Organizations frustrated with their innovation capabilities sometimes seek inspiration from the world’s most innovative firms. Too frequently, this can lead to a misguided quest for beanbag furniture.
The most visible trappings of innovative firms arise after management has already created an environment that facilitates the rapid creation and testing of ideas — they are a result of innovation, not its cause. The real infrastructure underlying innovation capabilities tends to be less flashy: clear strategies, distinct approaches for disruptive innovations, HR policies that tolerate failure, rigorous systems to capture project learnings, and the like.
But once in a while we find flash that really works, for any kind of firm. Facebook’s Hackathons fit the bill. With the company having grown from tiny start-up to 1,200 employees in 6 years, management has worried about how to retain entrepreneurial flexibility and imagination. One way Facebook has kept its verve is the Hackathon — an all-night quest to dream up an idea and make it real, immediately. This isn’t just for engineers; marketing and even legal regularly attend. Anything is fair game, and resulting ideas have ranged from video messaging to a friend suggester. Facebook users can suggest ideas too. Usually the result of one night’s work isn’t something ready to go live on the site, but it is real enough to trigger detailed discussion and feedback.
The Hackathon can have plenty of flash (click for a short video) but don’t be fooled by the sizzle — the guts of this idea apply anywhere:
Note the differences from brainstorming. A Hackathon produces actionable, specific ideas. Conceivably these could be big strategic concepts, e.g. mapping a new business model, as well as very tactical features. Note as well that the concept isn’t just for industries like software. Consumer products, medical devices, banks and many others can apply these principles to their businesses. No matter how buttoned-down the industry, keep the process messy — indeed, that’s the point.