WorkHack: the new way for workplaces to problem solve

By Ben Barnett

Tuesday April 26, 2016

A few weeks ago, 14 deputy secretaries from the public service gathered at Old Parliament House to hear from 50 people from the public and private sectors. Other than the deputies, most had just a few years’ experience in the workforce. This time it wasn’t the deputies holding court, it was everyone else.

Over two hours, deputies hung on the presenters’ every word. By the end, deputies had made 28 commitments to trial new ideas. It was the deputies who stood to offer applause.

How did this parallel universe come to be?

It was the culmination of the APS WorkHack, a hackathon co-designed and co-delivered by the Australian Public Service Commission and Nous Group. Hackathons, or “hacks”, have traditionally been events where IT developers work intensively for between a day and a few days to develop solutions to technology-based problems. But while the event at Old Parliament House was a hack in its truest sense, there wasn’t an IT developer in sight — and the solutions generated went beyond the digital realm.

Rethinking the public service’s thorniest problems

The APS WorkHack worked like any normal hack. A number of specific questions were developed and individuals gathered early at a shared working space. Here, they self-organised around six open-ended questions about the future structure and form of the APS. Questions included: “how might the APS overcome the barriers associated with hierarchy?” and “how might the APS lead the pack in gender equality?”

“A hack need not be confined to tech solutions developed by tech people to address tech problems.”

Throughout the day, hackers roamed free, managing their time and work. Hackers were fed and kept hydrated, and had access to all the necessary supports: whiteboards, laptops, butchers paper, pens and sticky notes. The intent was clear: give hackers the space to come up with ideas, pull them apart, and put them back together again. All without the pressure to get it right the first time, and all contained within a day’s work.

The hack teams then gathered again at Old Parliament House a few days later to pitch their proposed solutions to the 14 deputy secretaries. After two hours of intense pitching, each deputy secretary was able to select up to two ideas to trial as an experiment back in their department. Each solution was picked up at least once, with the hack teams also invited to assist with the implementation of their idea.

Many great ideas were developed as part of the hack, from mass-administered mid-career secondment programs, to rapid staff feedback processes, and the removal of a home department for APS employees. These ideas aside, the real insight for most was that a hack need not be confined to tech solutions developed by tech people to address tech problems.

Just about any public sector organisation can hold a useful hack that is focused on any problem that is relevant and worth solving. While there are no hard and fast rules for a hack, here are some pointers to get you started …

1. Hacks are surprisingly easy to organise

Hacks are about getting the right people in a room for long enough to solve a problem they’re passionate about. Then you need an esteemed panel with the authority and funding to support the best ideas. Once you’ve got that lined up, you’re good to go. Get the guard rails in place, and then hand it over to the participants to push the boundaries.

2. Ask the right questions — and in the right way

Questions for a hack should be open-ended and aspirational in nature. The best way to do this is begin each question with “how might we”. Such phrasing deliberately invites hackers to find a solution, and sends a clear message: we believe there is an answer to be found.

3. People require permission to disconnect from their daily roles

A hack can only work when people are free to leave their daily routines. This allows them to focus only on the task at hand. This can be tricky and takes courage to enforce, but it is the only way a hack can be truly successful. Of course, if a hacker needs to leave the room for the odd phone call, that’s OK. Otherwise, they should be supported in every possible way to stay focused on the hack question.

4. Hackers should have diverse experience but a common attitude

Hacks gain their innate energy from bringing together a diverse bunch of folk who have most likely never met before, but who are committed to solving a problem of shared interest. Diversity in background, experience and skillset should be emphasised — this enables the magic to happen. But on one criterion, you should recruit for homogeneity: attitude in working with others in a positive, collaborative way. Ego and naysaying are the enemies of a hack, irrespective of background.

5. Emphasise the unrealistic rather than the realistic

Public sector organisations should ask their hackers to hold two simultaneous thoughts. First, be as unrealistic as you possibly can. Hacks are not about operating within existing assumptions; rather it’s about challenging them. Second, make it achievable. If a team comes back with a $1 billion proposal, it obviously isn’t going to fly in a fiscally constrained public sector — unless the same or more savings are there. Interestingly, public sector hackers tend not to be unrealistic enough, often falling under the spell of assumed constraints. So, be sure to communicate from the start that the shackles are off (within reason).

6. A hack begins the innovation process, not ends it

It is tempting to organise a hack, experience its magic, and then declare that “innovation has been done around here”. Of course, the hack is only the beginning. From the range of proposed solutions, it’s up to the supporters of the best ideas to experiment with them back in their organisation. Naturally, the hack’s solutions won’t be fully formed, but they should be seen as hypothesises to be validated. It’s up to the organisation to find the quickest and cheapest ways to test these hypotheses, continuing to learn as they go. This keeps implementation risk to a minimum.

7. Don’t sweat it too much

What will come out of a hack is entirely unpredictable. And, actually, that’s the point. Take people seriously, ask them what they think, and then sit back to see what happens. The hack teams will generate a number of stellar ideas, and also some that will never see the light of day. But each idea typically contains a worthwhile kernel. Even if it all falls in a heap (which it won’t), folks will have worked intensively with talented colleagues on a bunch of issues that really matter. Which is what working in government is all about, right?

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