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Why you should run a Hackathon

Author: David Hodges

Hackathon – noun

An event typically lasting several days that allows small, self-organising groups of individuals to effectively solve every problem that has ever occurred ever. “Let’s run a Hackathon this weekend so that we can take the rest of the year off.”

While this definition might not exactly be Oxford Dictionary supported, I am firmly of the belief that it does reflect the kind of business value that can be generated out of these events. In an age where skill sets are becoming more fragmented and specialised, building a culture for innovation and inclusion is as important as ever.

Historically, (I know it feels strange to use that word in this context) Hackathons began with software developers competing against each other to solve a software-related problem over a short period of time. Now the definition is much broader, the form and format vary greatly, and the skills required are not necessarily so technical. For the purpose of this post and for my personal definition, a Hackathon centres around two skills: problem solving and communication. The specialised skills that individuals bring to the table are much less important, and having diversity in this generally yields more divergent and interesting results.

So if you’re thinking of running a Hackathon, here are the reasons you’re thinking right.

Team building

“It’s like a corporate retreat where you actually achieve something” – me

The first major reason for running a Hackathon is that it brings people together. In an organisation it can be difficult to break down barriers to facilitate communication. A Hackathon allows you to connect people from different areas of your business through the passion for bringing their own ideas to life. On top of this, the extremely ambitious timeframes accelerates the process and creates a truly unique experience for relationships to be built around.

Creating alignment around key company goals

As organisations grow, departments and individuals can naturally develop into silos with specific KPIs. This can mean that the nuances of the company’s core strategic direction can be lost in the chinese whispers of management structure. By framing the Hackathon around solving holistic business challenges, you drive a natural alignment to the organisation’s vision and mission.

Getting ideas from all areas of the business

The vast majority of organisations have a very limited number of people that contribute to the strategic direction of the company. Every employee has a unique perspective on the business and by asking them to bring their knowledge in, to solve key business problems, you may surface incredible insights that would have gone undiscovered otherwise.

Discovering talent

The short timeframe of the Hackathon puts its participants under a real amount of pressure. Pressure to make decisions quickly, work in and outside of their normal skillsets and collaborate with others they may not normally work with. This creates a perfect window for senior stakeholders to see how individuals lead, communicate and produce outside of their comfort zones.

Whether you’re thinking of running a Hackathon, Innovation Day, Service Jam or any of the other various nomenclatures that exist, it is important to remember what sits at the core of a day like this: empowered people working together, solving real problems.

Also, don’t forget, it’s supposed to be fun.

If you have any feedback, or if you’re running a Hackathon and aren’t sure where to start, there is a contact button at the bottom of the article and I’m always happy to answer questions.

I have also included 4 tips from my experience for anyone aiming to run their own Hackathon:

1. Get the framework right

Spend the time planning upfront to define what outcomes people are hacking towards, what tools and information you will provide, and how much time they have.

2. Trust your people

Define the sandbox and let them play, the process is about unleashing individual creativity and talent. If you’re finding the balance between empowerment and oversight, err on the side of the former.

3. Offer prizes

This will increase engagement, inspire competition and make people feel like they aren’t giving away their ideas for free.

4. Consider what will happen to the ideas after the Hackathon

Any ideas that you want to give life beyond the Hackathon will generally require more effort. This is particularly relevant if you’re hacking for an external organisation because they often will not have the internal resources to continue working on or maintain anything you have produced on their own.