Why doing Good For Nothing is (almost) better than sex, drugs, rock & roll

Recently I’ve spent a few weekends having a heck of a lot of fun building apps to beat cancer, a website to radically improve a local government, and games and ideas to get kids and their parents to remember about the great outdoors.

They’ve each been on “turbo charged” Good For Nothing weekenders, and I always come off them buzzing like nothing else. The energy, achievements and sense of fulfilment are extraordinary. The rule book isn’t just chucked out the window, the windows and doors are blown into another dimension where the impossible feels achievable.

But I can understand why you might wander what’s so great about giving up your weekend to do something that sounds a lot like work. So this blog explains what happens on one, and why I think it feels so damn good.

So what actually happens at a Good For Nothing gig?

The first time I went along I figured I’d pop to the evening briefing, and if it was boring or weird I’d ditch it.

Arriving to free beer and cake was a good sign. Then the Good For Nothing guys showed a short film about what GFN feels like. It featured the A Team and challenge Anneka with a banging soundtrack – which pretty much sums up Good For Nothing. It intrigued me enough to come back the next day.

There are normally a few briefs – from charities or social entrepreneurs, and the GFN guys talk you through them. Nothing dull, think an open brief to build an app to beat cancer with real data sets to play with and world leading scientists there to help out. As far as challenges and opportunities go it’s pretty big. You choose what you work on, and you can change at any point.

The weekend proper is all about doing. It kicks off around 9/10 AM (although you can drop in whenever if that doesn’t suit you) with breakfast, some wake up beats, getting into your chosen team and starting working. You quickly learn that lots of us (including me) are conditioned into talking and planning the hind legs of a donkey, and that a lot of people just really like the sound of their own voice. There’s no space for that here, it’s as agile as it gets; the timing focuses you onto rapidly prototyping immediately. Normally coders are tapping away within minutes, walls are filling up with UX, designs are drawn up in giant notebooks, and people are talking animatedly.

Lunch is yummy (and free – you shouldn’t spend a penny at a GFN gig), then it’s back to good for nothing-ing; people might be out filming, editing, tweeting out research surveys, designing apps, writing comms strategies, anything goes. Beer o’clock normally kicks in around 4 and the music revs up. By that time all the teams I’ve worked on seem to be taken aback with how much we’ve already achieved.

As a generalist I often think I’m going to be a spare wheel because I can’t code or design, but somehow I’ve always found a place in the team. No one is ever bored or twiddling their thumbs, but if you were you’d just move straight on to another project.

The music and doing ramps up on the second day. If it’s a tech project you’ll often see an app or website emerging. I’ve also worked in teams where you’re re-vamping the social media, making a video (who cares none of us can edit, or film, or speak French, we somehow got around all of that), and I’ve even seen other teams making and handing out packs of seeds to get feedback and creating beautiful designs or funding applications.

Around lunch time the music really cranks and the sense of team work is just remarkable.

Somehow, everything seems to have come together by show and tell and beer o clock time. I’ve never been anything less than awed by what every team has achieved. On occasion there have been teams who look like they’re having some trouble getting an idea with traction early on. Then they blow you away with ‘a little video we popped together right at the end’ that answers the brief in 30 perfect seconds.

Everyone’s cheering and clapping and wondering why the heck work isn’t more like this. It should be. Every company that isn’t (i.e. most) isn’t just missing a trick, they’re missing the trick – this stuff seriously works.

Why it’s (almost) better than sex, drugs, rock & roll

In the throes of a great gig I have been known to say that it’s better than sex, drugs and rock and roll. In the cold light of day it’s hard to remember quite how it can have felt that good, but I’ll give it a go. It’s got the good highs of freedom, creativity, connecting with people and doing something with no bullshit that feels really useful – and actually works. Any you don’t get any of the lows. And you actually remember the mind expanding stuff. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far…

Real collaboration leaves no space for egos – and gets lightning speed results. You know when it’s happening because the atmosphere feels extraordinary; sometimes you even start finishing one another’s sentences.

You’re free from painful planning. You quickly realise how pointless, sapping and egotistical most of the talking and planning that takes place on projects is. On the other hand rapidly prototype a minimum viable product, testing it in real time, re-making it, and playing with it some more, feels incredibly satisfying.

Self-organisation is miles better than top down organising. It releases genuine collaboration because people aren’t pigeon-holed so ideas come from everywhere.

Playing is the best way to learn. You have the opportunity to give anything a go, learn and have fun along the way.

Working on a Good projects creates an unparalleled unity. Start-ups are the closest I’ve felt to these gigs, but perhaps it’s being part of the wider GFN network that makes this feel even more fulfilling.

What gets made?

One of the apps was publicly launched by the end of the weekend. On another a policy maker at Lambeth Council said the weekend had ‘changed [my] life…no more 18 month consultations’. Result.

If charities and local council sound a bit fluffy, one gig was with Sony and they said that we’d achieved more in a weekend than they had a in a year.

That kind of level of achievement leaves me in awe of how damn good humans are at collaborating – when a few impediments aren’t present, namely egos and negativity. Working together with people on a common goal in an awesome environment feels so good it’s hard to describe.

It socialises organisational behaviour (gah…)

Those are big words for saying I think GFN takes away the bureaucracy and bullshit that is often deliberately introduced in an organisation and then proliferates throughout them. Unnecessary processes, reporting lines, artificial structures, hierarchies, sending emails instead of talking (or using strange words like “facetime”), over planning / organising / analysing are replaced with more social practices based on reciprocity, organic group behaviour, talking, trust, playful creativity and intuitive responses.

As a qualified project manager and consultant I was amazed that self-organisation blows most of what I thought I knew about planning right out of the water. But it makes sense. How many times have you known a colleague for months, years even, before finding out in a previous role or their spare time they write / design / edit films / have an unusual knack for understanding human behaviour / build mobile operating systems (if the last one sounds odd, it happened to me yesterday)? When you self-organise without job titles, all those valuable untapped skills and experience are freed from pigeon holes and processes.

Once people’s full skill set is opened up, the positive atmosphere means no one worries that their idea isn’t valid. Developers end up making suggestion for comms, creatives come up with ideas to make datasets work, and anything goes.

That doesn’t mean that everything happens. Group mentality (and the tight timing) favours great ideas; less good ones just don’t get traction. Because there are no egos people don’t tend to push ideas if the group aren’t feeling it. But if they’re really passionate about it they can still work on them and dip in and out of the group.

It’s no coincidence that it’s very similar to how online communities work, but a heck of a lot more fun. So that’s my take on why a growing bunch of techies, creatives and all-rounders apply to take part in these kind of gigs – for the sheer pleasure and fulfilment of working on inspiring projects that create tangible change, with a crew of lovely like-minded people. But don’t take my word for it, give it a go… http://www.goodfornothing.com