Why IT Innovation Needs to Be Fun

Facebook places fun front and center to foster innovation. Here's how the social network and Schneider Electric North America infuse a sense of humor into business to capitalize on creativity. Are you tapping into the fun factor?

This week I posted a story that took a deeper look into Facebook's famous hackathons: how they're organized, how they've grown and the lessons they've learned.

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Facebook's hackathons are overnight sessions. Held every few months, employees gather to work on anything but work. It's a free pass to prototype an idea they have for the site, learn a new programming language or work with others who, during the normal workweek, they may never interact with.

Facebook's hackathons, which first premiered in 2007, have grown from a handful of participants to more than 500 at the most recent one, Hackathon 32. One of the most important keys to this event's continued success: They're fun.

Facebook designs and hands out t-shirts for participants. They order takeout from their favorite local restaurants and roll in a few kegs of beer for everyone to enjoy. In the morning, when the hackathon has concluded, the remaining groups go to breakfast to celebrate another successful innovation session, grab a few hours of shut-eye, and head back to the office. Some of Facebook's most famous products have come from its hackathons: Timeline, the Like button and Chat, to name a few.

Facebook Engineering Manager Pedram Keyani says that employees look forward to each hackathon because it gives them an outlet that they crave. "The people Facebook hires are creative and want to work on interesting stuff," he told me. "They're very passionate people, and like to have fun."

That's a sentiment that Dave Patzwald, former CIO of Schneider Electric North America, shares. I interviewed Patzwald a few years ago on how he turned around an IT department dispirited from rounds of outsourcing and canceled ERP projects.

"They weren't feeling respected or recognized. When I was hired, they pleaded with me: 'Dave, please just make this place fun again.'" And that's what he set out to do.

Patzwald brought levity to his department through a series of funny training videos—such as one about company email policies—that he enlisted his IT department in producing. "Creative people just need to be unleashed," he said. "I had some strange ideas, but if I'm willing to embarrass myself a little bit, then maybe they'll take a chance and put their ideas out there, too."

Adding fun to the equation at work changed the atmosphere at Schneider Electric. "My team realized it was OK to exercise creativity. They gained respect from their coworkers and morale increased"—which is exactly what they were looking for.

How does your business encourage innovation? Has fun been a factor in it? Let me know in the comments section below.

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