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Pulling An All Nighter

Friday, October 14, 2011 by Slaughter Development

Now that another round of the 24 Hour Web Project is over, it’s time to comment on whether this is generally a good business process and a healthy business practice. Our answer in two words: Yes, sometimes.

First: a heads up on what this is all about. From the website:

The idea for this project is: find a local non-profit, gather a team, make said non-profit a useful web site in 24 hours, raise community awareness and maybe get them some donations in the process. The team gets to revel in losing sleep helping out for a good cause, the non-profit gets to benefit from their new site. Win-win, all around.

The event is organized and staffed by SmallBox, an Indianapolis web design firm. This year, the team did double duty, producing impressive websites for both the Earth House Collective and INDYCOG.

At first glance, it’s easy to be skeptical about a marathon, company-wide effort. If we look just at the raw details out of context, this might seem like a recipe for disaster. In fact, the 24 Hour Web Project does include some of the classic hallmarks of what industry veterans call a “death march”:

  1. Incredibly short deadlines
  2. Exceptionally long hours
  3. No tangible revenue

If these were the most significant factors for a project at your company, it’s pretty easy to predict your future.


So why are the SmallBoxers staying up long past their bedtimes once a year to build websites? Are they crazy? To understand why this is rare example of when extreme conditions actually work, we need to look at the primary cause of the traditional, soul-crushing death march. To quote Ed Yourdon (author of the definitive work on this topic) in a recent interview:

More often than not it is the result of an arbitrary deadline determination by management. Management decrees that something will be done in a very aggressive fashion, and then they stubbornly refuse to back down.

Or, in the language of Dilbert:

So why is the 24 Hour Web Project not an example of a death march? One reason above all others: the arbitrary deadline is not a management decree.

The SmallBox team decided together that it would be loads of fun to set out to build a website in only twenty four hours. They have set parameters for the project to ensure success—such as requiring a client-approved sitemap before starting the clock. And of course, they are only building websites for non-profit causes, which helps keep everyone’s spirits up.

If you’re considering extreme working conditions at your own company, you might be tempted to use the 24 Hour Web Project as an example. After all, if the SmallBoxers can load up on Diet Coke and churn out two websites in a single day, what’s wrong with expecting your team to put in a couple of sixty or seventy hour weeks?

The answer is that anyone asking their employees for long hours is asking the wrong question. The right question is the one SmallBox has answered on their company culture page. The right question is asking: “How should we work together?” The SmallBoxers decided that part of that answer was the 24 Hour Web Project. The answer for you may be something similar or different, but only if you’re asking that question.

So to summarize: is it good for the company to stay up all night working on a crazy project? Yes, sometimes. Only if you’ve decided—all together—to change your working parameters and see what amazing results you might produce.

Congratulations to the SmallBox team on their third successful year of the 24 Hour Web Project. And an even bigger congratulations to the SmallBox team for building a collaborative working environment where such fantastic ideas can be part of a healthy workplace culture.

❖ ❖ ❖

Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

Efficient System Gets Fried - The recent thunderstorms in Indianapolis have left one Slaughter Development colleague quite unhappy. Not only has the severe lightning fried her phone and computer lines, it’s singed her confidence in a nationally recognized provider. Read on »
Want to learn more? Register now for the 2011 Productivity Series

3 Responses to “Pulling An All Nighter”

  1. Jeb Says:

    Thanks for the post, really appreciate your take on this.

    You are totally right about this- the idea wasn’t mine it came from the team and was brought to me. I was happy to sign off on it but really I’m happy to sign off on almost anything that gets consensus with the team. It has to be a pretty bad idea to get vetoed and that doesn’t happen often.

    I’ve learned a lot about managing a team from these 24 hour web projects. You touch on it with your Failure book - I have to give them the freedom to fail and succeed. They need to own both outcomes. That really happens with the 24 HWP- we have come close to blowing a couple times and it takes the whole team working together to pull it off. That is what makes me most proud, watching everyone take ownership, push though walls, have hard conversation and just get it done.

    These 24 HWP lessons- accountability, attention to results- has infiltrated all of our projects and changed the way we run regular projects, manage expectations, create experiences, etc. I would recommend every company take the risk of trusting its team with something like a 24 HWP.

  2. Josh Humble Says:

    I can see how this kind of planned, full-consent approach has worked, and congrats to the SmallBox team. I feel - as is well noted - this approach is totally different from what is happening elsewhere, though. Due to economic impact, the need to be versatile, constant connectivity, and the demand of RUSH jobs, we’re doing the all-nighters all the time, and without the elements necessary to make a special occasion all-nighter work.

    Lacking balance, one will eventually become unraveled, and for most of us doing this, it will lead to failure. I believe in being allowed to fail in many cases - after all attempts to stop it have been tried. But it’s also good to NOT fail when we know how and why not to.

  3. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Jeb and Josh!

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