Using a hackathon to create influence at John Lewis

It was 2014, I worked in the online team at the nation’s favourite retailer, John Lewis, and we were stuck.  We stuck working the same way, stuck with a website we knew didn’t work anymore, we were tired and burnt out.  Something needed to change.

Our laptops were old and slow, nothing seemed to connect, and our office space was too hot in the summers and too cold in the winters.  The team had just completed a painful year-long project moving the old website onto a new eCommerce platform.  This meant months of tedious website testing, with no end in sight and not a creative drop to go around.  We needed a change.

As it happened, there was a new IT Director who was keen to make a splash and show change happening.  He had run a dragons den-style event for partners (employees) to punt their ideas to improve the business.  A lady from one of the stores won the pitch for an ‘Online Fashion Advisor Tool’ that helps customers put together a good outfit for various occasions.

John Lewis Pitch event

The only problem was the business was not set up to deliver those types of bespoke digital solutions.  From a planning perspective, any new ideas would quickly become stuck in roadmaps and planning excel sheets that lasted as long as your arm could scroll for. 

Just not very John Lewis

So I offered him a solution.  I proposed that the digital design teams run a 2-day hackathon to rapidly design and create a concept to test with real users.  This was 2014, and surprisingly no one heard of hackathons (The John Lewis bubble effect). However, this was more of a design-a-thon as we had no web developers or technical support to code anything.  However, we were able to create interactive design prototypes and give the business a glimpse of a dream that was a different way of doing design.  

We were set up for an ideas first approach.

This sort of event was just not something John Lewis did at the time.  As an organisation, we were long planners and procrastinators.  When it came to project work, we were set up with an ‘ideas first approach’ and prioritised certainty, feasibility, and viability.  This mentality can be described as ‘big bets and long odds’ (which I later understood was largely driven by the loan requirements from the bank for each project!).  So it was a challenge to get an event that played against this mindset up and running.  Even on the practical side, we lacked any physical space to even run an event like this, and there were no open, collaborative spaces, all rooms booked out for months, and no clear walls to put any post-it’s on! 

However, we did manage to source some space from the old office and even get some sponsorship from Axure to pay for the food via a cheeky email I sent ahead of the event.

Internal promo video of the event

Exposing our organisational conditioning

It was a different and condensed way of working than we were used to. This was a ‘hot house’, rapidly designing solutions with immediate time pressure.  Some of the teams loved it, and some, I think, loathed it.  The different team’s ability to progress largely weighed on their ability to think and decide quickly and be flexible and fluid with their roles.  Designers needed to present, articulate their proposition, and managers needed to design. It was all very different from the norm.  For some, it exposed their vulnerabilities, connected to our organisational conditioning of hierarchy and a fixation on static roles when working as a team.

This struggle to run an activity in this way would later form part of my narrative to the wider business

There were also plenty of IT issues.  For some, just using laptops (rather than desktops with big screens) was a new thing—all the while connecting on different wifi networks, with software that wasn’t always happy. 

This struggle to run an activity in this way would later form part of my narrative to the wider business.  Why is it so hard for us to do something like this?  Why are the tools, spaces and teams so uncomfortable with this way of working.  I used the platform and noise created from this event to drive that conversation with very senior managers at John Lewis, including Andy Street (the CEO at the time).  He loved the event but could also see its limitations due to our IT and human infrastructure.  The conversations that followed helped us influence and make a case for change and investment.  While the event itself ironically didn’t lead to a customer impact (due to the internal project backlog and planning issues), the story became about the organisational influence and impact.

This influence helped drive the narrative that we needed to change

We needed better equipment, more flexible office space, and to explore different ways of being together to create and design for the customer.  We needed to develop new behaviours and become more flexible and lean in our ability to design for the customer.

Using an event like hackathons, design-a-thons, or design sprints can be a fairly safe way to temporarily leapfrog into the future to get a portal into a different and innovative way of working.  You can test a different way of working for a limited timeboxed event to see how people react and the challenges and start creating the narrative for change.

A short talk on my reflections on the event

If you’re interested in exploring what this type of event might look like for your organisation, let’s chat.