Good news first: No, you don’t need to learn coding! While the concept of Hackathons really has its origins in the IT world, it has evolved and become a pretty cool solution finding process, far beyond a classic workshop. Guided by an experienced Hackathon professional, we did a Hackathon ourselves to gather first-hand experience. As a result, here’s an idea of what Hackathons can do for you as a leader and HR professional.
That was probably the first thought in some heads when we started to work on the idea in September 2018. Wikipedia says:
A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a designed sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including domain experts, collaborate intensively on software projects
Transferred to fields outside of coding and IT challenges, a Hackathon is an intense event from several hours to several days where many people with the same interest but from different fields and professions come together to work on a solution. Putting aside the time framework, this explanation often triggers the question: What distinguishes hackathons from regular brainstorming project groups or even regular workshops? Firstly, the answer lies in the feeling and the spirit of a well-done Hackathon event and secondly, the process also is very different. Hackathons create a hustling and challenging atmosphere, an out-of-the-box-feeling and follow a certain framework and intriguing principles:
- You yourself are on the driver seat of change.
- Everyone is valuable.
- Have fun & experiment!
- Show! Don’t tell.
- Progress over perfection!
How to start a Hackathon event
Convinced by the concept, end of December we did our first internal hackathon event, tackling a tricky question that has bothered us for some time now: “How to simplify MDI?” To implement different perspectives, we invited all different MDI departments as well as our freelance trainers for the external view. In retrospective, inviting customers to the creation process would have been a great idea too.
As for lots of new things you want to try, it helps a lot to have an experienced facilitator guiding you. Our Hackathon expert was Toni Chung, not only guiding us through the method in order to help us find solutions for our challenging question but also introducing us to the didactics and benefits of hackathons for both leaders and HR professionals.
To begin with, we formed interdisciplinary groups which would work in a self-organized manner throughout the process. After that, the real hackathon journey began, which was divided into several milestones.
Hackathon steps and milestones
#1 Challenge Exploration
Linked to the overall question of the event, the first step for each group was to explore an own challenge. The different teams chose any topic they wanted to work on, based on current challenges they or others in the company face. As a result of this first step, we reunited in a plenum and presented the crucial challenge we chose and wanted to face during the whole hackathon day. So this was milestone 1.
#2 Ideation & Prototypes
In the next step we had to think about our ideations and to choose one of it to work on further. How did this look like? We collected ideas, made an analysis of all of them and picked the one with the most impact and feasibility for the initial question. After working on our first prototype we presented the results in the plenum again.
At noon we ordered some food and planned to have lunch together in our kitchen. But instead of sitting together at the table, something interesting happened: Everyone went back to their prototypes/solutions they worked on with their meal, since they were fascinated by their ideas.
After our lunch break we reunited again in the plenum and presented a further spot of our prototypes and ideas. It was highly interesting to observe the challenging atmosphere in the plenum sessions due to the fact that every team wanted to present and sell their ideas at its best. Furthermore the short time frame contributed positively to highlight the essential information of everybody’s own ideas.
#3 Demo Prototype
After receiving a short feedback from the other teams, every group started their last sprint session in order to work on further details and progress the prototype. Once again, one of the key principles “progress over perfection” shaped the atmosphere of the hackathon and had a main impact on solutions the team works on. Why is that so? Because you have to focus on what is really important and what makes your “product” unique.
At the end of the day, one final plenum session took place. Every hackathon group presented the solution for the individual challenge they defined for the day. Every team got 15 minutes to explain why and how the solution contributes positively to the daily business and who will benefit from it.
In fact, the aims grid was used to define and then present the following key indicators of the prototypes:
- What is the final result for? Why are we doing this?
- For whom are we doing this?
- How do we measure the end result?
- What should be the outcome until …
After each time slot the other groups got the opportunity to give feedback and ask questions which was an enrichment for the whole event due the professional exchange and further fruitful ideas for each project.
Hackathon in a nutshell – Core benefits
At the end of the day, one key learning was that a hackathon is much more than a solution finding method. It lives from the atmosphere it creates due to its sprints and its agile and autonomous working spirit. There were neither wrong ideas nor challenges. Every participant benefited from the interdisciplinary team compositions and different knowledge backgrounds.
So when you are looking for a creativity and solution finding method yourself, and want to try a Hackathon, here’s what you should do:
- Decide on a challenging questions that bothers your team or organization.
- Invite people with the most different backgrounds and job titles.
- Find yourself an experienced professional guiding you through the event.
And here is what you can get:
- A huge contribution to an innovative company culture spirit by applying a cool and out-of-the-box experience.
- A boost in employee motivation by actively listening to them and empowering them to drive change where and how they need it.
- A ton of both creative and tangible solution prototypes for any challenge bothering the growth or well-being of your team or organization.
We experienced it ourselves: Nothing is impossible within a hackathon – and this is also the spirit you feel during the event making the method outstanding. In terms of return on expectations we can proudly report that we already implemented some of the prototypes developed during the hackathon. One of them was even put into action the same day.
Although our hackathon was quite short – we only had six hours – it was very intense and challenging, fascinating and motivating to work nearly a whole day on an idea that can have a huge impact on the company. And considering the fact that hackathons often last from 2 days to 1 week (day and night), it is inconceivable how many other solutions could have been found or even have already been implemented. We can definitely say that the hackathon not only contributed to new solutions, but as well to a strong team- and “let’s put this into action”-spirit. It is especially recommendable for different teams with the same stakeholders, who are facing a certain challenge they want to solve in an innovative way.
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