Managing Innovation: Knowing When to Let Go

Posted by Patti Mikula on May 5, 2021

As Kenny Rogers said, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, Know when to fold ‘em...” When it comes to innovation, that should be the mantra. But how do you know if an innovation is worth pursuing? Is it time to double down on investment or cut your losses? 

You need to prototype and user test each innovation as fast as you can. And, you have to have a culture that embraces failure. 

Prototyping is far less common than it should be. I don’t understand why any innovation investment isn’t preceded by some type of prototype and user testing. Whether you use rapid prototyping, designing clickable mock-ups, making paper prototypes, or role playing new service design, there are fast and easy ways to get a testable prototype into the hands of potential users. Maybe even multiple prototypes to bake ideas off of each other.

Generally there are two reasons I hear for skipping the prototyping phase and jumping right into development. One is (over) confidence and the second is secrecy. 

Sometimes companies are so confident they are right about the market needs that they don’t want to waste the time and money on gathering data they KNOW already. Which is fine if you are making incremental change and it is something that your users have been screaming for -- an edit button in Twitter for example. But even then, what if users think that’s what they want, but then they find out that they expressed their undying love for a photo of the Boston Red Sox only to have the original tweet changed to a photo of the New York Yankees. Maybe an edit function isn’t so innocuous anymore. Sometimes what the users say they want isn’t what they actually need. 

The second most common reason I hear for not wanting to prototype and user test is they don’t want to give away their great ideas. There are safe and secure ways of conducting user research. Consumer Advisory Panels can be formed, bound by NDAs, and duly compensated for their time, to ensure greater security. If the innovation is so super secret that you truly can’t conduct outside research, prototyping will at least allow you to test within the organization. Grab people from different teams, different divisions, anyone who can have a somewhat objective view of the product or service. It’s important to have someone without skin in the game confirm if you’re on the right track or not. 

Beyond prototyping and testing, the only way to be sure that you’re not throwing good money after bad is to ensure you have a culture that embraces failure. X, the “Other Bets” division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, publicly shut down two big experimental plays in the past year: Loon, maker of giant balloons designed to beam internet to rural areas, and Makani, which was hoping to make wind power from giant kites. Alphabet isn’t shying away from its big innovation bets though, in its third-quarter last year it invested over $1 billion in the X division. In his announcement that Loon was shutting down, X CEO Astro Teller praised the team and focused on the ways they would leverage their key learnings from Loon in future opportunities. 

You don’t have to make a big public show about the innovation ideas you kill though. There are ways to do so internally that will get the message across. Simply expressing gratitude to teams that have failed gloriously in pursuit of a BHAG. If news of failure is received with grace, and perceived as growth, teams won’t be tempted to ignore all the signs that point to why an innovation should be killed. And they won’t turn a blind eye to the data that says maybe their thesis was wrong.

Many companies have spent the past year exclusively focused on survival and Horizon 1 initiatives. They’ve had to redeploy Horizon 2 and 3 resources to near-term needs. As they return to business as usual, and look to the future, they may realize that what was once their Horizon 2 and 3 innovations no longer make sense. Or, that what was once a Horizon 3 opportunity is now Horizon 1. Consumer behaviours, social practices and risk tolerances have all dramatically changed over the past year, so too must a company’s strategic innovation focus.

If you are interested in learning more about how we help out clients ideate and prototype, I’m always happy to share our best practices. Reach out to me at patti@hackworks.com

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Innovation is Taking a Hit

Posted by Patti Mikula on March 2, 2021

The rapid shift to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic raised speculation (and some concerns) about the impact on productivity. Many companies had been resisting growing requests to work from home (or remotely), but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many reluctantly moved to remote workforces. 

A recently released study indicates that those concerns were largely unfounded. In fact, the vast majority (82%) responded that productivity was the same or even better than before the pandemic, a major achievement considering the myriad of disruptions the pandemic layered on top of workers. 

But those “interruptions” that people were happy to do away with in the remote work environment -- the hallway conversations, the pop-ins at one’s desk, the tangents in meetings -- those interruptions were unsung heros in connection and knowledge sharing that sparked discovery, and ultimately innovation. In fact, the same study above found that company culture, team cohesion and the ability to easily collaborate were the biggest pain points cited by employees working remotely.  These are all key elements of innovative organizations. If companies and teams are struggling in these areas, there is bound to be a negative impact on innovation. 

With the benefits of a remote workforce (recruitment, retention, reduced overhead expenses) seemingly outweighing the risks, many companies are considering permanent policy changes. But, while many companies have focused their efforts on technology, security and productivity while transitioning their workforce to flexible and remote-friendly, it is clear that a focus on culture and collaboration is needed now more than ever. 

So how can your company ensure that the focus on productivity isn’t at the expense of innovation?

Working from the confines of your own home, or even from the office where everyone is sequestered to their own cubicle, can leave individuals feeling disconnected from the “big picture”. The independent nature of remote work is great for individual productivity, but can create tunnel vision and siloed thinking. 

Thomas Allen noted and studied the correlation between physical distance between engineers and the frequency in communication, leading to the genesis of the Allen Curve. In his study he identified a critical distance of 50 meters for optimal communication. I would challenge that proximity to the shared coffee pot is also a critical factor. 

Regardless, how does this work with remote work environments? In one sense, if everyone is working remotely then they are all equidistant from each other, leveling the playing field so to speak. But does a Zoom link replicate a proximity of inside or outside of the “connected” zone? It’is critical for companies to nurture opportunities for cross-functional interactions and ensure that teams are still benefiting from diversity of thought. 

In virtual offices there aren’t any random collisions to spark the next big idea. You have to schedule spontaneity. 

Sharing new ideas, especially radical ones, is easier done casually, side of desk or in the waning moments of a meeting, where the risk is low. In person, you have visual cues that your idea is being accepted, and that it has merit. Colleagues, even those that aren’t directly involved in that area of business can support you and boost your confidence in your ideas prompting you to take it further. 

The direct nature of remote work and virtual means of communication can be intimidating. If you have to write out an email, or even a slack post, there is a level of confidence in both your idea and yourself that is required. The message may be edited, watered down or deleted before sending. 

Many remote teams have been able to draw on the social capital built when they were working in close proximity with their colleagues. But now that we are moving into longer durations, and potentially permanent changes, more and more people are finding themselves working with people they have never even met in person. We need to help them build and sustain those social ties and relationships that build reciprocal trust. 

Invoking Innovation

Okay, but HOW? Tools are a good start, and companies are embracing Microsoft Teams, and Slack to counteract that physical isolation. Video calls are important to replicate the missing face-to-face interactions that build connection more deeply than words can. And video calls can provide the visual cues we miss from our in-person connections. Encourage your team members to turn on their video during calls. Our own team has found that sometimes we just stay on our call after wrapping up a scheduled meeting. We all are doing our own work, but there is a sense of connectedness even in our working silence. It is the closest we can get to being in the same space together.  

Beyond simply implementing tools, organizations need to nurture and curate opportunities for connection and collaboration. Regular team/division/company meetings can highlight wins and roadblocks as well as fast failures. This is important so people can see that innovation and taking a risk is rewarded, but also that when there is a hurdle, the whole team comes together to solve it. And celebrating a fast fail is important both to celebrate the lessons learned, and the valiant effort, but also recognize those that stuck their neck out in the pursuit of radical change. Teams need to feel connected and aligned to succeed.

Workshops, round tables, weekly wins lunches can all be done virtually. Send everyone Uber Eats credits in advance and it’s the perfect way to ensure everyone gets what they want. Entice them in with food (just like in the office), and while they are there, create opportunities for random connections. Break people out into separate rooms by birthday, the color of their shirts or other random elements. But know that virtual programming is a lot harder than simply moving it online. Engaging someone remotely is hard. But it can be equally rewarding when it is done right. If the facilitator does the hard work up front, the participants should feel like the event was “just like in person” or better. 

Our work with clients has always been focused on bringing cross-functional groups together to collaborate, on driving product and service development through a user-centric approach, and on building cultures of innovation. But with the increase in remote workforces we have seen specific need to design programs that focus on engagement, collaboration and culture building. These days many of our programs are more focused on the journey than the end result. But the skills, connections and mindset gained along the way are fundamental building blocks of innovation. So perhaps by focusing on the journey we are creating a foundation for the results. 

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From Pause, to Pivot, to Progress

Posted by Aneesa Guerra-Khan on January 12, 2021

In our first blog of 2021, we are looking ahead to what this year brings. 

Looking ahead often comes with a reflection on what has preceded it. And this year that seems more important than ever. As the pandemic emerged as a global threat in March, we saw many companies hitting pause. Programs were delayed, events were postponed, and any planning beyond the immediate term was halted. Companies focused on the health and safety of their employees and many moved into survival mode. How could they establish business continuity with storefronts and offices closed? In May we wrote a blog based on our experiences of planning in the midst of so much uncertainty.

As we moved into the summer we saw more and more companies pivoting. Instead of continuing to pause, they decided to move ahead but in new ways. Fall is always a busy time for us, we call it “hackathon season”. This year wasn’t any different. We were busy helping to execute programs with focuses on healthcare, digital transformation, and youth in stem among others. All of our programming pivoted to virtual. We were able to expand the reach and impact of programs beyond geographic centres and the number of people we could fit in a room. 

As the calendar flipped from 2020 to 2021, and with vaccination programs beginning, the tenor of our conversations with clients and potential clients began to change. After the pause, and the pivot companies are focusing on progression. Hackworks is no different. 

We are looking forward to 2021 and all that it brings. This year we are working on a re-launch of our platform that will be optimized for both virtual and in-person programs. While we look forward to the day where we can gather together and in person for our programs again, we don’t want to lose the accessibility and flexibility that virtual programs have given us. The future of innovation programming is likely to include both types and we’re excited to bring new features and functionality to our platform to deliver a superior experience for our participants. 

Remote workers, decentralized organizations and newly adopted technologies will all change the way companies innovate. Many companies have advanced leaps and bounds during the pandemic out of necessity. But without the “pivot or die” mentality forced by external forces, will companies be able to maintain their momentum? Will they fall back on their old risk-adverse habits? We’re excited to continue to evolve our programs to meet the needs of our clients and help them build and nurture resilient, innovative workforces and  emerge from 2021 at leaders in their industries. 

