238 things I learned about Exploration Days

Innovation: the buzzword of today. Every company claims they need innovation to stay relevant. Without innovation there is no future. Adobe has Kickbox, Google has a 20% time policy, Atlassian has ShipIt Days, etc., etc.

Kickbox is a new innovation process that Adobe developed for its own use and then open sourced so everyone can use it. Adobe Kickbox delivers an actionable process for discovering new opportunities, validating customer engagement, and evaluating new business potential. It includes tools that help innovators define, refine, validate, and evolve their idea. I feel that you could ask yourself the question, however, is it really possible to define a process that stimulates innovation, a process that will fit everyone? Or should people be free in their approach? After all, you cannot really schedule something like next week tuesday person X will do a remarkable discovery.

At Google they state “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google, this empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.” Huge 20% products include the development of Google News, Gmail, and even AdSense. In 2013, Chris Mims wrote for Quartz that 20% time was “as good as dead” because it became too difficult for employees to take time off from their normal jobs. So how do you make sure that people have time to contribute and that it is really adding value? That giving people 20% is not only there to promote your company but that it actually leads to something?

Atlassian describes their ShipIT days as: “24 hours to innovate. It’s like 20% time. On steroids.” Team members can work on whatever they want. Something that inspires them, a dream feature or just smashing a huge bug. They can assemble their own team. It offers a chance to combine ideas and skill sets from different teams. They have 24 hours. Execution matters too, but the best idea wins. What happens, however, if you fail to come up with that great idea in those 24 hours, is what I ask myself?

Now in his Book #Workout, Jurgen Appelo describes the concept of Exploration Days. In basics, it investigates the notion how many organizations struggle with self education of employees. Jurgen states that a very effective way to make learning enjoyable is for people to organize themselves using exploration days. It is just a name, but essentially a group gets organized themselves and take 24 hours to explore something, no further strings attached. They are sometimes also called hackathons or whatever days. Exploration Days are meant as an invitation to your employees to learn and develop themselves by running experiments and exploring new ideas. The goal is to get employees to learn as much as possible and perhaps even to come up with new ideas and insights. Experts agree that the purpose of hackathons and other forms of exploration days is to experiment with ideas, not to ship things. Organizations must now learn to run such experiments regularly, because those that learn fastest are the ones best able to survive.

At a previous company we organized an R&D Summit. As a distributed shop we regularly chose to have all R&D Employees in one location so we could see eye to eye on things! This was the best moment to organize the first Exploration Day. A colleague manager and I organized the R&D Summit and therefore also the first Exploration Day.

So what did we do, what happened and what did we learn… Organizing such an event itself is not that difficult, you will manage. However, to make sure you learn from our mistakes or successes, I want to share them with you (in a random order).

1. It is mandatory for people to participate, or is it…

There were various discussions with people new to the concept of Explorations Days, for example the HRM department. We explained the setup of the Exploration Days and told them that we felt it was not mandatory to join. People could decide if they would participate or not. One of the remarks we got was that we had to make it mandatory. Not sure why the person said this, perhaps the notion of one size fits all, but the person concerned was definitely new to the concept of Exploration Days. We explained that you simply cannot force people to participate in an event like this. Imagine you are in a group of enthusiastic people, and there are two or three people who are required to participate but they do not really want to. I do not think we have to explain the impact on the morale and the stress this can cause in a team. On the other hand there were more than 100 potential participants. So it was up to us to make as many people enthusiastic.

So our view, do not make it mandatory. People should be able to decide for themselves if they want to join, or not.

2. Lead by example

You are a manager/facilitator/coach/project lead/… anything except a developer and you want to organize the Exploration Days? Good idea! You can take care of the facilities, of course that is you role, but will you also join in? We most firmly believe in lead by example and therefore also participated. Not with a development project, that would make me look silly because my development days are long behind me. I decided to work dedicatedly for 24 hours on my new Chromebook… in our corporate environment. I tried doing all my regular tasks and tried to find out if a Windows laptop is still required to get my business tasks done. As a side note, I learned that a Windows laptop is still required to work effectively. Office365 is not yet mature enough and interacting with people who work in a Windows environment (Skype and OneDrive) is hard when you are working in a Google environment (Hangout and Google Drive). The most important thing is, I participated! I created the first project description on the Wiki section Exploration Days and tried to lead by example. The other organizing manager was not able to participate due to his working part time and taking care of his kids one day a week. He did, however, pass by in the evening when the kids were in bed, inquiring all teams how things were going and if they needed something, if only a pizza or a cup of coffee. Actively showing a genuine interest in people, what they were exploring and how things were doing proved to be highly appreciated by the teams taking part in the Exploration Days.

In short, participating or at least being there and showing an interest worked well for us.

