Earlier this week I had the pleasure of being a mentor at Landgate’s ‘Hack Attack’ hackathon. Run as part of the agency’s Innovation Month, Hack Attack provides the opportunity for Landgate employees to identify opportunities to solve a business problem. Teams assemble around the opportunities, and then through a day-long event, develop a solution to the problem. The emphasis is on creativity, collaboration and innovation.
I have been lucky to be a facilitator or organiser for 10+ hackathons over the last 4 years: from Startup Weekend Perth to internal hacks at RAC and more recently in the health sector with Fiona Stanley hospital, for the PlusEight HealthHack.
The thing that always astounds me about the hackathon format is the amount of positive creative energy unleashed in such a short period of time. You have people from a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and point of views, joined in a process of collective intelligence.
Landgate’s hack generated some great ideas that are now being implemented. Even if your hack doesn’t generate any ideas that get implemented, value will still be created through the empowerment of the people involved, the networks and professional connections created and the new ideas being tested and explored.
Based on what I observed at the ‘Hack Attack’ and from my experiences at other hackathons, there a few practical lessons that came to mind for leaders looking to run similar programs in their own organisations.
Whilst the term ‘hackathon’ conjures images of a hoodie-wearing programmer crouched over a keyboard, they’re certainly not just for software engineers or tech specialists.
The beauty of a hackathon comes from the collision of ideas from different points of view, background and experiences, and the magic happens when the usual ways of working are challenged.
For that reason, it’s important to make your company’s hackathon an open invitation, not just for a single role type or business unit. From customer service to leadership; the aim should be to get a wide diversity of people and roles involved.
At Hack Attack, the invitation was open to everyone, including customer service, finance, HR and specialist functions. Every hackathon team featured people from a variety of different areas of the agency, resulting in collaborations between business areas that may not often work closely together.
The ‘delegated financial authority’ team: an example of an inviting diversity and cross-company collaboration into your hackathon
A common innovation maxim is that most answers to company problems are generally not found in the four walls of your company building. Inviting external mentors, SMEs and even customers to innovation events like hackathons, provides an opportunity to challenge assumptions and to look at old problems from new perspectives.
For the organising team, inviting external support allows the teams to be challenged in new ways and can even change the tone of the entire event. At Hack Attack, having an external supporter and mentor meant the organising team had more time to observe the behaviours, help foster the collaboration within team, and learn themselves, rather than run about undertaking logistics.
Like many innovation activities, hackathons have the risk of becoming ‘innovation theatre’. Innovation theatre is something that smells and looks a lot like it is innovative, but doesn’t actually contribute to the companies objectives.
To avoid hackathons falling into the trap of innovation theatre, it is important that the outcomes sought are clearly set out the beginning and endorsed by the event’s management sponsors.
Objectives don’t need to always be hardline results, like revenue or efficiency measures. They can be people-focussed too and seek to improve engagement, learning or collaboration.
However, if sponsors are expecting the next $25 million idea to come out of the event and the organising team is instead designing the event around capability uplift, no one is going to be happy in the end regardless of what is achieved.
HackAttack teams getting warmed up in the morning through a creative ice-breaker
Innovation is both a leader-led and bottom-up process. In order to have a real impact, it needs to have the support of leadership and be fostered at all levels of the organisation.
One of the most common reasons I have seen for hackathon failures, or hackathons that result in lacklustre outcomes, is lack of leadership support. If teams don’t see their leaders viewing the event as important, then they won’t either.
For a successful hackathon, it is critical that senior leaders show their support for the event both by actively encouraging their teams to participate and then being very present and visible on the day. This can be in the form of being a mentor, providing input to teams at critical moments, or best-of-all, getting their hands dirty and being part of a team themselves.
Landgate demonstrating senior leadership support: Peter Markham (General Manager, Spur), Eugene Suares (General Manager, Business Enablement), Nate Sturcke (Skills of the Modern Age).
If you would like more information about how to run a successful hackathon or would like to discuss running an innovation event in your organisation, please get in touch with the Skills of the Modern Age. We would love to help!
SOMA, or Skills of the Modern Age, is a future skills academy helping Australians get ready for the future of work. Through in-person events, workshops and courses, we deliver practical training programs in the skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.
From programming to product design, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, we're on a mission to retool Australia, one learner at a time.