the habit of suggesting a weekly idea really does get people in the habit of dreaming up cool concepts. After all, creativity begets creativity.
Or, try the approach of HP Norway managing director Anita Krohn Traaseth, who launched a “speed-date the boss” program.
During five minutes of consecutive, one-on-one facetime, Traaseth asked employees: Where do you think we should change, and what should we keep focusing on? This practice led to an outpouring of smart, employee-generated ideas.
Finally, we can foster out-of-the-box thinking by consistently providing employees with challenging experiences. This means introducing a variety of tasks and novelty into everyday work life — a technique which literally primes our brain for innovation.
It’s common knowledge that employees who aren’t challenged eventually lose motivation. But research shows that trying new tasks triggers the release of dopamine — the chemical that motivates us and inspires fresh thinking.
And if a novel situation doesn’t present itself naturally, you can still apply constraints to spark creativity.
At Jotform, for example, sometimes we’ll give our designers specific size requirements, or limit them to 10 elements on a screen. By imposing these constraints, albeit imaginary barriers, our designers work even harder to find creative solutions.
Embrace your company’s black sheep
Every so often, it’s important to take a step back and do a pulse check on your company culture.
If your organization already has Ben Kohlmanns — rabble-rousers who question tradition and refuse to settle for the status quo — you’re doing something right. Those employees should be valued and encouraged. But if your teams tend to follow the majority (or the outspoken minority), it’s worth figuring out how to shift toward more nonconformist thinking.
Remember: innovation thrives where individuality, not conformity, is the norm.
Organizations don’t run out of good ideas - they overlook them
Not all million-dollar ideas are obvious.
Sometimes, what begins as a failed idea becomes a groundbreaking innovation.
Consider the Post-it®. While trying to create a stronger, more durable adhesive, Dr. Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist, discovered an adhesive that stuck lightly to surfaces.
The “removability” rendered it a failure — yet it was also revolutionary. But it took years before this innovation was recognized, as Silver searched to find a use for his creation.
“I came to be known as Mr. Persistent because I wouldn’t give up,” Silver explains on the company’s website.
He eventually partnered with a fellow 3M scientist to create the small sticky notes we all know and love. The average professional now receives 11 messages on Post-its each day and they’re sold in over 100 countries worldwide.
Recently, as I scribbled a quick Post-it reminder for myself, I started thinking about what we can learn from Silver’s story: about innovation, experimentation, and the necessity of occasional failures.
It also made me wonder: how often do we overlook great ideas? Probably more than we realize. For example, Kodak invented the first digital camera but decided not to pursue it. Sony developed its own prototype and captured the future of digital photography.
In order to foster innovation and ensure that great ideas, particularly those right under our noses, don’t go unrecognized, we can start by making small but impactful changes to our company culture and idea pipelines.
How good ideas get stopped in their tracks
We all want our companies to be considered “innovative.” But talking the talk isn’t the same as walking the walk. Several factors often prevent organizations from living up to their creative aspirations.
Writes Northwestern professor Brian Uzzi:
Innovation requires allocation and deployment of organizational resources, often significant amounts, without definitive proof of future returns. This ambiguity allows politics to enter into the choice process…
And politics tend to favor the status quo, rather than disruptive innovations, especially those that require performance validation.
Too often, companies emphasize demonstrable impact and significant results to the detriment of innovation. They want to see immediate profitability and are uncomfortable exploring the unlikely or the unknown.
Maybe this standard works for multinational companies with massive R&D budgets. For example, HP, a company worth $100 billion (as estimated in 2009), once determined that projects had to generate at least $1 billion in impact in to receive a green light.
Prith Banerjee, former head of HP Labs, explained that projects must “advance the state of the art by at least an order of magnitude in whatever they do,” and “present a significant commercial impact for HP.”
For most startups, this type of threshold is too limiting, and stifles creativity.
When companies lack a clear system for employees to submit their ideas for review, that can present another roadblock to innovation.
A study from Accenture found that 72 percent of companies allow innovations to die because there’s no formalized process to review and evaluate suggested ideas.
And, as I’ll explain, a review process doesn’t even have to be, well, innovative. A simple system can spur employee creativity and generate your company’s next million dollar idea.
Dismantling the roadblocks to innovation
1. Nix (or effectively navigate) the politics
When resources are limited, and people have differing interests, some politics are inevitable. People will work to garner support for their interests and lobby those with the most clout.
