Why your firm should host a hackathon – and 5 ways to ensure its success

Hackathons have become de rigueur in the tech world – Facebook, Inc. held its 50th in February – but it’s not just tech companies that can benefit from scheduling an all-day brainstorming and development session, management consultants Elizabeth Spaulding and Greg Caimi of Bain & Company write in the Harvard Business Review.

“At their best, hackathons create a structure and process around idea development,” the authors write. “[They] demonstrate to employees that innovation is not only welcomed but also expected. Well-run hackathons lead to concrete ideas for new products and processes that can improve the customer experience and increase growth.”

For example, previous Facebook hackathons have resulted in features such as Facebook Chat and Instagram’s time-lapse video tool, Hyperlapse.

Any company can hold a productive hackathon, Spaulding and Caimi write, by simply following five steps.

Encourage a creative mindset

Successful hackathons need participants to think outside the framework of their usual roles – so why not start your hackathon by having employees do something completely unrelated to the task at hand? The authors suggest encouraging employees to interact with colleagues from outside their departments, or brainstorming uses for an oddly shaped object.

As a case study, Spaulding and Caimi mention an apparel manufacturer beginning its hackathon with the broken telephone game – having one employee whisper a spoken phrase to another, then having that employee whisper the phrase to their neighbour, and so on. Not only were the results entertaining, the hackathon leaders were able to share them throughout the exercise to keep participants’ energy going.

Empathize with your customers

Like the best-laid marketing plans, the most promising ideas begin with a deep understanding of the customer journey — who their end users are, what they need, and why.

No survey or segmentation tactic can replace the value of old-fashioned conversations with current and potential customers and front-line employees, the authors say.

“Low-tech discussions… are more likely to reveal the true thoughts and feelings that influence consumer behaviors, even unique needs that customers aren’t fully aware of yet,” Spaulding and Caimi write. “They also offer an opportunity to talk to consumers who aren’t typical users of a product, which could result in a compelling idea that a survey would never yield.”

Ask the right questions

Your hackathon should begin with an open-ended but clear challenge such as, “How can we help our sales team interact with contacts more effectively?” the authors write. The question should be open-ended enough to prevent employees from reaching a limited number of conclusions, but phrased in a way that will inspire them to produce as many ideas as possible — or transform the challenge entirely.

As an example, the authors cite a luxury hotel chain which discovered that employees felt inhibited by some of its performance measures, and were being prevented from using their judgment to respond to customers in a positive way because they risked compromising a less-than-useful rule.

Test promising ideas quickly

Hackathons aren’t simply devoted to brainstorming ideas – after participants have spent enough time creating them, it’s time to evaluate and begin testing them, Spaulding and Caimi write. These tests can be as simple as drawing a product while describing how a user might interact with it, or proposing a new process.

Nurture and expand the best ideas

Finally, the strongest pitches should be honed after the hackathon ends, with the most innovative companies supporting them through feedback and testing, and remaining on the lookout for ways to convert these ideas into large-scale changes that can help the company grow.

“While hackathons can help companies develop new products and services, the benefits reach far beyond the output of a single hackathon,” Spaulding and Caimi write. “We’ve seen companies use hackathons to promote cultures of innovation, to change the operating norms at the most senior levels of a company and to rally support around major initiatives.”

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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