How RBC embraced the hackathon mindset

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Hackathons are innovation challenges, often taking place over an intense couple of days, in which a team rapidly prototypes a solution to a challenge. These events had taken the tech world by storm when RBC started running them a few years ago, and while innovation through hackathons started with technology, at RBC we are quickly applying this approach to a number of different parts of our business.

Given the pace of change we need to look everywhere we can for innovative new ideas.
 

As someone who came from RBC’s HR division, I’ve seen this in action. We know that given the pace of change we need to look everywhere we can for innovative new ideas, and this absolutely includes looking inside the bank for ideas and for employees who want to contribute to innovation from wherever they are in the organization. But how do we go about finding the most innovative employees inside a company.

That was the goal of RBC’s ‘intrapreneurship’ program when it launched in April 2016 – finding employees who think and act like entrepreneurs and giving them the tools they need to contribute to innovation. It started with an online social collaboration group that has ballooned into a community of well over 1,000 employees who are passionate about being innovative. They share articles, ideas, and their experiences—and even seek out other like-minded colleagues to go with them to tech events.

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Our focus on ‘intrapreneurship’ has helped to create some structure around employee-driven innovation at RBC. As a global organization, we know it’s important to cross-pollinate innovative thinking across teams and enable employees to step forward and connect with like-minded peers outside of RBC and around the world.

What we’ve done is create a “for us, by us” innovation program. We are being responsive to the needs of our intrapreneurs, creating a supportive environment in which they can explore new ideas. Innovation isn’t only about developing a new product; it’s also about enabling and creating the conditions for innovation to thrive. People are looking for that ‘permission’ to share an idea or bring together a group of people to brainstorm something. We often tell people they have ‘permission’ because that’s the mindset we want to encourage. That mindset needs a culture that supports it.

Fostering a hackathon mindset

The next challenge we set our sights on was how to spread the hackathon mindset—a collective crowd-sourcing of ideas—across such a large organization. How could we bring hackathons to people who aren’t developers, so we can see the impact of innovation in every department? What could we learn from the power of rapid prototyping and proof of concepts that could apply to any business or function at RBC?

To expand our intrapreneurship program, we recently piloted RBCx, an employee innovation initiative that taps into this hackathon mindset. Small teams of employees were assembled with different skills and from various departments. They were even able to step away from their day jobs for ten weeks to join the program. As a team, they learned some innovation processes and techniques, and built new products in response to business challenges we gave them.

Because we also want to make sure we’re constantly building that pipeline of innovative talent, we run RBC Amplify in the summer, where we recruit top students into an intensive summer innovation program that some have described as a four-month hackathon. The highly-innovative participants in both RBCx and RBC Amplify are given guidance, training, and resources to design and create the next big thing for us.

What is the carrot?

The employees who participate in these programs are generally early adopters with a predisposition to learning and innovation. After their 10 weeks in the RBCx program, we encourage them to go back to their day jobs and champion the innovation culture with their colleagues. Culture change is not only about developing innovation skills with a select group of people, it’s about having it go viral throughout the organization.

For example, we know that lean startup experimentation can be challenging for employees because it’s not how we typically do things. Given our high-performance culture where people strive to deliver highquality work, we need to reassure employees that sometimes a rough prototype (often in the form of Post-it notes!) is exactly what you need in the early stages of ideation. It doesn’t have to be polished and perfect until you know you’re solving for the right problem.

People want the chance to be creative and build skills. But it can be intimidating as they are flexing different muscles to solve a problem.
 

And even if the hackathon is technical in nature—building innovative apps, for example—there’s a strong business case for encouraging non-technical people to participate. Not only will they get exposure to new technology, you also want to have diversity of thought as part of your input so you’ll approach the solution through many different lenses. Research shows that having diverse perspectives around the table will lead to more creative and innovative solutions. At RBC, we’re big believers in the power of diversity and inclusion.

Ultimately, people want the chance to be creative and build skills—it’s motivating and energizing. But it can also be intimidating as they are flexing different muscles to solve a problem. The fact that their solution will make a difference for colleagues or clients is what’s important to them.

Practical results

We are seeing the impact already in terms of people working differently. There is so much interest in building a strong innovation culture, from new graduates to senior leaders. We’ve seen intrapreneurs move to new roles where they can focus on introducing these new innovation approaches to their group. It’s a phenomenal example of change and what is possible. It’s also a great sign of the appetite around RBC for thinking in new ways, and it speaks to the need for intensive development of our highest potential innovators.

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RBCx is being rolled out more broadly across RBC, and with our lessons learned from the pilot, we have plans for how we want to grow the program. Coupled with RBC Amplify, we now have innovation programs happening throughout the year that engage talented innovators, both students and full-time employees, and give us a platform from which to churn out innovative solutions on a regular basis.

It’s been amazing to see what employees come up with, and we’ve had some terrific outcomes, like a travel insurance app developed as an Amplify project that is now available for iOS and Android devices. The ability to mobilize our critical mass of intrapreneurs — employees who are passionate about innovation — is incredibly rewarding for all of us who run these programs.

Christine Silva

Christine Silva

Christine Silva is the Senior Director of Intrapreneurship & Talent Programs at RBC.