Musings on


By January 28, 2014

Why Compelling Workplaces Matter to the Bottom Line

A weak link weakens your group

When I first began learning how to play music, my middle school band teacher told our class that an orchestra is only as good as its weakest musician. If the player who is always out of sync and playing in the wrong key isn’t motivated to improve, the orchestra can’t rise above the mess of noise.

That might be a problem for a tuba player who likes to create his own songs and work independently. Unless you can find a way to harness his independent thinking, turning your weak musician into an asset.

Similarly in business, if your employees aren’t motivated for excellence or even continual improvement, how can your organization expect to innovate and grow as a whole?

What does a culture of innovation look like?

You’ve heard us talk about the M-A-P style of incentives before. And, as former Apple chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki points out, companies must strive to enchant their own employees by giving them direction through Mastery of their skills, the Autonomy to follow great ideas, and a sense of Purpose within the company as well as a sense of the company’s Purpose in the world.

Business Author Dan Pink has given several lectures on this, through such venues as TED – he cites the Australian firm Atlassian, which organizes ShipIt Days every quarter for its employees. The idea behind the ShipIt hackathon is to allow employees to step back from their normal everyday work and explore a new software idea over 24 hours.

The term “Hackathon” originated in the software industry and uses the word “hack” in the sense of playful, exploratory programming. The concept has has been co-opted by other organizations for more general focused innovation efforts. Hackathons are popular not only with larger firms, most famously with Facebook, but with smaller companies as well, such as California’s Sonoma Technology Inc. (STi).

Such breaks from the norm give employees a number of important allowances:

  • Explore their creativity;
  • Try to fix unaddressed issues in the company’s products;
  • Investigate special ideas not usually prioritized;
  • And simply have fun.

Innovation leads to new products

While trying new things in the name of fun is great on its own, it’s important to note that many of the companies that have instituted this break from the everyday end up bringing new big ideas to the table that weren’t previously given much priority. The now integral Facebook Chat function was originally a product of a 2008 hackathon.

Let’s take this idea one step further.

When employees have that type of motivation, they have the potential to become one of the biggest untapped resources a company has. A monster company like Facebook has hundreds of employees and fans spouting their enjoyment for the brand and its practices.

But what about a smaller company, like STi? Besides a quick mention on the company’s Twitter page, you won’t find any mention of their own hackathon. I learned about it through one of the company’s own engineers freshly sprung from the event who, while exhausted after 24 hours of coding, still glowed. He didn’t win the company’s competition, but it was among the happiest days he’d had at the company. And thanks to his team’s ingenuity, STi has a new mobile app they are gearing up to unveil.

Encourage your free thinkers

So that tuba player marching to his own beat?

Offer him a reason to enjoy his playing, show him the tools to excel and improve, give him the opportunity to test out his own ideas, and give him reason to play well with others. He may surprise you with his innovation and motivation bringing new products and services to enhance your bottom line.

About the author: Sam Spieller is a writer and editor living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has written and edited for such groups as AGNI Magazine, McSweeney’s, and China’s Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press while living in Seattle, Boston, and Beijing. An advocate for lifelong learning, he is always happy to talk theory and practice in writing, editing, or business, so feel free to drop a line!