What Is A Hackathon?

Offers benefits for both large and small organizations


The term “hackathon” has become one of the latest buzz words in the tech world (mostly) however it is a concept that is now being adopted widely  by many different industries. Technically speaking a hackathon  describes an event that pools eager entrepreneurs and software developers into a confined space for a day or two (24hrs to 48hrs) and challenges them to create a cool killer app or at least a working propotype of the final product. A hackathon, mostly associated with developers or programmers, is built on principles that any business or organization can benefit from.

Many businesses are now employing the same principles used by hackathons to break through organizational inertia and instill more innovation-driven cultures. That’s because hackathons offer a “baptism by fire”: a short, intense plunge that assaults the senses and allows employees to experience creative disruption in a positive way. For large organizations in particular, hackathons can be adapted to greatly accelerate the process of digital transformation. Hackathons, in this context, then become less about designing new products and more about “hacking” away at old processes and ways of working. By giving management and others the ability to kick the tires of collaborative design practices, 24-hour hackathons can show that big organizations are capable of delivering breakthrough innovation at start-up speed.

5 Keys To Hackathon Success

  1. One goal in mind. A hackathon is focused on a single customer process or journey and supports a clear business target—for example, speed, revenue growth, or a breakthrough customer experience. The time confined to a hackathon (typically 1 or 2 days) is so short to bloat it out with many unrealistic goals and pursuits. Focus participants on a single goal for the hackathon that has the most meaning to the organization or targeted customer.
  2. Cross-pollinate. A hackathon is not just for the IT crowd. Hackathons bring together people from across the business to force different ways of working a problem. In addition to IT and top management, whose involvement as participants or as sponsors is critical, hackathon participants can include frontline personnel, brand leaders, user-experience specialists, customer service, sales, graphic designers, and coders.
  3. Start from scratch. Successful hackathons deliberately challenge participants to re-imagine an idealized method for addressing a given customer need, such as taking a paper-based, offline account-opening procedure and turning it into a simple, single-step, self-service online process.
  4. Concrete and focused on output. Hackathon sessions start with ideas but end with a working prototypes that people can see and touch, such as clickable apps or a 3-D printed product. Output also includes a clear development path that highlights all the steps needed, including regulatory, IT, and other considerations, to accelerate production and implementation.
  5. Iterative and continuous. When hackathons end, there is usually a surge of enthusiasm and energy. But that energy can dissipate unless management puts in place new processes to sustain the momentum. Therefore continuous follow-up work is required to solidify and release-to-market or to the end users, the products and prototypes that would have been created at the hackathon. Follow up hackathons may be scheduled in the near future.

Lastly, hackathons are not designed to solve a given a problem entirely by the end of the hackathon. Most organizational challenges take time to solve! Think of the hackathon as a pit-stop on a long journey to solve problems or as a training session to prepare participants for solving problems.

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