One of the great benefits of working for a small or medium-sized business is that every employee's voice matters and each person has the ability to encourage change. As the ScrumMaster for Business.com's software engineering team, one of the things I've always wanted to be a part of was an officially sanctioned company "hack-a-thon." A "hack-a-thon," or "Ship-It Day" as we called, is an event which occurs within a 24-hour period carved out in the middle of the work week where participants get to work on any project of their choosing as long as it has a material benefit to the business.
These types of events have all sorts of benefits to the company: employees are empowered with the understanding that their ideas can shape the direction of the company, leadership is exposed to the creativity and innovation that exist outside traditional product development, tons of team-building takes place, and there's positive press and recruiting that come from such initiatives.
Though we didn't follow the same format, many bigger companies have sponsored such employee-driven product initiatives to great successes.
- 3M, the worldwide adhesive corporation, was one of the earliest to adopt the practice and have products such as 'Post-it Notes' and 'Clear Band-aids' to show for it. Many of their 22,800 patents originated from their employee-driven programs where 15% of their work-hours were spent developing their own ideas. If the concept sounds radical to you today, imagine the reaction in a post-war America when they first began empowering their employees to think outside the confines of their normal job responsibilities.
- Today's most modern success story is, of course, Google. As much as 50% of their current offerings have roots in their employee's '20% time'. Google Earth, Gmail, Google News, and even AdSense all stem from employee initiatives.
- Apple, LinkedIn, and Atlassian are other large companies which have their own initiatives.
Needless to say, today's corporate leaders see the value in such programs and after our first attempt, I can see why. Our "Ship-It" Day began on a Thursday at 3:00 p.m. where development team members gave their pitch and each person was asked to put their initials next to what they wanted to work on. Throughout the rest of the day (and night), Business.com employees worked on their ideas until the next day (Friday) at 3:00 p.m. From there, stories were shared with the rest of the company and each team presented. By round of applause, a winner was selected.
The event was a huge win all around. The participants remarked on how surprised they were by the things they learned as they finally scratched the itch of delving into some new technologies while the rest of the company gained new insight into the various talents of their development team. For companies that are trying to inspire creativity and empower their employees, I highly recommend this. The outcome of this one event produced several potential products for the company and new ideas to grow on. Innovative companies understand that the best ideas can come from anywhere and will find a way to champion them. After all, you never know when someone will come up with the next 'Post-it Note'.