Ron Jaworski is the founder and CEO of Trinity Audio, AI-driven solutions of smart audio experiences for publishers and content creators.
If your first (and only) association with hackathons is strictly technology-related, I have some good news: This type of event is no longer reserved for programmers and people with technical backgrounds.
Beyond the tech world, organizations have slowly begun to utilize these intense brainstorming events for a wide variety of scenarios, from increasing employee engagement to imparting corporate culture and everything in between.
Speaking as a tech CEO, I’ll admit that there are inherent tech-centric advantages that startups get to enjoy from a hackathon. Yet, there’s more to it beneath the veneer as it offers a holistic view of your leadership. When at its best, a productive hackathon can be a powerful tool in your arsenal, particularly for these three added values:
1. An Organic Way To Scale Creative Thinking
The way I see it, a hackathon is—or should be—about exploration that is beneficial for both your customers and your company in some way.
One often underappreciated aspect of this rapid incubator of sorts is that the end result doesn’t always have to be something grand and PR-worthy. Most leaders set a game-changing or market-ready product/service as an end goal, which I feel is counterproductive. In fact, it’s a decent recipe for failure as you’re setting up the team for a goal they likely can’t accomplish. Innovation takes time, discipline and patience to iron out all the kinks.
A hackathon is a crockpot for out-of-the-box thinking because it fosters creativity in various directions, including extending the reach of existing solutions. People either see different problems or see the same problem from a different angle, thus collectively pooling their roles and skill sets to envision distinct approaches and solutions.
Sometimes, it’s a small thing, like moving around a few lines of code or approaching supply chain management from a different perspective that is benefiting the customer. Other times, it’s a completely new thing like a novel feature or a product that could directly impact your bottom line.
With structured idea development as the focal point, you can extract tangible ideas for new solutions and processes that can lead to better customer experience and growth.
2. A Path To A More Inclusive Workplace
Hackathons are a great way to ensure every team member is involved or invited to participate, especially if you’re aiming to build a more inclusive company culture.
The reality is that some members from different departments don’t spend a lot of time together on a daily or weekly basis. Then, there are some who just want to be more plugged in than they currently are.
Being inventive together is a chance to form and reinforce the bonds within the team, more so because it’s done in a different and challenging environment. It can be a bit intimidating at first, but once ideas start riffing together, a sense of belonging kicks in. Suddenly, everyone feels more settled in and part of the culture.
For me, that was always the key takeaway; instead of emphasizing a marketable project or something similar, a hackathon is a way for peers to develop relationships on a deeper level while having fun. Everything else is a bonus.
3. A Hands-On Learning Opportunity
Another perk I hold in high regard is that a hackathon is a safe environment where one can fail without consequences.
It pushes everyone involved out of their comfort zones, allowing for more leeway to try alternative approaches and tools. Because there are no boundaries, I find that people tend to be more passionate about their input as they get their hands dirty, so to speak, and try something completely new.
When you value creativity over making an error, I believe that things cosmically fall into place, and something positive happens.
Such circumstances are highly valuable lessons and a step toward an agile mindset as there are no hindrances. As I see it, failing fast means there is a platform to succeed next time. More importantly, you get to illustrate to your team that while innovation is welcome, it’s also expected to a certain degree, thus encouraging them to think openly and boldly.
Even if there’s no tangible product or service to show for, there is always going to be something to absorb in terms of creative skill building or team building. So, it’s a win, either way you look at it.
Anything Can Happen
John D. Rockefeller is often attributed as saying, “I would rather earn 1% off a 100 people’s efforts than 100% of my own efforts.” If we set aside the inevitable capitalistic connotation and look at it from a leadership point of view, his claim makes great sense. What any individual can achieve, even at their peak level of performance, is no match for a group effort where all the unique strengths and abilities are combined.
That is what hackathon brings to the table, literally and figuratively—an enriching process of ideation, experimentation and development that generates commitment and a feeling of pride for all involved.
There is no shortage of opportunities and directions to where it might go. I strongly recommend you give it a go as there are plenty of long-term rewards. Plus, if you do it right, it’s a heck of a lot of fun too.