Hack weekends: 5 tips on keeping the momentum going

Back in 2010 a group of four passionate and creative individuals were exploring ideas around tackling youth unemployment. What digital solutions could be developed that would be meaningful and valuable for young people who’d managed to get themselves a bit lost along the way?

Two years later and after a process of concept development with Camden Council and support from UnLtd and Nesta we have FLiP – an online 360 degree strengths profiling tool based on feedback social media from trusted peers. Our aim is to address the complex challenge of youth unemployment by providing innovative digital tools to organisations that help overcome some of the barriers to employment. We are now developing a business model and entering the next stage of development to be able to roll out to local and national organisations working with young people so watch this space!

As a small team of designers and innovators we have worked hard to get the project off the ground and into the hands of young people and public organisations. This was new territory for us and we have come a long way from our early idea two years ago. I was asked by Nesta to share the learning and reflections on our journey. So here’s a summary of what I wrote that may be useful for public sector workers and digital entrepreneurs alike who will inevitably find themselves working together in some way or another.

Keep the momentum going at the beginning
The project has humble beginnings, we were four individual designers and developers with a big vision and a lot of enthusiasm. This self initiated project was kickstarted thanks to the Jailbrake hack weekend where six ‘back of the envelope’ ideas for new digital businesses were developed and pitched over 48 hours. However, after such an intense event teams were often left bewildered, overwhelmed and with little structured follow-up support on how to move forwards. It was tempting to obsess over revenue models and business plans to pitch for investment or funding. At this stage it’s too early to have more than some ideas or basic assumptions which need testing out.

Looking back, the few months after the weekend was a crucial time that would decide whether the project took off or fizzled out. What worked for us was finding an organisation who were excited and willing to develop and test our idea with their users and cracking on with some research and design activities. Getting to this point early was vital to keep the momentum going.

Our lesson was find people or organisations who share your goals and are as equally excited about it and start testing out some of the assumptions from the weekend as soon as possible.

Get ready for a culture shock when working in new sectors
This sounds obvious but it shouldn’t be underestimated. We came from the creative industries often working in the private sector, where the pace is fast and responsive. Working on a social innovation start up means people may well be working across sectors: digital innovators partnering with front line workers and organisations to radically change the ways things are done.

An organisation’s culture and attitude to innovation is very often challenged. People are asked to come out of their comfort zone and take risks. This is easier for innovators and designers who revel in trying new things but can get blinkered by the vision for the product or service being developed. We often forget the demands this can place on public and third sector organisations. While innovation is exciting and attractive, trying to innovate on top of a busy workload is hard graft for the front line. We scaled our vision and goals to match the resources and capacity of our project partners and the risks they were prepared to take. This allowed us to make small and progressive steps forwards in the project.

Small is beautiful
Our team is small and we have worked with much larger organisations. To do this effectively we have had to be flexible and responsive. Following a design-led approach for developing FLiP has meant that we’ve created and tested many prototypes to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Having a small team that can respond quickly prototyping activities has worked well for us.

For example, in an early version of FLiP, we had a live prototype of the tool that featured a database of opportunities uploaded directly by organisations offering work or training. When we tested this out in Camden (with young people and organisations), we quickly realised that there were not enough easily available opportunities to meet the demand of young people using the site. Following this we set up a new trial and focused on the strengths profiling features that had showed clear value and benefit to young people. This happened over one month and dramatically changed the direction for the project for the better. I believe we were able to do this and not stall because we are a small responsive and flexible team able to make decisions quickly and based on real insights. We often read about the necessity to ‘fail fast and fail often’ in order to succeed sooner but a team has to be well prepared for the practicalities of working like this. This leads me on to our next learning…

Don’t be precious
People need to be able to let go of ideas and assumptions on what they think will work. Being truly collaborative and co-designing solutions with a community of people means harvesting many ideas and trying to prove them wrong to find what is right and worth taking forwards. As mentioned in the example above, our project partners and young people were clear on what was working for them and we dropped what didn’t work. At the start of the project we didn’t expect that our main customers would be third party organisations offering employment support programmes to young people but this is now a key part of our development strategy.

User-involvement is not just a means to an end
Finally, as a great advocate and practitioner of co-design, I couldn’t ignore what we’ve learnt on user involvement. We often spoke about the benefits of co-designing and prototyping ideas with young people to ensure that the end result meets the needs of the people using it. While we still believe this is the best way to develop solutions, there is a certain amount of risk if the project fails at an early stage (albeit far less than a if a full blown pilot fails later down the line). However, this is enough of a risk to put some organisations off getting involved.

We found that organisations were more likely to invest a bit of time and resources if the young people involved in the process were shown to be learning skills as a result. Of the apprentice applicants that were involved in FLIP’s peer-research activities, 50% went on to secure apprenticeship placements. Camden Apprenticeship Scheme officers believed this was because of the skills and confidence the young people gained by being part of a co-design process.

We are very excited about the future of FLiP and will be sharing news of our future plans very shortly. As we speak, we are building new partnerships and securing support to allow us to scale the work we are doing and embed digital solutions into current support services for young people. We really see a huge potential to allow young people to leverage their social networks and access support when making career and life choices.

Bruno Taylor is a designer passionate about digital innovation and social change. He is heading up FLiP’s new social venture. Please contact him at bruno@thisisrepresent.com if you want to have a chat.

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