3. People feel guilty

Good professionals love their job and are committed to deliver great products. They love to help the customer, in this case the product owner. As a result, people tend to focus 100% on their job and sometimes forget to take time to develop themselves. They even do so when they get an opportunity to participate in Exploration Days. We informed the Product management team and the Program managers a few months before the Exploration Days about the upcoming event. Be careful we said… worst case scenario is that the whole department will participate in the Exploration Days and they will not be available to you those 24 hours. We tend to be optimistic :). This could impact the progress of your iteration, project or release if you do not take it into account. We communicated to everyone quite clearly that everyone could participate, and that the Exploration Days had the highest priority. It turned out we did not communicate well enough. We could now make excuses that people did not read their mail, but I believe you should always look at yourself when somebody did not get the message. There were some people who did not join the Exploration Days because they wanted to focus on the project and would feel guilty when they would join the Exploration Days.

Next time we will communicate more clearly about such an event. We will, for example, attend all standups and following a standup make sure that everyone understands that they are allowed to participate in the Exploration Days, no need to feel guilty. Perhaps we will even do it a couple of times (do you know what is coming? did you form a group yet? do you have an idea yet what to explore?). Make sure you have full support of the entire management but also that all team members know they are allowed to participate. Additionally, do not feel sad when not everyone joins in. Some people just prefer to focus on their work at hand.

4. Management asked for success criteria

Management asked us to define goals regarding the R&D Summit to check if the R&D Summit was a success and part of this R&D Summit would be the Exploration Days. We thought about it… and came up with the objective “Organize R&D Summit to improve knowledge”. We identified three important results:

  1. At least 75 people of R&D attend the Super Guild Event
  2. At least 23 people participate in the Exploration Days
  3. We do not spend more money than in the budget

The second result was about the Exploration Day. Why 23 people out of a potential 100? According to the 2015 Developer Survey of Stack Overflow, the average developer spends more than 7 hours per week coding on the side. We expected only the developers who spend more time than average to attend the Exploration Days. This is 22% according to the survey. Therefore, we wanted 25% of the people of R&D to attend the Exploration Days. In the end a total of 36 people attended.

At first we were a bit puzzled by the question from management: what data were they specifically looking for and how do you measure whether something is a success. We believe in management based on data, so again lead by example. By defining these criteria, we showed to management AND to ourselves that the Exploration Days were a success. When everyone was back home, we sent out a survey with questions to gather further feedback. Did people attend the Exploration Days, did they receive enough information, etc. This data showed us that the people that participated really liked and will do it again.

Think about your goals, yes it is fun to organize Exploration Days. However, when is it really a success?

5.Marketing

Sorry to say… but sending one mail to everyone and telling them that you are organizing Exploration Days simply is not enough. You have to promote your event, like professional marketeers do and you have to repeat your message. We first came up with this poster.

We, or at least I was proud of it. My partner manager kindly suggested to ask one of our own visual designers and/or interaction designers to make a poster. OK, I said…. the following result clearly shows that I have other talents.

We also made a movie, a short and fun movie to explain the concept to people. It is fun but recording it was a bit awkward for us :).

We then sent mails to keep people warmed up for the idea, we posted updates on Yammer, we specifically invited people who are always trying new things out to register a project for the Exploration Days.

Don’t wait till people register a project, you have to interest and challenge them. It is your task as a manager to motivate people to participate in events like this.

6. Sharing what people learned

Perhaps the most impressive moment for me was the session where the groups shared what they learned with everyone. We just had a beamer, a screen, a table and a group of enthusiastic professionals eager to learn what other people managed to find out. We invited everyone from R&D, optional of course. However, almost everyone was there. The participating groups all had one person showing the things they learned, sometimes it was just that things didn’t work as expected and sometimes it was really adding value to our products. Now what was really cool was that people who normally never would present something for a group, chose to be the ones from the group to share their findings and they got a big applause from everyone. Goes to show that when you are passionate and knowledgeable about a subject, it is not that hard to give a good presentation, even when the presenter still feels it is scary! We got to know some people in the organization being really capable of presenting in a fun and passionate way where we never expected that from them.

In total there were 13 projects. We wanted to give everyone a fair opportunity to present their findings, including some time to get “on stage”, “in the zone” and “off stage”. We scheduled 10 minutes for every team, so roughly 15 minutes per team. Multiplied by 13… resulted in almost 3,5 hours. It was fun. There were some good laughs and everybody loved the knowledge sharing and the passion to be seen in colleagues that you perhaps may not know that well. However, it was very close to taking too much time. Energy levels and concentration dropped. We will make sure that we have chairs for everyone next time. We may also split the sessions in two parallel tracks and record them on video. However, I know everyone loves to see everything in real life.

Make sure you think upfront about how to share the results, and be aware it can be a long session.

So…

We, the organizers, loved organizing these Exploration Days, it was fun and we really enjoyed seeing all the energy. People who attended also liked it, 67% said they will definitely participate next time. However, next time will be different. We choose to do it in a distributed setup then.

Oh yeah since we are at it, I just mentioned six things… What about the other 232 things? Well, I don’t know… but it seems a blog nowadays has to have a number in its title and I was exploring whether the higher the number… the more readers ;)?

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