Five reasons to host a hackathon

August 4, 2014 10:08 am The UK Domain

Danny Bluestone, founder of digital agency Cyber-Duck, explains why creative team-building weekends or ‘hackathons’ are a great way to unlock innovation in your company and help drive your R&D culture.

“A hackathon is surprisingly not about ‘hacking’ as we usually understand the term. It is an intensive internal session aimed at delivering new commercial concepts, products or services, by giving employees the opportunity to be creative and push the boundaries. I’m a great believer in the benefits of intense ‘marathon’ weekends, not just because they boost business: hackathons are a great team-building exercise and a fantastic way of unlocking creativity and innovation within a company.

A hackathon is much more than an elaborate brainstorm. During the session, which is usually a 36 to 48-hour period, teams are split into groups and each given a challenge to solve, or an idea to expand on, based on a theme, even within a series. The goal is to generate a new and innovative solution whilst thinking about the design, technology and business rationale. A healthy sense of competition inspires the kind of intense, fast-flowing environment that can really unlock the creative spirit in your team. Our own hackathons aren’t just a morale-building exercise; new, valuable ways of working with technology can be fed straight back into the day-to-day business, improving our processes and profitability.”

1. Planning and prizes

“A hackathon is first and foremost an inspired way of tackling some of the obstacles you face as a business and raising the profile of your company by pioneering new ideas. To get the most from these events, ideas, budgets and dates need to be agreed, so it’s a good idea to assign one or two people who have clout among the team to take charge of the organisation. Don’t underestimate the power of goodie bags either! In the spirit of competition, the finished projects should be presented to the whole company at the close of a weekend. This is a great opportunity to analyse the work that has been created, select and reward the winners with prizes.”

2. Kick-start creativity

“The best hackathons are driven by skilled people coming together to attack a problem. We start hackathons by creating a realistic roadmap for the hack weekend, with ideas drawn from business opportunities or challenges. These form the basis for the hack, as each team takes away one to work on. The beauty of a hackathon is that the unusual freedom and informality can generate unique, rapid solutions. As hackathons are intensive, it’s not always possible to create a polished and market-ready product or service within the time given. However, the projects and concepts generated during a hack can be kept in the production pipeline to enhance and commercialise in the future!”

3. Inspire the spirit of collaboration

“We hold a hackathon, or what we like to call a ‘Quack Hack’ every summer and the creative spirit of these weekends drives our innovative R&D culture. There are many different ways you can run your hackathon and the purpose can be different for each organisation. Ours involves long hours of coding and design, combined with nerf guns, energy drinks and the traditional British BBQ to achieve some ambitious projects! Other businesses have adopted this fast-paced creative workout to improve specific areas of their service. For example, in November last year John Lewis drew on its partners’ ideas and held a ‘Pitch Hackathon’ to improve customer experience online, with a focus on fashion. The result was an inspired prototype for an app that would allow customers to select their perfect outfit, depending on body frame, height and even skin tone.”

4. Explore new technologies

“Hackathons present the perfect opportunity to experiment with new technologies and techniques for the weekend. The technology industry evolves rapidly so it’s important to stay ahead of the game and realise the potential of new developments. Our ‘Cuckoo Quack’ was an exciting project that stemmed from a Quack Hack last year where we transformed an antique cuckoo clock into an online notification system.”

5. Get your team motivated

“Most team members tend to love hackathons as they present a chance to expand and practise skills beyond their everyday work. It also allows them to brush up on their expertise in different areas of the business. For example, designers can brush up on their coding skills (should they wish to!) If some of the hack projects are very technical, it’s worth having one or two competent developers on each team (but this shouldn’t stop others from expanding their coding skill-set). Team building exercises have proven time and again to motivate employees but unlike sports days and freebies, the creativity and passion that is generated during a hack is carried through to day-to-day work.

Whether you run a tech start-up or an established digital business, I strongly believe there are benefits for you to participate in a hackathon, and ultimately achieve successful innovation. As well as a great learning opportunity, hackathons also aim to reinforce the bond between departments, across all teams within the company. It is a great chance for everyone to appreciate the skill level and experience of each member of every department and work together to achieve something fantastic.”

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