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Hack weeks are a popular technique to help stimulate grassroots innovation. One Microsoft team explored the impact of three additional factors: diversity, remote work, and timeouts - on hack week innovation efforts. Participants acquired additional skills, new contacts, and developed innovative attitudes that they brought back to their “regular jobs”.
Microsoft is a leading software manufacturer that was founded in 1975 and has experienced tremendous growth in its 37 year history. As a company, Microsoft and its employees value integrity, honesty, openness, personal excellence, constructive self-criticism, continual self-improvement, and mutual respect.
Microsoft Lync 2013 is a unified communications platform on which users can make a phone call, keep track of their contacts’ availability, send an IM, and start or join an audio, video, or web conference.
Hack weeks, ShipIt Days, Startup Weekends are well known techniques to help stimulate grassroots innovation. Employees break from their regular duties to focus on innovating. The results can be fantastic – opening up new areas of thought and bringing outside influences and collaborative efforts together to change course and create new opportunities. In many cases, collaboration under pressure can build greater team cohesion and increase organizational trust. However, sometimes these events don’t deliver all the anticipated results, and we wanted to experiment in “innovating the hack week innovation.” The events typically begin with a series of elevator pitches, followed by the creation of self-organizing teams, then a kickoff event, and conclude with presentations, demos and judging.
Participants commence with a burst of enthusiasm, however, the excitement and energy does not always result in a sustained level of creativity and innovation expected. Common explanations include, “well, this was the first one” or “people still were thinking about their normal deliverables and couldn’t focus”, or “our people are just not that creative.” In addition, even with very successful events, it’s hard to bring the energy and excitement back to the day job. Newly created relationships fade as daily tasks supplant the energy and excitement of a high-pressure project where each member of the small team played a large and important role. For many employees, the “regular” job doesn’t engender the same excitement.
With these concerns in mind, we considered a variety of methods we might employ as measures to improve the likelihood the experience would be positive and lasting. This paper briefly explains our approach, but then includes many quotes from participants in order to illustrate that our approaches made a difference and really matter to a team seeking higher levels of creativity and innovation.
We set out to make our “Garage Week” a staging ground for our experiment. We would be testing three different methods to spur some amount of variety to the mix. First, since women are often under-represented in technology fields, one method would be to create an all-woman team to take on one of the pitched projects. Second, the team was encouraged to participate in a “time out”, or time away from the office at some point during the week. With an entire week to spend on the project, scheduling time away was easy to do as a group. Third, a remote member of the team would be encouraged to participate in a project team for Garage Week. The addition of a remote member would provide some geographic diversity to the project. This seemed appropriate as the team develops a unified communication product, which could be used readily and easily by the team. This may also provide a unique use case for the product, which provided value itself.
We have spent months developing a strong women-in-engineering program on our team to both improve our culture to make the overall environment more amenable to women software engineers. Even before the Garage Week had been announced, we had been discussing numerous ways to step up our women-in-engineering efforts, including creating an all-woman feature team for the product.
We thought it would be fascinating to organize an all-woman team for Garage Week. As the pitches progressed, we realized we should also monitor an all-male team, as well as a mixed team as control groups for our experiment. We were pretty sure that since women are under-represented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, including software engineering, that our all-woman team would take our hack week innovative efforts to new heights – strictly because it’s rarely been done, that a multi-discipline team of all women would bring new processes and communication skills to the process.
We also wanted to explore getting people away to help focus the team during hack week. Julian Birkinshaw refers to these as “time outs” so the all-woman team happily went for a pedicure to brainstorm their project plans. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Men of lofty genius when they are doing the least work are the most active.”
In addition, given the changing workforce demographics, the rise of emerging economies and a globally distributed workforce, we wanted to include remote participants and monitor their experience as well.
Innovating innovation was our goal!
First, some background on the Garage Week. As noted, many organizations use these events to spark grass roots innovation. As seen in other MiX submissions (WeOrg, Dude, Where’s My Boss, Organizational Trust, etc), we’ve been experimenting across a number of dimensions to innovate in the way we organize and manage to best attract the talent and passion of next gen employees and improve the lives of the managed. We had a Lync organization-wide Garage Week, with over 100 participants spread across a couple dozen self-organizing teams, with everyone taking a week off from their regular jobs to brainstorm, pitch, design, and develop new projects, features, and products.
