A Hackathon: Not Just for the Software Industry

This is a two-part series on hackathons. In the last column of my recent series on Innovation, I mentioned hosting a hackathon as a way to create an environment of innovation. In this series, I’ll cover what a hackathon is and how to host one at your company.

So what is a hackathon and why do you want to host one? Basically, a hackathon is an event that pulls together people from different departments into small teams for a limited time, generally with a specific purpose in mind.

Although hackathons originated in the software world, their purpose can be anything you’d like, and as large or small as you’d like. Maybe you’re looking for a new slogan or angle for a marketing campaign.

Shutterstock, a website for stock photos and music tracks, hosts a company-wide 24-hour hackathon ever year “to imagine, design and implement an idea they think can provide value to the company.” It awards prizes to employees for best ideas in categories like Biggest Customer Impact and Game Changer. According to the website, “the real prize is the passion and excitement that hackathons themselves evoke.”

Winners also get the opportunity to work on their hacks, perhaps developing it into a product for the company.

In a larger version of the event, AT&T is hosting its first hackathon at CTIA’s Super Mobility Week in Las Vegas next week. The theme of the two-day event is Code for Car and the Home. The purpose of the hackathon is to match developers with technical experts and give them access to a roster of sponsors.

As an incentive, the company is giving away $100,000 in cash and prizes. For example, Volvo is giving away $5,000 for the best app focused on car safety and Samsung is also giving away $5,000 for the best use of Samsung gear. Finalists are invited to stay an extra night and have the opportunity to show their app to industry professionals.

Many companies open up their hackathons to the public to encourage outside opinions and ideas. Having outside participants can also be beneficial for recruiting future employees.

Paypal is hosting a global competition in a series of “BattleHacks” this year held in 14 cities across the world. The challenge is to create code that solves a local problem and become the “Ultimate Hacker for Good.” The World Finals will be in November in San Jose, CA and finalists will compete for $100,000 grand prize and an awesome looking axe trophy.

In addition to creating excitement and possibly new products, campaigns or solutions to problems for your company, hackathons give people from different departments the chance to interact in ways their day-to-day jobs don’t provide.

One of the biggest benefits is that it allows employees the time to focus solely on one thing, harnessing the collection brainpower of several of your employees at once.

In my next column, I’ll cover the basics of how to host a hackathon to benefit your company and generate excitement among your employees. Oh, and no need to award large cash prizes either. Many hackathons are fueled solely with pizza and caffeine.

Creating an Environment of Innovation

This is the third in a three-part series on Innovation. The first part discussed the need for innovation, with examples of companies like 3M that have achieved success by continually innovating. The second part was on encouraging innovation in the workplace by hiring Idea Generators.

I’ve written about the need for innovation in the workplace and provided some tips on how to hire Idea Generators. In this post, I’ll discuss how to create an environment in your business that encourages innovation and creative thinking.

In some businesses, employees are blatantly or subtly encouraged to keep their thinking squarely inside the box. The most creative they are allowed to be is when it comes time to order lunch.

If you want innovation in your workplace, and trust me, you do, you need to actively encourage it by following these suggestions.

Plan your space to allow for easy collaboration

As Margaret Heffernan, a former CEO of five businesses said, “For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”

If you’ve read anything about the history of Pixar, you know that Steve Jobs influenced the design of the building to encourage interaction and unplanned collaborations among departments. He went so far as to suggest that the large campus only have one set of bathrooms in the atrium so employees would be forced to go there several times a day. (That idea was quickly vetoed.)

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” Jobs said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

Give employees time during the week to explore their passion projects

In my first post on Innovation, I wrote about 3M and how it’s grown into a multi-billion dollar company through developing innovative products. The company has done this by implementing their 15 percent time rule, one it has had since 1948. 3M allows its people the time to investigate their ideas. That time has resulted in products such as Scotch tape and the Post-it note.

They also reward the best of these. Twice a year, six to eight ideas are awarded Genesis Grants, and the employees receive from $30,000 to $75,000 in seed money for 12 months of research.

Host a Hackathon

Started in the software industry, a hackathon is an event that pulls together people from different departments. It may last from one day to a week, generally with a specific purpose in mind.

Hootsuite hosts Hoot-Hackathons, two-day casual events for employees to meet new people and pitch ideas. “These events foster a culture of innovation and gets people enthusiastic about new ideas. Plus, it doesn’t cost a lot,” wrote Ryan Holmes in the article “Innovate or Die: 3 Ways to Stay Ahead of the Curve.”

Don’t punish failure and mistakes

Failure and mistakes are the steppingstones to mistakes. The Japanese engineer Soichiro Honda said, “Success is 99% failure.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that high of a percentage, but you get the idea. If some ideas don’t pan out, you’ve learned something. Remember what Albert Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it.”

Have your employees on board with the concept

Even those employees who may not be your most creative can take pride in working for a company that encourages and embraces it. And besides, you never know where that next great idea will come from. Let your employees know that you are looking for creative thinking.

The American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers – poets, actors, journalists – they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture. They vote in ways that promote it. They don’t fight science and they don’t fight technology.”

Management Consultant Peter Drucker said, “Business has only two basic function – marketing and innovation.”

Companies tend to spend a lot of time and attention on marketing. How is your company handling the function of innovation?