Hackathons as a key intrapreneurial activity and route to innovation

In my time at Yammer first then Microsoft, I worked with customers to devise a program for running innovation hackathons. It considers more than just the 24 hour period typical for hackathons. The “pre” and “post” of hackathons is as important. Activity should start long before the 24 hour period and carry on long after.

It also incorporates a social platform like Yammer for supporting activities but you could adopt any. I’ve helped customers with global hackathons covering geographically dispersed teams. With something like Yammer you don’t all need to be together in one place at a set time for the pre and post work and ideas and innovation are given the time they need.

At Microsoft we went further than just the 24 hours. We dedicated an entire week to hacking and had a custom built platform that supported the ideation and team forming side far ahead of the week. Yammer groups were used in conjunction to the formal idea management side of things.

The full monty hackathon

I captured the approach of using something like Yammer in this diagram below for a full blown, longer term program. It also covers important elements like communication and involvement from others in the organisation. I’ve provided some additional detail following the diagram.

Innovation process flow

Based on work done with a large UK based retail customer – see also diagram for basic description.

Core concepts

  • Consolidate info into notes
  • Keep momentum by posting summaries
  • Continuous process of idea generation/team formation

Phase 1 – Ideation

  • A single main group is created and designated for idea creation
  • People post ideas in the group starting a thread
  • Topics (or hashtag in the text input field itself) can be applied to ideas to make it easy to distinguish between and track idea conversations, e.g #idea-descriptor (where descriptor relates specifically to the idea subject)
  • The organizer collects useful ideas into an Ideas Note making it easier to track all ideas in one place
  • Weekly: the organisers/community managers post a summary of the most interesting ideas or the ideas that have generated more feedback
  • End of phase: all ideas are self selected for moving onto the next phase (number of likes and comments could be an indicator of an ideas popularity)

Phase 2 – Forming

  • People that have decided to progress ideas should make clear who they are and these should be logged in a Note in the main group
  • Teams can be formed around these ideas in the Note by simply having people names linked to the idea in the Note
  • For each team, you can have:
    • Summary of the idea
    • Members
    • Link to the group (see next point)
  • People create a group for each team and idea
  • Weekly: the organisers/community managers posts a summary of the most interesting stuff happening inside groups to the main Globe’athon group
  • End of phase: Ideas could be progressed in conversations and Notes but at the end of the phase idea teams could be asked to summarise and answer some key questions around there idea using a template as a guide (see Example criteria for an idea qualification template below)

Phase 3 – Developing

  • The main group is now used again for collaboration and information sharing around the day of the event
  • The organisers/community managers make sure to spread messages out to observing parties and capture activities in the group from those happening offline
    • Pictures
    • Videos
    • Examples of collaboration
    • The winners

Example criteria for an idea qualification template

  • Have you considered all the advantages or benefits of the idea? Is there a real need for it?
  • Have you pinpointed the exact problems or difficulties your idea is expected to solve?
  • Is your idea an original, new concept, or is it a new combination or adaptation?
  • What immediate or short-range gains or results can be anticipated? Are the projected returns adequate? Are the risk factors acceptable?
  • What long-range benefits can be anticipated?
  • Have you checked the idea for faults or limitations?
  • Are there any problems the idea might create? What are the changes involved?
  • How simple or complex is going to be the idea’s execution or implementation?
  • Could you work out several variations of the idea? Could you offer alternative ideas?
  • How soon could the idea be put into operation?

I’ve tried to capture this whole approach a little more richly with this video :)

Instant hackathon – a no frills approach

This is the format you can follow to run a hackathon in a two to three hour period without any prior preparation and effort by participants. I’ve used this approach with team members on a one or two day retreat.

Format

  1. Distribute: Hand out paper and pens to each person. Set a timer for five minutes to 10 minutes. Everyone writes down as many ideas as they can. Individually. Quietly. This list won’t be shared with the group, so nobody has to worry about writing down dumb ideas.
  2. Self-edit: Set the timer for two minutes. Each person reviews his or her own list and picks one or two favorites. Individually. Quietly.
  3. Share and capture: One at a time, each person shares his or her top idea(s). No sales pitch. Just say what you wrote and move on. As you go, one person writes everybody’s ideas on the whiteboard.
  4. Vote: Set the timer for five minutes. Each person chooses a favorite from the ideas on the whiteboard. Individually. Quietly. You must commit your vote to paper.
  5. Share and capture: One at a time, each person says their vote. A short sales pitch may be permissible, but no changing your vote! Say what you wrote. Write the votes on the whiteboard. Dots work well.
  6. Decide: Who is the decider? Decider should make the final call—not the group. Decider can choose to respect the votes or not. This is less awkward than it sounds: instead of dancing around people’s opinions and feelings, you’ve made the mechanics plain. Everyone’s voice was heard. Three ideas must be chosen.
  7. Rejoice (that only took 15 minutes :)
  8. Hack: Top three ideas are worked on for 2-3 hour period including pitch
  9. Pitch: Outcomes presented and one or more are chosen for further work after the session (or not)

Guidance

  • Teams: Are groups of 3-5 people
  • Optional themes: Productivity Saving, Enhancing Customer Experience, Increasing Consumption, Better Product, Events, Blogging, Data hacks, Partners Stuff, Increasing Business Value, Use Cases
  • Scope: Business Hacks (No coding required!)
  • Bonus points for hacks that Ship!!!

Variations

  • Do steps 1 and 2 as an interactive session where people shout out their ideas and then collectively develop them.
  • Steps 1 and 2 as a walking session if you need some exercise during the day (needs a little more time). Capture and vote is then done as a plenary exercise. Hacking can in theory be done on the move as well but capturing the essence will require some work.

Further reading

I think hackathons, if done right, can be a key intrapreneurial activity and route to innovation. I’m not the only one. Below are some links to interesting articles of how others are adopting the approach:

#help #workingoutloud

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