Mentioning the word ‘hackathon’ would have scared the life out of many managers in the past. A group of youngsters combining their programming skills to disrupt a process or a company was not something managers could identify themselves with.

Hackathons, a combination of the words “hack” (in the meaning of exploratory programming, not computer crime) and “marathon”, are typically seen as interactive power sessions of one or two days where eager tech entrepreneurs and software developers combine forces to create new apps. Yet hackathons aren’t just for the start-up tech crowd.

Large companies, such as Cognizant, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix, hold internal hackathons to promote new product innovation by the engineering staff and break through organizational inertia. For example, Facebook’s Like button was conceived as part of a hackathon. At Apple, Steve Jobs demanded a working environment of his software engineers that could easily be described as a perpetual hackathon ‘Avant la Lettre’.

Nowadays large organizations not only use hackathons for innovation but increasingly also see it as a means to greatly accelerate the process of digital transformation. By its nature of short powerful change and innovate session, hackathons enable large organizations to innovate processes and products at the speed of startups. Hackathons can, therefore, be critical enablers for thriving business with speed and agility. Innovating at the speed of startups however also requires a different mindset. Large organizations traditionally avoid failure whereas startups embrace the principle of ‘fail fast, succeed faster’ and accept failure as part of the development process.

A hackathon differs from brainstorming sessions in that it is all about results and jump-starting a way of working, not just idea generation. However, done well, it can help reduce the time to market of a new product or service by 25 to 50 percent.
The structure of a hackathon is simple: a briefing followed by an inspiration session, followed by team building and the first ideation. Ideas are then converted into a number of options by prototyping and another round of inspiration sessions. Further development leads to a working prototype that is presented/pitched to stakeholders, followed by an evaluation.

We have seen and experienced hackathons in various shapes. The best hackathons share several characteristics. They are:

Structured approach: besides a specialized moderator it is essential to start from basic insight in the current business model, processes, and its IT interaction. Starting from scratch may seem to offer unlimited possibilities but knowledge of what can be changed and what effect changes have on the remainder of the business process is essential and often leverages the hackathon from a teambuilding event to tangible outcomes. Baseline however still is that everything can and should be challenged.
Cross-functional teams: Combining internal and external business- and technology expertise. Participants can include frontline personnel, brand leaders, user-experience specialists, customer service, sales, graphic designers, and programmers. Participation or sponsorship by top management is critical for the adoption of results. The teams are supported and guided by inside and outside industry experts. That variety of participants forces a range of perspectives while paying notice new developments from inside and outside the industry.
Clearly defined target: setting a target -for example, increase speed, revenue or customer experience- gives direction and increases cooperation. Improving a single end to end process requires a customer journey: from customer to systems, starting with the customer experience and moving through various organizational and process steps that come into play to deliver on that interaction and the complete customer journey.
Concrete and focused on output. Sessions start with ideas but end with a working prototype that people can see and touch, such as clickable apps, new audio speaker concepts or a 3-D printed product. The session ends with a pitch to the management including a real-life demonstration of the new prototype and a roadmap to product launch.
Part of the organization: When hackathons end, there is usually a peak of enthusiasm and energy. But that energy can fade unless management puts in place new processes to sustain the momentum. Digital transformation is the latest race without a finish. Innovation must be embedded in the central organizational structure.

Hackathons make the process of digital transformation feel more concrete and open up creative thinking towards what’s next in a really practical way. Whatever challenge is, hackathons can be an effective way to accelerate the adoption and implementation of innovative solutions and drive digital transformation.

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