How to Create a Learning Environment
Organizations cannot really change people and educate them, that is something employees have to do themselves. As a manager, if you feel responsible for people’s self-development–and you should be–a good alternative is to tweak the environment so that people change themselves, educate themselves, and start developing the desired habits.
One company that understands this well is the Australian software company Atlassian. Once every three months, they select a day on which everyone in the company works for the entire day on an idea of their own choosing. The requirement is that they deliver a result in just 24 hours, hence the name ShipIt day. (The original name was actually FedEx day, but the FedEx company started to voice concerns about this.) Several other organizations, including Facebook and Spotify, organize similar internal events called hackathons or hack days. It pretty much boils down to the same thing. Business stands still for one day—some people even stay at the office for a whole night—and everyone learns.
Frankly, I prefer to use the term exploration days. After all, the goal of such days is to get employees to learn as much as possible by generating and exploring new ideas. Experts agree that the purpose of hackathons and other forms of exploration days is to experiment with ideas, not to ship things. And organizations must learn how to run such experiments regularly, because those that learn fastest are the ones best able to survive.
On an exploration day, you can work on whatever you want, as long as it isn’t part of your regular work. You can choose to do it alone, but it’s probably more fun to team up with some of your colleagues. Such days can be wild and spontaneous, but they work better when they are planned.
At Atlassian, they usually have a “ShipIt organizer” who prepares meetings to come up with ideas that can be turned into projects. At Facebook, they have a group called Hackathon Ideas where people post ideas during the week leading up to a hackathon, so that teams can form organically around them.
Never Too Busy to Learn
According to the people at Atlassian, ShipIt days work well because they stimulate creativity, they help solve actual problems, they increase knowledge and experience, and they are a lot of fun. The people at Facebook and Spotify seem to agree that hack days lead to more focused and open working environments. And they not only involve developers, but designers, marketers, and other experts as well. Last but not least, exploration days seem to help increase social connections between people, help them to self-organize, and increase commitment among employees.
There are several things I like about exploration days. First and foremost, when you encourage people to organize ShipIt days and hackathons, peer pressure will make it harder for employees to claim that they are “too busy”, an argument that is also heard among Google’s employees. Second, the commitment to present the results in 24 hours adds some useful constraints to self-development. Third, handing out an award for the best idea, as a token of recognition among peers, seems to target people’s sense of honor and mastery. Fourth and finally, when some people’s ideas evolve into actual new products, this will clearly satisfy their desire for status.
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