We’re excited by what 2021 will bring!

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Looking Back on 2020

Posted by Patti Mikula on December 17, 2020

Looking back on 2020 feels like looking back over a decade. Despite the dramatic effects of the pandemic on the world, our business included, we had a busy year, with 14 programs running across Canada and the United States. I am sure there are going to be countless “Looking Back” pieces in the coming days and weeks. But in my 2020 retrospective I want to take a minute to give thanks. 

Thank you to the essential workers who have gone to work every day to keep us healthy and safe while we have had the luxury of working from the relative safety of our homes. Thanks to those that kept the lights on (literally), the water running, the roads plowed, the grocery shelves stocked and the students engaged. And to those that chose to put the health and safety of others ahead of theirs in long-term care homes, clinics and hospitals everywhere, we can’t thank you enough. 

Thank you to our clients who trusted us to deliver engaging programs both in-person (pre-pandemic) and virtually, through the year. It would have been understandable if they had decided to forego programming over the past few months, but together we executed some amazing experiences for our participants.  

Thank you to the Canadian government for their support programs that have helped our company and many others to weather this storm. In March we could never have imagined what a prolonged impact this pandemic would have on our business, but the support from the government allowed us to push through the year and learn and grow as a team and as a business. 

And last but not least, thanks to the team at Hackworks. The year brought countless challenges, both personally and professionally to each of them and yet they persevered. My only certainty going into the next year is that whatever comes our way, our team can handle it. 

2020 is a year no one will forget. And amid the memories of devastation and loss I hope we will also remember the bright moments of selflessness, of care, of compassion and perseverance. It is these memories that we can bring with us into 2021 to make the world a better place. 

Wishing you all a healthy and joyous holiday season and looking forward to all that 2021 can bring.

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Hackworks CEO Featured in Innovation Leader: Pointers Issue

Posted by Aneesa Guerra-Khan on November 26, 2020

Hackworks Feature in Pointers Fall Edition

Twice a year Innovation Leader publishes a selection of the most useful and compelling expert advice into Pointers, a downloadable e-book in PDF form. This edition features our CEO Patti Mikula and her piece "Don't be Dramatic – Hackathons Aren't Innovation Theatre"!

Download your copy of the Innovation Leader: Pointers fall edition, or continue reading below for our featured article!

Don't be Dramatic – Hackathons Aren't Innovation Theatre

People love to write off hackathons as innovation theater. They’re not. They are no more “theater” than any other program framework. If done well, you will get results. If done poorly, you won’t.

Not long ago I got a call from the VP of Innovation at a large financial services company. She had asked their Big Four Consultants to design and execute a hackathon for her company. She was surprised by the response. They mocked her, saying she was just chasing the next shiny thing and engaging in “innovation theater.” Undaunted, she called around to a few of her peers and was put in touch with me.

She asked me outright if hackathons were innovation theater, or if they could deliver real value. I gave her my honest opinion: If you have clear, actionable objectives, then a hackathon can help you achieve them. If you are doing a hackathon to have the appearance of being innovative, you are engaging in theatrics. But in my view, the same criticism can be leveled against any tactic – particularly cutting-edge ones. If you are creating a TikTok account to go viral, you won’t. But if you want to reach a hard-to-impress demographic, then hop on your skateboard and grab your bottle of Ocean Spray and have at it. (Spoiler Alert, the VP of Innovation hired us to design a hackathon program for them. It met their objectives and they became a return client for us.)

Here is my list of things not to do when planning a hackathon.

The Devil is in the Details, But Don’t Start There. When you are planning a hackathon, there is a temptation to start with the fun bits. Maybe you have a venue in mind, or want a giant donut wall. Those things can go a long way to enhance the participant experience, but that’s not where you should start. Always start with articulating your objectives. What do you want to achieve with your hackathon? I list some good objectives:

• To find great talent that otherwise may not consider working for your company

• To explore how new technologies could impact your product or services

• To solve a big, hairy problem that your company is grappling with

• To teach important innovation skills and confidence to your workforce

• To engage an external developer community to test or adopt your software, API, or tech

• To find startups that are making waves in your industry to hire, acquire, or fund.

Don’t Put Your Needs Above Those of Your Participants. Now that you understand the value to you and your organization, you need to understand the value to the participants as well. At the end of the hackathon, you want everyone to walk away feeling like they had a great experience. We’ve heard lots of bad reasons to host a hackathon; while many may meet the objective of the host, they fail to ensure that the participant experience is equally valuable. Here are some signs you may be prioritizing your needs over your participants:

• You are looking for ideas on how to improve your product or service. If your participants are your employees, this is great! If your participants are from outside of your company, this is tricky. The IP from a public hackathon belongs to the participants. If you want to incorporate the tech or ideas into your roadmap, you will need to compensate the participants appropriately.

• You are looking for the one solution to rule them all! A great hackathon will generate some great solutions to whatever challenge you put to the participants, but it’s important that even those that don’t win have a viable market path. Make sure your challenge is broad enough to sustain multiple solutions.

• Your company needs a new website. NOPE, hackathons aren’t free labor.

Don’t Assume Your Participants Have All the Knowledge to Solve the Problem. One of the criticisms of hackathons is that participants don’t have the “big picture,” so they are pitching ideas that have already been tossed aside as impractical or things that are already in the pipeline. But this isn’t a flaw in the framework. It’s a flaw in the data. Hackathons, especially internal ones, are great opportunities for education. If you don’t want your participants to come up with ideas you already have in your pipeline, make sure you share the pipeline! If your hackathons keep surfacing the same ideas that have been deemed impractical or undesirable, then share those ideas with participants. If your participants are designing solutions that don’t take “x” into consideration, then make cross-functional teams so the solutions they design have a broader perspective taken into consideration.

Trust me, your participants don’t want to serve up the same ideas that have ended up in the innovation lab trash bin any more than you do. But they can’t pivot if they don’t know what has been explored already. And if people keep suggesting the same idea, that has been tossed aside each time for some reason or another, maybe the idea isn’t the issue.

How many times do you think someone sat in a boardroom and suggested that we should be able to deposit checks by taking a photo of it through an app? Certainly, more than once. And every time it was tossed aside for a variety of reasons: security, regulatory, etc. Until 2009 when Element Federal Credit Union decided the reward outweighed the risk and rolled out the feature. They fought the good fight with the regulators. They designed a UX that would make customers feel comfortable and secure. Instead of bowing to all of the reasons not to do it, they tackled them. They were the innovation leader that countless others have followed since.

Don’t Forget the Follow-Through. Right up there with understanding what you want to achieve with your hackathon is understanding HOW you will achieve it. Don’t let great solutions die after the hackathon ends. If your objective is to identify great talent (externally or internally), then have your HR team on board to pick up where the hackathon ends off and get those individuals into the right pipelines. If your objective is to solve a problem and build IP, then have engineering resources set aside to work with the winning team(s) to continue the prototyping process, get it built and into production. If your objectives are more about the journey than the destination – you want your participants to learn, to build innovation competency and confidence – make sure you have a way of continuing to nurture these innovation champions.

In conclusion, if someone tells you hackathons are just innovation theater, don’t believe them. When done correctly, they can build strong teams and cutting-edge solutions, and can be a key tool in the innovation leader’s toolkit. 

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Men need Mental Health Support, Now Mo than Ever

Posted by Aneesa Guerra-Khan on November 18, 2020

A look back at charity partner Movember Canada raising awareness for men’s mental health issues, and how their winning Digital for Good Tech Jam team tackled that challenge.

November rings in another season of Movember, a familiar charity partner of ours from Capital One’s Digital for Good Tech Jam in 2018!

Since 2016, the Digital for Good Tech Jam has had a simple purpose at its core: to help the community by using digital for good and help bridge the tech gap faced by local charities. The event brings together coders, developers, designers, coaches, mentors and many more smart people, and we pair them up with charities. Everyone works together over an intense weekend to solve a problem and have an amazing time. The challenges are positive, and the end result is reusable, open-source code that can be used by anyone. The 2020 Digital for Good Tech Jam concluded this past weekend, and we’re proud to keep this annual tradition alive with a virtual hackathon!

Movember joined the hackathon looking for new ideas on how to raise awareness for men's health issues such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and suicide.

The Movember Foundation came to the Tech Jam with three major areas they were hoping to improve: year-round fundraising initiatives, raising awareness for Movember’s existing impact from fundraising and donors, and maintaining engagement with website visitors.

Four teams took on the challenge designing various tech solutions including a web app that raises awareness of Movember charity by promoting transparency and news research projects, a blockchain loyalty model to bring new value to Movember participants and a new Movember website. Ultimately, it was team Mo Coins who designed the winning solution that went on to be reviewed for implementation by the global board of the Movember Foundation.

Team Mo Coins set themselves the goal to create a solution that incentivizes, educates, and rewards members and sponsors while also engaging and expanding the Mo' community not just during November but throughout the year.

With that goal in mind, the team created a loyalty-currency called “Mo’ Coins” that website visitors could earn through using a Chrome extension that showed users facts about men’s mental health, and the movement’s goals. Inspired by the Honey extension, the idea was to prompt an online shopper to top off their order to the nearest dollar ($99.90 becomes $100), and the difference can either be donated to the foundation or converted into Mo’ Coins! Mo' Coins would be used to redeem for Mo swag as well as other redemption opportunities in the future.

Fast forward two years and the need for accessible mental health resources and suicide prevention has only increased due to challenges men and women are facing living through this global pandemic. To support Movember, check out their guide to fundraising to find out ways you can help while staying safe and maintaining a social distance. If you or someone you know is in need of help, Movember Canada provides the extensive resources provided to help.

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Mental Health at Hackathons

Posted by Patti Mikula on October 20, 2020

Mental Health at Hackathons

Hackathons began as caffeine-fuelled, pizza-powered, bro-coder events where developers raced against the clock and their competitors to make the winning solution and take home the top prize. 

Thankfully they have evolved to be more inclusive and diverse. But the competitive and time-crunched nature of hackathons can still be stressful. Since this is Mental Health Awareness month we wanted to share some of the things we do at our hackathons to ensure we are creating fun, engaging events, while safeguarding the physical and mental wellbeing of our participants. 

