There isn’t a month that goes by where, in a city somewhere, a hackathon is taking place sponsored by a consultancy, organisation or educational institution. A hackathon is an event which has become synonymous with software and hardware development teams collaborating and coming together to create something new, or to solve a particular problem given to them, typically the event lasting anything between a day and a week.
Hackathons have become de rigour in recent years, seen by companies not only as a means to associate themselves with something current and cool, but also as a way to encourage innovation by inviting external parties into the fold. Financial Services is an industry rife with hackathon activity in recent years as they try to combat against the tide of FinTech startups looking to disrupt their space. Call me a cynic but most events are held in this space with a view to absorbing the winning idea and team into the organisation rather than let the innovative idea out into the wild.
I was privy to an event held during the AT&T Developer Summit Hackathon during CES 2016 this year and met with CodingFTW, the winning all-female team who won a prize for the best implementation of an app that leverages the M2X Data Service API using HPE Helion.
During the interviews with Sarah Austin and Caitlin McDonald it struck me that hackathons are now so commonplace that they should be adopted as normal business practice by organisations internally, to foster innovation and creative problem solving which go beyond traditional business and IT transformation activities. There are platforms which can manage the process of capturing ideas and fostering collaboration between dispirit teams, most notable of which is Spigit which calls itself an “innovation management” solution and helps crowdsource ideas from within and across the business.
However, a hackathon beats software in this case because of the culture and spark that occurs between groups of people thrust together to solve a problem. What’s more, the idea or problem is worked on in such a short space of time, focusing everybody’s efforts at once rather than ‘manage’ it over a long period of time. According to McKinsey, “hackathons can be adapted to greatly accelerate the process of digital transformation. They are less about designing new products and more about “hacking” away at old processes and ways of working.”
The excitement and drive at the AT&T summit was palpable and feedback from Sarah and Caitlin reinforced that when hearing how they worked together. The problem with traditional project methods to tackle business issues is that they become too structured over time, mostly due to how transformation is managed into a Waterfall scenario. Even Agile project suffer fatigue. Requirements are sought from the business community and more often than not the ‘blue sky thinking’ ideas are given the lowest priority due to time constraints and budgets.
A hackathon can dispel this by inviting diverse groups of people to the table that wouldn’t normally be given the chance to air their voice to impact a problem or innovate a product or service proposition, and locking them in a room until the solution is built. This is far different from workshopping for example, where the idea is given life but no end product or solution is created.
According to the Hackathon Guide, the main principles of holding a hackathon should be that;
- Projects should have a clear question or problem they are trying to solve plus a reasonably specific proposed solution.
- Most projects will accomplish about 25% of what they think they can accomplish in the limited time they have.
- Projects should have ready-to-go tasks for newcomers with a variety of skills and at a variety of skill levels.
- A stakeholder (or “subject matter expert”) guides a project to real-world relevance.
- For projects with four or more members, especially newcomers, the project leader’s role should be to coordinate, ensuring each team member has something to work on and helping to welcome new team members.
McKinsey adds further to the requirements of a business-led hackathon by stating that they should be;
- Centered on the customer
- Deeply cross-functional, inviting anyone to participate not just developers
- Starting from scratch and challenge everything
- Concrete and focused on output
- Iterative and continuous
The need to rapidly transform and innovate against a highly competitive landscape is forcing companies to adopt new ways to seek change and improvements, both small and large scale. By bringing the concept of a hackathon into the business, rather than simply hosting one externally, organisations can tap into the ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurial culture that is sitting within and across the entire workforce. It removes traditional silos between depts, brings diverse groups together, and creates an exciting environment for change to occur.
And the prospect of lots of pizza usually helps seal the deal.
This article was written by Theo Priestley from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.