Why a Hackathon Style Event Could Lead to Your Next Business Breakthrough

Hackathons are well-known in big business and IT circles. Yet small and mid-sized businesses are increasingly using the idea of creating dedicated and focused work sessions – with an “all brains and resources on deck” approach – to solve their biggest business problems.

SMBs use hackathons to create new products, develop websites and documents, brainstorm solutions to pressing business challenges, and more. How can hackathons support innovation at your company and help lead to business breakthroughs?

Hackathons and Innovation

Innovation often comes from unexpected places: customer feedback, the latest market intelligence, and workers’ experience in the field. Yet it’s difficult to innovate when employees are busy and constantly distracted while trying to solve big problems.

Hackathons emerged in the software industry as a way to apply the company’s best minds toward problem-solving in a dedicated and time-limited way, while removing barriers to innovation. SMBs can capture those same benefits by creating hackathons that focus on human resources, marketing, product development, customer service, programming, and other areas of operations.

What Makes a Successful Hackathon?

Running a successful hackathon requires following a few specific steps:

Scope and prioritize your innovation needs: As the Harvard Business Review notes, there are endless areas of innovation possible within a company. Define your “innovation buckets” and then prioritize those. It’s possible to prioritize by looking at which areas align with strategic priorities, where your business is struggling, or employee interests.

Clearly articulate a specific problem or question: The core of a successful hackathon session is a clearly articulated and specific question or problem that participants can solve or explore in the time allotted. Completely redesigning your customer service organization is probably too complex. Creating a more effective customer service knowledgebase or writing more effective template responses to customer service inquiries is highly achievable.

Contextualize the problem: It’s important that your hackathon team has a working perspective on the issue. Provide background information and consider including stakeholders on the team. As a recent Fast Company piece noted, hackathons run the risk of being inexpensive ways to generate new ideas but fail to support lasting change – unless the problem-solving happens with a clear sense of context. The goal is practical solutions or products, not total blue sky dreaming.

Achievable solutions: Often, the plans for what you’ll accomplish during a hackathon are overly ambitious. It’s possible to spec out new features for a product or develop ideas for a campaign. Help your teams succeed by setting clear expectations for what they’ll accomplish and keep it realistic with the time and resources allocated.

Organize information and outputs: Ideating and creating at a rapid rate can lead to frustration and disorganization. One of the key tenets of a successful hackathon is staying organized. Have groups choose a leader whose responsibility is to capture the key ideas. Establish expectations in advance of what the output or deliverables for each project will be and designate a point person to collect those.

Measure success to create feedback loops: Hackathons that don’t lead to actionable ideas are a waste of your resources. Circle back to determine how successful your hackathon was in creating new ideas for your business. Clarify how those ideas will be incorporated into the business. Assess what worked process-wise and use that as a frame of reference for future hackathon sessions.

Creating time and space for your employees to go deep and try to solve important problems for your business is a great idea. SMBs in particular rarely have the luxury to make sustained innovation and progress in a short time period. Follow best practices to ensure that you’re getting the maximum ROI for resources invested and that hackathons are moving the needle on your company’s innovation-related goals.