Participation was not mandated. We preferred that folks participated out of interest rather than pressure from the management to innovate. The scope and range of ideas was not mandated in any way. While most of the pitches were related to our Lync family of products, the process was open-ended, open to all types of ideas. However, because we choose to work where we do, most ideas were related to Lync and communication-related experiences.
Anyone with an idea could pitch it to participants and recruit others to help. A series of pitch meetings were held, where ideators had one minute to present a brief explanation of their idea, their motivation, and perhaps a customer story or pain point to resolve. We had about 20 different people pitch ideas. People could pick an idea that appealed to them and form or join teams to design and implement the idea. At the end of the week, the teams would present their work to everyone in a “science fair format.”
Individual teams were empowered to identify the scope of their work, assign roles and responsibilities and to identify what resources they would need to deliver their project. Roles and responsibilities of the individuals within the teams were not based on disciplines but based on choice. A test engineer could chose to work as a developer on the project if he/she desired.
We encouraged the teams to choose a common working place where they could all sit together for the week to work on the project. Folks chose to reserve a conference room where they could story board and whiteboard the ideas, bring in their machines and work out of there in a more collaborative environment as opposed to working out of their individual offices, or a common hang-out spot to gather for brainstorming.
Some of the common SDK’s (Software Development Kits) and other gadgets were at our disposal to use for implementation.
Some comments from people who participated in the Garage Week:
“I’ve worked harder last week than I have throughout by career. It’s because I was working on a project I liked with a team of folks who volunteered to be part of it.”
“Working together with my team - all of us sitting in the same conference room was great, it helped get the job done quickly, easily and efficiently”
“If I find an issue I can quickly turn to my teammate who is sitting next to me and talk to them about it. This motivates them to quickly fix the issue or we can have a conversation around the need of fixing this issue then and there.”
“I wish every week was garage week, we got so much accomplished in a week.”
“I was amazed at the amount of work that got done in less than a week, we actually had only 3 days and we did so much”
“The fact that I choose the project that I liked was motivating me to do better and put more effort”
The ability to self-organize into informal networks which were not bound by any organizational hierarchy to accomplish interesting projects from the bottoms up was one key contributor to the level of creativity and innovation during the Garage week.
Participants had a wide choice of ideas to consider, and they had the opportunity to choose which project they wanted to contribute to. The end product in many cases was not exactly what was pitched, but evolved during the week. In many cases, some element of the pitch sparked an interest in a one or two people and they formed a team. During the week, through further discussions, teams developed their abilities to sense which aspects of the ideas have real value, and tuned their thinking and their efforts through the remaining steps required to make it happen. The iterative aspect of the creative process was apparent across all teams.
More comments from participants:
“I was in control and can make adds/cuts and steer my project in the direction I wanted, no need to get buy off etc.”
“Loved working with people I don’t have much interactions with on a daily basis, got to know them better. Team dynamics were great, no hierarchy of titles etc., and I got to work on a technology that I wanted to know more about, something new”
“We knew that we had to demo on Friday whatever was done by then, so that deadline motivated us to complete the work.”
“Many projects that were demoed were real code and almost ready for ship, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish in such little time when we don’t have protocols to follow, just doing our work.”
“Helps builds emotional bonding between folks, chemistry and team dynamics that we can use in daily work life.”
“It can help build skills – if i have an idea, now I need to influence and attract a team to help me deliver this idea. I need to build a team, keep the team together so that they come back for more. Given its not mandatory and self-chosen based on your interests it works great.”
“People should be open to serendipity. You pitch an idea and for a bit you think it’s not going anywhere, but suddenly you meet someone and they are interested in your idea and now that sparks off something bigger.”
“I had an agenda to get some of my favorite features that get cut most of the time make it to mainstream. It was great to see some ideas that never saw the light of day during normal development lifecycles become reality. I had great fun, we should do more of these”
Many teams used Garage Week to build prototypes for concepts that were on the radar based on discussions with customers. Everyone loved Garage Week and many wondered what would be the life of their projects after the week ended and many wanted to see some version of their prototype built in to our products.
In the future, we can schedule the hack week early in the product cycle to incorporate ideas and prototyping into our product plans. We can formally schedule customer visits, discussions, and brainstorming to understand basic needs and requirements. These findings could then be presented to the team and incorporate this data in to the pitch process. Use Garage Week to form teams and implement some of these ideas using new creative technology and solutions to help make the entire organization part of the planning and implementation process.
