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How to harness the spirit of hackathons to innovate every day

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If you’ve spent any time in the tech industry, you’re likely to have heard of hackathons. If you’re new to the term, think of it as a marathon, but for coding (although with slightly less sweating and a lot more pizza).

During a hackathon, developers work together for a fixed duration of time to create new software products, tools and features. A hackathon can be as short as an all-day (or night) affair or as long as a few days. The purpose is to work fast, intensely and together.

However, the idea behind a hackathon isn’t something that must be limited to the engineering department or a digital startup. In fact, any company, department and team can embrace the hackathon ethos as a way to quickly brainstorm, iterate and execute innovative solutions for almost any business problem.

What makes a hackathon?

Any successful hackathon shares four common elements:

Speed 

A hackathon should only last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The duration should be defined at the outset so the team can keep the clock in mind.

Dedication

A hackathon removes the distractions of other projects to give the team the chance to intensely focus on the problem.

Cross-functional teams

New ideas require new perspectives. Hackathons regularly combine different roles like coders, designers, scientists, marketers and entrepreneurs to explore solutions from multiple angles.

Acceptance of failure

A hackathon is a laboratory, not a project. It should be a playful way to create and evaluate many ideas quickly.

While it’s not always realistic to conduct a full-on hackathon to solve every business problem, here are a few ways to use the idea of hackathons to break up the monotony and maximise creativity.

Adopt an Agile process

Businesses traditionally work in a linear process, with distinct tasks, deliverables and approval stages to complete before work can continue. In an Agile approach, a team continuously works together in short sprints as a part of an iterative process.

There are many types of Agile processes; Scrum provides a rigid set of roles and methodologies, while Kanban provides more adaptability. While designed for software development, an Agile process can be used for any type of work. For example, rather than tasking a team member to deliver a report in 30 days, an Agile process would create a series of check-ins to evaluate her outline, research materials and data, giving her the chance to pivot and adapt to team feedback as necessary.

Less talk, more prototyping

Most meetings aren’t only a waste of time, but a waste of money: one study found that a single weekly meeting of midlevel managers cost an organization $15 million a year. That’s because most meetings consist of one or two people doing most of the talking, while the rest add little value or ignore the discussion completely to catch up on their other work or email.

Instead of calling everyone into a meeting to talk about a project, turn it into a working session. The key word here is “work”: only invite people who will make a direct contribution to the aspect you’re working on in that session. Anyone too junior, senior or unrelated to the subject at hand can easily be caught up later or called into the session as needed.

Solve new problems

Not every hackathon is created to solve a specific business problem. Yet at the office, we usually only work on the things we’re assigned to in a reactive manner rather than taking a more proactive approach. Shake things up by challenging your team to define both a problem and solution and you’ll be surprised what they come up with. It could possibly be a solution to a business problem you didn’t realise you had.

Encourage failure, reward success

If you want your team to bring new ideas to the table, you’re going to have to allow for the fact that some might stink. The more you can create a culture that can tolerate rather than punish failure, the more your employees will feel emboldened to shake up their thinking. Encourage idea quantity in the early stages; the best ideas can always be elevated and selected later. To encourage both quality and quantity, a prize can inspire a competitive spirit and out-of-the-box thinking.

Make time for thinking

Let’s face it: our day-to-day work all too often gets in the way of innovative thinking. It’s impossible to be creative while checking email, filling out expense reports and multitasking on three completely different projects. If you want to invest in innovation, invest in time. Set aside a full day regularly for unstructured, creative collaboration so your team can focus on new ideas without distraction.

And never forget the most important element of hackathons... pizza.

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