Running a Successful Hackathon Starts with This One Important Question

Posted by Patti Mikula on September 1, 2020

Way back in 2017 we posted a blog that highlighted the importance of understanding your objectives in designing a successful hackathon. The entire world has changed since then, in ways we never could have even imagined, but this has remained true. So today, we are revisiting our mantra, refined based on some additional insights gained over the past few years and sharing it again.

If you are thinking of hosting a hackathon—and if you’re reading this, there is a good chance you are—the first question you should ask yourself is “Why”? It’s not just the first question. It’s the also the most important question you need to answer before taking any other steps.

There are a lot of good reasons to host a hackathon (and even more horrible reasons) and when we look at the innovation-focused events taking place around the globe, we see that the good reasons generally fall into one of three categories: Participant focused, output focused or brand focused.

You can further subdivide these categories into clear objectives. Participant focused hackathons are about building a culture of innovation, nurturing talent or teaching something. Output focused hackathons are about IP exploration or IP implementation. And brand focused hackathons are about corporate positioning or stakeholder engagement.

It may sound overwrought, but determining your primary objective is critical to the success of your hackathon. If your objective is people-focused, then determine who the people are you want to engage with and build the best hackathon to suit them and meet their needs. Choose a venue that is convenient for them to access. Choose a theme they can be passionate about. Design a demo format (live pitching or expo-style) that is conducive to the personality of your participants. And incentivize participants in a way that is meaningful to them (Money? A job? Fame?).

If your objective is output-focused, then determine the outputs you want, and invite the right people to make it happen. Do you want working prototypes of medical devices? You will need both engineers and healthcare specialists. Do you want solutions that can help fix traffic issues? You may need data scientists and policy experts in addition to your coders.

If your objective is brand focused, ensure you involve your marketing, PR and CSR departments and design the event to leave you with branding assets you can leverage long after the event, like event videos, participant statements etc.

It seems simple, but in so many instances we see hackathons where things are just done backward—choosing the venue first, or picking a theme, or even deciding what food to serve—without giving due consideration to the objectives. When we are planning a hackathon, either one of our own or for a client, we are constantly checking our decisions along the way against our key objectives.

Culture 

Innovation is a social process. It’s a group activity, not an individual one. And it often emerges through interactions, discussions, and collisions. When people talk about a culture of innovation, they are referring to environments where these collisions are encouraged and cultivated. But a culture of innovation also allows people to feel safe – even rewarded – in taking big chances. Especially in highly regulated environments, risk-taking is frowned upon. So people have lost their confidence. A hackathon provide an opportunity to practice taking risks, practice going outside of your comfort zone and practice failing, all in a safe, rewarding experience.

Talent

For companies looking to grow their teams, hackathons provide an opportunity to look beyond a resume in identifying interesting potential employees. Depending on the theme of the hackathon, just showing up can identify someone that shares a common passion with your organization. And in the span of a hackathon weekend you are likely to see the full range of experiences an employee can face in the working environment — code that won’t compile, finding out a competing team has a similar idea, re-thinking and eventually releasing the product to the world. How well they deal with the highs and lows in the context of a hackathon can act as a proxy to how well they will deal with these types of challenges on the job. A hackathon can also support the talent brand you’re building. Potential new hires can get a taste of what working with your company would look like, even if only for 48 hours.

Finally, an internal hackathon is a great way to identify the talent within your own organization that should be nurtured and encouraged – your future leadership.

Education

Digital transformation has tangible impacts on a workforce. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is changing the nature of work. Manual processes are now automated. Physical interactions are now virtual. Differentiated services are now commoditized. Traditional industries are facing radical change, and with it, the workforces need to change as well. Hackathons provide an opportunity to upskill your team or your workforce, teaching new skills, while retaining the valuable knowledge and experience they have with your customers and industry. The benefit of a hackathon over a workshop, or integrated with a workshop, is the hands-on experience, and the ability to practice what you have learned.

Exploration

Hackathons present an excellent opportunity to explore new technologies. In many organizations it is impossible to download new tools, let alone try new technologies within the company firewall. But within a hackathon, participants can try out new or in-development hardware or software and explore how the products and services they are building could be reimagined with emerging, exponential technologies.

Implementation

Whether you are looking at hosting a public hackathon or an internal one just for employees or members of your organization, the framework of a hackathon is a great way to surface or identify new IP, prototype solutions and move towards implementation. It was during an internal hackathon that the team at XMG Studio identified a unique gaming mechanic that ended up being at the core of a series of games it later released. A hackathon provides a risk-free environment to crack a specific challenge or simply leave room for spontaneous brilliance.

Corporate Positioning

Hackathons provide an opportunity to demonstrate the values of an organization. A good example of this type of hackathon is the Digital for Good program we execute for Capital One. Originating as the Gift the Code hackathon and now through the Digital for Good Tech Jam and Summit, Capital One connects the tech community, including its own associates, to rally around the needs of local charities and code solutions to the challenges they are facing.

Social impact and using Digital for Good are core to the mission of Capital One. The hackathon results are always impressive, but even more outstanding is the desire of the participants to keep working on the projects once the hackathon is over and see them implemented.

Stakeholder Engagement

We all bring our own lived experiences and knowledge to the table when attacking a challenge. Hackathons can be a great way to bring diverse communities together to problem-solve. A great example of the this is a housing hackathon we hosted in one of the fastest growing communities in Canada, which was facing a housing shortage. The hackathon brought together people from the building industry, shelter and public housing representatives, realtors and policy makers to collaborate. In previous public consultations these groups often found themselves on opposing positions. But in the context of a hackathon, they were asked to be on the same team – literally. At the end of the hackathon they all walked away with a greater understanding of the broader perspectives in the community.

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