Hackathon. The term is all the rage these days with companies like Facebook, Google, and even the US Congress pulling all night events to build the next big thing. Truth is, some of the most popular Facebook features, from the “Like Button” to Facebook chat have originated during one of these events. Although it may seem intimidating for a company to venture into hosting a hackathon, there really are only a few things you need regardless of your size, industry, or even company culture.
Most hackathons take place over a matter of days. While it may seem easy to propose one over a weekend, remember that many people will have family or other commitments that will prevent them from participating. Try to target a period of typical downtime in your business or start the event after work on a Thursday, and use all-day Friday to finish.
Hackathons should not cost much more than the food, venue, and hardware / software necessary for the topic. Many companies have even allowed their employees to bring in their own devices to allow for more innovation to occur – at a big savings. Prizes should be considered in any contest as well, but typically the exposure given to the winning team, along with potentially seeing their product in production is all they will really want (mini-trophies wouldn’t hurt).
There’s nothing that will demoralize a hackathon more than rules and structure. While it is necessary to set some boundaries, creating all sorts of stipulations will only discourage innovation, and result in a poorer product. Figure out a way to get around the corporate rules, whether by getting an exception approved, or figuring out how high you need to go to up the leadership approval chain will be well work the time and effort
Speaking of leadership, one of the most important things that you’re going to need are leaders who are bought into what you’re doing, and are willing to participate - be it as a coach, judge, or casual observer. Not only will this improve morale, it will bring validity to your event and surely spike participation. How many times do employees on the front lines get to present to their CEO, COO, etc? The more leaders that you can get involved, the better (see item #1).
Willingness to Fail
So your event didn’t create the next big thing in your industry – in fact, it flopped. The question you need to ask yourself is “so what”? Did your employees learn something new? Was there a large element of team building that occurred? The book Little Bets described ad nauseam the amount of failures that so many companies have to go through before becoming successful, and the event you just held allowed that process to occur in a matter of hours or days for very little cost. The end result of an event shouldn’t hinge solely on the end product, but the lessons you can take away and apply to future attempts. However, if you do create that industry-changing feature, be sure to come back and let us know :)