Design a Healthy Agenda

Some of our hackathons are open overnight, but we never expect or encourage our participants to push through for the full 48 hours. We recognize that people work on different schedules, and some people are at their most productive when the sun goes down. But others are at their best in the middle of the day. The best part about a hackathon is you can essentially set your own hours. 

For our venues that are open overnight, we try to create zones for resting or napping. And we don’t program activities overnight (well unless it is a global event in which case it’s always night time somewhere) so participants don’t feel like they are missing out if they head off to sleep.

Healthy Food Options

We always have healthy food and drink options at our programs. We’ve come a long way from the “pizza and red bull” events of the old days. We find that whole fruit is one of the easiest ways to ensure everyone can grab a healthy snack. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated, it doesn’t need utensils and it is a budget-friendly option too. That doesn’t mean we don’t offer up salty and sweet snacks too, it just means we try to have all options available. 

We also try to ensure we have food options to meet a variety of dietary needs. If someone can’t eat what is available, they may just skip eating altogether, and that’s not a healthy option. 

We are always trying to be eco-friendly at our programs as well, so whenever we can we try to include a reusable mug or water bottle, and we make water filling stations available throughout the hackathon. That allows participants to stay hydrated without depending on single-use plastics or a steady stream of coffee. 

Self-Care

Whenever possible we program some self-care options into the agenda. This might be on-site massages, some yoga or stretching, or even getting outside. One hackathon we hosted was held at an eco education venue. That allowed us to organize hikes on their trails for people that wanted to take a break. It was a great break for mind and body.

Check-in with Participants Often

We try to check in with our participants often. It helps gauge the stress levels of particular teams or individuals and can help identify anyone who might be struggling. Checking-in with participants during a virtual hackathon can be difficult. You can’t just wander over to their table whenever you like. So with our online events we schedule times to meet up with the teams. We can answer questions they may have, we can see if they have any roadblocks we can help them with and we can just chat. Random conversations at hackathons are great, you just have to work a bit harder to have them online. 

The Final Countdown 

Even if you have taken all of the steps to create a healthy hackathon environment, the ticking clock can make the final submission stressful. We always give lots of reminders to the teams so they aren’t surprised by the deadline. We also encourage our teams to “practice” the submission early on so they know exactly who has to do what and when and they don’t get any surprises at the end. And we have LOTS of people on hand to help the teams with their final submissions. There will always be an unexpected problem or two, but with lots of people around we can ensure that every team gets their hard work submitted on time (or close to it, we’re not going to eliminate a team for tech glitches). 

The Big Pitch

Demos and pitches can be stressful, there’s no way around that. But we try to make our pitches fun and as enjoyable for everyone as possible. One way to de-stress the demos (for both the teams and the organizers) is to allow participants to pre-record them. Participants can still be available for a live Q&A with the judges but they don’t need to worry about stumbling over their pitch or running out of time. 

If you have ideas to ensure healthy environments at hackathons we would love to hear them!

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Hack to Hire: 5 Reasons to use Hackathons in your Hiring Process

Posted by Lydia Da Cruz on October 5, 2020

Companies are increasingly finding their fortunes – and futures – tied to their ability to attract talent from a limited pool of qualified technology workers. This shortage has been exacerbated as the pandemic spurred an unprecedented surge in tech investment and is expected to become much more acute in the coming years as the role of tech continues to expand across industries. Talent acquisition in emerging technologies has become the biggest concern for companies around the world. In 2019, CEOs across industries ranked attracting and retaining top talent as their #1 internal concern.

To not only attract, but retain talent, HR leaders face the added challenge of recruiting professionals that not only meet job requirements but are also a good fit for the organizational culture. This is especially difficult under today’s circumstances where remote interviews and onboarding processes are the norm rather than the exception.

So how do HR leaders adapt to these changes and re-design their recruitment processes to be effective and efficient?

Hackathons are a logical solution to addressing the unique challenges of hiring the ever-elusive top tech talent. In fact, their use has increased manifold over the years and is set to rise even further as businesses acclimatize to a change in hiring processes and increased virtual and remote work.

Talent Branding

Hackathons create strong brand visibility and a deeper more meaningful connection than comparative branding initiatives. Philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once said: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Achieving something difficult and worthwhile responds to our innate desire for purpose and meaning. At a hackathon, participants are encouraged to pursue that extraordinary state of consciousness – or what’s often called a flow state – tap into their highest potential and enjoy the rewarding pleasures of stretching themselves to accomplish greatness. The brand that enabled this is rewarded with a deeper and more meaningful connection with the participant.

This deep connection, resulting in lasting, positive brand recall establishes companies that leverage hackathons in their hiring processes as a desirable place to work among attendees. Hackathons are also a uniquely effective way for companies to believably demonstrate their work and company culture, live their values out in the open and showcase their approach to teamwork, problem solving and mentorship. This is especially true if they supply mentors to teams, host workshops and are involved throughout and comitted to the success of participants during the event.

  • Deeper, more meaningful brand connection
  • Showcase company culture and demonstrate workplace experience
  • Brand promotion opportunity with broad CTA allowing for maximum reach on employment portals, social media, networking platforms, forums, campuses, and though the engagement of other more specific skill community gatekeepers
  • Brand establishment as the voice of innovation and change, recognizing the value of innovators and their ideas
  • Create lasting event branding material to add to talent brand media roster

Build Recruitment Pipeline

All HR representatives agree, everyone can use more candidates in the funnel. Hackathons – especially virtual ones where the number and catchment area of participants is essentially limitless – are an effective and lean tactic for companies looking to build their recruitment pipeline. Hackathons allow HR professionals to assess and most importantly eliminate less qualified candidates, and candidates that are simply not a good cultural fit, much faster than usually possible relying on the traditional interview process. Even if participants from the winning teams and other most qualified candidates are hired directly, companies are still left with a large list of other potential candidates to add to their recruitment funnel for further evaluation or consideration at a later time.   

  • Build a pipeline of candidates not only for the present, but also for the future

Quality of Hire

While tackling any given hackathon challenge, teams need to conduct research, devise a strategy, divvy up responsibilities and tasks, develop novel products or services and create a persuasive pitch – all this in a limited amount of time and with the added pressure of real prizes on the line. With each participant naturally assuming a role and responsibility on the team, the team dynamic begins to mimic that of an organization and allows recruiters to judge candidates based on a variety of criteria including how well they work in a high-pressure environment, their ability to work in a team, their situational judgment, business acumen and how well and creatively can they employ their technical skills. This environment also allows recruiters to review a candidates' leadership potential based on critical leadership qualities like empathy, communication, team management and leading peers towards a common goal.

Additionally, the ability to define the challenge participants will be working on allows organizers to assess candidates on very specific skills – like their ability to deliver outstanding work using the companies' standard coding language, frameworks and integrating into its APIs and processes – and potentially benefiting from their unique outside perspective – by supplying a real business challenge the company is currently looking to solve.

Using hackathons to gamify the recruitment process is beneficial to both candidates and recruiters. Intimidating 1:1 interviews are replaced with a competitive drill where participants have the opportunity to get comfortable over the entire course of the event, dig in and self-determine how to showcase their skills and talents. Recruiters get the benefit of observing candidates apply their skills in real-time in a highly interactive environment mimicking a work environment and effectively assess the candidates' potential cultural fit.

Lastly, candidates are known to attach aspirational value to hackathons. Selected candidates for hire that were able to deliver a solution that truly impressed the senior judges of the hosting company often feel destined for success at the company because they’ve been hand selected from a pool of hundreds of other participants. They naturally become highly engaged employees with an increased probability for high performance and long-term commitment to the company.

  • Holistic evaluation based on technical prowess, cognitive abilities, business acumen, disposition, people and time management skills and leadership potential
  • Assess a combination of skills specific to hiring needs
  • Discover new ways to problem solve long standing challenges through unique outside perspective of participants
  • Gamify the hiring process to be less intimidating, and more insightful and rewarding for both candidates and recruiters
  • Asses the candidates cultural fit by observing their behaviour in an environment mimicking work
  • Higher company buy-in, better performance and long-term commitment of hackathon hires

Reduced Time and Cost to Hire

According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management, it takes companies across industries an average of 42 days to fill a new position and costs the employer approximately US $4,129. However, when it comes to recruiting developers and similar tech talent, that number shoots up to US $22,562 using in-house recruitment, and US $31,970 using an external agency. Furthermore, additional costs would apply to both approaches to account for productivity loss due to the elongated recruitment process to hire technology talent including CV reviews, interviewing etc. by team leads which is estimated to cost up to US $8,454 in management time. To further add to this, consider that all the costs begin to multiply the more team members need to be added.

Integrating hackathons into the recruitment process, as a reoccurring, staple event with shifting focus depending on current hiring needs, builds a steady stream of qualified candidates in the pipeline, significantly lowering cost per hire and giving companies more agility to act on opportunities requiring new talent on short notice.

  • Significantly lower your cost per hire
  • Lower time to hire through qualified candidates in the pipeline

The Opportunity of Virtual

Virtual hackathons provide an opportunity to engage recruits from far and wide. Participants can take part from their homes, their local coffee shop or anyplace with an internet connection. It places no limits on the number of participants that can take part and allows for significant cost savings on location.

It allows you to significantly expand your recruitment catchment area. Without significantly increasing costs, you can scale your event from local to global and gain insight into international talent that you ordinarily, would not have been able to access. Considering many job openings are open to remote work – especially in the areas where competition for talent is fierce – this is a benefit that shouldn’t be ignored.

  • Scale recruitment catchment area from local to global

Considering all the benefits listed above it’s not surprising that more and more companies are leveraging hackathons to boost their talent acquisition efforts and transform the traditionally one-sided recruitment process into a mutually rewarding experience for both candidates and recruiters.

Download the Hack Instead Case Study to learn how we recently hosted a Hack to Hire Hackathon and successfully connected campus talent across Canada with sponsor job opportunities during COVID-19.

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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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Corporate hackathons in a pandemic: Virtually impossible or possible virtually?

