Pushing your boundaries... and learning your lessons

I have always been a greater fan of the social sciences. But a few days ago I participated in the 2019 Odyssey Hackathon (Groningen, the Netherlands). I received the invitation to join a participating team only about 2 months before and, to be honest, many of the words used in that context were not part of my vocabulary until then. I had to 'google' more than once for terms like Hackathon, blockchain, AI (Artificial Intelligence), protocol, and then design thinking, gamification, system's architect and so many others. 


The result of this adventure includes both a very positive evaluation and a fairly negative one. Here's why.


First, I need to say the entire Hackathon (including several preparatory events; I attended only one but the video coverage of others was available online afterwards) seemed extremely well-organised, even if I did leave some notes on a few areas for improvement. Kudos to the entire Odyssey team. The ambience for the Hackathon's non-stop 48 hours was amazing, even if we were all stressed trying to find solutions to the real challenges we had been assigned to. Overall there were 100 teams, working on 13 challenges, not just to improve the way the world is today but to radically change it. It was great to meet other teams and learn about their ideas and projects. I am sure many will end up in successful enterprises and new products will come out of the Hackathon; several (maybe most) will not. The Jedi - the experts in different domains present at the event - and the 'challenge owners' were also incredible and crucial to motivate teams and challenge us to think out of the box. By the way, I (like all teams, I think) did go to sleep at some point.


Being there, talking to people, reading about several new topics in order to prepare for the challenge, discussing ideas online: I learned more in these few weeks of preparation and the 48 hours of the Hackathon that anyone can normally do in a similar period of time (unless you were another participant, of course). That was a really big 'plus' and I would definitely consider participating in similar events again. I pushed my boundaries, got out of my comfort zone, and grew because of it!


The not so positive part was actually just related to the dynamics of my own team. There were 5 of us, whom I had never met before until about 2 months prior. We each brought an impressive range of skills, from law, architecture, creative thinking, software development, and the social sciences and human behaviour (me!). In our online pre-Hackathon meetings we discussed several theoretical and methodological frameworks that we could use to approach our challenge. It looked promising and ambitious enough to make me quite excited about it. It took us a while to confirm one aspect though, one which we all sensed but lacked enough connection among us to confirm: we lacked leadership. The person who brought us all together assigned himself the role of 'Team captain' - a requirement for all teams during registration - and none of the other team members argued about it. We did set some expectations about the role and the functions it entailed though, very legitimate ones I would say. 


Unfortunately, these functions were never fulfilled. In spite of some uncoordinated efforts (given we did not know what each of us was doing during the preparation period and communication among us was 'mediated' by the team captain), as a team we did not have clear goals or expectations for the event, we did not know each others' skills well enough, there was never a schedule or agenda, we did not know what should be our individual tasks and roles during the Hackathon... In short, we completely lacked the ability to turn our 'exciting vision' into concrete steps and to generate a sense of team-building around it. There was no goal-setting, no plan, no time management, no motivational (or so far, thankful) comments, no proper review or feedback so far. This was such a disappointment... For someone who has some experience and now aims to educate others about the importance of leadership, I felt ashamed of not having picked up on this earlier. My first impression was: 'what a failure'! 


But then, I reminded myself of what I have been practicing lately: failures only exist when you fail to learn the lessons. So, here I am: reflecting on my experience, valuing the failure (including my dazzling with a great vision, my reluctance to confirm certain impressions with others, and my inability to simply be more assertive on getting clarity) and hoping it has heightened my senses to foresee it farther ahead the next time and take appropriate action on time... :) 


For me leadership is about setting a vision, defining a concrete plan to realise that vision, and motivating and empowering team members to make it come true (among quite a few other things). So, next time someone proposes me to be part of an amazing solution to address a global challenge, I will make my due diligence and be sure not to invest my time in it until there are clear goals and expectations, until I know what will define 'success' in that case and how it will be measured. It's not about ambition - your goals can be only to participate, eat and sleep a bit - it's about clarity. In coaching I give a lot of importance to setting goals and defining a path to reach them. Along the way you are likely to learn new things and maybe even to change both your goal and/or the path you wish to follow. That is fine; it's part of the learning process and it demonstrates your ability to grow as a person. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is quoted for saying in the Little Prince that a "Goal without a plan is just a dream". In this case, we had neither a goal, nor a plan; just the dream... Ever been 'dazzled' by a great dream? 


(First published: 23 April 2019)

Natália Leal  |  Coach & Trainer

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