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Free pizza has a way of motivating people. Armed with this knowledge, technology companies have supersized brainstorming sessions by creating "hackathons," intense events in which employees are divided into teams to focus on generating ideas and turning them quickly into prototypes, all while chowing down on pizza. The goal: to unearth the creativity lying dormant in employees, who might have felt stifled in traditional companies.
What if non-tech companies embraced the practice of hackathons? First-year MBA students at Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile), Alka Tandon and David Roth laid out a plan for doing just that, and it won them first place in the HCL MBA M-Prize, a new competition sponsored by the Indian tech company HCL and the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX), an online open innovation project aimed at reinventing management. HCL will give Tandon and Roth $50,000 to test their winning idea with its employees.
In "Late Night Pizza: Extending Hackathons Beyond Technology," Tandon and Roth explain their idea to have teams of employees dedicate an entire day to focusing on turning ideas into proposals. The purpose is to create actionable strategies that will actually come to fruition, according to their report, which also includes a step-by-step guide on how to organize a hackathon, plus information on how to do everything from getting senior management on board to assigning teams.
"What's effective about this plan is that employees will often have ideas, but it's difficult for organizations to move from ideas to proposals," says Roth. "Once an organization has a proposal, it can act on it."
Getting companies to act and move into a new era is the exact intent of MIX and this contest, says Gary Hamel, visiting professor at London Business School (London Full-Time MBA Profile) and director of MIX. Using such words as "old" and "musty" to describe current management practices, Hamel says management is begging for reinvention.
"Management in most companies is rooted 100 years ago in the Industrial Revolution," he adds. "It was meant to turn human beings into semi-programmable robots."
Times are changing, and a new breed of manager needs to be born, says Hamel. Creating this contest was a way to get young people to think about the "legacy of management they're inheriting," he says.
"We wanted to get the perspective of a new generation of leaders," Hamel says. "We wanted to give students a chance to share their ideas."
Specifically, Hamel and the other judges chose the winners from among 114 entries from top business schools based on whether the plan addressed a deep need in organizations, was clever, clear, and specific, helped improve the lives of those in the organization, and could be executed. Hamel says he hopes to make the contest an annual event and anticipates hosting other competitions as well.
Meantime, the winning team and the runners-up still have to prove the viability of their ideas. Among practical concerns about the first-place plan, writes Peter Cappelli, professor of management at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile), in an e-mail, is that getting all the relevant players in one room for a hackathon is never easy, given travel costs and scheduling concerns, and might not always be worth it. While Cappelli considers focused interaction among employees a positive, especially when lots of approvals are necessary or conflict exists, he wonders whether anyone can quickly change anything, let alone organizations that are set in their ways.
"Not all implementation efforts can be done quickly, as they require information that may not be readily available, assistance from stakeholders outside the firm, etc.," Cappelli writes. Still, Tandon says she hopes to test hackathons in a number of organizations in different geographies to see where it works and where it doesn't.
While Tandon and Roth thought of a way to take game-changing ideas from idea to prototype using a method beloved by tech companies, one of the runners-up, a team from IMD Business School (IMD Full-Time Profile) that included Stephanie Weg and Sharada Selvanathan, wrote a plan to introduce innovations in human resources by borrowing a page from professional sports.
"I came up with the idea because I was inspired by sports, where it is all about pulling your weight and proving your worth," says Weg.
Weg and her teammates proposed giving managers a specified budget and responsibilities for their team, which they can attract using a combination of working style, salary, and benefits. Employees would be free to shop for managers and work for those they see as the best fit. Managers who perform well would be rewarded with increased budgets and responsibilities, and those who did not would receive smaller budgets and fewer responsibilities and risk losing their management positions all together.
Weg argues that if this kind of system already works in the world of professional sports, it should work in business. But Cappelli is not persuaded that managers could easily adapt. To believe in free-market ideas, he says, is to buy into the assumptions that managers can make strong teams and employees will choose managers to maximize their performance. He adds that flexibility comes with its own costs.
"If the employees are free to move across teams, will there be constant recontracting and bargaining for the better workers?" asks Cappelli. "Management systems grew up in large part to avoid such problems."
Daniel Marion, part of the London Business School team that was another runner-up, says his group of executive MBA students (London Executive MBA Profile) also wanted to do something about the stagnation at many organizations. Their desire was to make the workplace a safe zone for rock-the-boat kinds of ideas.
"What we've seen in our own experiences is that politics in organizations is very strong," Marion says. "You will be shut down if you propose something too extreme, because there will be hurt feelings. With our plan, you won't always be accepted, but you will get people to think about the possibilities with these riskier proposals."
In their plan, Marion and his teammates propose that all internal company proposals seeking a green light include a "bold move," a riskier type of idea that employees and managers might otherwise be reluctant to suggest for fear of offending co-workers or upsetting already established norms. If the "bold move" were an obligation, people would feel safe to suggest some of their more extreme ideas, and the culture might become more open to outside-the-box thinking, says Marion.
One example Marion mentioned was a company in which someone suggested eliminating offices and having everyone sit at desks out in the open to save money. Having these types of suggestions on the table, says Marion, insures that the safe path is not always the chosen one.
Considering all your options is never a bad idea, writes Cappelli.
"Asking for a safer option and a riskier option in proposals," he writes, "could do many good things, at a minimum helping decision-makers recognize the inherent risks in whatever they choose."