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How Hack Weeks Can Inspire Innovation and Change Culture

Company Culture
Team processes

28 October, 2020

Graham McNicoll, CEO of Growth Book and former VP of Product and Engineering at Education.com, recalls how he introduced hack weeks and inspired a company-wide culture of experimentation and innovation.

Problem

When we were a much smaller scrappy startup, my favorite thing someone on my team would say to me was, “Can I show you something I made?” Usually, these were very clever and simple changes or projects that added real value to our users and were done outside of normal prioritization. As we grew, these moments happened less and less. Processes were introduced and more of our time was scheduled (not saying this is bad, just different). But what was missing was that creative energy and the spirit of innovation and the willingness to experiment with new ideas. I wanted to recapture some of that energy by introducing hack weeks.
 

Actions taken

Getting buy-in for the entire company to take a week to work on whatever they wanted was a hard sell. Initially, there was some concern at the cost of having everyone in the company not work on prioritized projects for a week. I positioned it as an investment that would result in new ideas, creative energy, increased collaboration, and higher morale. I only had a few rules:
 

  • Participation was optional but encouraged;
  • Regular work, meetings, etc. were all canceled for that week;
  • They could work on anything -- no project limits;
  • They should team up with people they didn’t normally work with;
  • Everyone had to present what they worked on in an all-hands meeting on Friday.
     

There was pressure to use hack week to accelerate existing projects and initiatives. Although constraints can improve creativity in some situations, I argued that hack weeks are about thinking differently and letting small teams show what they can do. I didn’t want to limit project ideas as I had a feeling people would make some really cool things. There had been a lot written about the projects that came out of Google’s 20% time, and I trusted my team to do likewise.
 

There was also pressure to make it just one day, or three days. Having done a few hack weeks in the past, I knew you really needed a week to get more than just an idea on paper. Week-long hack weeks are better.
 

Once I had an agreement and a date, it was then time to start planning. I worked hard to ensure that the week would be a success. My hope was that these hack weeks would become a regular part of how we worked. People are creative in different ways. Some require a lot of time, some need encouragement, some prefer to contribute to existing ideas. To be sure to be inclusive of these different styles, I introduced what we were going to be doing well in advance, and encouraged everyone to contribute their ideas to a spreadsheet and offer to help other ideas they liked. By the time the week started, everyone had projects to work on.
 

After the Friday all-hands where everyone presented their projects, the company voted on their favorite projects. I created rewards for various categories to ensure a variety of teams won. I recorded the entire two-hour all-hands and then edited it down to a shareable 15-minute video that preserved what had been accomplished. This was important as our first hack week, most people were so focused on the project, they didn’t spend time on their presentation, and by editing, we could get their idea across well.
 

Lessons learned

  • Hack weeks are great fun. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just for engineering and product. HR made a new portal for accelerating onboarding, a cross-functional team built a bar after a couple of trips to Ikea, and our Art team painted life-size canvases with our characters which went up all around the office. Just walking around you could feel the shift in energy and collaboration.
  • Hack weeks get an amazing amount of work done. Our team of about 50 people made 68 projects. Every hack week after, we routinely completed about 70 projects. I’m always impressed by what small teams, removed of blockers and correctly motivated, can accomplish.
  • You end up with some really cool projects! I was blown away by the breadth of the ideas considered. Many were completely functional and launch-ready. Some of the cool projects we made were: our coding platform, music games, closed captioning on games, assignable assessments, customizable games, and a book creation tool. Many were launched shortly after, despite not having been on the normal prioritized list!
  • Successful hack weeks require an effort to organize and plan and encourage. Although constrained to start and finish projects in a week, I needed to plant the seeds much earlier to make sure everyone had time to contribute their best ideas and do their best work. It also took a lot of time to plan the Friday presentation, remind people to sign up for slots, come up with rewards, and edit the results video.
  • Hack weeks can affect culture and mindset well beyond the week. I noticed a marked increase in willingness to consider and test new ideas. Projects which were thought too hard in the past now became possible because we showed that we could build an MVP (minimum viable product) in a week.
  • We eventually made hack weeks a twice-a-year event that was eagerly looked forward to by the company. I know that they contributed to our high retention rates, employee satisfaction, company morale, and business success. I would encourage all company leaders to try a few if they are not already. You spend a lot of time hiring the best team — let them show you what they can do.

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