ROSL92: A call to action — let’s launch #corphack

ROSL92 — Reflections on startup life, week 92.

On Saturday I dropped into the Melbourne Start-up hackathon which was part of entrepreneurs week. I’d been asked to come along and give a talk to the (mostly students) who’d at that stage been up all night hacking away on their startup ideas.

It was great wandering around the room and chatting to the teams before hand. In under 12 hours, they had all produced some pretty amazing pieces of work. Not every idea is going to be a winner, perhaps none of them, but that’s not the point. They showed what you can do with some solid application and getting focused on the basics.

Bang for hour, I doubt there’s anything on the planet that can compare on output like a 24 hour hackathon.

You know what, that’s pretty fucking depressing. On the reasonable assumption that most of these ideas now drift quietly onto the back burner, these students are destined to be sucked up into the corporate machine and that’ll be the end of it. For some of them, they’ve just peaked innovation wise — last weekend was the most innovative they are going to be for the next 20 years.

Which is insane! Ask most CEOs and I’ll bet that right up the top of their list is how to drive innovation. Why’s it so damn hard to innovate in large organisations?

For several years running at PwC when I was working there, innovation type competitions at various levels (signs your organisation is NOT innovative — it needs to run a competition) seemed to produce some regular suggestions. Replace the email system. Implement Google style “20% time”.

Really? The most innovative thing that an organisation of 6000ish talented and highly educated people (many of whom came through some of the same courses as the one the students I saw on Saturday are attending) can think of is a different way to write email or to copy a leader not even in their industry.

A contact on the inside sent me the list of suggestions for the latest competition. Guess which two ideas were in the Top 10. No prizes. I’d share a few others, but it’s just depressing.

Let’s be clear though, I’m very sure this isn’t just PwC. And it’s not really their fault — like most big businesses they just don’t know how to break clear.

We all know organisations aren’t like startups. They have a business model for a start, they’ve got customers, regulatory pressures, revenues to protect and things have to work the first time. They’ve lost the ability to think small.

Fundamentally they’ll TALK, not DO. Let’s “talk” about innovation. Let’s assess it. Let’s try put some KPI around it. Let’s run a competition to judge the best idea. It’s never let 50 staff cut loose and prove it by doing it. We’ll filter it through 10 layers of management who are fundamentally more concerned with budgets and insist on a 10X return off a piece of paper before we even test the concept.

You can always tell the innovative staff in large organisations — generally they’re the ones that have just walked out the door. They’re the misfits, the ones no-one quite know what to do with. The ones that just do it anyway. The square pegs in the round hole. But they’re pure gold. The best managers know how to hang on to them and keep them happy.

So where am I going with all this? I don’t know really, but sometimes it feels good to rant.

But to bring it to a close, somewhere in all this, two ideas are bubbling up.

1. To all the students at #melbhack and startup hackathons everywhere, keep hacking. You’re inspiring and show what can be done by smart people given a team, time and pizza. It’s awesome!

2. I love the idea of doing a Corporate Hack. It’s a call to action to break the shackles of the grind and let your team loose to do something new and actually innovate. Yes — I’m talking to you, the Accounting Firms, the Banks, the Large Mining Companies. You’ve snaffled the best of the best out of Australian Universities for years now. Now let’s show them how to break the rules. Not how to write a proposal and submit it for management, but to actually build it and get it done inside 48 hours on a weekend.

I’ll bring the best startup entrepreneurs I can find, some passionate students, and you unleash some of the the talent and resources from your organisation, provide the space and the pizza. We’ll teach them Lean and we’ll let them go and be blown away at the solutions they come up with.

You’ll be surprised how innovative people can be and you never know, there might just be a brilliant idea in there that you can take and do what you do well — execute on it at scale.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” — Emma Lazarus, 1883

Anyone for #corphack — email me