Posted by Patti Mikula on July 30, 2020

Year over year, we see Hackathons and Innovation Challenges playing a growing role in the innovation strategies of global companies. We have worked with some of the world’s top brands (Google, New York Life, Capital One, Government of Canada, Randstad to name a few) to use the framework of hackathons to engage employees in helping identify and design solutions to large, hairy problems. We help our clients design an event for a specialized crowd, which is given a limited amount of time and a carefully scoped challenge, to deliver a solution which will be evaluated on shared judging criteria.

But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – with offices closed and limited ability to host physical gatherings for employees in the foreseeable future, with employees feeling the strain of remote work, PLUS parenting, PLUS the stress that comes with uncertainty – is now the time to be hosting a virtual corporate hackathon? YES. YES IT IS! 

The tech companies born from the previous global recession are some of the key players today. Slack, Uber, Venmo, Instagram, WhatsApp, Airbnb and Dropbox were developed in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis. They were founded by young go-getters who were focused on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow while the market leaders of the day were still trying to put up their umbrella and weather the storm. Recession can lead to reinvention, and we will see this in 2020 not just in the startup sphere but also in the corporate sphere. 

We have already seen companies and industries resistant to change reinventing their business models on the fly out of necessity. Distilleries have retooled their production lines to produce hand sanitizer. China built an entire hospital in 10 days. And call centres around the world have languished, empty, with their agents working from kitchen tables and makeshift home offices. 

Prioritizing innovation today is crucial to both surviving the crisis of the moment and unlocking post crisis growth.

Companies that innovate to reinvent themselves now will do well (think of Netflix, Microsoft and Disney) whereas those who refuse to adapt to the coming change will get left behind (Blockbuster, Toys"R"Us and the like)

But a virtual hackathon isn’t just moving your event to Zoom. It’s an entirely different beast, and you need to give consideration to each element to ensure that your participants have an exceptional experience and you get the business benefits you need. In this ebook we will share some of our key learnings from hosting virtual hackathons over the past ten years. 

As you consider your own virtual hackathon, download our Virtual Hackathon ebook, and feel free to reach out to us to see how we can help. Many hands make light work, and our team of innovation experts stands ready to help.

 

 

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Solve for X – Supporting Women as They Rise to the Challenges of COVID-19

Posted by Lydia Da Cruz on July 28, 2020

As we adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic and are taking urgent steps to protect our health and the people we love, it is important to remember those most affected by this global catastrophe and those who are most vulnerable. Social and gender inequities are heightened during times of crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different. As a community of change makers we wished to do our part and support a group that has been – and still is! – facing increased challenges due to COVID-19: Women.

Leveraging our expertise as crowdsourcing innovators, we launched Solve for X to bring together brilliant minds in collaboration and competition and find innovative solutions to help women rise to the challenges COVID-19 added to their lives. We engaged participants from around the world to join us for the Solve for X Ideahack to problem solve and imagine solutions that would support and relieve some of these economic, health and financial pressures specifically affecting women.

Challenge Statement: How might we support women everywhere as they rise to the challenges presented by COVID-19?

Motivated civic innovators joined forces over three-days to share ideas, build relationships and deliver solutions that are relevant and meaningful to women everywhere. These multidisciplinary groups of participants came together to help and support women in mastering their new normal.

More than 60 participants formed 19 teams and tackled the challenge statement of how to support women as they rise to the challenges of COVID-19. These teams delivered incredible ideas in a short amount of time that reimagined what supporting women everywhere during COVID-19 could look like. We are highlighting the unique perspectives and creative solutions presented by the top 5 teams in the Solve for X Ideabook.

You can view and download the Solve for X Ideabook here.

Thank you to all Solve for X participants for your passion, creativity, contribution and inclination to help women facing adversity.

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Our 4 month COVID-aversary

Posted by Patti Mikula on July 13, 2020

Saturday marked four months since the Hackworks team began working remotely by default. It has been a whirlwind and I had to check the calendar several times to make sure I had it right. In any given moment it can feel like it was just a few weeks since we’ve been in the office or it can feel like forever. Everyone jokes that in the COVID era time has no meaning, and it feels so true. 

So what has the last four months looked like for Hackworks? Here’s a look at our journey. 

The First Day: March 11, 2020

What ended up being the first day of our office being empty for the next four months (and counting) happened by coincidence. The week the lockdown started here in Toronto part of the team was busy executing the Stantec Idea Hack in Tampa, a couple of team members were on vacation, and – out of an abundance of caution – one of our team who was feeling under the weather worked from home (thankfully it was no more than allergies or a cold). By happenstance, the rest of the team was already working remotely that week.. There was nothing particularly remarkable about that day. We’re a small team and our client programs can take us anywhere, so it’s not uncommon for our team to be spread out around the world and for our office to sit empty. But we never predicted this would be the first day of so many. 

The First Week: March 11 to March 17

The first week was pretty hectic. We had a live pitch day planned on March 21 in Kelowna for our AquaHacking BC program. Some team members were scheduled to fly out for that, as were sponsors, judges and participants. On March 11 we started working on a contingency plan, and soon after the decision was made to pivot our in-person semi-final to an all-digital one. We had five days to reimagine the program and plan for our teams to pitch their solutions to wicked water issues remotely. At the same time, our participants were dealing with radical changes in their own lives with schools closing campuses, jobs being shuttered and the overall uncertainty of the future. The execution was a challenge and there were a few kinks we would have worked out had we had more time, but I was really proud of the team and how it all came together. And the pitches were awesome! If you want to see the AquaHacking BC winners, you can check them out here

The First Month: March 11 - April 11

Once we had the AquaHacking BC event under our belt we turned our thoughts to “what next”? At that point it started to sink in that this virus was very serious and things weren’t going to return to “normal” for quite some time. We rapidly turned our attention to the other programs on our roadmap. Our AquaHacking program is taking place in three cohorts this year, and after AquaHacking BC we had to turn our attention to AquaHacking Winnipeg and AquaHacking Atlantic Canada. Fairly early on it was decided that those two events would also be held virtually, and  thankfully we had more than five days to plan them this time around! You can check out the AquaHacking Winnipeg semi-finals here and the AquaHacking Atlantic semi-finals here.  

At that point we were also in the early stages of planning the 2020 Digital for Good Tech Jam scheduled for the fall. With so much uncertainty and not knowing what the world  would look like in 6+ months, we spent hours considering every possibility of how to best move forward. We  stretched our imagination to plan for the challenges of a virtual event, but ensure we leverage the benefits! You can take a look at our thought process in our blog post Planning for Normal: 4 Critical Questions to ask Yourself. Ultimately, the decision was made for the program to be held 100% virtually. Ultimately, we’re excited at the opportunities this new approach will present. For the first time, we will be able to include charities and participants from much further afield. 

We also started thinking about how we could get involved in solving for some of the challenges related to the COVID lockdown. Looking around our own team and community, we were cognizant of the imbalanced burden that the lockdown was placing on women. Women were disproportionately affected by layoffs. But at the same time, women were more likely than men to be working in high-risk, front-line positions. And those women working from home were also disproportionately carrying the burden of childcare and teaching while carrying on their day-to-day work responsibilities. We decided to launch Solve for X, an idea hack to consider the ways in which women were impacted by COVID-19 and identify potential solutions. 

The First Four Months: March 11 - July 11

With the first four months of the lockdown behind us we are starting to see some return to normalcy. We run hackathons, design jams, workshops and bootcamps, which have historically been a mix of in-person and virtual events. We expect that virtual events will be the default for our programs for the next year or more, so we have spent the past four months enhancing the capabilities of our Hackworks.com platform and prioritizing features and functionality related to virtual programs. We’re excited about the progress we have made, and for the features in development. 

We are still all working remotely, and while we’re missing the in-person interactions with our team members (and the world!), we are embracing the freedom to work from wherever we are. Some have gone to stay with family outside of the city, some have worked from cottages and some have worked from their deck. We have always embraced working from home, but I expect, like many other companies, we’ll definitely see more remote working in the future, and we’ll definitely be more practiced in how we can do so while still staying connected. 

In the early days of the pandemic we saw many companies pressing pause on any new programs in the hopes that more time would give more clarity on the future state. Now four months in, we are seeing many companies pressing ahead with plans for this fall and Q1 of next year, feeling more confident in their ability to deliver despite the uncertainty of what the world will look like then. We’re excited about the programs we have on the calendar for later this year and next year, and the ones we are in the early stages of defining with our clients. 

The saying is that hindsight is 2020, but in this moment I feel like 2020 is about foresight. It is all about divining what the future will look like when we don’t even fully grasp what is happening right now.

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Planning for Normal: 4 Critical Questions to ask Yourself

Posted by Patti Mikula on May 20, 2020

In the initial days and weeks of this global pandemic we were focused on the urgent, immediate, needs -- the health and safety of our team members and their families and the programs in the near-term pipeline (for us, that was anything before September). Now that we are 10 weeks in, and we have a more comfortable grasp on “now”, we are beginning to think about the future.

Usually when we are planning 6-12 months ahead we have a keen sense of the variables. But the future state is so uncertain right now it may as well be 6 - 12 years in the future. So how do you plan now for events down the road while in the middle of a pandemic? We’re working through that process with a number of our clients and thought we could share our approach.

We can borrow techniques from futurists, those who specialize in exploring uncertain futures. The Future Today Institute (founded by Amy Webb, author of The Signals are Talking, an excellent read in its own right) suggests an Axis of Uncertainty to determine potentialfuture states. Depending on the complexity of what you are planning, that may be an excellent tool to identify the parameters you are working  with.

But we can make this even simpler. We can explore two known states and one unknown: The past state, (“normal”), the current state (“now”) and a future state (“next”). In our case, “normal” would include lots of in-person events -- hackathons, workshops, bootcamps and pitch days. We loved large crowds -- the more the merrier! And the “now” state requires us to make all of those touchpoints virtual. What ‘s “next”? What will the future state look like? For our events with a time horizon where the potential for in-person events is uncertain (6+ months from now) we are asking ourselves (and sometimes our clients) the following questions.

