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!)
8 CommentsJoin the Discussion
Marc Jadoul says
What’s missing in this kind of model, is a cross-functional approach that enables cross-fertilization between technology and business people. A hackathon is a kind of “business game” for techies. Where most business games didn’t care about technical feasibility, most hackathon participants don’t have the market savvy to ensure usability and commercialization of their developments.
You’ll fail if you ask ‘why?’ instead of ‘why not?’.
Remy Bergsm says
Fire in the belly should be based on solving problems, or making life better for people. If a business is in the industry of making toasters, then they should look into preventing toast being burnt to carbon to help their customers. Be it either an auto shutdown, a sniffer, a mobile app to warn the customer, anything. That way people can enjoy more toast that is perfectly toasted.
And so on for all companies. All clients everywhere have problems. Some of these problems can be taken away or mitigated by companies. That should be the fire in their belly: solving clients’ problems. Regardless of the company’s size, the view of the board or what business they are in.
Barbara Moroch says
So unless I’m not mistaken, a hackathon is simply a brainstorming session, dudded up to sound more contemporary, more cutting edge.
Everything old is new again.
And don’t even get me started on native advertising! LOL
Hackathons are a great idea when used correctly. People do their best work when they pursue the things they believe in. We get into trouble when we try to extract the value of the hackathon for our own corporate purpose. While great ideas and solutions can be created in a hackathon. We must remember that the true purpose of the hackathon is that fire in the belly and emotional connection to our work that you talk about.
Cameron Norman says
Wonderful to see this topic covered. Hackathons are great for team-building, but rarely produce anything substantive over the long term. That’s not to devalue them, but often they are over-sold as means of generating solutions quickly. Such an approach works if the problem is neat, simple and amenable to a technological or technical solution, but too many of the problems in business are ones where there isn’t a simple answer. Indeed, those are the kinds of problems where there should be a ‘problemathon’ where folks come together to tackle the question: “what’s the problem we’re actually trying to solve?”
Hackathons fail sometimes because they don’t consider the bigger questions and question the problems given to them.
Another thing I really liked about today’s cartoon is the not-so-subtle jab at the notion that ideation and prototyping are extras or freebies worth free pizza and a weekend’s effort, but not part of the day-to-day “real” time. If companies want to innovate, they will need to take this process of coming up with ideas and prototypes more seriously.
As always, the cartoons are insightful gems. Thanks for sharing them with the world.
Janine Heffelfinger says
I had to chuckle when I read this. What makes any similar process like this work is one part determination, one part desperation and one part cross-fertilization. Pizza optional.
A “hackathon” is to an all-nighter what “bone broth” is to chicken stock!
I can’t decide if I love this idea or hate it.
On one hand, getting people to sit in a room, focus on one problem and find different ways to solve it is fabulous!
On the other, getting people to volunteer their time outside of work is rather sucky. But people who blindly adhere to a concept no matter what the context is not cool either (they’re rather idiots in that video!).
I guess hackathons are the techie version of the brainstorming session. If it gets brainstorming some focus and they are ran correctly (during business hours, not on the weekend!) then they can be pretty cool!