If you’d been a fly on the wall at our company a few weeks ago, you’d have witnessed a unique scene: From Monday to Friday, almost everyone on our team (remote and in-person) was involved in actively pitching, building and presenting innovative new ideas. We call it “Blue Sky Week”, and it’s our answer to fully immersing ourselves in innovative thinking and bringing new ideas to life quickly.
For those new to this approach, it’s similar to a hackathon but designed to give much more space and time away from our everyday tasks and comfort zones. This helps get the creative juices flowing along with creating opportunities for collaborations that aren’t usually possible. It’s been an impactful way to tap into the genius of our teammates and unlock new innovative ideas — and beyond that, it’s helped engage and invigorate our team.
But when people first hear about “Blue Sky Week,” many wonder how we can afford to dedicate so much time to something without clear controls or direction. My response: How can you afford not to? At a time when rapidly evolving tech like artificial intelligence has forced companies to ramp up their offerings, it’s simply too risky to let innovation take a back seat. That’s why “Blue Sky Week” has become a core mechanism for innovative output.
Here’s how to benefit from getting the whole company involved and committed to innovating regularly.
Start by committing the time
Dedicating pockets of time to innovation isn’t a unique concept. Tech companies have experimented with a variety of ways to encourage creativity and innovation at work — like Google’s infamous 20% time, which gives employees one day per week to work on projects of their choosing.
Structured innovation time has proven remarkably effective for us, too, in surfacing and developing ideas and evolutions in a way that daily work time simply can’t. And it’s no wonder: The average employee spends one-third of their time in meetings, let alone working through sprint cycles to hit deadlines — and while this can be effective, it can also limit the creative thinking necessary for innovation.
But contrary to what many companies do, we found that 20% time wasn’t effective for us. Frankly, I don’t believe innovation is achievable when you’re doing it off the side of your desk. And when we tried it, the time spent on innovative projects was often overrun with regular work. So we decided to dedicate an entire week every quarter, and sometimes more often when opportunities warrant it.
Of course, not every single staff member can participate for the full week. And that’s okay — our customers come first and we must ensure they still have access to the support they need. But outside of that caveat, we do our best to empower everyone to put aside as much as they can so we can just focus on innovating. This prioritization allows team members to really tap into a creative flow that produces marketable results.
Make it inclusive
I’d bet that virtually every tech leader has attended or sponsored a hackathon, and this model works well for a lot of organizations. These ubiquitous events are popular because they’re a low-risk way to tap into the spirit of innovation and creativity within a short timeframe.
But hackathons tend to attract a certain type of participant, and we wanted to find a way to get our entire company involved with innovation events — not only our R&D team or developers. Diverse teams tend to be smarter and more creative, which can lead to stronger results. That’s why we want people from every department to have a seat at the innovation table including marketing, customer success and our people team.
Anyone with an idea can pitch it, and the pitches with the most votes move forward with self-appointed teams. This helps with breaking down silos and empowering individuals who might not normally get to collaborate to break out of their usual teams and approach ideas and projects with a fresh perspective. In fact, the only criterion we impose is that every team must present their work at the end of the week.
Trust your team with autonomy
Studies have shown that innovative companies perform better, with higher profits and stock returns. But I’ll admit that when we first launched Blue Sky Week, I was worried the no-rules event would result in projects unrelated to our core business objectives. We have had a few internally focused outcomes — like the development of a warning light and Slackbot for an office washroom with a door that didn’t lock properly.
But we quickly realized giving people the autonomy to determine their projects and how they unfolded led to better overall results — features and product iterations that customers had been asking for, like search within our communities, and pagination for course listings. Not to mention new offerings that we needed, such as a mobile app and generative AI functions. And this adds up: Research clearly shows that people who feel empowered to act with autonomy have stronger job performance, higher job satisfaction and greater commitment to the organization, and this leads to a willingness to work toward better customer outcomes.
Of course, we do set the stage with data on customer usage, problems and pain points, so that teams have context around our most pressing needs. But ultimately our people run the show.
Reap the organizational benefits
Bringing the whole company together to cross-collaborate on new projects has had undeniable cultural benefits. It’s reduced silos across the organization, and has been a great way to foster relationships and bonds while breaking up the routines and ruts we can all get into.
But it’s also reinforced the value of fostering an innovative mindset. The reality is, the pace of today’s tech advancements means innovation is critical all the time — not just once per quarter. With AI rapidly changing the game for tech companies, it’s essential to have opportunities and processes in place that keep products and services evolving to meet customer needs.
Of course, we don’t expect the results of a single week’s work to be perfect. But seeing how much we can accomplish in a single week can often be amazing to all involved. It resets our expectations of what’s possible and stirs up the creative juices for regular work.
We’ve all heard the expression about not being the smartest person in a room or on a team. But better than acknowledging that fact is actually creating systems that unlock the genius of your team — and “Blue Sky Weeks” are a great way to do just that.