What does it mean to ‘hack’ something? A programmer will tell you that hacking is manipulating the normal behavior of connected systems to gain access. In practical effect, it’s the peeling away of layers and the inventive use of new keys.
A hacker is one who looks at a wall that’s too high to climb and too wide to go around, and rolls up their sleeves because they’re going to try something entirely different. A hackathon isolates and amplifies the hacker mindset by gathering multidisciplinary hackers into teams to address a specific challenge within a fixed timeframe. It can be a Petri dish for business experiments, both those you’ve wanted to try but haven’t yet and those you did not see coming.
Imagine if all you had to do was book a room, provide food and pass out many T-shirts. You would beam as a flood of new solutions pumped outward throughout your entire domain. Technical debt and corporate inefficiencies would be blasted away like cobwebs in the divine wind of hacker culture.
It takes a lot more work than that to arrive at the promised land, unfortunately. That fact can be enough to lead corporate innovators to look away from hackathons as a controlled environment to test and improve on everything from roadmaps to new and existing features to inefficient processes.
There is reason to persevere with hackathons, though: they work. Creativity, like electricity, follows the path of least resistance. If you bring small, talented teams to the same start line, sparks do fly. A hackathon is your best shot at a new feature, a cleaner workflow, that fresh view that might just change everything.
Make Hackathons Your Most Reliable Idea Force
The challenge is separation. How do you run a hackathon that sharpens your edge without becoming a bloated garbage can for your marketing budget? Keeping the 3 tips below in mind is a good start.
1. Focus on Measurement and Execution
To make a Hackathon worthwhile, its results need to stick. Bringing talent into the door and setting them up in a sprint situation is a great first step. Successful hackathons keep one eye on the larger prize: the implementation that comes after. Hackathons that function like Petri dishes in a lab setting don’t happen by coincidence. They happen when innovation teams put as much thought into measuring and deploying solutions as they do into shepherding talent to build those solutions in the first place.
The outcomes you’re measuring, whether they’re a new feature or a process improvement, need a continuous system of new tracking signals. Corporations like GE and Intel succeed in innovation by demonstrated commitment to experimental and data-driven decisionmaking. Even if your corporation is large does not mean it needs to lumber. Demonstrate just as much agility in measuring these experiments as was displayed in their development.
As your hackers produce new solutions, keep their road clear. Interaction between the execution team and the product team mostly slows both parties down. Be aware of who your engine is, and carefully build a body kit that fully harnesses the power they generate.
2. Your Hackathon is a No-Wall Zone
At any significant scale, companies need vertical hierarchy to function. A hackathon offers a controlled environment in which those traditional channels can come down or be rewired. A hackathon is a unique chance to deploy cause-specific strike teams. Just as the traditional pens and information flows are coming down, the barriers around information hoarding need to come down as well.
Hackathons, when done well, become cultural touchpoints. They’re a chance to orient your employees around new values as pole stars. Instead of a deviation from the norm, the best corporate hackathons are concentrated bursts of everything that makes a company great.
Environments like these, in which employees feel comfortable sharing info and asking questions, are the ones in which the most successful outcomes are realized. Secure corporate backing beforehand, so your mandate to cooperate actually has teeth. You can always have people sign an NDA on an iPad by the door, but you’ll have no idea that you missed a game-changing connection because of provincialism.
3. Keep Marketing In Perspective
Obviously, the biggest component of a Hackathon is the talent. It’s important to get gifted hackers of different backgrounds and disciplines in the same room. But time and again, the thread of a well-executed hackathon starts to fray when innovators start chasing optics.
Say it with us: my company Hackathon is not a marketing exercise. By all means, let your marketing team take pictures and spin out blog content and develop hashtags. They will probably want to hand out T-shirts. But the point of the hackathon is not to make the company look good. If the takeaway from the event is that everything your company is doing is great, you’ve missed the boat entirely.
A good marketing team makes your company look its best. A good hackathon shines a glaring light on what you’re missing or haven’t built yet. Be aware of this diametric opposition, and prioritize the latter. Your aim should be a clearer understanding of your product’s shortcomings, and several new ideas to fix them.
The common thread connecting really good, worthwhile hackathons is a simple one. If your hackathon is an event marked by separation from reality, it won’t bring you much in the way of realistic solutions. It will bring you a spotlight and a marketing boost, but nothing more.
If your hackathon is instead focused on developing experiments and investigating existing products and processes, it will pay for itself many times over. You’ll become better at soliciting solutions, deploying them, measuring their effectiveness, and iterating faster. Tie your hackathons to real business objectives, and you won’t be surprised when they yield real business wins.
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