New Vocabulary: Hackathon

Share this post:

Hackathon: A Definition

Hackathons are highly focused, outcome-oriented innovation sessions intended to deliver breakthrough thinking and a pilot-ready commercial model within a radically abbreviated timeframe.

What it means

These intense collaborative design events, often staged over 24 – 48 hours, bring together computer programmers, user experience designers, project managers, and business strategists to create a targeted and innovative solution to a specific customer, market or business problem. They differ from traditional idea jams in their expectation of concrete output. That might range from re-imagining a single process element in the customer buying journey, such as onboarding, to creating a product feature that satisfies a niche need, like an app that helps you to figure out how much pizza to order for a crowd. Jack Truong, former president and CEO of Electrolux, North America, explains it this way: “Creativity is when you have a lot of wonderful ideas, but you can’t commercialize them…whereas an innovation is something that really meets the demands of consumers.”

Why it’s important

Hackathons combine a diverse group of people with an ambitious ask, a critically tight deadline, and a playful atmosphere of no-rules experimentation. That heady mixture can unleash the adrenaline, intensity and focus needed for breakthrough thinking. Charlene Li, CEO and founder of Altimeter Group and co-author of the book Groundswell, says that when it comes to digital transformation, “If your palms are not sweating and your stomach isn’t churning, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”

Thrills aside, the time constraints of a hackathon force participants to prioritize. “Look around and figure out what you can get done, anything you can get done, that solves a problem,” advises Abhi Nemani, former chief data officer of the City of Los Angeles. During his tenure, Nemani’s team hosted regular hackathons that often drew hundreds to use public data sets to help solve challenges such as drought and traffic congestion.

For entrepreneurs, hackathon events offer an attractive proving ground for new business model concepts, an opportunity to huddle with top-notch coders and digital designers, and, for the fortunate few, a chance to land investor backing. For established organizations, hackathons model a visceral, immersive way of working, and the culture shift needed for widespread digital transformation. The ability to touch, feel and engage with a working prototype in a real-life setting gives top management a practical way to “test the future” without having to invest millions up front.

“With innovation,” says Truong, “it’s really about trying to harness the power of people who have different ways of thinking.” And because hackathon events are populated with people from vastly different backgrounds, no one brings the same institutional understanding of “business-as-usual.”

What will change

In addition to providing an intense “fail quick” atmosphere that frees participants to throw out the conventional business playbook and iterate novel approaches to important problems, hackathons are fast-becoming a new channel for sourcing talent at every level. Joanne Selinski, a computer science professor at John Hopkins, told Business Insider, “There’s a moment where companies started to realize that the best students aren’t necessarily at the career fair. They’re at these hackathons… and they’re intrinsically motivated to get something done.4

Because hackathons often draw creative thinkers who are game for experimenting with new technologies, these events attract potential future employees who have the skills companies don’t yet have but will need to stay competitive. “Businesses have a surfeit of labor in areas technology will soon make obsolete, but they have a shortage of labor in areas tied to the digital economy and it is in those areas where breakthrough innovation and profitability will be centered ultimately,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, professor of information technology, and the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Sponsoring a hackathon can help employers identify potential recruits who can make up for such shortages of skills in their current labor force.

While hackathons aren’t intended to replace traditional product development, they will jumpstart avenues of thought that make innovation processes more efficient. The toy-maker, Hasbro, for instance, held a two-day hackathon where 150 developers came and developed 45 products—equivalent to billions of dollars in traditional R&D. Given the low-cost of producing most hackathons, the ability to tap into a gusher of promising ideas provides a return on investment that entrepreneurs and business leaders will find hard to resist.


Hackathons plunge businesses and entrepreneurs into a deeply immersive innovation experience in which the outcome is a unique solution to a customer, business or market issue and the only constraint is the clock.

Key questions to ask

  1. How can we use a hackathon to create new value in a very tangible way?
  2. What is the right “Goldilocks” issue for the hackathon to address, one that is just ambitious and concrete enough to be realized in the available window?
  3. What mix of people internal and external to our organization would deliver the most creative problem solving?
  4. How do we open innovation processes to broader groups while protecting sensitive information?

Senior Writer

More stories

Boom or Bust? Watson Helps Fantasy Football Owners Make Better Decisions

We’ll be exploring this new technology in more detail at Think 2018. Join us. Whether you’re a member of the Patriots Nation or an ardent Bills Backer, or even if those references have no significance, you can’t make it through a football season without hearing about fantasy football. It gives fans a personal connection to the game, […]

Continue reading

Instant Checkout: Transforming Customer Experience with Shell

Self-checkouts are supposed to save us time, but crumpled barcodes in unpredictable packaging locations requiring individual scanning, and the dreaded ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ warning message can quickly turn a trip to the shop into an extreme test of one’s patience. The longer and more arduous the process to check out, the more […]

Continue reading

Culture and creativity with Kyle Wild, CEO of Keen IO

When I sat down with Kyle Wild, Co-founder and CEO of Keen IO, I wanted to start at the beginning of when he was first inspired to build a company with such a unique and powerful creative culture. He started by saying, “I was a Montessori kid.” I laughed, thinking this was a joke, but […]

Continue reading