Product Architect | Tech Inventor | Entrepreneur
If run properly, a series of hackathons can establish a stream of valuable ideas. It can also have a significant cultural effect within your team, potentially awakening a experimentation and innovation mindset
This article will explain different types of hackathons. It will discuss objectives, success criteria, and other important considerations.
According to Wikipedia, a hackathon is defined as “ … a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects”
In practice it is frequently used to describe any idea-generation initiative with or without functional software deliverable.
My own definition would be:
An intensive, software-centric ideation, prototyping and presentation challenge on known or unknown problems or opportunities
Intensive in the above definition implies a time-boxed process asking participants for the ‘impossible’ — to come up with novel solutions to particular problems or innovative ideas and prototypes regarding new business opportunities.
Hackathons are technology-driven and primarily about software — hence the software-centric element in the definition. A Hackathon is very demanding on participants — it requires not only great technical and coding skills but also ideation and presentation skills.
Participants are asked to come up with great ideas, formulate a prototype and prioritize wisely; then self-organize and execute — do quick research, prepare resources, write code, reuse existing components and systems and finally prepare a presentation — all in time-boxed scenario. The Hackathon may be focusing on known problems or business opportunities or technologies (stated upfront) or it could be open to any ideas with no particular constraints.
Check also: How to become a great Product Manager
Having a clear definition of your hackathon event (style, processes, objectives, awards) is key for its success. The major attributes defining your hackathon are:
Typically, a Hackathon event is expected to deliver at least a set of interesting, novel ideas. Ideally, there should be a few outstanding concepts, possibly with a prototype and quick proof of the concept/technology involved.
Beyond the obvious objective — to generate high-value actionable business ideas and product concepts— there is another aspect related to the team dynamics and the innovation mentality: a great hackathon should boost the innovation culture and further establish the idea-sharing, effective collaboration and creativeness driven by enthusiasm towards a shared goal.
Employees have a great opportunity to discover technologies, teams and demonstrate their skills and talents outside their typical job description; Corporations have the opportunity to identify talent, experience powerful teams being setup and capture valuable feedback.
Success criteria depend on the particular context — business, industry, size of the corporation, timing etc. In all cases though KPIs can be defined on some or all of the following:
Check also: How to Win the Hackahon
Hackathons typically have a lead time — a preparation phase, from the announcement of the event to the actual ‘hack-time’, as explained below:
This is about communicating the event to the employees, attracting attention and enabling formal registration of interest.
As soon as the Hackathon is announced, employees should have a sufficient lead time — typically a few weeks- to explore ideas, technologies, teams and resources. This is an informal preparation phase which should be supported by proper tools (systems to enable employees to structure their ideas, projects, teams; communicate their effort, ask for advice or help). In all cases you should:
This is where the magic happens — teams working intensively to align their ideas, define the ‘product’, execute, review, iterate; the most exciting and creative part of the hackathon where employees forget their formal roles and titles and self-organize focusing on their mission: to create something novel and impactful. Depending on the definition of each event, there might be a video pitch requirement, a live pitching of the idea or a live demo of the product/ prototype. In all cases the importance of effectively presenting the work done is critical. You should also:
Valid deliverables submitted by the teams are being assessed based on the protocol of the particular event. This could involve a voting process across the corporation, a panel of experts analyzing certain aspects of each project, or a combination of both. In certain cases, actual customers could also be involved and provide feedback to projects. Be mindful of the following:
Depending on the structure of the particular event, there could a be a single winning team or multiple winners can be named across different categories. Selecting the award for each case is also a very significant aspect of the Hackathon — typically awards are monetary (for example a bonus), symbolic (plaques, cubes, title), or a piece of technology/device.
The most important though from a developer’s point of view is resources and sponsorship to drive the product/idea to the next stage. This could be the most inspiring award of all — the ability for the winning team to use specialized resources (developers, equipment, software, services) — according to a suitable plan — and get prepared for a formal presentation of the outcome to the senior stakeholders, leaders and decision makers. This type of award can drive impressive success stories of ‘hackathon projects moving to production’ and attach additional purpose to the event.
Hackathons are expected to generate actionable ideas (for example features for an existing product), strategic product concepts (a new product to consider and further experiment with) and process improvements (novel, more efficient ways to do things).
At the team level, Hackathons provide a great way to inspire teams and promote creativity, collaboration and innovative thinking. Programmed in the right way, hackathons can drive an important cultural shift within the team: the experimentation & innovation mindset.
A gamification layer on top of hackathons can further motivate and reward employees for being innovative while staying aligned with the strategy of the corporation.
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