Learning how to run a hackathon is not too difficult. Hackathons are usually fast paced events in which people come together, often led by a coach, to quickly solve a problem, develop a solution or create a new product or process. The name derives from coding, but is now more widely used for any collective effort to build or improve something.

Summary by The World of Work Project

What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is a fast paced and time bound collective effort to create a solution for a specific problem. They can also help create a solution to a specific opportunity.

They may involve all participants working as a single team. However, they often involve separate teams competing to find the best solution. Hackathons often end with the different teams pitching their ideas to a group of judges who decide which ones will be implemented. Solutions may be implemented by the hack team, or passed on to others.

As is fairly clear from the name, the term hackathon originated from the world of coding. Originally groups of coders would get together to solve specific programming related challenges. While the phrase is still used in this space, hackathons are now used in other parts of the world of work as well.

Hackathons can be quite detailed, or less detailed.

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How To Run A Hackathon

For hackathons to be effective, there are several factors that it is worth considering:

The Problem Statement

Effective hackathons address specific and genuine problem or opportunity statements. Getting these statements clearly defined is very important. If you don’t have clear statements, those involved in the hackathon might go off and solve the wrong problem.

Companies often ask their employees to suggest statements, using a specific format. Once suggestions are received, they are prioritized (see ease / benefit matrix) before one is selected to work on.

Appropriate Sponsorship

A sponsor might check in on a hackathon to see how everyone is doing.

Statements are only ever effectively solved when they have an senior business sponsor who will champion them and who has the ability to make decisions and allocate resources.

Before any statement is hacked, you must ensure you have sponsor agreement to progress. You should also be as clear as possible about the potential resources available to support a solution.

The Participants (your Hackers)

You really need to have the right people taking part in your hackathon if you are to create good solutions. Typical participants are a mix of subject matter experts and generalists, all of whom have a vested interest in the statement. Hackathon teams usually have between 2 and 8 members with a range of seniorities and skill-sets.

The Coach or Facilitators

To get the best results from your hackathon you may wish to provide one coach per team. You can think of these coaches as agile coaches or facilitators if that’s helpful.

Your coaches should facilitate and support team conversations, challenging where required and maintaining momentum. Your coaches may migrate between your teams, or may stay with a single team.

The Venue

The location you choose for your hackathon will affect the quality of the results achieved. You need to ensure that you have enough space and the right resources (whiteboards, computers, projectors as required), but you also want to have a creative, inspiring and welcoming space to aid creativity. 

A great venue for ice-hockey, a rubbish one for a hackathon.

The Process

To run a successful hackathon you should follow a process suited to your organization and statement. This may involve structured, time-bound problem solving, be built on concepts like design thinking or agile, or may be more free form.

Whichever process you choose, your participants should understand it. To help make sure this is the case you may wish to roll-out relevant training to them in advance of the hackathon, or may wish to start the hackathon with an overview of the process you will use.

The Culture

You might want to start your hack with an icebreaker to help set the tone.

The unspoken culture, “the way we do things here”, affects every hack. Successful hackathons require a culture that is fear free, values creativity, empowers individuals, celebrates trying new things and accepts failure as a step towards success.

There is no way you can change your culture just for the day, but activities such as creating a “team-contract” (which we’ve yet to write about) (which captures how everyone is expected to work on the day) may help. It’s essential that any leaders who are present at a hackathon role-model desired, helpful behaviors.

The “Pitch” and Next Steps

As we noted earlier, once teams have completed a hack they each usual present back a proposal for next steps to a deciding panel or leader. This is a great development opportunity for the teams, and also a great way for leaders to understand and decide between a range of proposals.

Sponsors should listen to each pitch and then decide on next steps.

Regardless of whether a group of hacks or a single hack is taking place, leaders should celebrate success, reinforce the desired culture and decide which solutions to take forward. While the solutions produced by hackathons are a key output, they’re not the only output. The learning and development of those taking part, as well as the contribution towards shaping an organizations culture are also important.

Learning More

We’ve written a little on cultures and leadership for innovation as well as facilitation more generally. You might also enjoy our post on problem solving. We’ve recorded a podcast on that topic as well, which you can listen to below:

The World of Work Project View

Hackathons can be very effective at both solving real problems and bringing people together. They can also be disruptive, frustrating and unproductive.

They’re most effective when there is a genuine business need or opportunity, a clear problem / opportunity statement, an experienced coach and an enthusiastic set of participants who feel genuinely empowered to create a solution.

We recommend starting with smaller hacks before trying to tackle large issues in this way. Depending on the culture and mix of your team, you may want to simply refer to them as “group problem solving” sessions. You may also need to train leaders to effectively enable and support them.

Our overall view on hackathons is that they’re good ideas that work well when everyone involved in them understands how they work and why they are doing them.

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This post is based on our experience of using hackathons in the world of work and some general reading. There are no specific references for it.

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