The hackathon is nothing new. It has long been an engine for innovation, bringing people together to create something game changing (and preferably, working). What is interesting about the hackathon is how it continues to evolve beyond its startup garage roots.
One example is within the corporation. In an effort to plant seeds of innovation within their organizations, big businesses have been capitalizing on the hackathon. Companies like Facebook have been at it for the longest time with more than 50 internal hackathons, the likes of which have produced Hyperlapse and Facebook Chat. More recently this trend has extended far beyond Silicon Valley, with companies like Hasbro, Capital One, and KPMG using the hackathon to develop products that would have cost more in traditional R&D.
Unfortunately, while corporate internal hackathons have seen success in some cases, they don’t always produce the desired results. This is often the result of simply copy-pasting other hackathons and failing to understand the context first.
While the hackathon, by its nature, is run within a short period of time (24 – 72 hours), it leaves a lot of room for flexibility. As someone who has designed hackathons for various organizations, I’ve learned that understanding how to make the hackathon your own is foundational to its success. With more than 90% of corporate hackathons generating negative ROI, here are five ways you can beat the statistics:
1. Know your goals
This may seem counter to what innovation is all about, but it’s necessary to create value. Having goals begins with designing the hackathon around a real, specific problem. If you’re not aiming at a bullseye, your shots will be all over the target..
The hackathon becomes more engaging if it focuses on a problem that employees experience or think about during work hours. It could range from supply chain management to human resources development. If this problem is phrased around an aspirational question, like, “How might we help our sales team interact with contacts more effectively?” then participants have more freedom to come up with ideas and even rethink the problem entirely.
Companies should work on solving real problems or finding ways to use existing resources in new ways. In other words the hackathon should be more than just an exercise in fostering startup thinking.
Once the objective is clear to the organizers, it becomes easier to define the other components of the event, from the program flow to success metrics. Focusing on these constraints also saves a lot on unnecessary costs.
Pro-Tip: When finally sitting down with your fellow organizers to lay out the specifics of your hackathon, go through every single detail of the event. Everything should have a purpose and be aligned towards your goals — down to the food you order for lunch. Jake Knapp illustrates this in the best way possible in his book Sprint, which explores in depth how to run a five-day sprint, covering topics ranging from why you should use 3x5 post-its and felt-tip pens, to how you can schedule the day.
2. Break the silos.
One of the features that make hackathons such effective platforms for innovation is how they break down existing barriers within companies. Limiting participation only to programmers or designers will not be as valuable as having them together in the same room.
This goes beyond coming up with solutions, even though that is the main point. Working across departments can trigger new friendships or collaborations that add greater meaning and value to people’s jobs. It can also expose your employees to new disciplines and how they operate within the company.
With a diverse group of participants, everyone comes out of the hackathon with a more holistic view of their work and what it means to the company.
Pro-Tip: Organize sessions where experts (depending on your chosen problem) can flesh out scenarios and processes they are most acquainted with. If you’re tackling a customer service problem, it would give the participants’ brainstorming a boost if a Senior Sales Representative gives a rundown of what kinds of customer inquiries they get.
3. Don’t just deliver free pizza to the participants — deliver value
Delivering value to the company is inseparable from delivering value to your employees. The objective of your hackathon will not be as effectively achieved without the buy-in of your employees into the hackathon itself.
Making the hackathon a two-way street will take a lot more than just free pizza. If the participants actually learn something new or become interested in acquiring a valuable skill through the event, then they’re more likely to be engaged. It would help as well to incorporate the “unconference” and actually get participants to share their own skill sets with everyone else.
Pro-Tip: Take this a step further by setting expectations prior to the event so the participants know what they can look forward to learning. All this will eventually come back to the company, as the participants can now apply what they’ve learned in their work.
4. Go beyond the event
Now that the participants have pitched, the winners have been selected, and photos have been taken, what happens now?
Start by taking a look at your targets — did the solutions pitched address the problem you had identified? From there check which ideas are worth developing and even integrating, but keep everything documented. You never know when an idea that came up in the hackathon will be relevant later on.
The potential of incorporating ideas into the business is just the beginning. It’s important to keep track of how the hackathon (and further iterations of it) affects the company culture, products and services, and even internal processes.
Pro Tip: We recently served as mentors for a hackathon held by the Korean branch of a global financial company. The company’s CEO insisted that the best way to get good results out of hackathons – based on the experiences of his counterparts around the world – was to put cold, hard cash down on the table. He got far more value out of the ideas in the hackathon than the $5,000 prize he awarded to the winning team.
5. Share the good news!
Even though it is an internal hackathon, it has brand value potential. Maximize this by documenting the hackathon top to bottom, using the event to generate content, and telling a story around it. Talking about your event can also generate leads for partners, clients or new hires down the line.
Pro-Tip: Invite the participants to be content creators for the event as well. This way you can achieve scale while keeping content organic.
Enabling innovation means enabling problem-solvers
What runs through all of these hacks is the importance of understanding what your company needs, because innovation will take a lot more than 72 hours or lines of code. Hackathons don’t solve problems immediately, but they enable people to become problem-solvers. And in the long run, that will bring more value to your company than any product or service.
If you’re looking for a partner to get you started on designing an internal hackathon, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
If you’re preparing for a big pitch and need some help with the script and presentation, get in touch with us at G3 Partners.