It is easy to dismiss hackathons as a fashionable management fad. But allow yourself a moment to re-consider. It’s clear they can be a very useful approach for challenging and re-designing how organisations work.
Hackathons, also known as hack days, hackfests or codefests – just in case you were in any doubt where the concept came from – typically last between a day and a week. They usually have a specific focus (e.g. develop a solution to solve problem X), within certain constraints (e.g. programming language), and an expectation of how evolved the solution should be by the end of the hackathon.
The result is each group presenting their ideas or prototypes to a judging panel. Prizes or funds are then awarded to the winners. The rest get “swag” – free giveaways such as t-shirts or pens, in addition to the pizzas.
Why should I care? We don’t need a new app
Historically, organisations have used hackathons to develop new product ideas for their customers – such as Facebook Chat1 – but more organisations are using this approach to tackle wider problems.
This time last year, McKinsey Quarterly noted that hackathons “are less about designing new products and more about hacking away at old processes and ways of working”2.
Designed right, hackathons provide a high energy, focused approach to tackling thorny organisational challenges. They bring together diverse teams that would not normally collaborate, all bound to a specific outcome at the end of the “hack”.
People we talk to often feel frustrated at the lack of progress in their organisation and at their inability to engage others to help make things better. The informal, all-in-it-together approach of a hackathon is a great springboard to renew a sense of opportunity and creativity. It also comes with obvious ancillary benefits for individuals and teams in building relationships and developing new skills.
Is this something which is genuinely new?
There are similarities between hackathons and GE’s well-established “Work-Out” process from the 80s. People from across GE are challenged to “bust bureaucracy and attack organisational problems”3.
At the end of the Work-Out a panel of senior decision makers gave a go/no-go decision, and ensured the winning teams had the resources and support they needed to go and make change happen.
GE rolled out the approach. It drove major productivity improvements and significant cost savings across the organisation. The estimated payback was over 10 times the investment3.
The purpose of a Work-Out or a hackathon is primarily to solve problems. But it also creates an on-going capability to continuously improve how the organisation works.
As Jack Welch recounted in his autobiography “Work-Out helped us to create a culture where everyone began playing a part, everyone’s ideas began to count, and leaders led rather than controlled”4.
From the 80s to now
A recent example of a hackathon tackling a business problem was LinkedIn. They hosted a “non-technical hackathon” last summer for people to come together to solve employee engagement challenges5.
“Management Hackathons” is another increasingly referenced term. It usually involves a large scale theme, or problem within which multiple “mini hacks” are run.
The CIPD ran an online hackathon with a theme of “Hacking HR to build an adaptability advantage”. A wide range of ideas developed from the “mini hacks”. One example particularly close to our heart was “Chuck out your Chintz” – a hack for radically simplifying HR processes6.
Takeaway: The important thing is not the name, or whether it’s a big hack or a mini hack. It’s about providing a focused, energising platform for developing real solutions to real organisation problems.
A big thank you to ‘the techies’ for showing the rest of us that with the right frame, we have the ability to rapidly solve organisational problems.
1 Facebook All-Night Hackathons, Facebook
2 Demistifying the Hackathon, McKinsey Quarterly, Oct 2015
3 GE Work-Out, How to implement GE’s revolutionary method for busting bureaucracy and attacking organizational problems – fast!, Ulrich, Kerr, Ashkenas, 2002
4 Jack: Straight from the Gut, Jack Welch, 2001
5 LinkedIn HR Hackathons , LinkedIn
6 CIPD HR hackathon, CIPD, UK