Want to Increase Collaboration? Run a Hackathon.

post it and table

Want to increase collaboration inside your organization? Perhaps also get something long overdue done? Maybe build your culture along the way? I strongly encourage you to consider running a hackathon.

I first heard the term “hack” applied to designing or creating something in business from serial CMO, Cammie Dunaway. She described a “hack day” where her team would spend a whole day creating a plan to beat the company they worked at as if they were in a startup trying to do so. Cammie said, “Every employee brings an idea that challenges the status quo.” They used the ideas to improve their own strategy. She added, “When team building meets innovation, the results can amaze.”

The next time I heard of something similar was from then head of Philips Electronics’ consumer division, Andrea Ragnetti, who put in place an around-the-world “simplicity day.” Andrea said, “We stopped the company for a ‘simplicity day’ and 137,000 people stopped working for an entire day.” Starting in Philips’ Far East offices, people worked in teams and then passed their best ideas westward to colleagues in later time zones. Ideas that started in Japan, China, Australia, India, etc., were passed on to offices in the Middle East, Europe and Africa to be iterated and built upon, and then from there on to the Americas, essentially following the sun around the world. Philips scattered its leadership team around the world to be in key offices as ideas were created, nurtured and, ultimately, turned into tangible recommendations as the sun set in the Western Hesmisphere. Andrea shared: “When you bring thousands of people together [in various offices] like that, the biggest ‘wow’ was it showed the organization that there was a future that was different from what they had seen in the past.”

The first time I came across the actual word “hackthon” was while designing a collaborative program with Facebook. We were bringing a group of CMOs and CIOs to Facebook’s campus and, as part of developing ideas for the program, Facebook shared a story of how they conduct hackathons. This video is one example. Essentially, the engineers put aside their normal work and instead work around the clock on a single objective without stopping—except maybe for pizza and beer—until finished. The key, as they described it, was that it needs to be something that would not get done anytime soon otherwise and that the hackathon is not over until whatever they create “gets shipped”—e.g., goes live.

With Facebook’s help, we took those CMOs and CIOs through a mock hackathon. We gave them real world challenges to solve in groups, brought in pizza and beer, and put them side-by-side with Facebook engineers. They went at it probably too late into the night to still be working on a mock exercise. They seemed to enjoy it and, moreover, gained experience on how to recreate hackathons back in their own organizations. I left intent to try it myself.

The model Facebook employs seems consistent with the modern interpretation of what a hackathon is. Says dictionary.com:

hackathon

[hak-uh-thon]

noun Digital Technology

  1. a usually competitive event in which people work in groups on software or hardware projects, with the goal of creating a functioning product by the end of the event: At the hackathon our team produced an app that helps you monitor your sleeping habits.

It certainly seems to make sense for tech companies, but what if you want to increase collaboration or get something long overdue done in your company and computer programming has little or nothing to do with your business? What I have learned from eight consecutive years of conducting hackathons in World 50, plus some elsewhere, is that they should work in nearly any business. Do they increase collaboration? Definitely. Do they enable getting something long overdue done? Usually. Those objectives aside, I have come to appreciate an even higher order purposes for conducting hackathons: Building corporate culture; steeping new employees in the subtleties of your business; getting everyone in the organization on the same page; and building relationships across the enterprise.

 

Here is the formula we have found works best:

  • Pick a single, important objective. Something that will make a difference. Something that matters. Something most everyone can contribute to and, especially, something that provides a positive, learning experience.
  • Everyone participates. Yes, of course you need to check for important messages from clients. And, yes, there was that one year our finance team needed a hall pass to get an audit finished. But making sure everyone participates is crucial.
  • Dedicate one entire normal business day. Let’s be honest: not everyone is a twenty-something software engineer willing to stay up all night like they did in college. You need not go around the clock. Start at your company’s normal start time and go until the normal end of the day.
  • Hold it in your office. Resist the temptation to go offsite. If you want the experience to have lasting impact, it needs to be in the same place people normally work.
  • Provide plenty of fuel. Bring in breakfast. Bring in lunch. Bring in a barista. Have snacks galore. No one should have to leave for any reason.
  • Break into teams. Mix them up. You can have morning teams and then different teams in the afternoon. Whatever works for the objective, but, regardless, make sure teams comprise people who do not usually work together.
  • Have plenty of supplies. Collaboration, prototypes and team presentations require Post-it notes, flip charts, butcher paper rolls, markers, glue, tape, etc. It should like you’re getting ready for a craft fair.
  • Shark Tank the ideas. Award prizes. Conclude the day by having teams present their ideas. Keep presentations short. Give out meaningful prizes. Lots of them. The winning idea for sure, but also awards like best presentation, most entertaining, most immediately actionable, and so on. At World 50, prizes range from gift cards to iPods to a day off.
  • Reinforce rituals. Weave in things that reinforce your culture. At World 50, we cater the lunch with a certain taqueria place that was near our original office so we can tell stories about the early days that provide lessons for today.

With that formula, the only thing you need is to pick a suitable objective. Use these criteria:

  • Would make an impact on the business if created, solved or improved
  • Would benefit from people across the company working on it
  • Worthy of accelerating the completion of (unlikely to be done soon otherwise)
  • Can make material progress on it in one day
  • Can be broken down into piece parts and/or tackled in small teams
  • Will teach new hires things they should know about the business and company
  • The output can be presented in some way (e.g., posters, prototype, a skit)
  • Would be fun to work on

You need not check every box above. Use your judgement. Here are some examples that have worked for World 50:

  • Create a culture video. Kick it off with some tips from a professional videographer and then set your teams loose. Post the winning video on your website. We posted our culture video on World 50’s culture site.
  • Map your customer journey. Then hack it. Use morning teams to map your customer journey in excruciating detail. (As reference, Ram Charan once told me taking a commercial flight has 65 touch points.) After lunch, the afternoon teams work on improving different parts of the journey.
  • Enhance your product. Break into teams. Each team has the challenge to deliver value to clients as you do now, but with some constraint. For World 50, teams had constraints like these: clients can no longer fly; we can no longer use the phone; no use of email; and so on. Teams need to bolster the other product features to make up for what was taken away.
  • New product development. Put in some ground rules like: must be a new product, or a new customer segment, or through a new channel, etc.
  • Your business on a box. Want to improve your messaging? How would you convey your value proposition to clients if the only thing you could use was a single box? At the right point in the day, play the famous Microsoft-if-Apple video for inspiration.
  • Disrupt yourself. Each team is a startup with adequate funding to go after your business. Seriously consider funding the best idea(s).

A few simple guidelines for success include: Every voice counts (hierarchy and seniority should not weigh too much); messy is good, but spend the early part getting properly organized into teams, establish a timeline, etc.; teams not too big or small can work in parallel on either the same thing or on different things, so long as there is a main theme ruling the day; and try to avoid repeating past years. This year (today) for World 50, we are taking a bigger risk: There are no instructions (other than this post). I am sequestering the leadership team separately and we are not going to not show up until the readout and awards at the end. I cannot wait to see what our terrific colleagues come up with!

Lastly, remember the goals you set out with at the start. Regardless of the quality in what the teams produce, if you see collaboration across silos, new hires learning the business and, especially, the reinforcement of positive cultural traits, consider it a win. Mark the date on your calendar and repeat every year. Good luck!

David Wilkie

@davidwilkie / #davidwilkie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s