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“We need some ideas, and we need them fast”

When the coronavirus recently made non-essential gatherings a no-go, local customer experience consultancy, MI Academy, considered pulling the plug on its upcoming retail hackathon.

The in-person event, which was originally planned for May, didn’t seem easily translatable to a virtual environment. But managing director Alita Harvey-Rodriguez decided to give it a shot anyway.

“Right now is the time when we need to stay creative, because we’re suffering,” Harvey-Rodriguez told Inside Retail. “We need some ideas, and we need them fast.”

Still, how could MI Academy facilitate the kind of good old-fashioned brainstorming sessions necessary for a hackathon – which usually involve putting people in a room with a whiteboard, post-it notes and, most importantly, snacks – online? Simply having people Zoom each other wasn’t going to work.

“One thing people are really good at is talking, but what usually happens is the loudest voice in the room is just sharing their ideas and nobody else is getting any of their ideas out there – either because they’re introverts or they just can’t get past that loudest voice,” Harvey-Rodriguez explained.

After researching various online collaboration tools, the MI Academy team came up with Miro, a platform that allows teams to throw ideas up onto a virtual whiteboard. The other solution they came up with is something called ‘time-boxing’, a time management technique to ensure teams keep making progress and don’t get stuck at any one stage.

“Everyone slams down their ideas in Miro and you’re not trapped by that loudest voice,” Harvey-Rodriguez said. “Then you can vote on the best option as a collective. And because you have a broad set of people with lots of different skills and ideas, you end up with the closest thing to what’s right…it’s the law of averages.”

Teams will use Slack, which is “powering” the event, to share documents and stay in touch throughout the process.

Human connection

It was also important for Harvey-Rodriguez to replicate the kind of human connection and bonding that occurs at in-person hackathons. This was trickier to do, but she ended up collaborating with brands on a care package that will be delivered to participants a few days before the event kicks off.

“Whilst we can use tools, we still wanted to have some kind of human connection between us,” she said.

The hackathon officially begins on June 4 and runs through June 12. Applications are now open, and people from all different parts of the retail industry – from CEOs and CMOs, to HR managers, head of sales and product developers – are being encouraged to apply. There are only 50 places available, and applications close on May 15.

“We need to make sure people come with a diverse set of skills in retail because we need solutions that are practical and that we can apply right now,” Harvey-Rodriguez said.

“Whilst we’re going to be encouraging teams to have really big ideas, we’re going to be judging them on what can applied today that we can start working on tomorrow.”

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