The Unexpected Benefits of Workshops and Hackathons

Workshop Or Not

 

We cut through the rhetoric to take a look at whether there is anything behind the claimed benefits of workshops, hackathons and other “non-billable” agency activities.

 

Agency life is busy. It can be stressful, chaotic and exhausting creating great work for clients while responding to shifting goalposts and crazy deadlines.

Against this manic backdrop, agencies that thrive often share a common trait; they create time to extend themselves beyond the immediate demands of client work to explore technologies, ideas and techniques ‘just for the heck of it.’

Isobar New York’s Nowlab workshop series, a monthly exploration of emerging technologies, has given us cause to pause and reflect on some of the less obvious benefits of dedicating time and resources to non-billable activities. These benefits tend to fall within one of three groups; learning, collaborating and creating.

Learning

The Nowlab’s two most recent workshops have focused on technology central to the rapidly growing maker movement:  Arduino micro-processors and Makey Makey’s, both invention kits that allow people without electrical engineering expertise to physically make fun creations without (much) wiring or coding.

Learning about these technologies and their possibilities is the direct, obvious benefit for attendees of the workshop. Some participants were so inspired that they went on to attend (and win) external hackathons focusing on the same technology.

What we perhaps didn’t expect was that the learning started long before the workshop began. As a workshop team we ourselves learnt a great deal from the process. We may be great at pixel-pushing, coding or QA’ing but we weren’t necessarily the most adept individuals at recruiting attendees, as well as the challenging task of planning and facilitating the workshop itself.

The feedback from our colleagues has been increasingly positive as each workshop progresses and as a team we’re excited to be learning new skills simply from the process of pulling these workshops together.

Collaborating

It’s true that workshops, hackathons and similar events do foster cross-functional collaboration. They bring together people from various disciplines within an organization to solve problems and band together around a theme that no one group has specialist knowledge over. While true, this observation feels a little too academic. Often the real value is simply the time spent engaging in a playful, fun activity with people who you usually only ever do work work with.

Having a real, human connection with a team member means a lot more than having a theoretical appreciation of how people in different roles approach problem solving.

Creating

I’d be lying if I that said that some small part of me wasn’t hoping that from one of our workshops comes a truly powerful, impactful and innovative creation that made a real difference and solves (at least one) fairly significant global problem.

The reality is that great ideas often require significant gestation periods. And generally great ideas aren’t borne out of an exploration of a particular technology but more from a study of people, a problem or a phenomenon.

The real value comes simply from the act of creating itself. The Makey Makey invention kit allows you to turn anything that conducts electricity (think play-dough, fruit, etc.) into a key that can be mapped to any button on a keyboard. And playing piano with bananas instead of ivory is fun! Likewise with play-dough. The point is that creating stuff is fun, especially when you don’t have to do it. And who knows, maybe a little spark of fun will turn into a truly big idea down the line.

Ultimately, creating an environment where people can learn, collaborate and create together has a host of spin-off benefits: happier staff, better work and a better culture, within which we can all get cracking on that next deadline!

 

 

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