Hacking the Hackathon

Matt van Leeuwen

Written by Matt Van Leeuwen

I wondered why there is such a strong love-hate relationship around hackathons. So I had a look at both sides of the polarised spectrum and concluded that hackathons may need a pivot or a “hack” as people in the tech community like to call it. 


Hackathons are short, caffeine-fuelled, design sprint-like events where people from different backgrounds come together to solve problems. For companies, they represent quick, relatively inexpensive ways to encourage collaboration, produce new ideas, and generate publicity. In Malaysia, some of the big corporates have started to dabble into hackathons. As is the case in some other countries in the region, these are generally the companies that are under most pressure to be disrupted including the telcos and banks. But also airlines and property developers have come up with their own hackathons.


But do hackathons really spark innovation or solve problems? Or are they merely PR boosters; a feel-good performance in the innovation theatre?


So what the hack makes a good hackathon?

The problem is that most companies are starting hackathons for the wrong reasons and are often driven by a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), initiated by external consultants who are selling their services as self-proclaimed innovation fixers. I call them the “firestarters”. They start little fires in the organisation by convincing usually the senior management about their so-called innovation gospel from Silicon Valley that is supposed to be a panacea for all problems and form an illusive firewall from being disrupted by the latest startups. Their pitch usually starts by showing you some slides of the latest asset-less unicorns like Airbnb, Uber and Netflix that have disrupted entire industries. Then they finish off by telling you their favourite story about Kodak’s downfall, and by asking whether you want to be the next in line to bring your company to bankruptcy.


Then when the little fires have turned into fast spreading wild-fires, it will be the people running their business units who end up being the victims, having to pay for the consultancy services presented to them without exactly knowing how the prescribed innovation programme is going to fit into the company’s strategy.


So how to avoid going through the same pitfalls and end up paying for things you don’t want or need? My advice is to start by creating an innovation strategy; this is the same as a roadmap for an education plan for your kids. One size fits all doesn’t work here; you need a customised plan that works for you. The innovation strategy will look different from a business strategy as there are different measures for success, but both must align and get the buy-in from senior management. Once you have a clear innovation thesis and portfolio strategy it is then much easier to decide how innovation consultants can help you bring value to your innovation programmes.


Do not solve problems in a vacuum

Although every hackathon proclaims its winner, there’s very little evidence that it leads to market successes, with Skype perhaps being one of the few exceptions. The standard prescription of a hackathon in generating ideas at a feverish pace does not provide the participants a deep understanding of the problem statement nor does it originate from real empathy with target customers. Hence, hackathons usually fail to provide solutions to actual pain points. To make matters worse, most of the solutions obtained from hackathons are not implementable. Thus, the formula of a hackathon should be “hacked” to include a thorough brief on the problem statement, rapid prototyping, and followed by an expedited market validation to gauge potential users’ feedback.


Unicorns are not built in a day

The objective of a hackathon should not be to build the next unicorn. The goal of a hackathon ought to be providing an avenue for experimenting with ideas, exploring opportunities and attempting to solve problems. After all, innovation is a long, iterative journey with uncertainties that require patience and discipline. Even if a company can spot promising ideas and creative solutions from a hackathon it will need to have the process and funding in place to further test and develop these before they can be taken to market. Again, the innovation strategy should make it clear what mechanisms are used for this.


A hackathon can be a powerful tool if done right

I believe there is some real educational value in running hackathons in schools and Universities as it encourages collaboration, sharpens problem solving skills related to industry challenges, and teaches students to communicate ideas in a concise and coherent pitch. At the same time, it gives industry sponsors of these hackathons an avenue to scout for talents.   In Sunway University and iLabs we have also run a fair number of hackathons that would give students an opportunity to channel their talents and energy into meaningful ideas that could solve real life problems.


By all means, try out what works for your organisation, but save your money on consultants, until you have crafted a solid innovation strategy. Or buy me a coffee – I am always happy to bounce off ideas and discuss innovation strategies!