Culture

How a hackathon can encourage your employees to innovate

Group Of Multi-Ethnic People Working On Digital Devices Around Table

Group Of Multi-Ethnic People Working On Digital Devices Around Table

Originally published on March 16, 2017 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/hackathons-arent-just-for-hackers-any-more/article34146640/ 

Everyone in business has heard the expression that if you’re not disrupting your market, someone else will soon be disrupting you. But this raw challenge doesn’t help most leaders understand how they’re supposed to get started in the creative-destruction business.

But Steven Stein has figured it out. The chief executive officer of Toronto-based Multi-Health Systems Inc. has created an in-house “hackathon” to encourage innovative thinking and transform ideas into new products.

Stein is a true believer in creative destruction. He founded MHS 33 years ago to disrupt the psychological-testing industry by automating conventional paper-based tests for the personal computer. Today, MHS is a global industry leader, with 160 employees and clients in more than 75 countries. But Stein knows his company remains vulnerable to new entrepreneurs with better ideas – so he’s shaking up his team to ensure they develop those bold new products first.

It was an off-site strategy session for senior leaders that launched MHS’s innovation project. “Two years back, we had a presentation on disruption,” Stein said. “We went home and had nightmares about how new people could kick us out of the market.”

Stein and his team knew hackathons were popular, if sometimes messy, events that help small teams turn new ideas into working prototypes fast. Even when they don’t produce new products, hackathons can be powerful problem-solving exercises that can build positive attributes such as agility, risk tolerance and trust. So Stein appointed a team, led by president Hazel Wheldon, in the summer of 2015 to put MHS on the hackathon circuit – and make it fun and engaging.

Since then, MHS has held two hackathons at its Toronto headquarters, and created a five-person “innovation hub” to select the best ideas and turn them into customer-ready products. Innovation is a long game, and the first market tests are still in the field. But Stein believes the process has already been successful. “The biggest benefit is the excitement it created,” he said. “People loved working with new people. It’s been worth it just for the engagement, not just the products we got out of it.”

Could your company pull off a similar innovation coup? Here’s how MHS did it.

  • After researching how other companies managed innovation events, MHS’s hackathon planners developed guidelines and rules. They decided on a one-day hackathon on a January Monday – with the 15 teams competing in a “Demo Day” the following Friday, in conjunction with MHS’s annual awards dinner.
  • Teams formed in groups of five to eight in early fall, so they would have lots of time to develop ideas and research solutions prior to the big day. To help the teams focus, planners identified four sectors as most likely to be disrupted: big data; mobile apps; gamification; and process improvement.
  • As the employee teams took shape (each one restricted to one programmer and one employee from user experience), the planners scheduled a series of “lunch and learns” through the fall. Topics included creating prototypes, writing business plans and making killer presentations.
  • The incentives? The team with the most promising idea (as judged by Stein and a panel of internal and external judges) would win $5,000. There would also be a $2,000 second prize, and a third prize of $1,000.

On hackathon day in January, 2016, the 15 teams had until 6 p.m. to finalize a prototype and hammer out a business plan. MHS supplied food and colour-coded team T-shirts, creating a festive atmosphere. Participants were laughing, sweating, debating and tweeting – so much so that competitors started noticing. For 2017, MHS had to say no to tweets that gave too much away.

All teams presented to the judging panel on the following Friday. Each team was allowed a five-minute presentation, followed by five minutes for answering questions. Stein was thrilled by the winning ideas: an inexpensive “candidate competencies” test for employers to help MHS hack its way into a highly lucrative market; a mobile “early warning” solution that let psychologists share with patients (or their parents) preliminary test results in minutes instead of weeks; and the identification of new markets for some of the firm’s underused mental-health surveys through sales to the insurance industry.

Stein said some of these ideas might have daunted the team prior to the hackathon. “But now these guys have mapped them out. They said: ‘We can do it. Here’s how.’ ”

The next step was for the implementation team to review the finalists’ ideas and adopt the most promising projects. For now, MHS is funding this project through unbudgeted foreign-exchange gains; Stein hopes the group will start paying its way before the Canadian dollar turns up again.

The innovation hub – two psychologists, two programmers and a UX person – fine-tuned initial prototypes for hand-off to sales, which arranged pilot programs with real customers. The team set itself quarterly goals to ensure it was doing its job; in innovation, knowing what to stop working on is just as important as spotting winners.

“Over all, there are eight or nine projects we’re moving ahead with,” Stein said. With two hackathons now under his belt, a pipeline of new projects and a re-engaged work force, he said the whole process has been a winner. “It’s turned us from a disruptee to a disruptor.”

Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. He holds the Institute of Corporate Directors certification (ICD.D). Follow him on Twitter at @90percentRule.

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Is Online Shopping on the Wane?

Computer graphic illustration about internet shopping in virtual world.

Originally published on November 11, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/is-online-shopping-dead/article32658017/

A few years ago, I was sitting with friends and talking about a job offer that one of them had just received. It was with a new online retailer of “everything gardening.”

I laughed. Then choked (elegantly) on my drink as we learned that our friend had already accepted the new position. For greater context, this Ivy League-educated professional had been wooed away from a Tier One international consulting firm to join a startup aiming to sell spades and seeds online.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the transformative potential of the Internet. I was and continue to be an avid online shopper for what I call non-tactile purchases: commodities such as books and music, where, once you’ve made your decision to buy, price and speed of access are the key, rather than place of purchase. I can even be pushed as far as buying shoes online from brands that I know and trust, feeling confident that they will arrive on time and fit as comfortably as the ones I just wore out.