We thought at the beginning that the all-woman team would be the most innovative during Garage Week. While everyone is different and we certainly don’t want to stereotype, but we have generally seen that women are more collaborative and social – and so we figured that brainstorming and creative collaboration would flourish on an all-woman team.
As one participant observed,
“Same gender helped the brainstorming sessions –
there was increased enthusiasm and energy during brainstorming sessions. The non-conflicting attitude helped generate lots of ideas.”
“In talking with others, I realized that our ‘all-women’ team had the most FUN last week J which gave rise to increased collaboration – mostly due to our timeout [group pedicure]. Most folks wished they had done something like that.”
“We got to know each other very well personally and professionally which helped with team building and created a feeling of community. The emotional and social connection”
“Last week you were my family”
“All-women team was much more collaborative”
As the week progressed, we began to see teams with role diversity, and gender diversity started to shine more brightly. In the words of the participants:
“Many teams were all test, all developer teams. Most of these folks had similar strengths and chose to work on similar project like engineering/tools improvement and very focused on the technology or code aspects of the project. Probably because this is what excites them”
The all-woman team flourished during the brainstorming portion of the week. In the words of the participants:
“Same gender helped the brainstorming sessions – there was increased enthusiasm and energy during brainstorming sessions. Our non-conflicting attitude helped generate lots of ideas. The fact that we had developers, testers, program managers, and user experience designers represented on our team really helped with different perspectives. The timeout concept appealed to everyone on the team, and we were all able to easily converge on the pedicure session for brainstorming ideas – which worked well”
However, as things moved in to different phases of development, lack of role or gender diversity hindered some teams.
The all-test, all-developer teams felt that they could have done much more had they partnered with folks who have different strengths than theirs. Most of these teams felt like they did not focus on value-add and presentation of their projects. Having a package to sell and a story to tell about how their project can add value would have helped them market and present their project better during the science fair. This brings out that skill diversity is essential on the team. Working with a team of people who have diverse skills, thoughts and actions improves innovation abilities.
Looking at it from a woman’s point of view, a participant observed as a downside of the all-women team:
“We are all close friends. Friends don’t criticize each other. So if I was not satisfied with an individual’s proposal and proposed something else, it became more of a - I thought you were my friend, then why don’t you agree with me? - sort of thing”
“I would be more inclined to argue with a proposal made by my male colleague than my female friendJ. If I argue with my female friend I feel like I owe her an apology etc which doesn’t help the team spirit. I would rather not be viewed as the person who was argumentative and mean, as such I am more inclined to agree with an idea that I don’t like/not convinced about. Not great for innovation/creativity. Conflicting ideas (when taken in the right spirit) help motivate creativity”
For individuals who participated in the garage week from remote locations the experience was challenging.
The remote participants followed more of an offline mode where they would meet up each morning to discuss what needs to be implemented via a conference call and then go offline and get it done, one remote developer would send code snippets to her teammate participating locally, and this person would integrate the code as opposed to working real time together.
One remote worker’s teammate mentioned that the remote worker had to drop off after a while as she could not hear what other folks were talking, could not experience the energy around in the local café remotely, during the science fair presentation of the garage week projects
“She just could not discern what was going on through just a small camera/audio device of the machine.”
Challenges of working away from your own desk:
One of the challenges of working away from your desk/office is that people need to carry their machines/monitors etc to the place where they will be working from. When people need help from others who are not part of the team, coordination and locating the right person when they are needed becomes difficult. Time out worked best for brainstorming, planning and organizing.
Let’s visit the findings of our experiments:
An all-woman engineering team would be more innovative
Relaxed, informal and friendly interactions help share ideas openly with others and sparks new connections. Diversity in context and opinion creates friction that sparks ideas is blown into flames and soon a roaring blaze of innovation - in relaxed, informal interactions:
“I could sense the conflicts while our team was in the conference room working and given we didn’t want to offend each other, we let it go. But the same conflict was easily resolved; rather we were open to accepting each other’s ideas during the pedicure session as it was more relaxed. We had conflicting opinions on what colors the story board poster should consist of, this seemed like a no brainer to us while we were picking nail polish colors. Looking at all the nail polish colors we easily came to consensus on what the story board colors should be.”