What is your objective? This is always important to understand, but even more so now. How will the two states (“now” and “next”) change your ability to meet your goals? Don’t simply plan for a virtual version of the event you planned six months ago.  At the beginning of each project our team holds a discovery meeting where we explore all of the possibilities for how we can meet the program objectives. When facing a radical change such as we are experiencing now, it is critical to take a step back and explore the ways in which your objective can be met through online or virtual means, or with smaller groups participating. It may not look at all like you had originally planned, and that is okay. The key is ensuring your objectives are met.

If your objective 100% requires in-person participation of a large group, or the virtual execution is prohibitively expensive, you may need to review your timeline and consider pushing it out until there is more certainty. 

What are the forces beyond your control? Beyond the obvious -- government regulations and orders to stay home, shelter in place etc., ask yourself what else is critical to the success of your program that is outside of your control. Do you need partners? Do you need participants in a particular industry? The healthcare industry is under a great deal of stress right now. But some industries are moving forward largely unimpeded other than the need for remote work and physical distancing. Perhaps you can change the industry you are targeting. Do you need to book or confirm a venue far in advance? Will you need to book travel? What are the cancellation policies, and will you lose money if you have to pivot? 

What are the signals saying? This is where you can leverage the techniques of futurists. What is happening on the fringes that may indicate a sign of the future? How can you scan the market, the industry or the world and what should you include in your scan? We can look to jurisdictions that have already moved into their “next” state for indications of what may happen where you are. New Zealand, Austria and Japan have begun to loosen restrictions. Equally important to the regulations is the public response. While many areas have seen people championing for the “opening” of their communities, it remains to be seen if people will readily return to “normal” activities once the regulations allow them to.

This is where you can use your Axis of Uncertainty to explore your future state. Brainstorm a series of uncertainties. This can be external (regulatory, health and safety, legal) or internal (budget, human resources etc.). Select two uncertainties and place them on your two axes. This will create four quadrants representing scenarios at the four extremes of your uncertainty. Now, write a short description of the scenario in each of those quadrants. Your axes will be unique to your needs, but in this example the two axes represent the limitations on physical gathering (extreme social distancing vs no limitation) and the focus of the public (entirely focused on the pandemic vs a return to focus on life post-pandemic). Now you can use this framework to explore how you can develop a program in each of those scenarios that meets your objectives.

If you don’t feel confident in your ability to translate the signals, or you simply don’t have the time, you can look for a proxy. Is there some other person, company or organization that you can leverage? Large organizations including Google and Facebook have announced they are limiting gatherings of 50 or more people for the foreseeable future, and at least through spring 2021.

What is your tolerance for uncertainty and change? And finally, are you and your team comfortable living with a certain level of uncertainty and pivoting as needed? If executing your program requires a great deal of approval or consensus, making changes on the fly is next to impossible. And are you comfortable assuming the risks and potential costs associated with pivoting? If not, then you may want to choose the safer path and either delay your event or develop a plan that works in the “now” state regardless of what our state may be in 6-12 months.

We are planning a program with a client for the fall, and in the early stages of the pandemic we scoped out two scenarios -- one that would be fully virtual and one that would be in-person. We have looked for components of the planning that won’t change regardless of the final execution and we have front-loaded our workback plan with these components. We’ve determined when we will need to choose a singular path (or incur the additional effort and cost of planning for both options). For us, this Go/No Go date is a couple of months from now. So until then we will live in a Schrodinger's Cat-type of paradox -- our event will be both virtual and in-person.

If you are considering a hackathon (in person or virtual) and would like to consider all of your options, feel free to reach out -- we would be happy to help you through the exploration and share our ideas for how to engage communities virtually in meaningful and impactful ways.

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Running a Successful Hackathon Starts With This One Important Question

Posted by Patti Mikula on January 10, 2017

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 just as many horrible reasons, but that’s for another blog) and when we look back on the 150+ innovation-focused events including hackathons in 125 locations, we see that the (good) reasons generally fall into one of six objectives: Community Creation, Developer Engagement, Recruiting, Innovation, IP Development or Branding.

At a higher level, these objectives can be further classified as either participant-focused (Community Creation, Developer Engagement and Recruiting), or output-focused (Innovation and IP Development). Branding can be either participant- or output-focused; whichever is more likely to help achieve your company’s unique objectives.

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 what the outputs you want are, 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.

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.

Community Creation

Hackathons provide an opportunity to activate a tech-savvy community to rally around a specific cause. A good example of this type of hackathon is Gift the Code, a hackathon we recently ran on behalf of Capital One. Gift the Code invited the Toronto tech community to rally around the needs of six local charities and code solutions to their challenges.

The results of the hackathon were impressive. But even more outstanding was the desire of the participants to keep working on the projects once the hackathon was over and see them implemented.

Developer Engagement

Hackathons present an excellent opportunity to expose a community of developers to new technologies. It’s a great way to seed developers with new or in-development hardware or software, ask them to dig into it and try it out.

The participants get the opportunity to learn about the new tech and engage with the engineers that have made it to understand it, and the technology providers get in-depth feedback and the knowledge of watching how their tech is used “in the wild.”

Recruiting

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.

IP Development

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, develop or identify new IP.

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.

Innovation

Hackathons are where those with the passion and abilities to problem-solve, build something out of nothing. But in their day job, most developers are looking to minimize risk, so they stick with tried and true software, hardware and processes, which can stagnate innovation.

In a hackathon, the risk of failure is minimal or nonexistent and participants are encouraged to forget all of the regulations, restrictions and reservations they are often seeped in and instead be free to experiment, envision and exercise their innovative freedom.

Branding

And finally, hackathons are a fantastic vehicle to position its hosts and sponsors as corporate changemakers by demonstrating honest investment in the social coding movement.

So get out there and get hacking, folks.

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Culture, Art and Technology: Museums make for Fantastic Hackathons!

Posted by Gabriel Couture on December 6, 2016

On November 26th and 27th, the Canadian Museum of History and Canadian War Museum teamed up with Hackworks to host the Museum VX Hackathon, their first event of this kind. Working with Carleton University and Algonquin College, Marquis Côté, Head of Digital Interactives and A/V, wanted to foster creativity by inviting post-secondary students to craft new and innovative digital experiences for museum visitors. Together, the two museums own all kinds of interesting hardware technologies and their exhibits are the perfect stage for resourceful problem-solvers to explore the use of new tech tools. Marquis thought a hackathon would provide a unique opportunity for students to use their imaginations and engage with the museums. And how right he was!

At kick-off, the students were provided with a variety of problem statements they were encouraged to tackle that varied from gamifying the museum-going experience, creating personalized curated visits and developing new immersive software solutions that would make exhibits more interactive. Students were confronted with a wealth of creative possibilities; the only directive was they choose from the themes of hockey, the battle of Vimy Ridge or the Franklin Expedition (based on three upcoming exhibits that will be shown at the museums) to craft their solutions.

In order to inspire them further, the museums provided touchscreens, beacons, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, motion sensors, NFC readers and writers and an HTC Vive VR headset for participants to play around with. Moreover, mentors from Carleton University and Algonquin College as well as local tech professionals joined over the weekend to share their expertise and help teams with the ideating and development process.

With all this stimulating material at their disposition, it was clear for participants that museums are fantastic hackathon hosts. Beyond the technology, there’s also the abundance of artifacts, stories, data and general information that creates numerous interactive possibilities. With the right tools and knowledge, participants can let their imaginations roam wild to come up with cool submissions. Museums today increasingly demonstrate a sophisticated convergence of culture, art and technology.

With this in mind, the participants enthusiastically developed their ideas. Over the weekend, one of the teams built a boat in Unity based on the Franklin Expedition and created a VR experience to go along with it; another developed an AR platform that generated 3D artifacts when you scanned pictures or objects in the exhibit; a third team created an app that allowed you to digitally collect artifacts from the museum in order to curate your own personal museum space. The students managed to use every technology made available to them – many using software and hardware technologies they had never had the opportunity to work with. Despite this learning curve, in less than 18 hours of actual hacking, each team presented forward-thinking solutions that could go a long way in improving the interactive nature of the museums’ exhibits. Marquis was certainly pleased by the results:

“There is nothing more rewarding than having young enthusiastic students in one room working together to find creative ways to make Museums more engaging. I was extremely impressed by the students’ energy over the weekend and the quality of the final projects and prototypes.”

Ultimately, the teams who received the best scores during the judging innovated without losing sight of the museum visitor. Their ideas were designed to satisfy today’s visitor’s interests, natural predispositions and access to smart mobile technologies. They crafted solutions that were financially feasible, realistically implementable and user-friendly – the keys to successful design and development.

At the end of the hackathon, the inspiration between museum and participant was mutual: Marquis and the rest of the museum team were able to engage and learn from a group of participants who belong to a demographic that doesn’t frequently visit museums; and the participants were able to find a new appreciation for the how museums use technology and the creativity that's required to design attractive and educative exhibitions.

Who knows, over time, perhaps hackathons are a solution to increasing attendance of young adults at museums. Following the hackathon, a participant wrote to us about his experience:

“it seems like the [museum] exhibits would really benefit from more interactivity. This is a good way to engage more young adults at the museum. This was the first time I visited this museum since I was in elementary school.”

This, in itself, is a success story.

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Gift the Code: Participants Eagerly Donating their Time For Good

Posted by Gabriel Couture on November 4, 2016

Capital One Canada engaged Hackworks in early 2016 to extend their already impressive CSR program to include a charity focused hackathon. It has been an incredible journey, which culminated in one of the most amazing hackathon experiences in the history of Hackworks. Below, Gabriel Couture, one of Hackworks Hackathon Managers, recounts his experience.

At 5:30pm, on Friday October 21st, a steady stream of participants made their way through the doors of BrainStation’s Toronto location, received a hoodie, a swag bag and registered for Gift the Code, Capital One Canada’s first charity hackathon. Carrying their laptops and new belongings they scoped out the venue and workspaces. Capital One’s creative team had decorated BrainStation with pillows, Muskoka chairs, picnic tables, small pine trees and fake grass. As the sun went down on the first night, while participants set up their workstations with laptops and monitors, it was delightful to watch BrainStation teeming with animated and eager participants.

For months, Hackworks helped Capital One make their vision of a charity hackathon a reality. Together, we worked on organizing an event that was going to be memorable and fulfilling for the charities and participants.

