10 Essential tips to nail your next hackathon

Hackathon

A hackathon is a gathering where people from various departments within a company collaboratively work towards a common goal over a short period of time. At Board of Innovation, we recently organized a one-week Hackathon. The goal was to reconnect an outdated product and business with user needs. This hackathon ended with a clear business presentation and an interactive prototype of the new product. We used the design sprint guide of Google as a source of inspiration. Here are 10 tips based on our experience:

1. Communicate as a king

Print out a ‘battle plan’ on a big sheet and inform everybody on the daily expectations. Make sure you take the time to align everybody; preferably at the beginning of each day. Communicate to all facilitators the moments you will meet, the deadlines and deliverables. By doing so they remain free to do everything they need to achieve good results within their team. In the meantime they have an incentive to stick to the key timings. 

Here are 4 reminders that will increase the efficiency of your hackathon:

  1. Manage all expectations on what will be the outcome of each day. Be clear that a hackathon is a step-by-step process;
  2. Be clear on all responsibilities and crucial timings before the start of each day;
  3. Evaluate the daily progression and the team’s energy level during lunch time;
  4. Follow-up on the achievements at the end of each day to check if everything goes according to plan.

2. Make one facilitator the alpha male

It is my belief that every hackathon needs one main facilitator – the alpha male – and a committed facilitator for each track. Acting as coordinator, the role of the main facilitator is to check timing, overall progression and to communicate planning and expectations with the participants. Additionally he informs visitors about the progress and results of the hackathon. During the hackathon, the other facilitators guide each track during the week and act as real team members that join in the creation of the ideas and results.

3. Brint the outside in

External feedback is essential to validate what you are doing. When you plan customer interaction, verify who will join the sessions and plan their visits in detail. If possible give them a briefing on the status and goals of the project so they can give feedback according to their background and interest. In order to avoid wasting time on irrelevant opinions, only relevant stakeholders should join. #Hint: A blog with a daily poll can be a successful tool to get external feedback. It can also improve the external interest in the progression of the hackathon.

4. Keep everyone charged

Most participants are motivated and can’t wait to start the hackathon. Make sure to keep that energy running, for a full week. Though it is easy to forget, take breaks and stay within normal working hours, they are essential to keep everyone charged. Use lunchtime to organize walks to get some fresh air. Finally have enough (good!) coffee. ;-)

5. Adapt or die

Whoever said a hackathon is just a long workshop, hear this. Although you will have planned everything in advance, be open to change everything. It is difficult to know how fast teams are progressing towards the final result. It can be helpful to do parts of the user research in advance (e.g. user analysis, benchmarking, etc.). This will help you to keep focus on the final results without losing too much time starting of the hackathon.

6. Build your hackathon journey

A hackathon is an intensive journey. Start and end every day with a visual overview of where you – as a group – stand in that journey. Use a central location in the hackathon space to capture daily outcomes and communicate next steps; this helps to keep everyone fully aware of the progress made. #Hint: Make it visual, this makes it easier to explain your story.

7. Divide into tracks but act as a team

Start by separating the team into sub-teams or tracks. Each track works on a separate topic (e.g. business track & user track). This will increase the quality of the outcome of the hackathon, because team members can focus on their interest or expertise. Share the progression of each track regularly. Otherwise the tracks could move away from each other. #Hint: The more tracks you make, the more work you can do, but also the more time you need to manage and communicate to each other!

8. Less is more

In my opinion the amount of participants shouldn’t be bigger than 10 people. Select motivated participants by setting up an open call to attract people who are willing to dedicate a full week to the hackathon. Make sure everyone brings equal value to the table and can have a meaningful impact on the final result. #Hint: A hackathon is just the starting point of the launch of a new product. Make sure to involve relevant stakeholders before, during and after the hackathon. You want to capture their opinions and feedback as early as possible.

9. End with a bang

Make sure to make it a ‘public’ event where all interested employees and customers can join the finale of the week. This will give energy to both the team and the visitors of the finale and help to spread the word inside the company. #Hint: Select a C-level panel that gives constructive feedback and states its support for future development. Don’t forget to brief everyone before the finale on what (not) to expect.

10. Define the action button

End with clear next steps on how to realize the product.
Here are 5 points you should have in mind when planning the next steps:

  • Select a core team of motivated intrapreneurs that will follow-up the project after the hackathon.
  • Test the prototype(s) again (…and again) with customers; constant customer verification is the key to track progression.
  • Don’t push the product in the corporate stage gate! Determine new KPI’s (such as % of interested customers,…) to validate the product.
  • Allocate one separate budget to reach these KPI’s, You don’t want to be shopping budgets each time you reach a milestone.
  • Find customers that want to cooperate to test and launch the product. This will lower risk and increase the chances of success when launching the product.

If you have any questions or comments, please share them with us! It would be a pleasure to learn from your experience as well.

Thanks!

I’m Vincent Pirenne, Innovation Strategist @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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