Demystifying the hackathon

Ferry Grijpink, Alan Lau, and Javier Vara at McKinsey: “The “hackathon” has become one of the latest vogue terms in business. Typically used in reference to innovation jams like those seen at Rails Rumble or TechCrunch Disrupt, it describes an event that pools eager entrepreneurs and software developers into a confined space for a day or two and challenges them to create a cool killer app. Yet hackathons aren’t just for the start-up tech crowd. Businesses are employing the same principles to break through organizational inertia and instill more innovation-driven cultures. That’s because they offer a baptism by fire: a short, intense plunge that assaults the senses and allows employees to experience creative disruption in a visceral way.

For large organizations in particular, hackathons can be adapted to greatly accelerate the process of digital transformation. They are less about designing new products and more about “hacking” away at old processes and ways of working. By giving management and others the ability to kick the tires of collaborative design practices, 24-hour hackathons can show that big organizations are capable of delivering breakthrough innovation at start-up speed. And that’s never been more critical: speed and agility are today central to driving business value,1 making hackathons a valuable tool for accelerating organizational change and fostering a quick-march, customercentric, can-do culture.

What it takes to do a good 24-hour hackathon

A 24-hour hackathon differs from more established brainstorming sessions in that it is all about results and jump-starting a way of working, not just idea generation. However, done well, it can help shave 25 to 50 percent from the time it takes to bring a service or product to market. The best 24-hour hackathons share several characteristics. They are:

  • Centered on the customer. A hackathon is focused on a single customer process or journey and supports a clear business target—for example, speed, revenue growth, or a breakthrough customer experience. It goes from the front to the back, starting with the customer experience and moving through various organizational and process steps that come into play to deliver on that interaction and the complete customer journey.
  • Deeply cross-functional. This is not just for the IT crowd. Hackathons bring together people from across the business to force different ways of working a problem. In addition to IT and top management, whose involvement as participants or as sponsors is critical, hackathon participants can include frontline personnel, brand leaders, user-experience specialists, customer service, sales, graphic designers, and coders. That assortment forces a range of perspectives to keep group think at bay while intense deadlines dispense with small talk and force quick, deep collaboration.
  • Starting from scratch. Successful hackathons deliberately challenge participants to reimagine an idealized method for addressing a given customer need, such as taking a paper-based, offline account-opening procedure and turning it into a simple, single-step, self-service online process. There’s an intentional irreverence in this disruption, too. Participants go in knowing that everything can and should be challenged. That’s liberating. The goal is to toss aside traditional notions of how things are done and reimagine the richest, most efficient way to improve the customer experience.
  • Concrete and focused on output. Sessions start with ideas but end with a working prototype that people can see and touch, such as clickable apps or a 3-D printed product (exhibit). Output also includes a clear development path that highlights all the steps needed, including regulatory, IT, and other considerations, to accelerate production and implementation. After an intense design workshop, which includes sketching a minimum viable product and overnight coding and development of the prototype, a 24-hour hackathon typically concludes with an experiential presentation to senior leaders. This management showcase includes a real-life demonstration of the new prototype and a roadmap of IT and other capabilities needed to bring the final version to market in under 12 weeks.
  • Iterative and continuous. Once teams agree on a basic experience, designers and coders go to work creating a virtual model that the group vets, refines and re-releases in continual cycles until the new process or app meets the desired experience criteria. When hackathons end, there is usually a surge of enthusiasm and energy. But that energy can dissipate unless management puts in place new processes to sustain the momentum. That includes creating mechanisms for frontline employees to report back on progress and rewards for adopting new behaviors….(More)”