Hackathons – 3 tips for getting started quickly

It’s official: hackathons aren’t just for developers and entrepreneurs anymore. Now, corporations are lining up to use them as a means of developing ideas and driving engagement around innovation programs.

Here’s an example from this month – just one of many. NBCUniversal held a successful hackathon in London June 6th & 7th – the winning results are already posted here.

And yet…despite the buzz, many corporate leaders instinctively feel that organizing hackathons might not work for them, either because hackthons would be too time-consuming, and/or would create a distraction from other innovation and ideation efforts. In fact, several audience members from our recent 8 programs of engagement webinar expressed hesitation about hackathons. Some didn’t even know what a hackathon is…

At Imaginatik, we’ve been helping clients with hackathons for more than five years. Our experience is that hackathons are actually quite simple, and your company can start organizing them without much difficulty – even if you have no previous experience. Hackathons don’t need to feel mysterious or intimidating. In fact, they’re an excellent place to start building a deeper ideation and innovation rhythm across your organization.

Let’s start with what a hackathon actually is: a dedicated effort to co-locate a large number of people to build or “hack” creative solutions to vexing business or technology problems. Hackathons typically happen in a short, focused bursts of activity – often over 3 days during a weekend – in which participants work intensively on small teams to build their “hacks”. Hacks are then judged based on pre-determined criteria and incentives are usually awarded. The key is creating an environment where you’re tapping into the intrinsic passion of the community, by focusing your hackathon on something that is really cool and really hard to achieve. This is key because most hackathon participants are deeply driven by peer recognition for their cool hacks.

NBCUniversal used their hackathon program as a way to connect with technology startups, entrepreneurs, and people who could push their brand in new directions. This was a full scale, public event sponsored by their Media Labs CTO. They committed fully to the effort and were rewarded with an expanded technology ecosystem, several great ideas, and valuable lessons learned in advance of the competition.

Sound too intimidating for your company? What if you simply started with your current technology teams, plus existing technology partners already working with your company and technology students from current university partners? That should be a much easier proposition, and just as valuable as a first step.

Here are three simple steps to get you started down a quick-start path:

1. Collaborate with your key business units. What are the technology challenges they’re facing? Where could connecting with new technologies boost their revenues? If they had access to entrepreneurial technologists for 48 hours, what are the key things they’d ask them to work on?
2. Break down internal barriers. Socialize this concept with those who are most likely to say “no” if you were to conduct a hackathon on a grand, global scale. Make your journey their journey – let them ask questions, push back and tell stories of their own lessons learned.
3. Set a date. Nothing drives decisions around a new way of working better than a deadline. If this is your first hackathon, give yourself enough time for thorough planning, stakeholder alignment, and communications development. We recommend 4 months so you’ll have three months to plan and can still announce the hackathon about 30 days prior to the actual event.

If you’re smart about how you approach your early hackathon efforts, you’ll be able to get started quickly, while also giving yourself extremely good odds of creating visible successes right from the first try.

Need help getting started? Give us a call. Already off and running? We’d love to hear your hackathon stories!

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