Hackathons are popping up everywhere nowadays. It used to be a useful leg up to disruptive technologies, but nowadays more and more industries use the concept to improve existing processes, enforce an innovation culture or invent new products. A hackathon is a unique tool for inspiration and disruption, often based on design thinking principles. These events can be really useful when you want to come up with disruptive (technological) solutions. Also it’s a great meeting place for students, small businesses and enterprises; it has potential to attract young talent and identify leaders. But frankly, a critical marginal note, how fair are contestants treated by the parties that commission the topics?
What is a hackathon?
A hackathon is a work marathon of mostly 24 up to 48 hours to build or design solutions from scratch. Public hackathons – that represent about 75% of the total number of hackathons – connect entrepreneurs, students and software developers, where internal hackathons unite colleagues with diverse skills throughout the organisation. Nowadays the hackathon approach is not only used by start-ups to accelerate their technology, but also by businesses to break through organisational inertia and engage people in a more innovation-driven organisational culture. This means not all events aim for coding solutions. A lot of them focus on a certain domain, like for example environmental issues, healthcare problems and public safety concerns, irrespective whether the submitted issues are solved by technology or not.
Missing the point
Unfortunately too often hackathons are approached as fun outings and the results are frequently of little use. The context of the theses often are a too open to develop a specific tailored solution.
Currently the sponsors that set out the assignments and/or delivers relevant datasets profit hugely from participants, since compared to the value of a good idea the price money is often a ridiculous farce. I have been involved in hackathons as an observer and as a coach, and have seen how incredible smart many outcomes are. The thing is, especially at public events, participants often seem to be uninformed or unconcerned about intellectual property. They don’t seem to understand that their knowledge and creativity that could be worth a fortune is up for grabs.
In how many cases have end results actually been implemented ‘as is’ in practise by the parties that commission the topics? Have you ever seen a hackathon winning solution been launched as the actual concept and with the purpose it was developed for? Ultimately the involved sponsors will run off with the ideas to use it as a vital link in their own business. Again, for only little money in ratio to what it’s worth. Hackathons would much more effective if participants would be given the opportunity to further develop their ideas within a sponsors company. Their fresh look and way of thinking could deliver state-of-the-art solutions that companies initially wouldn’t have because they are set in their habits and suffer from tunnel vision.
Three reasons to say ‘go’ to hackathon events
Collect ideas for new solutions
New ideas are the most obvious benefit. Not end-to-end solutions, but snippets that make you think differently about you product or service. The most important part of getting new ideas is that it should be about what your user needs. It all involves around the empathy of that user, his or her pain points. So the ideas should be about what you are trying to solve for them. New views, knowhow and team synergy could do that trick.
Improve processes in digital transformation
Many processes have been in place like forever, and aren’t suitable for the fast pace of change. According to McKinsey, “hackathons can be adapted to greatly accelerate the process of digital transformation. They are less about designing new products and more about “hacking” away at old processes and ways of working.”. Digital transformation is a huge cause of disruption. Processes mostly weren’t set up for changing business models. A hackathon could deliver the right line of approach to shed light on an entangled IT infrastructure.
Unlock an innovation culture
Changing work location can be invigorating. Especially off-site locations provides employees relief from their day-to-day routine. Interacting with different colleagues than usual and performing different tasks people aren’t too familiar with yet can be a trigger for creative thinking. It might let them think boldly and open their minds to different ideas. And keep in mind, hackathons can be great to recruit new talent!
The bigger picture: design thinking
Almost every hackathon starts with a workshop or meetup on design thinking. Why is this method considered so powerful? I’ve read many definitions of design thinking, but the one formulated by IDEO founder David Kelley I found the most suitable: “A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
Design thinking is useful for hackathons, because it is a process by which groups can collaboratively explore opportunities. It focusses on building ideas up instead of dissecting it. The design thinking method has three building blocks that altogether put the focus back on the customer: people, technology and business. It helps you to see the bigger picture and define what will truly make a difference.
Involve participants in further development
So, hackathons can be valuable for several purposes. Whether you like to use the hackathon model to scope out existing processes, an innovation culture or new products, it could open doors that will have a disruptive impact. But it’s crucial that although participants subscribe to be a part of a hackathon, their meddling in the presented issues are approached as collaboration. Only then an idea can be carried out as it was set out to and the reward of winning ideas becomes fair!
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