This post is part of our ShipIt Day “In the Wild” series, highlighting stories from other companies who’ve already taken their own whack at ShipIt Day.  Past installments have featured Lateral, Eli Lilly and Ambientia; this week’s post features Six Feet Up.

In celebration of the LAST DAY(!) for submissions to win a ShipIt Day hosted by Atlassian, we’re featuring Six Feet Up, a private, WBE certified consulting company headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. With a focus on open source initiatives, Six Feet Up’s core business is the development, hosting and support of web applications, for clients ranging from small non-profits to large corporations. “Faced with the challenges of a growing team” in 2010, Six Feet Up’s CEO, Gabrielle Hendryx-Parker, was researching ways to “build the foundations of a successful team” when she discovered ShipIt Day through Dan Pink’s book, Drive. As Carol Ganz, Director of Business Development, explains, the company had been wanting to try a similar program for some time, but they weren’t sure how to “roll out a a program like that — and we were worried about the costs.” ShipIt Day presented an easy solution for experimenting with ways to better motivate employees, without substantial risk or overhead costs.

Since then, Six Feet Up has held a total of five ShipIt Days, and the event has morphed from a simple experiment to becoming “a part of the company DNA.” They’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way, and discovered how to use ShipIt Day as a means to empower employees and boost their sense of autonomy. Carol notes that it also gives the company a chance to “involve employees in the strategic and operational decision-making process… and re-ignite the sense of purpose we tend to lose in our day-to-day activities.” In summary, ShipIt Day “is something we all look forward to, like playtime. They are almost like our quarterly mini breaks, which is ironic because this is probably the 24 hours when we work the hardest.” Read on to learn more about how Six Feet Up has empowered its employees through ShipIt Day (and check out the link below if you’re interested in submitting an application!).

How did you hear about ShipIt Day?

[As Dan Pink’s asserts in his book, Drive,] external motivators such as money, praises, etc.–the carrot-and-stick approach–don’t work. Instead, Dan Pink stresses that there are three elements of true intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As an example of an activity that helps boost morale, creativity and productivity, he describes Atlassian’s ShipIt Day program. The concept of this program, combined with his description of an Atlassian (an organization that felt like a sister company based on its corporate culture videos), really intrigued our team.

What inspired you about the program?

The idea of giving employees a portion of their time to work on a project of their choice was already a well-known concept at Six Feet Up, thanks to numerous stories about Google’s “20% time.” Several employees had already approached executives about deploying a similar program internally, but we weren’t sure how to roll out a program like that — and we were worried about the costs. When we heard about the ShipIt Day concept, it just clicked: it was a great way to ease into the idea of a percent time program.

What have you done?

We have been largely experimenting with various formats, and learned a few lessons along the way

  • Middle of the week vs. end of the week (much better)
  • Early start vs. later start in the day (preferred)
  • Small teams vs. large teams (individuals tend not to benefit as much)
  • Training meeting/ShipIt Day combo (not a good idea)
  • Various conference call systems to connect with remote employees
  • Video streaming the event on our site (who would have thought people like watching other people at work?)
  • Various caterers (avoid junk food)
  • Food delivery schedules (hungry stomachs don’t work well for ShipIt Day)
  • Flying in remote employees (definitely worth it)
  • Including/excluding free-lancers
  • Throwing in a little competition vs. doing it for fun, etc.

At the end of each ShipIt Day, we hold a quick post-mortem to discuss how to make the next event even better. Now, ShipIt Days are part of our company DNA, and we all eagerly look forward to the next one.

How many people have participated?

The entire team is encouraged (but not required) to participate. Sometimes we have team members who normally work remotely fly in for the event. At some point, we were even contacted by Aon-Hewitt, a very large international company, who was interested in deploying the ShipIt Day concept internally and was at the due diligence stage. We participated in multiple phone calls with them to provide them our lessons learned, and eventually welcomed two of their observers at one of our events.

How many projects have you completed?

In total we have had more than 50 projects successfully completed over the course of five ShipIt Days, at the rate of about one event per quarter. During our last ShipIt Day, we had 13 projects created by the 22 participants.

What departments were involved?

