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Plan a Hackathon in 3 easy steps

Design for the outcomes you want


  • London



  • Katarzyna Wielgosz

Modern English language is full of commonly used portmanteaus. Who doesn’t love listening to a fascinating, funny, or educational podcast (iPod + broadcast) or having a lovely Sunday brunch (breakfast + lunch) with friends and family? Today I’d like to invite you to add another to your favourites and enjoy the positive change it will have on your business.

Hackathon combines the words hack and marathon. Hack refers to the experimental and exploratory creative process without any rigid specification. It’s about understanding the technology at hand to explore the art of possible. Participants need to keep an open mind to what they might discover and learn. Marathon describes the intensity and focus required. A day (or any other specific time period) concentrating solely on a selected topic, brainstorming ideas, coding, and validating the result.

Hackathons date back to 1999 but have now evolved from software enthusiast meetups to become a transformational force within the business.

Creativity meets science

Creativity is at the heart of everything we do. It’s essential to adapting to technology and business change. And yet it is incredibly hard in our pressured, fast-paced world to retain a creative and forward-thinking edge while dealing with the busy day-to-day. But without creativity, we can’t innovate. So the Hackathon provides us with a focused period of creativity and innovation. It allows us to take a step back and reflect on what could be done differently.

Add a hackathon to your toolbox in 3 easy steps

Step #1: Set a goal

Not all Hackathon formats are exactly the same but setting a clear goal is crucial to keep people focused and motivated.

Your goal may be focused on an existing business challenge that no one has been able to resolve. Maybe it is your conversion funnel in which people repeatably drop off due to a convoluted or broken registration form. Or you need to expand your customer base by broadening your social media reach. Address the most pressing issue and invite all hands on deck to collaborate on a solution.

Alternatively, you may want to explore a new toy that you have added to your tech stack. Gather your teams, business units or squads and get everyone excited about it. Challenge them to play with new creative ideas to explore how this new tool can change the way you work or bring new opportunities.

Perhaps you'd like to encourage the bottom-up flow of inspiration in your company. Democratise innovation in your workplace by organising a Hackathon with no specific rules or limits. Trust your people and believe in their ability to look at a problem differently.

And remember that a Hackathon doesn’t have to be tech-focused. You might redesign how you leverage your data or review your internal processes, resulting in a bigger impact than you might anticipate. It’s a common trap to believe that new technology will solve all problems. The most significant results come from transforming the business operating model to maximise the potential of what you already have.

Step #2: Engage the team

Solid planning and communications are your first step. The busier your people are, the more you have to plan and engage ahead of the event to make it happen. Reserve the time way in advance so everyone can adjust their schedules. Be specific about the goal and make it a priority.

Plan your communications around the Hackathon carefully and engage all the channels that your people regularly use. And talk to people every day about what you are planning. In other words, resort to good, old-fashioned low tech to make sure that your comms are cutting through – this is where you’ll get greatest engagement. Ask them if they have an idea or if they need support in adjusting their current commitments to be able to participate. And be open to hear what they are saying – this alone might be an eye-opening exercise.

Convincing people to participate can be hard. As discussed above, it’s hard to book time away from BAU. You need to make sure people believe their input will be valued. Encourage different ways to participate. Someone may want to contribute multiple ideas without joining a single team. Others might want to join an existing team or select an idea proposed by someone else.

Adding an element of competition usually gets attention. Who doesn’t love a prize? It might be a beer, an additional day off, or dedicated time to continue working on the project.

Last but not least, encourage an audience. People can participate by observing the event and voting for the winning team. This will help create some internal PR and generate goodwill around the event and eventual outcomes.

Different perspectives are a pivotal ingredient in the creative process. Diverse teams are no longer only about equal opportunities and political correctness. They are essential for your company to remain innovative and competitive in the modern world. And this is more nuanced than gender or ethnicity. Different mindsets come from different backgrounds, life and work experiences, passions, roles or skillsets. Solutions designed by teams that see your business through different lenses will be more comprehensive and straightforward to implement across the company after the Hackathon is over.

Step #3: Realise the benefits

Nothing that is of value comes fast and easy. Remember a hackathon is a marathon. Change requires time, and fostering innovation is a long-term game. Don’t expect everything to work and all your problems to be solved after just one initiative. It’s a process. Don’t try to force it or control it too much. Create a supportive environment and be patient with the results.

While you are waiting for game changing outcomes, remember to celebrate every small success and lesson on the journey. Support the most promising project by turning them into permanent internal initiatives. You can also use A/B testing to verify concepts with your customers and see if they like the change.

All these activities will only reinforce people’s perception that your intentions are genuine and that all voices carrying innovation and change are welcome in your company.

Let’s Hack together

This year we introduced ‘Hacktober’, our first fully remote Hackathon. From over 75 ideas generated collectively, 21 teams selected topics and participated. Outcomes were shared as videos with the entire company and the event not only created fantastic ideas but also a great sense of community at a very hard time.

We love running Hackathons with our clients and within the tech community. If this article inspires you, get in touch and let’s Hack together.

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