Hacking Isn’t About Computers. It’s About Innovation.

riccardo-annandale-140624 from Unsplash.com. A lightbulb in hands represents hacking and the metaphor of Edison experimenting with electricity.

Well before I had a computer, I was a hacker. In fact, I was hacking as a five year old. You see, for me hacking isn’t about software or late-night coding sprees, though I’ve done that. Hacking is about the freedom of making.  For me it started with Legos.  The magical thing about Legos is that you start in a very organized and structured way. Every box has sorted color pieces and very well illustrated instructions. You follow the instructions and you always get a good result, but that’s when the fun really starts.  You follow the instructions and then you explicitly don’t follow the instructions. You can do anything you want, you can make anything, and making anything you want is very much hacking.

Free-form innovation has had a long history. The more famous examples include Google’s 20% time. As outlined in their IPO letter, Google set out to give employees 20% of their time in unstructured ways to innovate and create. Direct results of this have included products like Gmail. The Google form of innovation was actually predated by 3M, whose famous Post-It note originated from 3M’s own 15% innovation initiatives.  What 3M and Google and others have recognized is that some of the best ideas come from unstructured innovation; hacking.

At Raizlabs we’ve always believed that some form of unstructured innovation was necessary for us to keep up with new technology trends and explorations into new ideas that could be applied to real-world problems. Some of this early innovation spurred us to try developing mobile applications and ultimately drove the growth of the company. It has also resulted in open source libraries, virtual reality explorations, Alexa skills, design discoveries, and many more.

Our unstructured innovation began similar to Google and 3M with very little guidance on hacking and innovation. After several years we decided that protecting the innovation time was important. Creating an environment where it’s OK to fail encouraged people to try more things.  The problem with free-form innovation is that it tends to feel less productive than the project with the looming deadline.  What we’ve seen is that the projects that are most successful happen, not because of the protected time but because people are passionate about their innovation and find a way to incorporate their innovation and hacking into day-to-day work.

Many companies say they believe in innovation but these same organizations are often unwilling to give giving people the freedom to try things in a safe-to-fail environment. It’s often easy to try things a few times and then give up on an innovation but it’s the repeated freedom to experiment and fail that can lead to the biggest innovations. Thomas Edison famously had 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the lightbulb, many others would have quit after the first 100.

Ok, so you’re thinking about doing some internal explorations and innovations? There are a couple key steps to a great hack.

  1. Have an idea. It doesn’t have to be a great idea. You can change it later but it has to have a gem of something you’re willing to try.

  2. Do it. Design it. Build it. Ideas are nice but the only way to really make progress is to make something. Turn off your email, Slack and cell phone notifications,  and make.

  3. Show it. Your idea doesn’t count unless you can have some social proof. It can be a tweet, a video, or photo that you share. It can be code, designs, or anything else but it has to be shown. This is a key step as showing your hack means that you have to accept its imperfections and shortcomings. For some people this is the hardest part. Just remember that even the Mona Lisa was never finished.  Showing your creation allows you to get feedback, learn, and iterate faster. It allows you to decide if the idea, demo, or concept is worth spending additional time on.

The three step loop gives you fuel to either take the idea further or to kill it. Great ideas get a positive response and people get passionate about taking them to the next level. This adds energy into the equation and results in more iterations and innovations.

Similar to Legos, you start by following the instructions but to build something amazing it’s worth giving the team some structure to not follow instructions.  Hack On!

Raizlabs is a mobile and web studio helping companies innovate and build new technologies. We’re hiring people who like to innovate and build products that make a difference.
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