But this was gardening! And gardening may be the most tactile of all pastimes. Avid gardeners spend hours of their scarce free time lovingly planning, shopping for, implementing and showing off their creativity and passion for the beauty of nature.

It just seemed counterintuitive to me that a hobby driven by touch and feel could be fed by a computer screen and two-day shipping. Of course, we all wished our friend luck and praised him for getting in on the ground floor. But it turned out we weren’t the only ones with reservations. Less than a year later, that “sure thing” startup laid off staff by the bushel, and it was back to Tier One consulting for my friend.

What made me think of this so many years later? On a stroll along Toronto’s Queen Street West, I passed one of the new Warby Parker “brick and mortar” stores. Warby Parker, for the non-hipsters among you, is an American company that formed in 2010 to sell affordable, good quality prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses. Despite its online roots, Warby Parker now has 40 retail locations, with many more planned, including both standalone outlets and mini-showrooms lodged inside existing boutiques.

Naturally I went online to read more about Warby Parker and this crazy new trend of shopping in stores. In an Inc. magazine article entitled Amazon Could Open up to 2,000 Grocery Stores, author Eugene Kim noted “Physical stores are becoming increasingly central to Amazon’s business ambitions as the company expands beyond its online-retailing stronghold and looks for new ways to reach customers.” New ways to reach customers? Incredible. Physical stores are now being heralded as innovative solutions to tech companies’ growth challenges. What Tier One consulting firm helped Amazon achieve this stunning breakthrough?

I get riled up about all this because I staunchly, consistently counsel companies not to chase all the shiny new toys. I know that online retail is not just a fad. But I will never believe that human beings will come to a point where they no longer need personal contact with each other.

A world in which we shop and do business cocooned in our homes or offices, void of smiles, advice and all human contact seems a dreary place to me. And it seems to miss the point that shopping is a personal experience, all about learning, growing and sharing with each other.

If you are a retailer, build the multichannel approach to reaching customers both online and off. If you are in business-to-business, the personal element is even more important. Get off your e-mail, tear yourself away from the Internet and do something novel: Pick up the phone or get in the car and go visit your customers. In real life, they don’t just want commodity service and the lowest price. They want more advice, more reasons to trust, and stronger personal relationships. These competitive advantages can’t be developed with the click of a mouse.

Remember, it’s called customer engagement for a reason.

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Putting people into a room together doesn’t make them a team

Originally published on February 1, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/putting-people-into-a-room-together-doesnt-make-them-a-team/article28439210/

Sometimes the simplest insights are the most telling. And the most important.

Some time back, while I was working with an engineering client, our conversation circled back to his firm’s past attempts to encourage collaboration and innovation. In one sentence, he crystallized the challenge many of my clients have encountered in their attempts to change their corporate culture: “Just because you put us into a room together doesn’t make us a team.”

In a previous innovation exercise, his firm had taken steps towards creating its first cross-functional team, a popular tool for accelerated innovation. This “task force” model draws people from different areas of the organization – sales, marketing, HR, admin, research and development, and so on – to generate insights from all points of view, from customer needs to new product ideas, production and distribution. Theoretically, these teams can move forward fast, because they don’t have to wait for feedback or permissions from other departments. But this firm’s initial results with a cross-functional team were less than stellar.

Why? Because without a leader and a conductor who can provide the big picture and co-ordinate all of the players, you’re asking your people to work outside of what they know and do every day. Understanding how everything fits together isn’t a part of their job descriptions.

In addition to technical know-how, teams need strong leadership, direction, objectives and accountability (at minimum) if they want to be successful. As my client noted, these skills aren’t often taught in schools. His staff needed additional training to ensure that they could translate their business skills or technical brilliance into a team dynamic where the whole could truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

At my firm, we call this process transitioning the cross-functional team into a Dynamic Working Group (DWG). The purpose of the DWG is to create an environment in which high-functioning individuals are taught collaborative skills to help them work together to deliver productive, measurable outcomes.

Based on my facilitation of working groups within client teams, I can share some of the insights I’ve gleaned about successful collaboration and how to get everyone pulling together.

1. Leadership for performance: People don’t respond well to an inflexible “boss.” They are more successful when their leader attracts commitment and energizes people by creating meaning in their work. When the leader’s focus is truly on partnering with their team members to drive performance, leveraging frequency and quality of conversation, employees are more likely to commit to the goals at hand.

2. Discovering everyone’s strengths: There are benefits in building diverse teams of individuals drawn from different backgrounds with a range of skills, experiences and perspectives. Collectively, they represent your company’s DNA. The leader’s challenge is to take the time to understand and tap into the individual strengths of each team member.

3. Objectives and accountability: Successful businesses set objectives that are company-wide. Without objectives, a company lacks purpose. But simply setting business objectives is not enough. They need to be achievable, inspiring, easy to visualize and people must be held accountable for achieving them. If objectives are not aligned to a common strategic direction, then everyone in the organization will be working at cross purposes – leading to conflict, project slowdowns and reduced commitment to achieving results.

4. Meaningful meetings: In many organizations, meetings are taking up an ever-increasing amount of time. When meetings are held without preparation, agendas and action items, or used as a stalling tactic for decision-making, they diminish productivity and morale. Given the high number of people who normally attend cross-functional team meetings, strong leadership and a sense of purpose are essential.

To drive innovation and meaningful change in your organization, you need confident, vigorous cross-functional teams. Sustained innovation success depends on having team leaders who understand the big picture, relate well to individuals from different backgrounds, and have the communication skills to galvanize and inspire.

First you bring people together in the same room, and then you bring them together on the same page.

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