5 lessons on how to hack in big organizations

In our first post in this series we talked about how to define hackingin the second we explored the impact it’s having on the world of research. In the third and final post, prior to Stripe Partners hosting a session on hacking at MRS 2014, we relay the lessons we’ve learnt from conducting hack-style sessions for a variety of different organisations.

Between Good For Nothing (the global hack network, co-founded by Stripe Partners’ Tom Rowley), and Made In Lambeth (the South London hack network I run), we have organised and run over 50 hack-style sessions for everyone from councils and charities, to consumer goods companies and fashion brands. Two organisations we’ve worked with recently, Lambeth Council and the charity YouthNet, are speaking with us on their experiences of hacking at the MRS conference 2014.

In preparation for the conference we’ve been having a think about what we’ve learned from running these hack sessions over the last couple of years, and summarised them into some key principles which can be broadly applied to any experimentations with hacking:

1. Focus on the right (strategic) challenge

One of the main differences between success and failure in hacking is whether you’ve understood its capabilities within the context of your organisations strategic priorities, and managed to get broad buy-in to the approach.

This requires research and negotiation. If you enter into a hack without really thinking through your priorities or attempting to get agreement on them, then, more often than not, you will see a lot of energy and creativity expended for nothing.

2. Hone your level of ambition

Once you’ve identified the challenge, don’t think hacking will be a silver bullet. Hacking often fails because of a lack of understanding how to get the most out of the approach. For example, it is a common misconception that a hack approach necessities a lack of structure. In fact, failing to invest enough time honing the brief before instigating a hack is a recipe for disaster.

The key is getting a brief which is pitched at the right level. Make it too strategic and ambitious and the outputs will be intangible and difficult to move forward. Make the brief too tactical and prescriptive and you will shut down creativity and end up with predictable results

3. Get the right people in the room

When you think about hacks your mind wanders to computer engineers and software developers. These skill-sets are absolutely right for some challenges, but as hacking moves into mainstream organisations (which often produce non-digital products) skill requirements change.

So if the challenge requires storytelling, you might recruit an author. If the challenge involves creating packaging, you might recruit a sculptor. Crucially, while the personnel may revolve, the philosophy and approach to hacking remains the same.

4. Add some competition

For a hack to be worth doing it has to have ‘hack value’. Hack value is generated as much by the process of hacking as it is by the outcome: “performing feats for the sake of showing that they can be done, even if others think it is difficult.”

Despite its deep sense of community, the success of hacking culture rests, in part, on the need of participants to demonstrate their “finesse, cleverness or brilliance”. It is this underlying competitive spirit is what spurs on hackers: the desire to demonstrate your smarts and skills to other people you respect.

Therefore when you design your hack – whether it is a one-day event or ongoing product development programme – harnessing the power of competition will make a big difference to the quality of the outcome.

5. Assign proper ownership

We have run dozens of hacks for organisations who were keen to experiment with the approach. The most successful all have one thing in common: they were not treated as one-off events by their sponsors, but as a starting point for deeper organisational change. You could tell which organisations were serious by the fact that certain employees took personal responsibility  of the process and the output – it was not seen as something external to the organisations, but something that needed to be taken on internally.

Ultimately hack-sessions are just the tip of the iceberg: a toe dipped in the water. To be truly effective, hacking is a philosophy that must be adopted across an organisation. A willingness to experiment, work at speed and fail fast is not something that will happen overnight. There is no getting around it: creating commitment to a new process takes serious leadership and significant resources.