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Unlock your team’s creativity: running great hackathons

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Creative, talented employees have awesome ideas, but chances are they rarely have enough time to actually try them out and find out which ones are worth pursuing. To allow their imagination to run free and spur creative innovation, companies need to create space and opportunities for employees to try out crazy new proposals. That’s why every so often, we regularly set aside some time to build a small, ad-hoc team around an idea, brainstorm, design, hack and share what we discovered.

A hackathon shifts the routine, gets people out of their comfort zone, and allows decisions to be made quickly. It creates new leadership opportunities, a chance to experiment, and an invitation to innovate. For our teams it’s also resulted in new products, new applications of emerging technologies, and important new cross-team collaborations. While not every hackathon will result in new products or features, we always find value in the learning and exploring that occurs.

Here are our tips for setting up a successful hackathon at your workplace:

Get support from your management and executive leadership.

A hackathon requires asking people to set aside their normal work for a few days (or a whole week) and that will impact the short-term ability to progress toward quarterly or annual goals. Make sure your leadership actively support the hackathon and its goals, so the team isn’t getting mixed messages about the trade-offs involved.

Your leaders also need to set the scene for the hackathon itself: what’s our goal for this hackathon, and what is expected from participants? This is a perfect time to emphasize the opportunity for risk-taking, crazy ideas, new technology experiments and creativity. A hackathon gives leaders the opportunity to empower the team to make decisions, tackle problems in new ways, and fail spectacularly.

Some of those failures can teach you more about your own process, infrastructure and tooling than successful efforts might—allowing the entire organization to become more efficient and productive. In other words, hackathons may only result in learning, not fantastic new product ideas; it’s a gamble, but a good one to take.

Get the right people in the room.

The magic of a hackathon is it encourages your teams to mix and work with new people, so they aren’t just coding with the folks they work with every day. Gather experts in a variety of relevant subject areas (machine learning, privacy, cloud storage, mobile development, etc.) to act as advisors and technology problem solvers, so teams don’t burn time trying to learn new technology from scratch.

Organize, organize, organize.

Organizing and running the hackathon takes its own big chunk of work. We set aside one or two large spaces for presentations and team formation. We set up an internal website to gather information and publicize, and get fun swag items that encourage participation and act as mementos or trophies. In the end we evaluate projects by voting, and award prizes to the top teams.

Real collaboration happens best face to face, and everyone being in the same room allows for free-flowing conversation. We’ve usually coordinate simultaneous hackathons at multiple different office sites, to minimize travel time and open up participation to folks on the greater team, regardless of their location.

Prepare your hackers by giving prompts in advance.

We’ve found a variety of prompts and brainstorming exercises to help leading up to the hackathon, so people can hit the ground running when the week starts. For example, you can ask people to finish the sentences:

  • I wish I could …

  • How might we …

  • If only I could take time to fix …

  • It’s such a pain that …

  • Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if …

These prompts can help push people to think outside their normal scope of work. They might experiment with changes to commonly used processes or tools, or try to solve an existing business problem in a totally novel way. We sometimes see teams organize around work that removes a cumbersome task they have to do but don’t want to, or something they can’t do but wish they could.

You may want to schedule tech talks in the week or two before the hackathon, to get people thinking or inspire new ideas. These can cover new technologies you want to explore (augmented reality, deep learning, new wireless protocols), unsolved problems that need attention, or basics of a platform or piece of infrastructure that’s likely to be used by many teams.

Next up

I’ll be back with part two next week, covering advice for forming groups, sharing ideas and showcasing the results of your time hacking.

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