Atlassian, an Australian IT solutions company, created the FedEx Day concept in 2004 to address issues that many start-up companies face with employee motivation after the initial phase of enthusiasm wears down. The concept turned highly successful and was presented to the world at large by motivational speaker Daniel H. Pink in his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink argued that people will work more persistently to master a task that is intrinsically interesting rather than one that is materially rewarding. In order to support his claim, Pink highlighted certain motivational strategies such as Atlassian’s FedEx Day. This publicity sparked numerous other companies, including Ambientia, to follow suit.
What, who, why?
The aim of a FedEx Day is to complete something deliverable within a 24 h period. This enforced deadline is how the event gets its name; it mimics the bold, even revolutionary promise of an overnight delivery by the US-based courier FedEx. The idea is that if you can’t make it, at least make the effort. There may be a chance to complete the project later. FedEx Day is similar in spirit to Google’s 20% time, also known as Innovation Time Off, which offers Google employees the chance to pursue their own interests as long as the workers are in some way able to align their pet projects with the goals of the company.
Additional goals of a FedEx Day include:
- to foster creativity
- to scratch itches
- to test out temporary or novel ideas
- to have fun unfettered by the usual, even hum-drum restrictions of work
You may ask, for whom is FedEx Day intended?
Ab initio, Atlassian designed this concept for its developers. Since then, the company has also experimented with the concept vis-à-vis their technical writers and the program has been a big hit for them too.
Any group of people who works with deliverable items, be it code, architectural designs, or general documents, stands to benefit from the hustle & bustle provoked by a FedEx Day curriculum.
On the other hand, as Atlassian noted early on, this kind of process might not be such a success with people, or specifically, with employees, who have nothing tangible to deliver or with long-term deliverables, e.g. people in marketing or tech support.
Participation in a FedEx event should be on a voluntary basis, but highly encouraged nonetheless. After all, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
In the same way, you cannot force people to be creative. Yet, in some respects Fed Ex day may be considered a team-building or a morale-building exercise.
However, it must be remembered that a FedEx day does not work like an entitlement in the same fashion as the 20% program at Google works. In the case of a FedEx day, if an employee cannot attend the event on the assigned date, he or she has to wait for the next one to be scheduled.
FedEx in Action
For each FedEx Day, an eligible participant – viz., say, a developer or a technical writer – is appointed as a FedEx organizer.
It is this person’s responsibility to arrange 2 or 3 planning sessions in advance of the event – planning sessions that are usually held over take-away lunches or the like, and where participants are expected to brainstorm ideas that are then turned into projects to be realized on the Day proper. These pre-FedEx Day planning sessions provide extra assurance that the FedEx Day event will be a success.
The participants may work individually or in teams. However, working individually tends to be more in line with agile software development practices. Such practices allow for progress in small increments as well as for early early detection of problems. Another plus of this strategy? A quick restart of projects.
It may also be prudent to prescribe a maximum number for the teams. An optimum number seems to be about three persons, to ward off any over-socializing and wasting of time that might occur in a larger, a more unruly, group of people.
The work produced during a FedEx day program culminates in the presentation of the projects the next day. The participants should factor in some time to test their deliverables beforehand as the presentations are intentionally fast-paced so as to capture and hold the attention of the audience members.
It’s entirely up to the organizer whether or not to give the presenting team a do-over if the so-called FedEx ”gremlin” rears its ugly head and the presentation is interrupted by a technical problem.
Tradition holds that the best of the bunch is voted upon and the winning team gets a trophy – and, of course, world class bragging rights. However, emphasis on winning alone may be counterproductive to an authentic, unfettered flow of creativity. Creativity may be hampered by a drive to win, rather than a drive to make manifest the most excellent representation of an employee’s most cherished ideas.
Atlassian used the following criteria in their voting form for their 12th FedEx Day:
- technical accomplishment
- flair, or how well the project stands out or distinguishes itself from the competition
Once an organization has decided to try out the FedEx Day concept then it must wrangle with a very important question:
Should we restrict the ideas only to “merchantable” ones, viz., ones that are most likely to pay off.
The savviest organizations are the ones that refuse to become fixated on just making money from the exercise, because such an attitude goes against the spirit of FedEx Day.
And the spirit of FedEx Day is characterized by openness and flexibility. To honor these values, Ambientia has framed its own use of the strategy in terms of certain important freedoms to be maintained to ward off rigidity – rigidity that is the hobgoblin of creative exchanges.
Indeed, Ambientia has identified four fairly straightforward degrees of freedom – or the 4 T’s, which are listed below – for FedEx Day projects:
In sum, the value to an organization of a Fed Ex day program goes way beyond mere money. An insightfully-led Fed Ex Day, where the proper environment is created, can galvanize and cohere the organization’s work force, can sharpen the core vision of the organization and can fuel a productivity that lasts for years.