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Mention “hackathon“, and the image that might come to mind is of a group of computer geeks competing to devise a brilliant but obscure programming solution.
There’s some truth to this, but the hackathon has come a long way since its original incarnation and deserves more attention from businesses. I would say almost every company should think about how they can use hackathons to unlock innovation and build teamwork, especially now. Practice is a powerful way to retain and attract the right people in the post-pandemic world where employees demand more value and purpose at work. It is also a major morale booster, provides the opportunity for significant professional development and creates new relationships that span verticals of the business.
The modern hackathon isn’t just about coding, though technology often plays an important role in the resulting ideas. I like to think of it as a meritocracy of ideas. It breaks employees out of their usual daily work structure, allowing them to focus on innovation Solve problems.
The world’s most transformative companies have woven this approach into their cultures, ensuring that employees regularly take time to reflect on blue skies, which doesn’t necessarily yield immediate results. from google “20% rule” allowing employees to take one day a week to work on side projects, led to the development of Gmail and Google Maps.
Hackathon culture can take many different forms, from a tightly structured one-day event to a looser arrangement like Google’s. The bottom line is that it establishes a web of new organizational connections and gives teams the freedom to dream big and fail. It should be part of a broader culture of innovation within a company, rather than a one-time event that compensates for a lack of innovative work the rest of the time.
Done well, it can create a virtuous flywheel of innovation, helping to make your business a place where people feel engaged and excited to work. So it’s surprising that many companies still don’t. Many leaders, especially CFOs, may object to employees having “time off” that doesn’t contribute to the bottom line in an immediate or easily measurable way.
How to onboard your leadership team
The first step to instilling a successful hackathon culture is to ensure buy-in from the entire leadership team, especially finance executives. Start small, using funds from an existing budget to minimize cost and risk. This gives you the opportunity to prove the concept and convince skeptics who will get a first-hand view of the excitement and energy a good hackathon creates. We gave our CFO a seat on the judging panel, a not-so-subtle way to get them personally involved in the event.
Hackathons should not just tolerate failure; they should actively celebrate it. The goal is not to offer incremental improvements; it’s about sparking the kind of 10x transformative ideas that probably wouldn’t arise in the normal course of work. When teams aim this high, failure must be accepted and encouraged as part of the process without fear of negative judgment. Today’s flop may contain the seeds of tomorrow’s success. At the University of Phoenix, we introduced an Icarus Prize at our quarterly two-day hackathons to reward the idea that got closest to the sun before the bombardment.
It’s important to take steps to ensure that the hackathon spirit doesn’t end with the event. It should be part of a global innovation framework. I encourage companies to keep hackathon communication channels open throughout the year, perhaps via Slack. They must also constantly encourage innovative proposals and cooperation.
Not every man for himself
Attendees should have a lot of freedom to address issues, but it’s a good idea to have a theme for the event that imposes structure. How to choose? Perhaps identify the type of problem the teams need to focus on solving or specify a technology area, such as AI and machine learning. We once held a special hackathon with the goal of optimizing our data infrastructure, which resulted in an API-based solution to eliminate thousands of expensive virtual servers. Focus, without the usual distractions, allowed engineers to question entrenched assumptions and find creative workarounds.
While participants have to solve big problems on their own without frequent check-ins, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have support to complete their visions. Teams should have access to resources such as technology infrastructure services and user experience expertise to help them avoid running into gaps.
Organizers should also consider opening the doors of the hackathon to external participants. As long as potential intellectual property issues can be overcome, it can benefit an organization by exposing issues to new thinking and acting as a recruitment tool for those who do good work and are drawn to an innovative culture.
Finally, don’t forget to bring the fun! Some of the most powerful effects of a hackathon are the contagious enthusiasm and team cohesion they can generate, so running them in a sterile, dry atmosphere is counterproductive. Organizers should lie down over lunch, crank up the music and even encourage teams to unleash their inner geek!
So stop looking outside your organization for solutions to your biggest technology problems. The solution is probably working for you right now.