Using Hackathons to Create Process-Centric Teams

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COO of language learning, Idyoma
Adam Henshall is the COO of language learning app Idyoma and runs content for Process Street. His primary interest is in Agile ISO: how to combine rapid agile practices with best-in-class QMS standards.

Early on at Process Street, we knew we wanted to be a more process-centric team. Certain processes had poor adherence (rendering them ineffective), and new processes were only being designed by management. As a result, these processes weren’t being documented efficiently. Without the correct documentation, teams didn’t know how to use them – or even that these processes existed. 

We needed to improve how our systems were constructed, and how our infrastructural tools were used. 

“Col sporcar si trova”: Creating processes within calculated disarray 

We decided to borrow the idea of Hackathon, popularized by Silicon Valley startups. During a Hackathon, programmers have time to work on side projects or experiment with new ideas that aren’t yet part of the primary workflow. It’s about looking at the resources you have, and figuring out how to use them in new (and better) ways. For our teams, though, the focus would be on building processes instead of products. 

Hackathon lined up perfectly with our concept of Agile ISO; this is our attempt to balance the flexibility of being a small startup with the quality and assurance of best-in-class QMS standards. 

The first step was to revamp the folder hierarchy in our process library to provide a space for teams to create these projects – a digital workshop, in a sense. Following the programming model, we split the top level into two sections: Live (deployed processes) and Staging (in development processes). The Live hierarchy is for all of our active processes. Staging is where the magic happens; this gives each team member their own sandbox area for work-in-progress projects and testing new features. 

One day a month, the entire team focuses on self-determined process and system development. For each team member, this can look a little different. In some cases, this is documenting processes they’ve developed for themselves in order to share with peers. Others may choose to do some research or deep dive into a new topic. 

A side benefit we hadn’t intended, but definitely appreciate, is this “free” day also allows time to catch up on any work that might be running behind. 

The real success of Hackathon comes after the fact, though. Once the team has spent the day working on their projects, everyone comes together, teaches the others about their idea, and offers feedback in return. This not only makes our processes better but fosters better knowledge spill, team upskilling, and a real collaborative environment. It’s also become a social event that occurs during work time where the team shows off their creations. This has proven to be extremely valuable to maintain cohesiveness within a completely remote team. 

“There’s a way to do it better – find it.” 

Taking the content marketing section of our marketing department as an example, we also encourage our writers to produce content for other outlets: guest posting. This process is important to the team: it promotes the brand, it promotes our writers, and it allows them to flex those writing muscles in different ways. 

However, as a workflow, it wasn’t successful. Output was poor, the process was rarely followed so reporting faltered, and it became a huge time sink. As a result, I gave myself a personal OKR to increase overall team output, matched with 100% process adherence. 

While the team as a whole struggled with guest posts, one of our writers experienced a lot of success. He identified his success points and formalized what he’d been doing into a rough workflow. Then he documented his approach in an actionable way that allowed others to follow the same process. 

During the testing phase, the new process was kept in the Staging sandbox to allow maximum flexibility in making changes, updating, and adjusting without accidentally damaging our extant processes. Since deploying the process, it’s become two distinct workflows which the entire team makes use of. The creator felt empowered to take further ownership and mentor the other writers in pitching ideas, building relationships, and writing for other publications. 

Within a few weeks of introducing the new guest post procedure, the process attained 100% adherence. This wasn’t achieved via carrots, sticks, or workplace surveillance; this was the result of giving the team ownership over their own activities. 

This is exactly the result we wanted to achieve with Hackathon; it makes it possible for our processes to take center stage. On top of process improvements to common activities, our team have created onboarding materials and training guides, created databases, and even built Chrome extensions from scratch to help increase productivity. 

Encouraging creativity in the workplace is the most efficient way of overcoming operational problems. Most of the time, the people who do the work know how to do the work better, given the necessary support. 

The sum of small efforts: Assessing our success 

My role is more about providing that support than issuing commands, which increases my productivity as well – and gives me time to mentor, train, and strategize for the team instead of micromanaging routine tasks. 

Prioritizing our processes in this way had a knock-on effect in three very important ways: ownership, productivity, and better processes. 

First, it’s an acknowledgment of each employee’s value to the organization as a whole. The more involved and appreciated employees are, the more invested they become. With this investment comes empowerment and willingness to take initiative, greater confidence, and a more cohesive team. 

A heightened sense of ownership, in addition to the freedom to develop concepts and ideas independently, encourages employees to work better. They know that their contributions are important to their supervisors and mentors, as well as their peers. This builds an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their ideas with the entire team and helping each other continuously improve those ideas. Creativity breeds creativity, and a process-focused mindset results in greater process adherence. 

When people are encouraged to improve the systems they use most, processes continue to evolve. Each employee brings a different skill set, background, and experience to the role, which offers different perspectives and methods. This does not mean we throw out specialist process improvement techniques but that those occur later in the improvement cycle. The crowdsourcing of documentation from across the team accelerates each process to maturity as efficiently as possible. Once deployed and we have sufficient process logs to analyze, the processes are ready to be optimized by a process specialist. 

Processes exist to lift people up, but people should also be active in elevating the processes. When you encourage diverse thinking, you get results that incorporate both the big picture and the minor detail. Your team can spot process gaps that you might not have thought of. Giving them the tools to fix this both rapidly improves your process coverage and creates the process-centric culture crucial for a successful and self-reliant team. 

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