Hack days are a proud tradition in Silicon Valley, where innovation is nothing short of a company's lifeblood. Many industry tech giants--including Facebook, Netflix, and LinkedIn--hold hack days regularly throughout the year with a goal of kick-starting collaborative brainstorms that often don't fit into the regular course of business. Hack days are a great way to unleash pent up ideas and innovation.

Hack days are also notoriously fun, encouraging cross-functional teams to put their heads together and quickly come up with ideas that produce "hacks" leading to meaningful business results. Part of the beauty of hack days is that they take place "off the clock." Regular business activity essentially shuts down for 24 hours to provide participants with uninterrupted focus on letting creative juices flow. This freedom from daily work responsibilities fosters ingenuity and innovative thinking.

If you've never experienced one of these caffeine-fueled affairs, let me give you a flavor. We just wrapped up our first hack day at Pluralsight and it was phenomenal. In the week leading up to hack day, we encouraged everyone to submit their ideas for projects that could in some way improve Pluralsight's business. The only catch was, they needed to ship something the very next day. (Business author Daniel Pink refers to these as FedEx Days because you have to ship something.)

Employees from all of our company's offices submitted ideas and organically recruited teams to work on their projects based on shared interests. The group energy, passion, and enthusiasm were instantly contagious. Cross-functional teams of developers, marketers, designers, and sales huddled together, working quickly and collaboratively to move their ideas forward. You could literally feel the intensity of the respective teams as they worked, many through the night, in their excitement to bring their idea to fruition.

The experience of hack day was extremely rewarding in itself, but the results blew our leadership team away. The company emerged a day later with dozens of improvements that made an immediate impact on our business. These included (to name just a few):

  • A new enterprise-focused landing page that was deployed a week later and immediately started generating new business opportunities.
  • A learning ROI calculator for the sales team to demonstrate the value of our platform to clients through concrete numbers.
  • Prototypes for new features related to learning paths and playlists that allow people to find and save courses that they want to take in the future.
  • A new email greeting to welcome new clients and help them engage with us in a much more meaningful way out of the gate.

As one hack-day participant on the latter project described: "Twelve to 15 hours of brainstorming, crafty artistry, and tech know-how resulted in four badass email templates being coded and ready to go. We're not sure, but at one point it seemed that rainbows and unicorns could be seen within the confines of the boardroom (in the late evening hours)." If you're still not convinced about how a round-the-clock group brainstorm could move your business forward, here are three other compelling reasons to harness the power of a hack day:

  • Empowering works. The best leaders learn to let go and build a culture that empowers teams with autonomy where it counts. While giving up control can be scary for some leaders, the results speak for themselves. When you entrust people to make good decisions and empower them to be experimental without fear of failure, they'll be especially motivated--from within--to figure out what's best for the company. Our first hack day at Pluralsight certainly bears out this finding. The ideas that everyone came up with when left to their own devices were all inspiring, helpful, and really cool. Every one of the ideas offered something to move the company forward in ways that leadership alone would have never come up with.
  • Free time leads to innovation. Every one of your employees has ideas that could leap the company forward if discovered. Part of the challenge that fast-moving companies face is that most days, weeks, and months are devoted to executing clearly defined strategies to meet previously defined objectives. While this is important in reaching corporate goals, it doesn't leave time for spontaneous innovation to occur. When everyone's time is too tightly booked on everything else that needs to be done, no gaps remain for the type of innovation that imagines the future and stimulates progress. Hack days create periodic opportunities for each person in the company to step away from their daily workflow and tap into their inner genius, to create a new improvement that can help the company in a game-changing way.
  • Hack days are fun. Not every idea generated on hack day will transform the organization or the industry. But that's not the point. Yes it's amazing to walk away from a 24-hour hack day with new ideas that have huge potential for significant business results. But even if every idea from a hack day fizzles, there are still major gains that come out of giving people the chance to put their undivided attention into hacking the company for a full day. You'll create a culture of innovation that's creative, collaborative, experimental, and ultimately really fun. Hack days keep the "startup" spirit alive even in very large organizations long past the startup phase.
  • Collaboration builds strong relationships. When you work on a small team focused on a common interest for 24 intense hours, you can't help but create strong relationships that last. The experience boosts team-building as people gain new empathy and appreciation for what their peers do in different parts of the organization. You'll infuse teams with the kind of fresh energy, motivation, and joyful passion that can only come from working on projects they are passionate about because they've designed them themselves. And everyone will bond over midnight munchies.

Hack days are a convergence of collaboration, innovation, and learning--three cultural elements that you need to create a competitive advantage in every industry. When you harness the art, science, and power of hacking your own company, you'll stimulate minds, stoke internal progress, and fuel forward-thinking concepts that just might lead to the next big thing.

Published on: Jan 14, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.