Not long ago, corporate leaders thought that the greatest opportunity to leave the competition behind was to invest heavily in internal R&D and carry out all innovation activities behind closed doors, until new products were mature enough and ready to be launched to the market. It was believed that only those companies would be able to keep up with the pace of change and innovation.
Today, the situation is quite different. Companies have moved from inward-focused, ‘closed’ innovation to open innovation where valuable ideas can come from both inside as well as outside the company encouraging the use and exchange of external ideas, technologies, knowledge, talent and resources. In part, this can be achieved through the organization of co-creation events that are often referred to as hackathons.
What is a hackathon?
Let’s get one thing straight. You don’t have to be a “hacker” to participate in a hackathon. These events have nothing to do with that dubious practice or illegal activities. Instead, they bring together technical professionals, split them into teams and pitch these teams against one another for one or two intense days. The main goal is to create something new, or solve a tricky problem in a unique and inventive manner. It could be an app, a robot or a new business model. The sky’s the limit.
A hackathon is an event with an element of competition, where participants work in teams over a set and short period of time to ideate, collaborate, design, rapidly prototype, test, iterate and pitch their solutions to a determined challenge. They are time-limited events and best fit the earliest stages of the lean innovation process, where the market is unknown or not yet well-defined, and many ideas are welcome to be tested.
Once the domain of the start-up culture, hackathons are a fun way to push boundaries and think laterally. Mark Zuckerberg famously gave hacking challenges for hiring people to Facebook (right GIF is a scene from the movie The Social Network after someone just won the hackathon).
For large organizations in particular, hackathons are adapted to greatly accelerate the process of digital transformation. They are less about designing new products and more about “hacking” away old processes and ways of working, and find and recruit digital tech talent.
Hackathon: Design thinking in action
Corporate hackathons usually follow a design thinking methodology to guide the teams through the day(s). Design thinking works extremely well in the business hackathon setting, because it starts by deep-diving into the problem (challenge) through user interviews, observation and research. This provides strong foundations, rooted in real, human needs, to build ideas and prototypes on.
" Design thinking refers to creative strategies designers use to solve complex problems in a collaborative manner. The design thinking process is structured into five-phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test."
Design thinking processes proposed for a two-day hackathon event:
Empathize: Participants conduct a preliminary research on the topic and engage with end-users and other stakeholders through interviews.
Define: Teams try to make sense of what they just learned through the interviews and research, by defining the problem they are going to address. While the hackathon provides the challenge, the underlying problem is identified through the analysis of data collected in the Empathize phase.
Ideate: Teams start brainstorming about potential ideas that could solve that problem and continue by ranking these ideas. This stage is not so much about the quality, but rather about the quantity of ideas. This is where teams should explore anything from conventional to entirely blue-sky options.
Iterate & Prototype: What follows is a series of iterations, where teams start by developing a prototype for the selected idea, before testing it with the stakeholders apply final modifications.
Pitch: Presentation of final prototype to the judges and selection of the hackathon winner.