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.

Our consultants are experienced hackathon facilitators. They host workshops to help corporate teams test concepts, turn their ideas into tangible prototypes, or discover new, talented additions to join their teams.

We recently organized a one-week Hackathon. The goal was to reconnect an outdated product and business with user needs, and it was a success. 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.

On the back of this success, here are 10 hackathon tips to help you organize your own workshop.

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 get everybody aligned; preferably at the beginning of each day. Tell all the facilitators when you’ll meet, the deadlines, and deliverables. By doing so, they remain free to do everything they need to achieve good results within their team, and they also 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 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 when you meet up during lunch;
  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

It is my belief that every hackathon needs one main facilitator – the alpha – and a committed facilitator for each track. Acting as coordinator, the role of the main facilitator is to check timing and overall progression, as well as to communicate planning and expectations with the participants. Additionally, the alpha informs visitors about the progress and results of the hackathon. During the event, the other facilitators guide each track, while acting as real team members that help create ideas and results.

3. Bring the outside in

External feedback is essential to validate what you’re 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 interests. 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 encourage external interests to follow 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 the entire time. The longer your hackathon lasts, the more attention you’ll need to pay to this. It can be 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’s 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 progress 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 keep in mind that more people equals more time spent managing time and coordinating communicate.

8. Less is more

In my opinion, there should be no more than 10 or so participants (within the larger hackathon group) working on a single concept or prototype. Select motivated participants by setting up an open call to attract people who are willing to dedicate the required amount of time to the hackathon. Make sure everyone brings equal value to the table and can have a meaningful impact on the final result.

Hint: If you’re launching a new product, a hackathon will just be the starting point. Make sure to involve relevant stakeholders before (as early as possible), during and after the hackathon. You want to capture their opinions throughout.

9. End with a bang

Make the finale a ‘public’ event. Invite all interested employees and customers. This will give energy to both the team and the visitors, and help 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/result.
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 on the project after the hackathon.
  • Test the prototype(s) again (… and again) with customers; constant customer verification is key to progression.
  • Don’t push the product in the corporate stage gate! Determine new KPIs (such as percent 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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