Capital One proved to be more than up to the task of answering every need. Their work and investment in this project has been a true indicator of their level of commitment. As the seed of an idea grew into the hackathon to be, they kept providing more of their time and resources. All of Capital One Canada became excited about the project!

Many participants spent the whole night of Friday coding away. At 6am on Saturday morning about 15 participants were still going about it; and most were still in impressively good spirits. One particularly generous and keen participant named Ryan offered to help clean up, get breakfast and make sure the coffee urns were full. His team was creating a chat app for Toronto Pflag and he had spent then night building the structure for when his team returned.

The 142 participants who joined us at Gift the Code were as diverse as they were generous. We had young professionals from TWGr for example; student teams from Ryerson University, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, Humber college and Sheridan college; as well as Capital One employees from New York, Chicago and Virginia just to name a few. It’s worth emphasizing the fact there were no prizes at Gift the Code: nothing to be won other than some cool stickers for different achievements and a medal. Attendees were simply passionate techies who wanted to give back in some way. They committed to a whole weekend of hacking for good, not for reward!

For the six invited charities - who in diverging respects didn’t really know what to expect from the hackathon - the opportunity to speak with participants was in itself rewarding. For example, Rod Cohen, the Blake Boultbee Youth Outreach Service Executive Director, shared a story during the awards ceremony. One of the teams working on his charity challenges was a young group of friends who had all grown up in different war-ravaged countries and met in Toronto. Here, at Gift the Code, they spent a weekend designing a new version of the Blake Boultbee website. Rod, who works with at-risk youth, was totally inspired by the story.

“Over the 40-hour Gift the Code Hackathon, I had the opportunity to interact with participants, answer questions along the way and ultimately see a finished product come to life. The impact these solutions will have on our organization are huge, and drives home that it’s not always about donations, but about thinking outside the box to achieve a common goal.”

- Lina Almanzan, Resources Systems Manager, Women's Habitat

Pictures from the hackathon include teams posing with their charity representatives, laughing, hugging and glowing with pride. Over the weekend, in person and on Slack, a constant discussion took place between the charities and participants. Questions were answered, data was shared, anecdotes were told and everyone was able to dive deeper into the root causes of the challenges the different charities faced.

Overall, 24 different solutions emerged from a very successful weekend of hacking. There were gaming apps, coaching tools, chat bots, data analytic tools and new websites just to name a few.

On Sunday, after an afternoon of presentations, teams were awarded badges for achieving different judging criteria. As a final round of applause for the hackathon took place, to the side, one of the participants who hadn’t slept on Saturday appeared passed-out on a bench in the corner. His head hung to one side and he was crooked with exhaustion. With his eyes closed, as people clapped, he used his hand resting on his arm to clap as well - a last generous gesture of support.

If you would like to learn more about this incredible event and the solutions developed, check out Capital One’s Press Release, Capital One’s Hackathon Git Hub Account where the code of all 24 submissions is available under an open source license; or head over to the events’ official website, Twitter or Facebook page.

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What's The Hackathon Secret Sauce?

Posted by Gabriel Couture on August 23, 2016

On August 23rd, Capital One Canada and Hackworks launched Gift the Code, a hackathon with the aim of helping six Toronto charities enhance their technical ability to overcome challenges and better fulfill their mandates. The hackathon is a testament of Capital One’s commitment to giving back to their community in innovative and unexpected ways. During Gift The Code, participants will work on developing strategies, solutions and digital prototypes that help answer challenges presented by the charities. What's more, the participants will be introduced to problems that afflict their communities, learn about challenges charities face and network with people from across the city interested in using their skills for a good cause. They arrive with a fresh perspective, join a motivating creative environment and bring diverging skill sets to the table. Ultimately, Toronto citizens will help beef up the digital platforms used by the charities to provide aid to the different individuals and communities who use, and need, their services. What's more, it's all open source, so the results and outcomes of the hackathon have the potential to spread internationally and help non-profits, charities and other organizations around the world! It’s a win-win for all involved and a great example of how versatile and effective the hackathon format is to generate change.

For most its two decade long history, hackathons were understood as the domain of hackers, bro-coders, techies and startups. Over the last 5 or so years, this has changed rather dramatically, but the present-day popular understanding of the term still belies its broad potential as a tool for promoting creativity, community development and problem solving.

Hackathons today are used for a wide variety of purposes. At Hackworks, we have run over 150 innovation challenges, including hackathons in 125 locations. Among them, we’ve organized national open data hackathons with the Canadian government, executed a hackathon that provided bank employees with an empowering experience to take initiative and create digital tools that would help them become more mobile and efficient, and coordinated an event with Evergreen and the city of Toronto with the goal of developing insights and prototypes for solutions that would help solve Toronto’s awful traffic woes. On the surface, the hackathons couldn’t be more different, but the core principles are the same: competitive collaboration under creative pressure resulting in rapid solution prototyping.

Participants in these hackathons are a mix of motivated employees, civic activists, students looking for exciting learning experiences, professionals wanting creative outlets for their talents, software engineers looking for opportunities to use their skill sets, data scientists curious about sifting through data unrelated to their work and other engaged citizens hoping to network and participate in stimulating activities. They come from different personal and professional backgrounds and each brings a unique perspective to the table. That’s wherein lies the hackathon secret sauce!

The success of a good hackathon lies in its ability to harness the diverse talents of the participants, inspire them to collaborate and contribute their ideas to a specific cause and make sure the event satisfies the organizer’s original objectives. The power of hackathons is predicated on the capacity of people to deliver more of themselves in concentrated bursts of time and the potential that comes from crowdsourcing ideas from motivated participants. Depending on the objectives of the hackathon organizer, hackathons can be used for an almost infinite array of purposes, whether technical or not. What’s clear is that the results of our hackathons (and others) convincingly indicate that people work more efficiently:

  • With specific objectives.
  • In concentrated bursts.
  • When empowered to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • In small groups who can support and challenge the ideas put forth.

Hackathons emphasize all of these elements. You can accomplish pretty much anything within the framework of a hackathon – including achieving a CSR objective and making your community better like Capital One – but it’s important to know what you want to achieve. The only question one needs to ask is, “what are my objectives?” or more simply: “What do I want to be left with on Sunday night?” ;)

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You're probably wasting your most valuable resource

Posted by Gabriel Couture on July 20, 2016

There are many factors that go into developing and sustaining a successful company. Arguably, the most important is making the most of your employees’ skills and abilities.

Some believe that employees who are driven, focused, and creative are hard to come by. What’s missing from this perspective is that employees who feel inspired and empowered to excel at work might be rare because their work doesn’t provide them the environment to live up to, and exceed, expectations. Now you may scoff at that, opine that great employees shouldn’t need any babysitting or specific environments in order to thrive, but the more we learn from science about human behaviour, the way our brains are wired and what promotes motivation, the clearer it’s demonstrated that an employee’s work circumstances plays a large role in dictating their likelihood of success.

At Hackworks, during our events, we see examples of employees outperforming expectations all the time. In June, we organized an internal Tech Jam for one of Canada’s big banking institutions. Leading up to the event, there was some concern among the bank’s organizers about the ability of participants to come up with ideas and deliver interesting mobile applications for the challenge. Unfamiliar with hackathons, they could not anticipate the promising output of a group of engaged employees with a tight deadline and nothing to lose. After 40 hours of ideating, discussion, inspiration, compromise and development, fifteen teams of employees from different departments, who didn’t know each other, with diverging interests and expertise, presented their solutions in an expo style format. We watched the bank’s organizers and judges go from team to team, listen to their presentations, and saw the smiles on their faces - grins of delighted surprise. The employees hadn’t spent their time on mediocre, run-of-the-mill mobile applications, instead, these were elaborate, well-thought-out, implementable solutions to challenges the bank had presented them. Suffice to say, the organizers left impressed; emboldened at how talented and innovative their employees proved to be.

So what took place during the hackathon for that successful outcome to take place?

  • The bank decided to take the risk of trying something new. They had never organized a hackathon before; in fact, they weren’t quite sure what a hackathon was, and yet, they invested a great deal of resources and time to make it a success.

  • The bank put their faith in the power of crowdsourcing, bottom-up innovation. Your staff may consist of 5 or 5,000 employees; either way, the cumulative brain power of a group is greater.

“Crowdsourcing is an executive—not marketing—capability. It’s something your CEOs need to engage in.” – Sean Moffitt, Wikibrands

  • The bank provided a challenge to their employees - to create and prototype digital mobile applications that would improve employee productivity, connectivity and mobility - that was neither too narrow nor too broad. They had already identified specific problems they wanted to work on, but chose to leave their employees to problem-solve on their own terms.

  • The bank invited employees from different departments, with different skillsets, perspectives and knowledge, who didn’t know each other, to come together and pool their collective knowledge and abilities and learn from each other. Everyone came in on equal terms, with no hierarchy, free to express their opinion and add their two-cents.

  • The bank organized the event in a location that was unique and different from their usual offices. They chose a physical environment that was modern, unique, and fun. It provided a different space for participants; a clean slate that would promote creative thinking.

  • The bank made sure to send important executives as mentors and judges in order to demonstrate their commitment to the initiative and inspire participants to give it their all.

  • The bank was able to promote itself, in this case internally, to its employees, offering them a different perspective on the company they work for: less risk averse, more innovative, more exciting, more connected…

  • The employees volunteered their time to try something new. A survey after the hackathon revealed that the leading causes for participating were learning new things, being curious about trying something new, and the opportunity to network with other employees.

  • The employees were still 'working', but they were unshackled from “the burden of day to day processes.”* As a result, they benefited from “seeing and experiencing how effective they could be”* when provided with the opportunity. For many, the hackathon improved their sense of self-esteem and confidence, which is absolutely key to self-motivation at work.

“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” -- Sam Walton, Founder Walmart and Sam’s Club

  • The employees took ownership of their solutions, and proved committed to developing useful and valuable products. After the hackathon, they had something to show and share with colleagues, an experience and story to tell, and a sense of personal and professional accomplishment they could be proud of.

