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2015 could well have been called the “Year of the Hackathon”. It seemed like every second weekend there was a hackathon of some kind – focusing on fashion, technology, transport, publishing or even health – with the idea of unleashing innovation in a previously restrictive business or social environment. Hackathons grew out of the technology industry, providing hardware and software developers with the chance to learn, showcase or improve their skills while working on short, sharp projects over a weekend.

The explosion of hackathons has raised the eyebrows of industry observers as well as participants. Theo Priestley explains:

Hackathons have become de rigour in recent years, seen by companies not only as a means to associate themselves with something current and cool, but also as a way to encourage innovation by inviting external parties into the fold. Financial Services is an industry rife with hackathon activity in recent years as they try to combat against the tide of FinTech startups looking to disrupt their space. Call me a cynic but most events are held in this space with a view to absorbing the winning idea and team into the organisation rather than let the innovative idea out into the wild.

But there is no reason why a hackathon HAS to be public. As Theo suggests, the format, outputs and benefits of the hackathon process can easily be applied to internal challenges, offering businesses and their leadership a way to “foster innovation and creative problem solving which go beyond traditional business and IT transformation activities”.

No matter whether you are working on an internal or an external hackathon, however, we have found that the measure of success depends entirely on how well you plan the event. And that means building out your hackathon so that it focuses on problems worth solving – rather than using the event as an platform for open ideas.

Five whys not five tips for hackathon success

Rather than searching out five tips for hackathon success, we encourage an understanding of the five whys. Firstly, we encourage organisations to understand the problem areas that should be investigated. We ask:

  • Is your problem intractable?
  • Have you tried to solve it previously and failed?
  • Does it have an owner in the business?
  • Is there a budgetary impact?

Then we persistently ask “why” is this really a problem for your business. And we ask it five times.

Famously developed for the Toyota Motor Corporation, this process helps you explore the cause and effect relationships of a problem. A simple, often used example, is the problem of a car not starting. To determine the root cause – the deep reason this is a problem – we ask “why” five times:

Why (1): The battery is flat
Why (2): The alternator is faulty
Why (3): The fanbelt is loose
Why (4): The fanbelt is old
Why (5): The car should have been serviced and wasn’t.

Putting the five whys to work for your internal hackathon

This same process can be applied to your internal hackathon. Find a problem that is worth solving, use the 5 Whys to identify and articulate the root cause, focus your teams on solving that challenge in a concentrated time, and watch as collaboration takes root.

Learn more about problems worth solving or talk to us about delivering outcomes not outputs for your internal innovation programs.