‘Hack the Planet’: how the Environment department got their thinking caps on

By The Mandarin

Tuesday September 20, 2016

Hackathons aren’t new, and as reflected in The Mandarin earlier this month, they’re springing up everywhere in government. But our experience from running a hackathon this Innovation Month suggests that there’s a good reason for this.

Last month at the Public Sector Innovation Network agents meeting, I shared some details about what the Department of the Environment and Energy did to celebrate Innovation Month. In particular, I talked about our flagship “Hack the Planet” competition.

Hack the Planet was an opportunity for staff to leave their normal roles for one day to work on coming up with an innovative solution to a problem facing the department. Participants were assigned a team and received a “mystery box”. The mystery box contained five design-thinking inspired steps. Teams were asked to discover the existing, define the problem, generate new options, refine their group idea and capture their proposal. Each step contained three tools that could be used to explore the design thinking method further. We designed all the content in house, ensuring it was relevant to our work and people (and cheap!).

How did it go? Almost 100 people from across the department participated in the competition, including teams in Darwin and Hobart, and around 30 of our senior executive. It all went smoothly and everyone had a good time. Every team submitted a great idea, and we’re currently piloting five of these ideas to see if they can actually make our work better. But there are three other reasons why our Hack the Planet competition was so successful:

1. Hackathons force staff to think in new ways

Our department is full of passionate, highly intelligent people who are well-versed in best practice — but anyone is susceptible to groupthink when you are busy and do the same sort of work with the same sort of people for a period of time.

By providing structured steps and specific tools for teams to used, our hackathon explicitly aimed to provide participants with a set of instructions on how to think differently that they could take back to their desk and easily use. Around 80% of participants reported that they already had or would use these instructions to help them innovate in their day to day work.

2. Hackathons foster networking and collaboration

Our department is an organisation of over 1500 people. Our work covers a huge range of topic areas, and it’s impossible to keep track of what’s happening everywhere.  Having networks which can synthesise this information is essential to improving our work.

The teams in our hackathon were formed by intentionally bringing together people who normally wouldn’t work together, or wouldn’t get the opportunity to discuss peripheral issues. Feedback indicates that the new relationships formed, and the opportunities to collaborate on something different, have been highly valued by participants.

3. Hackathons generate hype and interest

Let’s be honest — innovation is an overused buzzword, and an eye-roll can often be an entirely appropriate response. Holding a hackathon, although similarly buzzword-y, demonstrates that we’re actually doing something about innovation.

We made a huge deal about our hackathon, and it has paid off. A month after Innovation Month ended, my calendar is still full with meetings initiated by others to discuss innovation and how we can do it better. We’ve been approached to facilitate innovation themed planning days, and we’re experiencing high levels of support from the executive.

Hack the Planet has re-invigorated our departmental innovation culture with a bang. The multiple benefits of running a hackathon have made it an entirely worthwhile activity, even if it wasn’t the newest thing in the innovation space.

Are you thinking about running a hackathon at your organisation? Feel free to contact us at [email protected] to hear more of our tips to make your day successful.

Jessica Phillips is acting assistant director in the design and analytics section at the Department of the Environment and Energy. This guest post first appeared on the Public Sector Innovation Network blog.

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