Hackathons have gone mainstream. Originally the domain of scrappy tech start ups, hackathons are now hosted by large corporations and governments. This week’s cartoon was partly inspired by a very funny video from Vooza on the dark side of hackathons.
A hackathon started as an event where teams of developers collaboratively code in an extreme manner over a short period of time. But, the definition has expanded to many types of innovation. There are internal hackathons and external contest hackathons. They are a way to create innovation quickly and simply without a lot of direction or control. People are free to follow what interests them. It an be a great way to surface a range of ideas, with simple prototypes people can react to. Often people volunteer their time beyond their day jobs because they believe in the ideas so much.
I just read Biz Stone’s inspiring book on the inception of Twitter. Twitter emerged from a hackathon hosted by a failing podcasting company called Odeo. As a last desperate measure before shutting down, Odeo hosted a hackathon to surface any new ideas that could save the company (and the team). Different teams knocked around range of concepts. Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone put together a rough prototype that became Twitter.
Most organizations would love to invent the next Twitter. And many have started to adopt the hackathon as an innovation exercise.
It’s a noble exercise to unshackle some of the corporate bureaucracy that can stifle innovation. Ideas like the next Twitter are pretty fragile at first and easily killed.
But many of the corporate hackathons I’ve seen lack one key ingredient — fire in the belly. Teams have to be personally motivated to invest so much of their personal lives into a hackathon (particularly if they’re asked to add a hackathon on top of their day jobs).
Biz Stone describes this fire in the belly as “emotional investment”:
“If you don’t love what you’re building, if you’re not an avid user yourself, then you will most likely fail even if you’re doing everything else right…
“You know in your heart something’s worth pursuing; you’re not sure exactly why, but it doesn’t matter. Success isn’t guaranteed, but failure is certain if you aren’t truly emotionally invested in your work.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on hackathons and inspiring innovation in large companies.
(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)