Hackathons: An innovative game changer everyone can tap into

Hackathons: An innovative game changer everyone can tap into

Plenty of people will tell you that Big Companies Can’t Innovate. Instead, they say, innovation belongs to startups and disruptive individuals using disruptive technologies.

Not anymore. Big companies can innovate – it just takes a willingness to think outside the box. And, interestingly, many big brands are beginning to do just that.

Hackathons are a great example of this. They not only deliver fantastic results, but also do so with minimum disruption to normal business. The idea has certainly come a long way since 1999, when OpenBSD held what it describes as the first ever hackathon in a house in Calgary – although some argue the concept goes back further.

Whatever its origins, the hackathon is fast becoming the go-to format for any company wanting to mix it up creatively and organisationally, as well as find new rising stars. The concept has, in effect, been ‘hacked’ to work in an enterprise setting. It’s not just for software developers, or purely tech enterprises. Any company, big or small, can use a hackathon to generate ideas and to deliver innovation.

Case in point – InMotion’s parent company, Jaguar Land Rover, recently ran a successful ‘hackathon’ –the JLR Dev Challenge – in July 2016, while InMotion is itself hosting its inaugural event on November 3rd in London.

Here Abhishek Sampat, principal research and technology engineer at Jaguar Land Rover and Joe Turner, software architect at InMotion, explain why hackathons are so valuable to businesses both big and small.

  1. Branching out

One thing that’s great about hackathons is that they allow people to break out of traditional roles, jobs or projects and engage with people from all sorts of backgrounds (hackathons tend to organise people in teams of anything from two to five people).

Companies use hackathons for internal meets to provide a platform for innovative people to connect with other talented individuals, irrespective of their disciplines.

Companies also organise external hackathons, says Abhishek, “to draw in people from outside the company and to speak to intelligent people in different areas, who may not see their ideas as being relevant to, say, car manufacturers”. Participating in hackathons means you “get new ideas and see how other companies operate,” says Joe. “People work in very different ways”.

  1. Natural setting

Hackathons are organised so that people work for a significant period (from a few hours to a few days) on a project with their peers. This means it’s great for finding talent, says Joe, because “it’s an easy way of seeing what people can do in their natural environment, without a forced interview or enforced test”.

It’s also about showing what the company can do for them. Abhishek explains: “If someone says ‘I want to put this feature in a car but I think it’ll be too expensive’ we can say no, try it. We can sponsor it if we think it’s worthwhile.”

  1. Freedom to create

“It’s all about planning and aiming to meet participants’ needs, so they are free to socialise, cross-fertilise and think”

People work best when they aren’t stressed or thinking about their dinner. It’s all about planning and aiming to meet participants’ needs, so they are free to socialise, cross-fertilise and think. “We have everything there that we can think of and more,” says Abhishek. “At one event, someone asked for a glass of wine at three in the morning!”

  1. Play

hackathons

Playing with objects offers a different way of engaging and creating. Companies often bring in new products to test, says Joe, which is one of their great benefits, because you can use the product or data to develop new ideas in the hackathon.

“One participant in the Dev Challenge said they’d like to see a car in motion, so we said, sure, get in and we’ll take you for a drive,” says Abhishek. “It was good because a lot of participants hadn’t been in a Jaguar or Land Rover before.

“A couple of other participants developed their concept based on the car seat that we had brought in. They were really happy when I said you can rip open the seat if you want. It’s letting people play with things they don’t normally get access to.”

  1. Experts on hand

Having experts or developer evangelists in attendance is a great help to the creative process. “Almost all the participants said that having experts on hand to explain the products, the cars, and how they worked, was fantastic,” Abhishek says. “Because you could ask someone who knew the answer rather than having to guess.”

Past and present: Great innovations to come from hackathons

  1. Who controls what?

While experts are useful, organisers of hackathons shouldn’t try and control proceedings. Project groups often work in very different ways – some want lots of feedback and others hardly at all. Autonomy is important, not least because, says Abhishek, “once someone is invested in an idea, especially if it’s their own idea or something they’ve worked on, they’re a lot more focused on it. It changes things psychologically.”

Intervention can be important, for example if two different groups are working on similar ideas. But there’s no top-down steering; it’s about facilitating rather than managing.

  1. Encouragement and engagement

hackathons

Finding ways to get people to engage is a core part of a hackathon’s likely success. Joe says sending out ideas or new APIs before the event helps teams come up with better ideas: “The JLR hackathon provided a new API that had 40 journeys on it – lots of data. That led people to think about how we could use data to build something.”

Getting participants to interact with each other is also important because they can exchange ideas outside of their teams. Setting dedicated times for breaks, meals and breakout sessions helps, and the JLR Dev Challenge also made effective use of a Slack channel for participants.

  1. Diversity and creativity

Hackathon organisers should make sure that event promotion reaches as many different people and groups as possible. Diversity, after all, is increasingly recognised as an important part of creativity.

Having a mixture of skills and experience that diversity supplies is key to a successful hackathon. “At the JLR Dev Challenge there were software and hardware, designers, business people, even a fashion designer … a real mix of people and industries,” says Joe. “You see how they approach things differently”.

  1. Cooperation and competitiveness

Hackathons often offer a prize, meaning they actively encourage competition, but this should be friendly and cooperative. “It is a competition,” says Abhishek. “You are competing against other teams to develop the best idea. But we didn’t see any sabotage. It’s more of a friendly competition, even though they were competing for about £10k worth of prizes.”

  1. Hackathon fails 

“Participants need to go to hackathons willing to adapt”

With good planning and anticipation, a hackathon should be a success – but the finer details are important. Without proper preparation, you’re asking for trouble.

Sometimes project teams can also fail because of the dynamics of groups. “The biggest issue I’ve seen is when a team doesn’t have the right skills to implement an idea,” says Joe. “Some people have very strong ideas, but can’t attract people to help them build it.”

Participants need to go to hackathons willing to adapt. Creativity isn’t about asserting a pre-set idea – it’s about bouncing off others.

Working differently

Ultimately hackathons are all about harnessing creativity, and plenty of thought goes into making sure that happens. But they also help companies learn to work differently: more diversity, more lateral thinking, more cooperation; less departmental division and hierarchies.

That’s got to be good for business.

Top tips for organising a hackathon

  • Plan everything, then plan some more: accommodation, food, transport and entertainment
  • Make sure you’ve got everything you need – hardware, software, data, intelligence, APIs, IP agreements. If you’re making use of external APIs, apply for the required keys ahead of the event
  • Make sure network access and Wi-Fi are solid. Power sockets matter
  • Send out ideas or an API in advance to get people thinking
  • Create terms and conditions, or a code of practice, for participants
  • Cast your net widely for participants and advertise to diverse audiences
  • Get people with a range of skills, and encourage them to work together
  • Make yourself available as a company and organiser
  • Make sure the experts are there to help project teams
  • Think about the period after the event, and how to continue the momentum

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Sam Clifton
Associate
Venture Capital

Insights, News

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