Opinion

Peter Paterson
Executive Director

Hackathons are a fantastic way to solve business problems and develop product prototypes much faster than a typical operational cycle would allow, but they only deliver real benefits if they’re carefully planned and well executed.

 

Based on our experience running successful hackathons across a variety of sectors, these are the five factors that determine whether your hackathon will live up to its potential:

 

1. You’ve identified the PROBLEMS that need to be solved

There’s a misconception that hackathons are just a fun day out of the office and that nothing comes from them, but this is only true if you haven’t identified real business problems that you intend to solve during this process.  Choosing well understood problems that people in the organisation are passionate about solving is a fundamental part of preparing for a hackathon. Solving these problems should deliver real value to the business – there’s no point in taking on someone’s pet project that nobody else is interested in.  They also need to be solvable within the time available – big problems should be broken down into smaller elements so that they don’t overwhelm the teams working on them.

 

2. Everyone understands the PROCESS

A successful hackathon requires a lot of preparation before the event.  Once the stakeholders have identified the business problems that the hackathon will aim to solve, they need to establish who will participate in the process and determine how the outcomes from the hackathon will be taken forward after the event.  It’s also advisable to hold a pre-event briefing with all the participants to explain the process and even let them choose their teams and the challenges they will aim to solve on the day. This helps ensure that the event itself is as productive as possible.

  

The actual hackathon might be as short as 7 hours or span several days and can include anything from 10 to hundreds of participants, but the basic format is generally the same.  Teams split up to work on their problems and develop prototypes of their solutions with the support of facilitators who both help with administrative needs and also act as advisors – coaching participants to overcome challenges and ensuring that they’re constantly progressing.  At the end of the hackathon each team presents their work to a panel of judges who choose the winning solution, which may be developed further after the event.

 

3. You’ve got the right mixture of PEOPLE involved

Getting the right people involved in your hackathon is key to its success – but it’s not just the selection of participants that’s important.  

The stakeholders that organise the hackathon have an enormous impact on the event as they decide which problems the hackathon will address and are responsible for making sure that the rest of the business buys into, and participates in, the process.  This steering committee tends to include people with roles focussed on technology and innovation, who understand the game-changing potential of producing new products and services as well as subject matter experts from the business who have a vested interest in solving the challenges.  

 

Contrary to popular belief, hackathon teams aren’t made up solely of techies and should also include people that have a user-centric perspective, understand the broader business and have experience in product design.  Getting the right mix of participants in each team is important to bring a broad range of perspectives and thinking and ensures that they solve the actual problem and not what you think the problem is. Inviting people from outside of your organisation is another particularly effective way to challenge entrenched ways of thinking, and individuals can also wear more than one hat – so one team member may be a product design specialist who is also from outside of your organisation.

 

Your panel of 4-5 judges should be made up of people that will assess the products from different viewpoints and, if multiple organisations are involved in your hackathon, will probably include senior representatives from each of these companies.  It’s important that one of your judges is the most senior stakeholder in the process, not only because they will decide which solution gets taken forward, but because their involvement demonstrates the importance of the event to everyone involved.

 

4. You’ve found a suitable PLACE

The most important factor in choosing a venue for your hackathon is finding a space where teams can focus exclusively on the hackathon problem.  The outside world needs to be completely blocked out so that participants aren’t distracted from the task at hand. In addition, the venue should provide a single space big enough to accommodate all the participants together, as well as enough separate areas for teams to work independently without disturbing each other.  The ideal location is an informal, creative space with a mixture of areas for teams to work and interact with lots of wall space to capture and document thinking and ideas.

 

5. Everyone’s got the right PERSPECTIVE

Hackathons aren’t as complicated or intimidating as they’re often portrayed to be – they simply provide an approach to rapid prototyping.  Nor should this process of innovation be seen as one-off; they can be adopted as a regular method to solving business problems. The goal at the end of the event is not to win prizes or accolades but to develop something that has the potential to make a real difference to the business.  To do that, you need to create an environment where it’s OK to fail, because discovering what doesn’t work is part of the journey towards finding what does.

 

By taking these five “P’s” into account you should have everything you need to run a successful hackathon – but, getting started with one is often the hardest hurdle to overcome.  We’ve worked with some top profile organisations to understand their business problems and get them set up for a fast-paced innovation event.