Innovation SOP: Using Hackathons to Advance Digital Transformation

Qmarkets’ Innovation Standard Operating Procedures (SOP): In this series, we will present different guidelines on how to bring innovation theory to practice. Most companies already know that a digital transformation hackathon is a useful tool for gathering ideas, but companies need to know how to do this right. This week, we look at how companies can use hackathons not as a standalone idea-gathering tool, but as part of an overall comprehensive innovation process.

Imagine you run a company that’s been around for decades, but competition, technology and radical changes in the way consumers act have put the company in an uncomfortable position, when you hear the four dreaded words: “We need to adapt.” The company has experts – but in fields that are rapidly being eradicated by technologies and digitalization. Training and/or replacing employees and equipment will cost an obscene fortune. What do you do?

That’s the question that faced a Portuguese company called Sonae, a corporation with a large business portfolio. Their solution? Bring in all their departments, including HR, for a a digital transformation hackathon, at the end of which they managed to present over a dozen web and mobile apps. And many of these people had no prior coding experience. This is just a small example of how a broad-ranging or HR hackathon can help even a dinosaur company – one that’s been around for many years – leapfrog into the digital age.

Now, the first thought usually on people’s mind, when you mentioned the phrase ‘hackathon,’ is probably events like these, though, it’s unlikely that your company would, or should, require an event so intensive.

Digital Transformation Hackathon - brainstormingBenefits of Hackathons for Companies Looking to Innovate:

Hackathons are a valuable tool for companies looking to innovate (the Like button in Facebook? Yeah, that’s a product of a hackathon). The condensed environment of different people and departments, giving them free reign to their thoughts and abilities is a fertile ground for not just thinking up innovative ideas or products, but converting them into reality. To say nothing about “breaking down the walls” between departments, such as design, product and marketing and engineering, working together to create an achievable idea by the end of the hackathon. The venue and time limit allow the participants to “pull out all the stops,” creatively, so to speak, and the immediate engagement between participants can yield effective feedback that can be utilized immediately.

In some quarters a digital transformation hackathon is still considered simply a glorified brainstorming session, more and more high tech and industrial companies, from insurance to banking, find it effective, particularly when it comes to digital transformation. However, hackathons are not simply a hotbed for fostering innovative ideas, but also a way to bring different departments into collaborative work with different, fresh perspectives, bringing their own ideas into the mix to help find solutions in ways that would not be possible during regular staff meetings or the regular daily routine.

Digital Transformation Hackathon - stages
Digital transformation as a result of a successful 24-hour hackathon. Source: McKinsey

Digital Transformation Hackathon - cautionCaution: Pitfalls Ahead

There are pitfalls of the hackathon – namely, getting caught up with the hype, the guests, the atmosphere, etc., that once the hackathon is over, the company has all this wealth of data, and doesn’t know what to do with all of it, leading to an extended period of dissecting what happened, analysis, and in essence “cooling off” the effect of the hackathon instead of letting it being a springboard to digital transformation, using the information or results accumulated during the hackathon.

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Digital Transformation Hackathon - finalKeep the Digital Transformation Hackathon Going:

To make sure the digital transformation hackathon is fruitful, and won’t be remembered as a “one-off” event, CINOs, innovation leaders and managers can take a few steps to ensure the hackathon has “legs:”

blubulbimage1) In Or Out: Determine whether your hackathon is going to be strictly internal, limited to the employees of the company or to a specific department; external, by inviting teams of expert from outside the company to participate and share their experience, or a mixture of both.

blueclock2) Begin Before You Start: By taking advantage of various technical means, such as using IM services or sending out email blasts, you can then start the first phase of the event by introducing employees to the subject of the hackathon, what is being planned for the event and how they can get an early start.

blupizza3) An Event to Remember: In order to “keep the fire burning”, making sure your employees’ interest in the digital transformation process (or any other process) you are commencing at the company is alive and well, the hackathon should be split into a number of separate events. Make each leg of the event interesting, fun and challenging so that the number of participants won’t drop off.

listblu4) Big Data: Once the hackathon is completed, collect all available data that was gathered and/or created by all the teams. Ask the participants for feedback on how the experience was for them and in what ways the hackathon helped them adapt to new technologies or digital transformation.

blupodium5) The Big Boss: Have the “big guns” stick around, for as much as possible. When participants see several of the higher-ups walking around, sleeves rolled up, talking with the various teams and giving them advice, it reinforces the importance of the event, the teams, and is a boost for the morale. Gather support from the CEO and other senior position holders to announce results and winners.

blumeeting6) Outside Help: One of the most effective ways to both keep a hackathon going as well as encourage participants to come up with good ideas is to bring in an external sponsor or stakeholder, someone with name recognition who can take charge, encourage and lead the participants to the completion of the hackathon event.

bluribbon7) And the Winner Is… Reward participants, especially those whose ideas “won” the hackathon, so to speak.

    Digital Transformation Hackathon - horizonWhen it’s Over, it’s Over

A minor drawback with a hackathon is that it’s an “event” that, once it’s over, it’s…over. Once the banners come down, the snacks are gone…then what? You have to keep the burner going, not the flame of excitement die out, especially when it comes to digital transformation, which will certainly reshape many aspects of the company, including company culture. That is why one of the ideas is to keep the hackathons as an ongoing process, with frequent meet-ups to “disrupt” the routine.

Digital Transformation Hackathon - planning
Incorporating pre-hackathon and post-hackathon planning leads to greater retention of the hackathon’s results1.

By bringing in the concept of the hackathon into the company, the organization can create new dynamics and working relations between departments that previously had little or no connections. Of course, you need to decide beforehand what your objectives for the hackathon will be; what will be considered a success? For how long will you run it? Who will be part of it? Will it be strictly internal or will there be outside participants as well? Those are questions the CIO and the rest of the hackathon organizers will need to answer well in advance, so that they can prepare the company and its employees for what’s in store.

As a leading provider of collective intelligence solutions for enterprises, Qmarkets offers companies number of comprehensive, fully customizable solutions that can assist in configuring your company hackathon in all phases (as well as other innovation initiations) before, during and after the event. With tools such as Q-Hack, a unique, collaborative intelligence tool that can be used to engage participants before and after the hackathon, as well as be integrated with a company’s innovation management platform; Q-Live innovation workshop, Q-max, an innovation management platform, and Q-Open, an idea management platform that allows the participation of external stakeholders.

To learn more about how Qmarkets can assist your digital transformation efforts, leave your details and one of our associates will get back to you:

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1. Page, F., Sweeney, S., Bruce, F., & Baxter, S. (2016). THE USE OF THE “HACKATHON” IN DESIGN EDUCATION: AN OPPORTUNISTIC EXPLORATION. In DS 83: Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education (E&PDE16), Design Education: Collaboration and Cross-Disciplinarity, Aalborg, Denmark, 8th-9th September 2016.

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