Non-Technical Hackathons to Drive Innovation & Problem Solving

I am taking a bit of a departure from my last blog post about ESNs and the utility of the watercooler feature for remote workers because as we have moved through #MSLOC430, some other fascinating knowledge management and creation tools have really caught my attention, especially the idea of hackathon-esque events for innovation and problem solving within organizations. So what exactly is a hackathon? Google defines it as, “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.” While traditional hackathons have become quite popular (for instance there are a bunch of upcoming Chicago hackathon events), organizations should consider creating events inspired by hackathons for non-technical problems within an organization or department. While the vast majority of hackathons have been created to utilize coding or technology to overcome a challenge, they have occasionally been hosted for non-technical purposes. For instance, LinkedIn hosted a 16-hour non-technical hackathon for interns as part of its 2015 LinkedIn Festival. An organizational hackathon could almost be thought of as a case competition that is used outside of the academic context and instead explored within a real-world organizational context by the actual employees.

An organization-wide or department-wide hackathon could take many forms, depending on the organizational structure and the problem (or opportunity) that is being tackled. However, the tech industry standard of providing a fun environment, including an inspiring kickoff, and sustenance like pizza and energy drinks is an absolute must. This should really be seen for employees as an opportunity to get in touch with their creative side and get out of their work email inbox; it should be viewed as an alternative to another drab meeting and allow people to work out the solution either themselves, which might allow introverts a chance to shine in a way they normally wouldn’t in the traditional meeting context, or in small teams as a way to build deeper relationships and  build collaborative problem-solving skills, allowing teams to escape their normal workload. These hackathons could be instituted to solve an existing organizational problem or they could look to uncover a new opportunity or create innovation.

A non-traditional hackathon might provide numerous benefits, beyond the potential for crowdsourcing the most innovative solution or opportunity from all of the organization’s mind power (this Harvard Business Review article explores the power of competition for innovation within an organization). A hackathon also has the potential to build relationships if challenges are solved by teams or if an ESN is utilized for chat or group brainstorming. Existing hierarchies could also be challenged in a positive way, allowing bright thinkers that might not always have the chance to show off their intellect and problem solving skills based on their role within the organization a chance to really shine. It could give these employees a chance to show what they are capable of, perhaps shining a spotlight on those with unrecognized potential and slotting them into roles that are of better use for the organization and the employees. Organization-wide hackathons might also spinoff into mini hackathons around smaller problems that could eventually become communities of practice.

Organization-wide or department-wide hackathons are not without challenges. The most basic might simply be defining the challenge. The most important might be making sure that management is on board and that workloads are adjusted accordingly to allow for the time required – whether it be one workday or a full week. Without this, a hackathon will just cause stress and not allow for the creativity and mental fluidity required to create true innovation. A second challenge is making sure the correct structure is in place, such as deciding whether the hackathon will be solved individually or in teams (depending on the overarching goals of the hackathon), and if teams are utilized, deciding what those teams should look like. For instance, should hackathon teams be composed of existing team members, allowing them to deepen their team spirit and collaboration skills, or should the hackathon be seen as a way to build relationships across departments or regional boundaries (for instance requiring a marketing manager in New Jersey to work with another marketing manager in Bangalore or Nairobi)? Another challenge is making sure the right tools are in place to encourage collaboration, sharing of ideas, and sharing of the final submissions. Finally, the organization will need to decide how to incentivize employee involvement – will they make the hackathon a competition with monetary prizes or days off or will they simply use pride and recognition as an incentive?

What do you think? Would your organization benefit from a hackathon?

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