  • Marketing
  • Business Development
  • Account/Project management
  • Accounting & Finances
  • Systems Administration Team
  • Development Team
  • Executive Team
  • Free-lancers

Have any of the projects significantly impacted your business?

Much of our ShipIt Day focus is on “back burner” projects, things team members really want to implement, but never seem to find the time for. For example, we’ve created processes for delivering proposals more quickly, automated release procedures for complex deployment configurations, improved monitoring of services within our infrastructure, created over 25 marketing pieces, and refined our matrices for better tracking of projects. It now feels like we would be in the stone age had we not made time for those gruesome yet critical projects.

Have you been able to quantify the impact?

The benefits of ShipIt Day are huge and really help us better position the company for the long-term, yet we haven’t been able to precisely quantify the ROI. The amount of work that is delivered and presented at the end of each event is always so impressive that there just isn’t any doubt in our minds that this is a program that is incredibly valuable and here to stay. As a small business that is privately held, we haven’t had the need to spend time and resources proving with numbers what’s a given during ShipIt Day’s presentation time.

How has ShipIt Day impacted employees?

  • Increased creativity: At the end of the day, as part of our postmortem, we create a wiki page for the next event to track new projects the team would like to see tackled. There are always lots of ideas on the page by the time we start getting serious about choosing our projects for the next event. Some projects are proposed by people who need help implementing their ideas, so they create posters and send emails to the team to promote their projects. This helps create excitement around the upcoming event and adds a healthy competition for the most creative ad campaign. And let’s just say Marketing isn’t always the winner…
  • Increased team spirit: ShipIt Days give everyone a chance to socialize more in the office. There is the pressure to complete your project on time, but it is not mission critical to anyone but your team. This knowledge makes it easier to wander from group to group to see how everyone else’s project is progressing and have a chat. The atmosphere is very relaxed and we mingle together till late at night. We play and talk about music, we discuss food (always an important topic), we talk about our kids. Sometimes our spouses and children stop by for dinner before heading home. We are having fun working as a team together.
  • Stimulated innovation: We’ve noticed employees like to embrace new technologies for their projects. Pyramid, a new Python-based web application framework, was only announced at the beginning of this year and we already have 4 projects built with it. Those projects have been great real-life opportunities for the developers to familiarize themselves with a technology that we will definitely be using for our clients. Likewise, marketing collaterals developed during ShipIt Days are usually of higher quality because it is easier to get feedback from coworkers, and because of the lack of pressure to get something done “by 5pm”. The design of our recent coasters took close to 15 hours of passionate debates and was finalized very late in the night. It is also now one of our best swag.

How has ShipIt Day impacted your company’s culture?

Six Feet Up has always strived to involve employees in the strategic and operational decision-making process. ShipIt Day gives us a chance to “walk the talk” and re-ignite the sense of purpose we tend to lose in our day-to-day activities. These are very exciting times indeed. It is a day when managers can’t mandate anything other than what you do must benefit the company. Employees’ opinions and decisions matter. Everybody feels like they are contributing to shaping the company because they are working on what they decided was important. Autonomy is at its highest and we are all driven by the purpose of making our great company an even greater company to work at.

Moreover, autonomy is fueled by a heightened mandate of transparency during ShipIt Days: everybody has access to resources from other departments and the various presentations help people know what their colleagues are up to. Many employees were really interested in a presentation by our Accounting Director on her process to manage receipts. They had never thought about what happens when they submit an expense reimbursement request.

ShipIt Days also prompt teams to find layman terms to explain what they are working on to their fellow team-members. This helps break the invisible walls of lingo that surround each department. This transparency and ease of accessing information makes it easier to see all the facets of an organization, and helps employees feel like this is their company and that they can steer the boat too.

To summarize, ShipIt Days are something we all look forward to, like playtime. They are almost like our quarterly mini breaks, which is ironic because this is probably the 24 hours when we work the hardest.

Sound interesting?

Want to try ShipIt Day at your company? Apply to win a ShipIt Day hosted by Atlassian here! The deadline is tonight, December 21st, 10:00pm (PST) – so get ’em in!

(Case Study) Six Feet Up Uses ShipIt Day to Motiva...