Creative tension helps build great ideas by tweaking and challenging good ideas, which stem from iterating on many ideas. Work relationships are based on respect of every member’s work, which then lead to high levels of friendship and trust. Avoiding criticism of others is important for the brainstorming phase, but a critical eye and constructive criticism can really help bring a project to the finish line.
On teams that had 2 women and more men, the equation was quiet different. These 2 women felt more connected with each other, they were like a sub-team within the bigger team. They were more inclined to back each other up, they acted as advocates for each other’s ideas to the bigger team. “Let’s hear what woman A has to say, she has some great ideas” the other woman would say to help woman A. Seems like being the minority helped with the bonding here.
Having one more woman on the team provided confidence and she was able to voice her ideas knowing that the other person would encourage her.
One team with a woman leader had a great combination of gender diversity and skill diversity (developer, test, program manager, user experience design) – a winning combination for innovation. Also could be great data point about women being good with project management and leading projects.
And a few more comments on the benefits around productivity, happiness and morale:
“I wish every week was garage week, we got so much accomplished in a week.”
“It’s amazing how much we can accomplish in 1 week, never seen such motivation and enthusiasm from folks before”
An explicit “time out” – away from work - would improve creativity
Social interaction is critical for creative development. It’s more comfortable to share and develop ideas in informal and cordial interactions. These social interactions are best when unplanned, outside of regular work mode.
A participant commented:
“Few of our team members made an impromptu trip to Trader Joes [grocery store] to get some supplies like chips, candy canes etc. for the team and while there, they came up with a great idea for the themes that we used”
Remote workers would improve results by adding geographic diversity
As mentioned above in the “challenges” section, remote workers did not have the same level of interaction, and in certain phases of the process, they could “go offline and get work done” – but for the most part, the level of engagement by remote workers was lower than on-site participants.
One important lesson we want to share is the value of experimentation in the midst of innovation-focused events. By explicitly testing out new concepts within the context of our Garage Week, we ended up getting a lot more value and cultural impact out of the week’s investments than we feel we would have otherwise.
Diverse teams are more creative – and more is better – when diversity spans gender, role, generation, and location, the results improve.
Open sharing, socialization, and informal atmosphere are the key ingredients for creative collaboration.
While Garage Week was a one week focused event, a culture change has been triggered and in general, people are more collaborative, more thoughtful, and more creative than they were prior to the event.
Meeting in a common location that brings the energy, social atmosphere and tools (a drink, comfy couch, chips, etc.) that a collaborative event really demands, was the highlight of our project.
Time out – away from regular job, as in a hack week, as well as a change from normal office space, (team pedicure!) enhances creativity and innovation. [In hearing of the pedicure], “most folks wished they had done something like that.”
Remote participation is difficult.
When folks work on project they choose they are more motivated to work hard and complete it.
Garage Weeks help keep team morale high, people loved it. It helped improve team bonding, builds connections with people you don’t normally work with.
Be open to Serendipity – You stumble upon something momentous by accident. You develop a sense of an idea’s potential and value. One winning team leader mentioned that she almost gave up on her winning idea as there were no takers from the pitch meetings. She met a teammate by chance in the café and started a conversation, he got interested and was onboard, soon they gathered more folks and within a day the project was underway.
Garage Week environment enables the participant to easily vet, get exposure for, and feedback on their ideas…and then to find and surround yourself with people that are on your same page, totally get your idea, are like-minded, and may know how to possibly pivot your idea to make it better and get it off the ground. All with the benefit of a very low bar of disappointment and investment in time if your idea is not picked. To do all this vetting from the right people that are passionate about the same technology in one place and this type advocating would normally take hours of planning, meetings, emails and hallway discussions. Garage Week makes it lean and agile to get real traction on your idea – often ending in working prototypes.
We learned that diverse teams – with a wide variety of differences in role, gender, skills, perspective, and age – out-innovate teams with a greater degree of homogeneity. People are more comfortable with those similar to themselves – and so self-organizing teams tend to group similar folks together – which we believe is part of why a hack week may sometimes lead to disappointment in the degree of creativity and innovative results. We found that diverse teams really bring out the creative tension necessary to deliver great results.
These lessons learned are not only applicable to improving future Garage Weeks but can also be used in the general Software development lifecycle to make our product teams better.
The Microsoft Lync Team
CNN - Where MS geeks go to do epic S#!+ http://money.cnn.com/2012/08/10/technology/microsoft-garage/index.html