Technophobia 'Festival'

04/05/2011

We’ve just had our second “Festival” – our own version of a ‘’Fedex day’’ where pretty much the whole of Technophobia dedicates itself to researching and solving business and technical problems.

What is it?

Fedex day was invented by a firm called Atlassian that makes the excellent Jira software development management / bug tracking tool. They started a day where the aim was to spend time working on software development projects that would help developers scratch an itch,  work on a feature, fix or research that they’d been thinking about for some time. The idea was that teams would deliver within 24 hours – just like FedEx, hence the title. Atlassian is a product development firm so its focus is on delivering code – but it’s a powerful idea and relevant to pretty much every kind of business. The premise is that we have lots of very smart, very committed, highly professional people working at Technophobia. They are all fundamentally interested in what the company does and making the business better. If you ask them what they’d like to do if they get a chance to spend a day working on stuff that will be fun, interesting and of some benefit to the company,  they will come up with great ideas for how to make the business better. So our Festival day is not just about coding – it’s about business processes, propositions, technical investigations, and it includes all the very different types of people that work at Technophobia, the account managers, designers, finance people, execs, and project managers as well as devs, TAs and testers.

One of the big shocks from the last time we ran this was just how true this is. We expected a volcano of good, and occasionally ridiculous, ideas, and we got them. What we didn’t necessarily expect was just how quickly people self organise, define their tasks for the day and get moving. I thought that there would have to be a certain amount of chivvying, prodding and managing to get people to actually focus on their tasks but the reality was very different. People immediately disappeared into their own spaces and thrashed out what they needed to do. It was really quite awesome. Every team had a mix of people.

What did we do?

The mechanics of the day are pretty simple.

Before the day we:

  •  Harvest ideas
    This is very important and is basically down to asking everyone to contribute their ideas about what they’d really like to work on for the day.
  •  Sort the ideas into a focused list
    Go through the ideas and categorise, prioritise and group them, documenting the output in a collaboration tool. We get dozens of ideas, and boiling them down into a list of 8 – 10 is quite a challenge.
  •  Organise teams
    Give people a chance to volunteer / express an interest in the shortlisted projects. Individuals are encouraged to express an interest in more than one project.  The teams are then created from the volunteers by selecting a cross section of skills and mixing people who don’t usually get to work together. It might make for odd bedfellows, but it’s all part of the fun.
  •  Run the day
    On the day, we usually kick things off at 9.30am and then assemble for a report back on the day’s findings at 4pm.

The varied topics covered by the latest Festival included streamlining our bug reporting and tracking system, a review of our internal document management system, a review of social media management tools, improving external file sharing and a user experience strategy review.

What are the benefits?

Of course, this is a pretty big investment for any business. One whole day of billable work foregone for an innovation process is pretty expensive. But the benefits are huge. It’s partly about change – innovation, and making the business better. The cool thing about Festival is that it pays back for months; lots of business processes are enhanced. Sometimes the benefits are not as simple and straight forward as one would expect. One of the great values of Festival day is that cross-functional teams of people can look at what appear to be really good ideas and find out just why they’re so hard to implement. The shared nature of this discovery is hugely important in helping teams understand each other’s daily challenges.

However, the big benefit is team coherence across the company. We run a lot of very large, complex, long term software development projects for big clients. The teams tend to be very stable – and that means they tend to work with the same people, day in, day out. We’re a very social, friendly company, but a day where everyone gets mixed up and does different things with different people goes a long way to creating a better sense of company cohesion. As a result, people are happier, they have better relationships across the business, and not to put too fine a point on it, perform better. It’s a win-win. It also gives us a chance to flex some different skills. We’ve found out that some people have much greater management skills than we or they thought, and those sometimes seen as wall-flowers actually have a lot to say for themselves.  As a result people’s roles have expanded; we become more fulfilled at work, and are able to contribute more to client work. All of this constitutes a principal business benefit to the company. It’s about people, and those benefits don’t deliver overnight, they deliver all year round.

You can see some photos from the day on flickr.

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