Regularly holding innovative events (at least annually) can have many benefits to your company and your associates. Associates get to learn and grow together and you can advertise it as a benefit which can help when recruiting good talent and/or retaining associates you already have.
Holding an event will be an investment in your organization and in your associates. It will be difficult to calculate the return on investment for the event so realize that it will more likely be an investment to your company culture. Innovation events have the potential to generate new product features that you may have never conceived. Your associates will feel that you are investing in them by giving them an opportunity to learn something new and ultimately allowing them to prove some of their ideas to you.
It will be important that the management completely “buys” in to the event and exhibits positive energy. Avoid setting any expectations for yourself or others about any certain outcome; rather, go in with an open mind and see what the team can do for your company. People genuinely want to do a good job and help the company to thrive.
Before you communicate the details of your innovation event to your associates there are a few things you need to prepare ...
You need to determine what dates you will hold the event and how long the event will be. It is important to allow time for your associates to innovate as teams for this type of event, typically with dedicated consecutive days to become fully engrossed in their project. Two to four days is a good length of time. If it is hard to take four consecutive days off then you might break it into two sessions with 2 days each week. Identify dates where typically the business is slow so that you can allow the teams to focus on innovating without being distracted by other business needs.
We plan our innovation events to be four days at Leading EDJE. Three days of full on development and then on the fourth day we use ½ the day to prepare presentations and ½ the day to present their projects.
Once you block off the dates for your event you can procure a location for the event. Find a space where the team(s) won’t have any interruptions, typically a location away from the office is best or at least in a space that is not typically used for daily work. There are some innovation spaces that are designed and decorated to inspire, many of which provide treats to keep energy levels up and to promote creativity.
At least 6 weeks before the event you should choose a theme and/or title for the event. Having a theme will set the stage for your event and allow you to differentiate year after year. A cool or witty title like “Monster Tech Mashup” or “Hack Fight” can start creative juices going and might also put a little competition into the event. If you are drawing a blank there are tools like https://www.portent.com/tools/title-maker that can help you.
You can drive excitement for the event by making it a competition. You might supply a prize for the winning team, or you perhaps just bragging rights. If you plan to make it a competition you will need a way to measure and/or compare ideas. At Leading EDJE we typically ask the teams to evaluate the other team’s ideas using a scorecard (based on the theme). You should determine what criteria will be used in the scorecard and if there are any surprise categories that will be kept secret until voting occurs. Once you have a way to compute team scores you should prepare a message describing the guidelines so that the teams know what is expected. You can then distribute the guidelines prior to the event which will ultimately avoid sore feelings that a team may not have understood the rules.
Send a message to your associates describing the event and requesting everyone to participate including the guidelines.
5 to 6 weeks before the event ask your associates to come up with and submit project ideas that are company and / or industry related. If you don’t have a flurry of project ideas you should hold a brainstorming lunch or happy hour to promote collaboration. You can have tables or posters around the room where people can gather and job down technologies they would like to work with, improvements to your products, and ideas they have seen in other industries.
Make sure you tell the teams how much time will be available to build out their idea, not that they should restrict themselves to ideas that can’t be fully implemented in the allotted time frame, but ideas that can be prototyped for a demo. The teams will also need to have an idea about how much money can be applied for project assets. They should provide a list of anticipated hardware, software, and network access as part of the project submissions.
4 to 5 weeks before the event you will need to establish teams. You can either assign teams and allow them to select from the list of project ideas (this approach allows you to align people who typically don’t work together for example), or present project ideas and allow associates to sign up for a team. If there are too many project ideas then you will need to have a process for narrowing the list down and you may need to establish team guidelines for minimum and maximum size.
2 to 3 weeks before the event and after the teams have been established you should let them know that they need to get together before the event to plan their approach. By meeting prior to the event the team members will be able to do some research and hit the ground running on the first day. The team should also solidify what they need for the project (hardware, software, network access, etc.) so that you can get it prior to the event.
1 week before the event confirm that everything is ready and that you have ordered and received any of the requested assets needed by project teams. If you are providing hardware, software, food, treats, drinks, etc. make sure that you have everything set for the first day. Confirm that the location is set as you are expecting and that the proper network connectivity is in place. Make sure that you have tables and chairs configured in a way that teams can collaborate but are far enough from other teams that there isn’t too much disruption. Double check to ensure you have enough power strips and extension cords that can reach each team. Make sure that your awards, trophies, and voting ballots are ready for your showcase day.
Running the event
You should kick-off the event on the first day, perhaps providing breakfast. Let the teams know that you are excited to see what they come up with and that they should let you know if they run into any issues with the requested assets you have provided so that you can help to resolve them. Try not to tie up much time by making long winded presentations, just let the teams get right to it. You should budget a little extra money in case there are game day purchases that you need to make. If you are conducting voting you might put up slides to remind the teams how they will be compared to each other when determining the winner.
At Leading EDJE we prefer to have the teams demonstrate their idea at the showcase and request that each team member participate as a presenter for part of it. Once the presentation is complete the other teams vote using a scorecard and commonly an additional team of managers or executive leaders provides a vote. We use one scorecard per team because commonly teams are varying in size.
An alternative to team voting would be to select a panel of voters (for example some of the executives or partners). Teams present the projects and ideas to be scored by the panel. If your company is medium to large then it is likely that the executives may never get to know the teams or their abilities on a personal level but if they get to participate on a panel in the innovation event then they can directly interact with your team. If you have ever tried to sell ideas upward you probably understand that it can be difficult to get buy in if the upper management is thinking of your team as a commodity rather than people, putting a face and showing off their capabilities can help to break down those barriers to communication.
Once the presentations are complete finalize the scoring and announce the winners. Present any awards or trophies.
After the event ... (share the knowledge)
Ask the teams to record what they learned, the idea they had, and the technologies they used on a company shared space or wiki.
All in all we have had great success with our innovation events at Leading EDJE. Our entire staff is excited every year as the excitement builds for the event. The ideas produced are never shy of amazing. We love to see what new and creative ideas our team has every year and it is a ton of FUN.