“The most empowering relationships are those in which each partner lifts the other to a higher possession of their own being.” ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French idealist philosopher, Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist

  • The employees, by engaging with employees from different departments, got a better sense of the functioning of the institution as a whole. Too often, employees develop tunnel vision regarding the organization they work for, forgetting the various complex pieces needed for it to be effective.

  • The hackathon provided a space where failure and the process of improvement through iteration are celebrated. Without the pressure to create something that is perfect, with great UI/UX and fully functional, the employees were empowered to use their intuition, brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other. Under normal circumstances, especially in large organizations, this kind of opportunity is non-existent.

  • The hackathon provided employees face-time with executives and, as a result, a more tangible sense of belonging to a larger family.

  • The hackathon provided employees explicit time for reflection about work, about the processes they use everyday, about what works and what doesn’t. They were freed to use their innate analytical skills and by doing so, better understand their position within the organization, the building blocks that make it work, and the opportunities available if they act proactively.

  • The hackathon provided the bank with 15 unique, employee-driven mobile applications over the course of a 40 hour event. A single person, let alone a team, dedicated to innovating can’t deliver those kinds of results. And the costs of organizing the hackathon in comparison with having a large team dedicated to innovate is cheaper. One advantage of this approach is your innovation team can focus on modernizing the work culture and implementation of innovative ideas instead of coming up with them as well.

  • The hackathon was also an opportunity for the bank to do a bit of recruiting. They were able to gain insights about the different strengths and weaknesses of the participants. In other hackathons we’ve organized, whether internal or external, many of our clients use the hackathons as a talent identification and recruiting tool.

I could go on. Ultimately, your employees are almost always your most valuable resource. Immersing them in different activities; empowering them to prove themselves; having them establish contact with others in the organization and learning from each other are but the tip of the iceberg of what a good employee management strategy can offer.

Here’s a bit of food for thought:

The Anthropology of Experience: that identity is created as it is performed. Everyday actions and practices – like taking public transit, attending business meetings, eating meals, or posting a status update on Facebook – are actually public performances that allow us to create our identities by telling stories about ourselves, to our-selves. The Anthropology of Experience is interested in how the little rituals that make up our daily lives help define who we are and how we relate to the cultures and groups we belong to. https://miscmagazine.com/win-experience-economy/

Have you put thought in the stories your employees are telling themselves about them-selves? Do your employees have access to action and practices related to their employment that is helping them develop pro-active, motivated and dedicated identities?

If your answer to the above questions are no, we should talk.

*Quotes from participant survey following the hackathon.

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June Update

Posted by Gabriel Couture on June 23, 2016

CoolHackathon

Dream a little:

The launch is about to begin; the hackathon challenge is right up your alley; the lights drop and your favourite song is pumping up the crowd... chills run from your toes to your finger tips and your team looks at each other with excited anticipation. 3... 2... 1... GO!

Your perfect hackathon begins.

We want to organize the world's most exciting hackathons. Please, fill out this quick survey and help us organize great hackathons:

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Hiringbanner

Join the Team! Hackworks is Hiring! Do you believe in the power of hackathons to drive innovation? Do you think they're a good tool for community engagement? Do you agree they are a fun and dynamic way for companies to problem-solve and remain competitive? You might be the right candidate.

We are looking for a Full Stack Developer to maintain and expand the Hackworks.com website, as well as the platform that we use to run our hackathons. Are you the one!?

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ridi6ulous-Hackathon Just Ridi6ulous

This summer, use your brain for what's important in life; participate in the Ridi6ulous Summer Hackathon (http://ridi6ulo.us/hackathon.html) and pollinate Toronto with buzz-worthy hacks and contraptions!

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CapitalOne-HackathonAnnouncement

Save the date!

Capital One is organizing an exciting community hackathon taking place October 21st to 23rd! The theme, website and ability to register are going to be officially announced on August 9th.

Connected lab Watson tshirt

"The Internet of things is going to change everything."

On June 3rd to 5th, Hackworks partnered with Connected Lab and IBM Watson to bring you the Watson IoT Hackathon. Watch the hackathon video! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-3GKggXZ84)

HackathonsNearMe_logo

Are you looking for hackathons to participate in? Do you have a hackathon you want to promote?

Visit Hackathonsnear.me for a list of hackathons taking place around the world and the ability to promote your own.

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Shape the future instead of reacting to it.

Posted by Gabriel Couture on April 13, 2016

In our previous blog post, Innovation is not a Buzzword, we made the argument that Innovation is a necessary endeavour for an organization or company's continued relevance and success. Over the coming weeks, we have 5 planned posts that will delve deeper into why you should be innovating.

This post makes the argument that if you can frame the conversation around tech and service innovation in your favour, you will be have an advantage in the market place. To a great extent, Innovation is a important communications and branding asset.


This blog post includes the following:

Part 1: Amazon, Apple and the power of visionary thinkers on the marketplace

Part 2: Two ways hackathons help you predict and plan for future developments

Part 3: How one company organized an internal hackathon to respond to changes in the financial industry


Part 1:

In 2011, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos felt the need to write a piece for Business Insider explaining why Amazon had posted lower than expected earnings, which was primarily a result of a $3 billion increase in expenses. Mr. Bezos wrote:

“Technology infuses all of our teams, all of our processes, our decision-making, and our approach to innovation in each of our businesses. It is deeply integrated into everything we do. [...] Invention is in our DNA and technology is the fundamental tool we wield to evolve and improve every aspect of the experience we provide our customers.”Jeff Besos

Innovation is what differentiates an active company from a passive one. Organizations with a strategic approach to innovation increase their likelihood of shaping the market in ways that fit their needs.

Over a little more than two decades, Amazon has run roughshod over numerous competitors by out-investing them in developing the future of commerce and retail. They started off as a simple online bookseller after all, and over time began selling other products, producing consumer electronics (The Kindle, Fire TV), and becoming the biggest supplier of cloud infrastructure services in the world. Jeff Bezos then bought The Washington Post in 2013, which provides him the ability to better understand a struggling industry while using it as a laboratory to explore the intersection of integrated content and commerce. Now that Amazon has surpassed Walmart as the world’s most valuable retailer in the United States by market capitalization, it is clear that Jeff Bezos was right to invest heavily in changing the market in his favour.

Apple’s current competitive advantage over Microsoft is based on the same visionary principles. Steve Jobs’ user-centric focus revolutionized the way personal computers were marketed and sold to consumers. Central to that experience was his focus on design, usability, and intuitive products and interfaces. This approach helped Steve Jobs and Apple develop whole new industries and impose their vision of the future on the rest of the world.

At their respective peaks, Amazon and Apple controlled the market, forced competitors to adapt to their technological innovations, processes and products, and permanently altered their respective industries.

Steve Jobs once quoted Wayne Gretzky:

"I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." Wayne Gretzky

Knowing this, how can a hackathon help you best predict where the puck is going to be?


Part 2:

Here are two ways a hackathon will help you evaluate the direction your company should take:

Tapping into different communities.

Every type of hackathon allows you to crowdsource insights and solutions from a community of your choosing. By mingling software developers, product managers, designers, curious citizens and professionals with diverse backgrounds, you ensure the ideas that result from the hackathon are dreamed up by a wide array of makers, users and customers with different perspectives.

Hackathons are an opportunity for “talent engagement;” a means of entering a conversation with idea generators that could help open new growth possibilities. Hackathons are a great way of keep your finger on the pulse of what is happening culturally, technologically and even politically.

Predicting and understanding the future is best accomplished by understanding people, their concerns, anxieties, ambitions and dreams. In order to frame and manipulate a market or industry in your favour, you need to understand your consumers. Hackathons provide crowdsourced answers that help you accomplish that while engaging with people at the same time.

Development of Intellectual Property

IP is a tricky subject to manage when it comes to hackathons. The volunteer-driven and collaborative nature of hackathons generally means you need to be sensitive about not giving the impression you are using crowdsourcing as free labour. Therefore, when it comes to determining who owns the IP that is developed during a hackathon, it is important you consider the repercussions of your choice on the matter. Make sure that the rules regarding IP are clearly articulated. That being said, it is remarkable how successful well-organized hackathons are at delivering creative solutions and insights. In the right context, participant submissions may open up additional markets, customer bases, and spawn new product lines or entire companies.


Part 3:

Hackathon Example:

One of our clients (who prefers to remain anonymous) was proactive in responding to the changes in the financial industry. Part of their strategic blueprint was an internal hackathon with the objective of re-imagining the way their customers experienced their services using new emerging technologies. They were concerned about the threat of disruptive technologies in their industry and wanted to prepare for the changes.

Beyond organizing the actual hackathon, Hackworks helped them coordinate pre-hackathon workshops in order to brief the participants on the challenges affecting the financial industry and introduce them to new technologies. The workshops provided the participants with ample time to become acquainted with the technologies and brainstorm on the potential impacts they may have on their own lives, that of their customers, and their industry as a whole. Participants were also encouraged to play and experiment with other tools and technologies that might be disruptive.

From a pool of over 4000 employees, a group of 150 were selected as participants and provided new tools, an opportunity to work with colleagues from other departments and a unique learning experience. Even with less than 5% of its workforce participating, the benefits of such an activity for the company are enormous. Each of those participants returned to their teams with ideas and knowledge to share.

Hackathon outcomes:

The ultimate focus of the hackathon was on finding solutions that would enhance digital customer experiences. By doing so, the company created an engaging platform for their employees to do something unique and share their own ideas with company leaders and executives. The participants felt empowered and included in decision-making they don't normally get involved in. The company was able to crowdsource ideas from employees working in a variety of different departments and mine the expertise of employees that connect with customers on a daily basis.

Processes were put in place in order for the ideas generated during the hackathon to be immediately evaluated. Work began right away on weaving together the ideas, insights and technologies that surfaced into the company’s innovation roadmap. With the solutions and insights developed during the event, the client was able to better prepare for future and avoid reactionary innovation.


Conclusion:

It is not always the best innovation that succeeds, it is the one that manages to achieve a successful market-fit, because ultimately, an innovation is more than an invention or discovery, which increases knowledge but doesn’t necessarily impact the market. By continuously exploring possible product and process innovations, you increase the likelihood your solutions gain traction, answer market needs and create new revenue streams. Involving employees and outsiders from different backgrounds when assessing future developments is a simple but effective way of covering your bases.

