How To

Step-by-step: Host an Internal Hackathon

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Once the purview of the startup crowd, large organizations are now hosting their own internal hackathons to introduce the types of innovative working practices increasingly becoming essential for effective digital transformation. Hamish McVey, head of brand management at British Airways, noted in an interview in the Financial Times, notes that big companies often believe that a product should be perfect before customers see it. “But we looked at the speed that startups were innovating and getting new products and services in front of customers and see no reason why we couldn’t do the same,” McVey told the Financial Times.

Here are five steps to hosting a successful internal hackathon:

Step 1: Put the customer at the center

Successful hackathons model customer-centricity in action. Encourage participants to put themselves in the end user’s point of view to unpack what a high value customer experience looks like. Then reimagine optimized ways of delivering it. Hackathons give managers and others the ability to “try on” radically new and improved ways of serving customer needs. That low-risk exposure can spur the mindset shift that is often the hardest element to crack in the organizational change process. That’s especially important for larger, publicly traded organizations that feel they have too much at stake to jettison established ways of working in order to embrace bold, unproven customer initiatives. At Orbitz, for example, Chief Technology Officer Roger Liew says, “We’re trying to meld this entrepreneurial, Internet culture with grown-up company processes, and try not to let that side of the house strangle the hard-charging side.”

Step 2: Have a concrete customer outcome in mind

Hackathons should be tightly focused on meeting a single, specific customer objective. That could be reinventing the account opening process or adding new features to a website or app, such as “chat live” buttons or peer-to-peer forums to make the online experience more sticky. Another might be enriching point-of-sale with more personalized options. No matter the objective, orientation on a single output gives participants a shared purpose and provides a clear deliverable at the end of the session. According to a post by Facebook’s former Director of Engineering (and now Uber’s Director of Engineering) Pedram Keyani, Facebook has held internal hackathons since 2007 and popular product features such as the Like button and Timeline grew out of them. Fidelity Labs held an internal hackathon to see how artificial intelligence might improve customer experiences. Such new processes or prototypes should also be refined before allowing managers and business leaders to kick the proverbial tires and come away with a very hands-on, practical sense of the ultimate end product.

Step 3: Throw out the typical business playbook

Hackathons are intentionally anything but business-as-usual. Challenge participants to break with convention and reach for wholly new ways of satisfying customer needs. While session leaders keep time, participants should be free to bat around possible solutions quickly. These ideas are then turned into a “minimal viable product” or MVP, which is a primitive working model. User experience, IT, product and marketing teams all work closely together to bash out a steady stream of improvements to the MVP to get at the desired functionality, look and feel. All the while, they run feedback to the developers and coders in the group. Coders, in turn, simply holler over if a desired feature is wildly out of scope or technologically unfeasible. In this fashion, the MVP is continually iterated throughout the 24-hour period. That iterative, test-and-learn working style is a formative ingredient in digital cultures. As Carl Wilson, the former CIO of Marriott International told THINK Leaders, “In many ways success is defined by how quickly an organization’s culture can learn and change.”

Step 4: Engage people from across the business

Creativity requires that a mix of perspectives be brought to the table. That’s why the most successful hackathons deliberately mesh teams of people with vastly different experience sets, and this includes senior leadership. Coders, user experience experts, product line managers, front-line personnel, marketing leaders—many of whom have never worked together before—partner in collaborative cluster designed to squeeze out “group think” and improve the thought and quality of problem-solving.

Step 5: Create hooks to sustain the effort

A common goal of an internal hackathon is to foster a more innovation-driven culture throughout the organization. Far from being one-off events, the most effective hackathons ensure the momentum is sustained long after the session ends. A comprehensive implementation roadmap can accelerate the normal development process and ensure the prototype conceived during the hackathon can be integrated into the company’s systems and IT architecture. The close engagement of top management during the hackathon is an essential element in this process to confer permission and legitimacy to the working practices and ideas championed.


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