How Startup Weekend teaches big business to innovate

At Startup Weekend, the best ideas emerge organically, develop rapidly, pivot where appropriate, and reveal just how innovative we humans can be, especially given a tight timeframe and resource restriction.

“No Talk, All Action, Launch a Startup in 54 Hours”

That’s the rather bold statement of the Startup Weekend movement, the world’s largest entrepreneurial community. Entrepreneurs, coders, designers, and others come together to create a business concept in one hectic weekend. Some go on to run their businesses full-time, others continue working on their projects in the evenings, and for some it’s just a fun weekend, but every single participant learns something new.

I helped to organise two Startup Weekends in Oslo last year, where the enthusiasm, energy, and buzz was contagious. I felt drawn to like-minded people, and it’s impossible not to expand your network and learn new skills in such an environment.

Once the dust settled, I couldn’t help thinking – why isn’t the corporate world more like this?

My experience of trying to innovate in business (in both Norway and the UK) is not a positive one. When I’ve tried to improve a process or question a norm, I’ve been faced with a brick wall, barriers put in place by an arbitrary hierarchy, or a “robust” process that is anything but.

At Startup Weekend, the best ideas emerge organically, develop rapidly, pivot where appropriate, and reveal just how innovative we humans can be, especially given a tight timeframe and resource restriction.

Corporations getting in on the act

Earlier this year, global Startup Weekend sponsor Coca-Cola hosted an internal event, inviting 96 employees and 4 facilitators to “refresh innovation” at Coke. From 46 ideas, the 14 most popular were selected to develop, some Coke-related and some most definitely not. Following the usual Startup Weekend process of ongoing development, mentor sessions, refinement, and in some instances even complete changes in direction, four winners were chosen with one even able to pitch their idea to Coca-Cola’s operating committee.

“If you’re trying to figure out how your company can foster innovation, Ive never seen a better and cheaper way to do this, and I’ve never seen anything have such an impact” – Nick Seguin, Manager of Entrepreneurship at the Kaufmann Foundation.

Closer to home, Nordic Semiconductor partnered with Startup Weekend Trondheim to offer their Bluetooth low energy chips at a pre-event workshop, with a prize for the best app/idea utilising the technology. Letting talented entrepreneurs work out new ways to use your technology – sounds like a winning idea in itself!

Innovation in the Norwegian Public Sector

IKT Norge (ICT Norway) and Difi (the Norwegian Agency for Public Management and eGovernment) launched Apps4Norge earlier this year, offering prizes worth NOK 150,000 for the best apps and ideas utilising public data to benefit society. Although Apps4Norge was run over a longer timescale, the Startup Weekend concept – forming teams, providing resources (in this case Government datasets) and seeing what happens – was clear for all to see.

The individual Apps4Norge award went to Samstemmer, which takes real-time information from the Parliamentary Data API to provide a visual representation of voting patterns in the Norwegian Parliament.

Lessons for your business

Innovation events such as these are successful not because the individual ideas are groundbreaking, but because it shows everyone what is possible when people are allowed to step outside their day job and play.

Maja Adriaensen, the Country Manager for Startup Weekend Norway, agrees: “Startups generally work because of limitations, normally money. But there’s other ways to create those constraints, on Startup Weekend time is the limited resource. Mixing up staff, taking them completely out of their comfort zone, and creating fake constraints could help big organisations think and act more like innovative startups.”

The options for your company are numerous. Send a few employees to a Startup Weekend, held regularly in Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger, and Trondheim. Volunteer your own time as a mentor or speaker, helping inexperienced entrepreneurs on their journey and maybe taking the infectious enthusiasm for innovation back to your workplace.

But remember, hosting an internal event is only worthwhile if you mix departments up, put constraints in place, and then allow people to fully express themselves without fear. This means no checking emails during the event! Outside facilitators are always a good idea, to prevent any bias or agenda-setting from internal management.

Is this something your organisation could benefit from? If not, why not?


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