To help prevent politics from blocking innovation, we can equip our teams with strategies and tools to advocate for their ideas. For example, encourage employees to focus on solving an existing problem and to demonstrate how their innovation fits with the organization’s agenda. This approach can help to counter the inevitable resistance to a new use of company resources.
“If you know what people might object to then you can position your innovation strategically: as something new and creative, but not as a resource-depleting departure from the organization’s existing agenda,” says Uzzi. “That is, you can make the idea ‘just fresh enough.’”
Which brings up another key point — not every idea has to reinvent the wheel. Tweaks can be an important type of innovation, not to mention, easier to digest.
Some of the greatest inventors were in fact tweakers (as in makers of fine adjustments, versus the slang sense of the word).
Take Steve Jobs: his biographer Walter Isaacson doesn’t paint the late Apple CEO as a large-scale visionary, but rather, a tweaker. Jobs took things that others had created, such as the smartphone and the tablet, and perfected them. That was Jobs’ real genius.
Changing the structure that ideas move through can also reduce politicking. Instead of the usual hierarchy, spread the approval process across the organization.
I recently read about a company called Rite Solutions that developed a fantastic way to generate new ideas.
Rather than submitting proposals for review behind closed doors, employees use the company’s “idea market,” where anyone can post an idea, which is then listed as “stock” on the market.
“Every employee is also given $10,000 in virtual currency to ‘invest’ in ideas, explains Harvard Business Review contributor David Burkus. “In addition to the investment, employees also volunteer to work on project ideas they support. If an idea gathers enough support, the project is approved and everyone who supported it is given a share of the profits from the project.”
Not only is Rite Solutions’ review process open and democratic, but employees also have incentives to collaborate and rally behind each other’s ideas.
Even if the ultimate deciding power rests in the hands of few, the selection process should be transparent. All contributors should receive objective explanations for why their idea was or wasn’t greenlit.
2. Establish a clear system
On a more fundamental level, it’s important that all employees know the idea submission system, which can be as elaborate as an “idea market” or as simple as a digital suggestion box.
But, you might wonder, how effective is a suggestion box?
Very effective. Just ask Jeff Bezos.
Or better yet, ask Charlie Ward, the Amazon engineer who used the company’s virtual suggestion box to submit his idea for free shipping, which eventually formed the basis of Amazon Prime.
Bezos was reportedly “immediately enchanted by the idea.” As were customers.
Today, Citigroup predicts that Prime subscriptions will reach 275 million by 2029. That’s up from 101 million at the end of 2017, as roughly 80 percent of U.S. households adopt the service.
So, don’t underestimate the power of the suggestion box.
At Jotform, our weekly Demo Days give employees a forum to explore their ideas. I love this system, because it routinely encourages curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking. It also opens a dialogue and lets employees evaluate each other’s projects in a safe, open environment.
Whichever system you choose, make sure it’s easily and regularly accessible to employees.
3. Welcome the possibility of failure
Fear of failure kills innovation. That’s why the most forward-thinking companies embrace risk-taking and the possibility of failure.
It explains why Apple released MobileMe, Google rolled out Google Glass, and Amazon once offered a Fire Phone — all ultimately failed products that show each company’s willingness to take a gamble.
Though none of these innovations took off, I’m sure that each provided important teachable moments.
Google, for example, has said that any new Glass generation won’t be released until it’s ready for public sale. You may remember how much hype surrounded the early iterations of Google Glass — and how much criticism they incited, because no one actually wanted to wear them.
I’ll be the first to admit, engineers and programmers are rarely style icons. And Google designers, no doubt, gained important insights about creating consumer-friendly hardware.
Tolerating failure, however, does not mean tolerating incompetence.
As Harvard Business School professor Gary P. Pisano explains:
Exploring risky ideas that ultimately fail is fine, but mediocre technical skills, sloppy thinking, bad work habits, and poor management are not.
Still, that doesn’t mean companies can’t poke fun at failures when they do happen — to add a little levity to their sometimes high-stress work environments, and to give employees a sense of psychological safety.
Intuit, for example, hosts company-wide “failure awards,” to recognize teams whose ideas failed but provided valuable lessons in the process.
Not only is the company creating a learning opportunity, they’re also encouraging innovation by removing the element of fear.
The more ideas, the better
So many factors determine whether or not an idea will eventually take off.
Given slightly different circumstances, perhaps we’d all be wearing Google glasses and scribbling notes on Press ‘n Peels (the original name for Post-its, which met with mixed reviews).
Because all ideas, even the failed ones, hold valuable lessons, I think it’s important to foster as much idea generation as possible — both the revolutionary and the small but powerful tweaks.