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Hackathons are a crucible for rapid innovation and learning.

Posted by on Apr 22, 2014 in Hackathons, Musings

Hackathons represent what I love about the creative process. Focusing intensely on an idea, and tinkering with it to see if it can be brought to life in a short amount of time. While many people might look at a hackathon as a new form of brainstorming, it is so much more when it’s structured right.

Over the last two years I’ve participated in 16 hackathons ranging in size from the large Launch Hackathon (Wristband), corporate sponsored hackathons (like AT&T’s), to smaller meetup.com group arranged events.  Some hackathons are very free form, and let you work on almost any idea you want.  While others are very focused on a single goal like wearable technology (Palpitates), helping a non-profit create a new way to reach users, or create an app to help those with Autism (good-list).

Whatever the format of the hackathon is, I believe that you really need to think of them in these terms: Create something usable by the end, see if you can innovate along the way, learn, and have fun.  Even if you go away understanding why you can’t create something, or bring your idea to fruition in a short amount of time.  You’ve done way more than you would just brainstorming on an idea.

Classic brainstorming (especially in the corporate world) tends to result in LOTS of ideas, but what you find is that they often go nowhere, or don’t result in a real change.  With a hackathon your goal is ideation with outcomes (IO).  Generate several ideas (10% of your time), narrow it down to one or a conglomeration quickly (5 to 10%), then see if you can realize it in the 24hr to 72hr time frame (85% of your time).  Even if you spend more time ideating and pairing down, the goal should be to see if it’s possible to actually build it, not just generate a set of ideas or an overview presentation.

The people I tend to work with at hackathons come to an idea quickly, think about the business, look at the marketing, usability, feasibility, outcome, monetization, and growth possibility before they ever move forward.  Then as you work through the idea it becomes more self evident if it’s possible or not in the allotted time.  There are lots that want to just work on a cool project (worker bees), but the great ideas are about so much more than just something cool. What it also means is that simply being a worker bee can really limit where you can go with something.  You need to hone multidisciplinary / cross functional skills, and that’s what a hackathon does.  You could think of hackathons as the new academic athletics.

In fact academic institutions and schools are the perfect setting for running hackathons to further the learning process.  At the 2014 NCIAA conference John During and myself presented a paper on just this concept. You can think of hackathons as a new form of rapid learning and innovation capture that can be applied from education to the corporation.  Facebook’s Paper app is a great example of an idea that originated at an internal corporate hackathon.

Whatever the end goal is, the environment for holding the hackathon in has to accommodate the process.  This is why you need a hackathon where you have things like food, drink, space, and other elements that might distract people, taken care of. It lets people focus on the ideas and the outcomes in a short amount of time with limited distractions that normally pop up in the course of a day or two.

Notice I didn’t say technology above.  While that might be part of it, or even the genesis of the idea, it is a tool rather than the concept.  At a hackathon you might spend a lot of time working with the tools, but the tools do you no good without the rest of the stuff around it.  The same could go for an art class.  The clay, drawings, paintings, photos and renderings are the tools and elements, but the higher purpose is the story, vision, and the expression of an idea.  Look at great artist. They tend to work feverishly on whatever it is they are passionate about, often to the detriment of almost everything else, and what results can be pure magic.

The key thing to understand in the end is that the outcome of a great hackathon is an alpha product.  It can be an app, artwork, or a company.  What ever it is, the next step is about moving it forward, and expanding upon what was created in that crucible of time.  If you CAN’T do that, then it’s just brainstorming, and the goal should be so much more.

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