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Innovation is not a Buzzword

Posted by Gabriel Couture on March 31, 2016

In March of 2013, The Onion, a satire news organization, published a mock article with the title, “Word ‘Innovate’ Said 650,000 Times at SXSW So Far.” It was a comical and apt observation of what can be described as an era obsessed with innovation. It was true in 2013 and is more-so in 2016.

With the advent of tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist celebrities; the introduction of terms like startup, incubator and accelerator to our general vernacular; and the disruption of traditional industries like banking, transportation and hospitality among others, the emphasis on innovation and technology is revealing deeper socio-economic anxieties. The world is complex, competitive and evolving at exponential rates, and individuals and organizations need to deal with it.


The innovation race

The pace of change and ability of new businesses to completely alter the marketplace has led to our current state of affairs: an innovation race where the prize is nothing less than organizational survival. In response to the “disruptors,” older established companies have also joined the fray and are actively engaging in innovation. The problem is that not all of them are doing it well.

Dilbert comic

Many organizations are innovating for innovation’s sake; with no vision or clear objective in mind. It is a result of the pressure companies and their industries face. If everyone’s doing it, so should they! Ill-prepared, mismanaged and uninformed organizations often make awkward and sweeping decisions about investing in innovation based on the pressure they face instead of an internal desire to do so. In most cases, the consequence is a limited top-down approach seeking to produce something noteworthy or remarkable, which is not how successful innovation is accomplished.


Successful innovation

Companies like Apple and Google have successfully differentiated themselves from others by making innovation fundamental to their brand identity. Neither has an innovation department; instead, the promotion of problem-solving skills, creativity, and employee empowerment is celebrated across their workforces and innovation is embedded in their DNA. Both companies currently play an extensive role in shaping the current socio-economic discourse. They inspire us with their innovations and please us with their technologies and services. Today, stakeholders, users and customers value companies and services that anticipate and exceed their needs and expectations. Given a difficult and competitive marketplace, it is not surprising to see organizations of all kinds flock to the ‘fertile shores of innovation’.

Let it be known, innovation is hip, it is happening, and everyone is talking about it!

But innovation is not a buzzword, or a fad; it is not an empty shell of a term that means something different for everyone. Innovation is a necessary endeavour for continued success and relevance.

“IF YOU DEFER INVESTING YOUR TIME AND ENERGY UNTIL YOU SEE THAT YOU NEED TO, CHANCES ARE IT WILL ALREADY BE TOO LATE.” Clayton M. Christensen

At Hackworks, we meet with many individuals and organizations looking for solutions that will help them drive positive innovation in their workplaces. Some come prepared, but many are looking for answers, facing this world of exponential technologies and unsure about what needs to be done to successfully adjust to this new environment. Over the coming weeks, we will flesh out the reasons why you should be doing innovation in your workplace, how you should be doing so, and the various ways hackathons improve the likelihood you will successfully drive innovation and entrepreneurial thinking in your workplace.


The posts in our series will explore the following topics:

1. Controlling the conversation is controlling the marketplace: Innovation as a sculptor of socio-economic discourse.

2. Making use of underused capital: Why engaging your employees is a surefire way of improving your business.

3. How to avoid having the rug pulled from under your feet: Innovation as a means to remain relevant and agile in times of rapid change.

4. Why understanding your customer is the best way to effectively innovate: Successfully introducing your ideas to the marketplace is true innovation.

5. Innovating for a competitive advantage. The financial and professional benefits of creative problem solving and innovation.


Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for updates on future content and the posts outlined above.

Credit for the banner photo goes to Jessica Pankratz.

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Hacking civic engagement: a Code Across Toronto challenge

Posted by Gabriel Couture on March 11, 2016

I recently joined Hackworks as a Hackathon Manager, and moved from Montreal to Toronto. In order to familiarize myself with the Toronto hackathon community, I decided to participate in as many local hackathons as I could attend.

Participating in local hackathons is always a good way to meet new people, and having experience as a participant in a hackathon can be incredibly valuable when organizing one. With that in mind, I participated in Code Across Toronto 2016, an event organized by Civic Tech Toronto, in conjunction with Open Data Day, which gathers “citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption of open data policies by the world's local, regional and national governments.”

Code Across Toronto 2016:

Civic Tech Toronto is “a community of Torontonians interested in better understanding and finding solutions to civic challenges through technology, design or other means.” Participating in Code Across was a great way for me to engage with the local tech and civic-conscious community. The hackathon consisted of 9 challenges that were presented by different individuals and/or organizations in the city (“Challenge owners”).

I joined a challenge that wants to build a digital tool for Toronto citizens to track and understand what takes place in their city council:

  • the legislation introduced and passed
  • its committees and the meetings they hold
  • the councillors
  • And more

Shamefully, I must admit to barely following municipal politics. This seemed like a way for me to join in creating something that would help me address this situation.

The “Challenge Owners,” David J Hains, editor at Torontoist, and Patrick Connoly, introduced two platforms that are currently serving the needs of citizens who want to stay informed about municipal politics: TMMIS for Toronto, and Councilmatic, which services New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. I was unaware such services existed. It turns out there are tons of available openly accessible public data on what is taking place in our governments, and citizens are free to mine it, track it and organize it.

Currently, according to David and Patrick, Chicago is the best example of what the Councilmatic platform offers: a clean and relatively intuitive tool that grants access to diverse public datasets. The Toronto platform, TMMIS, is older and, despite still providing important information, somewhat more convoluted.

As I researched the Chicago site, I became excited about creating something new for Toronto that would increase my appetite for municipal politics. Our challenge was clear: how do you organize city data in such a way that it is efficiently organized and fun to browse through; that you can navigate easily even if you’re a political layperson; and perhaps most importantly, that encourages you to get involved in municipal matters? Admittedly, this is not an easy task.

I am not a developer, designer or a tech wiz. Neither am I particularly politically engaged. What surprised me most about my experience at Code Across Toronto 2016 was that neither were most of the other participants. It was a diverse group of curious Torontonians willing to try new things, meet and learn from others, and looking for opportunities to innovate.

The positive outcome from participating was more than I anticipated. From a professional perspective, identifying what I liked and disliked about the event and building my network of contacts was clearly beneficial. What’s most surprising to me is that I am now hooked. I am eagerly awaiting my next hackathon. I did not expect it. I was surprised by how diverse, sociable and fun the participants were. Most importantly, during the hacking, I felt good about how I participated and that increased confidence is directly translatable to my personal and professional life.

As Jim Stovall, a blind writer and motivational speaker, wrote:

“If we are not allowed to deal with small problems, we will be destroyed by slightly larger ones. When we come to understand this, we live our lives not avoiding problems, but welcoming them them as challenges that will strengthen us so that we can be victorious in the future.”

Hackathons might be the perfect way to accustom yourself with facing small problems!

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Hackworks partners with CIX

Posted by Patti Mikula on October 15, 2015

The Canadian Innovation Exchange is a leading technology innovation destination where investors, innovative companies, entrepreneurs and facilitators converge to drive economic growth and accelerate the development and implementation of new ideas.

This forum attracts the key players behind Canadian’s innovative technology products and services in order to learn from each other, meet and pursue customer partnerships and investment relationships, and encourage the development of innovative technology that will be an integral part of Canada’s economic growth. It also features the CIX Top 20, an exclusive showcase that celebrates Canada’s best innovations and the people behind them. Register today.

Hackworks members looking to attend the event are eligible to receive an exclusive discounted pass to Canadian Innovation Exchange 2015. Buy Yours today.

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Hackworks Launch

Posted by Patti Mikula on April 1, 2015

Today we are officially launching Hackworks. And while this may be the company’s public debut, Hackworks has actually been germinating and growing for over four years inside XMG Studio, and we didn’t even realize it.

Back in 2011, XMG was already reaping the benefits of running internal hackathons. In fact, XMG’s Cows vs Aliens game was a hackathon success story. Born out of a 48-hour hackathon, it went on to be downloaded millions of times and get one of Apple’s prized features. A quick search of the App Store to see how many “Cows vs…” games exist today should give you an indication of its impact on the market.

So when the XMG team was faced with the challenge of growing the studio in a hugely competitive recruiting environment, we created the Great Canadian Appathon (GCA), a 48-hour game development competition open to Canadian college and university students from coast-to-coast. It gave us the opportunity to meet talented developers, designers and artists from across the country, and also allowed us to give back to the gaming community we admired. The first GCA was a huge success with almost 100 teams competing for the $25,000 grand prize.

By 2013, the GCA had built quite a name for itself having been hosted on more than 45 College and University campuses across 10 provinces with over 1200 students participating making more than 250 games. It was at that point that the Honorable Tony Clement, who had been one of the GCA’s celebrity judges, approached the XMG team about running a national hackathon similar to the GCA, to encourage Canadian programmers, innovators and entrepreneurs to develop apps and websites based on Canada’s vast open data resources available through the federal Open Data portal.

This represented the turning point and, in my mind, marks the birth of Hackworks. In 2014, and then again in 2015, a team made up of both technically and marketing-minded individuals from across XMG planned and executed the company’s first non-gaming hackathon, in partnership with an external partner -- the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE).

CODE was the first hackathon supported by the Government of Canada and the original objective was to recruit 300 participants. CODE 2014 wrapped up with over 900 registrants, and CODE 2015 had over 1300. Apps and websites created by CODE participants helped Canadians find jobs, choose careers, find new places to settle, live healthier lives and create new business opportunities.

After our first CODE was over our phones started to ring. More and more companies were approaching XMG with the question “Can you host a hackathon for us too?” With that momentum driving us, we made the decision to take our team of hackathon experts from inside XMG and create a new, standalone company focused entirely on driving innovation through hackathons.

That takes us to today. Hackworks currently sits in a unique position. We are a brand new company, with years of experiencing in running hackathons. We evolved out of a tech startup, so we have a fundamental understanding of the development process and agile environments. But our team also has deep roots in marketing, public relations and event planning. We are driven by client needs and objectives, but at the core of all of our events is a focus on participant experience.

Most importantly we are excited by what the future holds and the role we can play in driving innovation, and helping launch new ideas, businesses and careers.

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Hackworks