Technology

How to encourage innovation in your business in one day

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As the founder and head of a 13-year-old digital agency, I’ve spent over a decade working on encouraging innovation and creative thinking amongst my team.

We’ve tested various activities and methods over the years, from team building to training, monthly team lunches to mentoring and pair programming. In this article, I want to share with you one activity that we’ve discovered huge benefits in, with the hope that you may try this concept with your team.

We’re big on social and team-building events. We regularly take the team out for lunch, or away overseas for Christmas, and we’re not afraid to block out a day or half day to try a team-building exercise.

Couple this philosophy with my interest in these ‘startup weekend’ formats of working 24-48 hours non-stop on start-up concepts, and it got me thinking. How could we benefit from a creative thinking exercise such as these non-stop hackathons, and not force the team to be sleep deprived for a weekend? (Who wants the emotional fallout in the office Monday morning?)

Late last year, we executed an idea that worked really well for us. 

Introducing the start-up sprint concept

The start-up sprint concept is simple; set aside a day, gather the team, give them a short brief, and then all of us work as a collective to see how close we could get a minimal viable product by 6.30pm. At this point, we’d stop to review, eat wood-fired pizza and have a few drinks.

We’ve since held another one earlier this year, also to great success.

So, this is how it works.

Start by choosing a day in the near future where you can get the team together to stop work for the day, and focus on a team-building day. Block out their calendars, and let them know a little about the concept of a start-up sprint (but not the actual concept they’ll be working on; I’ll explain). You could even send the link to this article as background.

If you absolutely must, allocate one person to answer your office phones. You want as many people in on this as you can, regardless of their role within your team. It’s important that everyone feels involved; those in coding or design equally as those in administration or sales.

Next, choose a ‘sprint leader’. Their role is to create the brief, and keep it private until the day. Ideally, they are one of the leadership team within your organisation, but they don’t necessarily have to be.

If you feel concerned that the product or service you’ll be creating is way off the mark, consider setting some very basic objectives for the sprint leader to adopt. For us, these were:

  • Utilise technologies we don’t normally use
  • Build a SaaS product that we’ll find benefit using ourselves
  • Create something truly useful

Once defined, the sprint leader needs to formulate the idea, and then put it all on one or two pages. It’s important to utilise the minimum viable product methodology; depending on your team size and skills, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to build a fully featured product in one day, so set your expectations high but achievable. 

The sprint brief

The sprint brief we distributed to our team was on a single page, and contained the following four sections:

Sprint overview

The purpose of this start-up sprint is to try our hands at innovation and creative thinking. Our roles and teams are all up in the air. You may decide to join a team in which you normally don’t participate. We encourage you to try new processes, workflows and technologies; let’s work hard to build something, but equally as hard at learning and having fun!

Product background

Let’s create a system based on our weekly five-minute meetings. The system should ask everyone in the team six questions each week, and be very fast and simple to answer. We will then create reports around the resulting answers.

MVP

  • One organisation (just us)
  • Emails go out to staff 24 hours before deadline each week
  • Each email has unique URL just for that employee (so www.6q.io/hJkk80a or something) so can be personalised
  • Survey form has a timer for six minutes, which counts down
  • Must work well on mobile devices
  • Responses are saved to database for reporting
  • Email sent to organisation management with responses collated into one email
  • Must come up with a name and logo
  • Create a basic one page business plan
  • Sales website, or at least coming soon page
  • Blog with defined content strategy
  • Twitter account created and design applied

Nice to haves

The purpose of the brief was to be able to explain simply what we were trying to create, and what ideally was in the first day’s results, with a few ‘stretch goals’ of other items, such as social media and a blog.

We gathered the team at lunchtime, and the first anyone besides myself heard of the concept was at that point. We had a 20-minute meeting discussing what the sprint was trying to achieve, and then we allowed the team to formulate mini-business units. We agreed to meet to share our initial ideas and learnings at 3pm, and then stop work at 6.30pm for pizza and beer.

Benefits of the startup sprint

We had a number of fantastic outcomes besides the actual resulting product, which included:

  • Trialling new processes and workflow
  • Pushing creative thinking on team members unused to the concept
  • Validating what works, and what didn’t, in a compressed time frame
  • Encouraging individuals to work in areas they weren’t usually in
  • Creating a sense of adventure and excitement

This was exciting to watch; people created natural teams, and everyone split the tasks up well. They communicated by walking around the office, and a number of new brainstorming and workflow ideas were tried, all in one afternoon. There was a buzz of excitement in the air, which lasted for days after the event.

In a sense, creating this product was much like many of the projects we regularly work on for our clients, except some key areas;

  • We executed a project in under seven hours, not the usual 2-3 months’ timeframe
  • No clearly defined roles; people chose what they wanted to do
  • A focus on agile, fast brainstorming
  • We built something for ourselves, not for a third party

What we found was that internal teams can encourage innovation and learn more about each other and our existing systems in one day by doing a start-up sprint, than reading or hearing about innovation from third parties. We literally rolled our sleeves up and learnt through trial and error in one afternoon something that would take a long time using traditional learning techniques. 

The end result: a startup!

So, what was the result? We ended the day with a working prototype of a SaaS product called 6Q.

Sure, it looked less than ideal, however, there was a logo, blog, twitter account, rough marketing and business plan, and a web application that sent weekly polls, recorded the answers and sent the reports afterwards.

Since then, we’ve continued to build and improve upon it over the last eight months, and last month we launched 6Q as a SaaS product. We’ve been featured in various media, and have had organisations in over 130 countries use our product. You can see where we got to here.

I encourage you to try the startup sprint model out for yourselves; who knows what your team may create in one day. Good luck!

Miles Burke is the founder of 6Q, an employee feedback system focussed on building positive company culture and increasing employee engagement.

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