Why Hackathons don’t work

24th March 2021

Hackathons are one of the first forms of Open Innovation that really captured the imagination and trust of the mainstream business world, and organisations have used them to try and solve problems and to bring in innovative ideas ever since. In this article we take a look at hackathons, a form of competition, which in itself is only one of the ways Open Innovation can be used.

Hackathons originally started in software development, where developers would get together over a short period of time to create a working prototype by the end of the event (typically a day or two). Since then, the concept has been taken on by many other industries as a way to get different people together to create something, or solve a problem, in an innovative way – often with participants competing for prizes.

But we’ve also observed so many occasions where hackathons simply don’t function in the way organisers and participants would like. In order for a hackathon to be successful, it needs to drive the right outcomes for both the hosting organisation and the participants who are contributing their ideas and solutions to a problem. Let’s look at this topic from both these viewpoints.

Organisations need to consider how to run an effective competition, making a conscious effort to move out of their comfort zone in every aspect of the process.

Are we getting true diversity of thought?
The power of Open Innovation comes from being able to reach the diversity of talent and thinking that is impossible to achieve within one organisation. By being as open as possible, we uncover possibilities and knowledge that can make profound differences in how we view and solve problems. The format of hackathons can, ironically, make this difficult. Often people need to be in a single place, at certain times – meaning that participants often come from a more localised area, reducing your ability to reach a more diverse crowd.

We have also seen organisations reaching out to their own network of suppliers to participate – this has the benefit of the organisation already understanding the company and potentially the problem that is to be solved. However, this can dramatically reduce the diversity in thinking in the room – a prerequisite in enabling radically innovative ideas to form.

It is crucial to think about who you invite or how you reach out to prospective participants – and this may mean that a hackathon is not the ideal format for your competition. Alternatives to this physical format exist, which circumvent some of these issues. For example, online competition platforms such as Kaggle can increase participation to levels that would be impossible for hackathons.

How do we actually bring ideas back into the organisation?
It’s easy to think of a hackathon as a standalone event, but it needs fit into your whole innovation process, which the hackathon sits in the middle of.
Plans on how to bring in the innovative ideas need to be conceived ahead of time to ensure they’re not just left on the shelf. There needs to be conscious effort and investment put into place to bring the idea into the organisation. The organisation must also consider ways for the idea to be taken to all parts of the business where resources can be dedicated to embedding it into everyday business processes.

Definition of the business challenge is also important. When very broad challenges are set, solutions can range from ideas on a flipchart to a prototype mobile app. Whilst this creative diversity is brilliant to see, it can create huge challenges on how to assess the ideas to bring them back in, and even how to judge a winner. To help with this, set more specific challenges – organisers can then understand ahead of time: how to judge what is the best solution; how the solution will fit into BAU processes; and procurement channels are well set-up before the event to ensure momentum is carried forward after the event.

Participants ought to be part of a diverse problem-solving crowd who are set up for success to deliver the promise of Open Innovation.

Is this enough for me to want to take part?
Having the right incentives is key for participation. Sometimes the draw of solving the problem at hand is enough. However, in many environments, where people are investing their time, monetary or commercial incentives are often offered and required.

Hackathons which invite current and prospective suppliers provide a great opportunity for participants to get to know the organisation better, and build relationships that could lead to more collaborative work together. However, careful consideration needs to be taken to ensure that suppliers are participating to solve the problem at hand, and not just to sell their solutions. This prompts organisations to ask themselves “why do I want to run a hackathon?” – for supplier engagement it can be great, but it may mean solving the problem becomes secondary. Hosting a hackathon for the wrong reasons serves to cheapen the pursuit of innovation, and can lead to reputational harm.

What happens now?
The end of a hackathon always presents an exciting moment. To see different teams pitching their ideas and solutions should be both celebratory and inspiring. However, this part of the process and beyond can easily become frustrating too.

Broad or vague problem statements can mean that it’s difficult for the organiser to bring in solutions. But for participants, this often entails vague guidelines for how solutions are judged and ultimately how winners are decided; this risks participants feeling their solutions aren’t valued or understood.

Similarly, as a participant you want to see your brilliant work make a difference. If the follow-up and procurement processes aren’t ready for something radical, or are ill-prepared to bring in new ideas, then the hackathon ultimately fails to deliver, but crucially also risks participants feeling frustrated and not turning up to future events.

Our view: Make deliberate decisions in the type of Open Innovation used and adopt best practices to succeed
Sometimes the reasons for running hackathons become somewhat lost. Are we really there to solve a problem? My experience of attending hackathons is that sometimes it feels like a marketing exercise, rather than a session where something great is going to be created. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s important to consciously make this decision, as it means that businesses can decide the best practice way forward.

Hackathons can be brilliant, high energy events that bring together diverse talent to solve interesting problems in a concentrated timeframe – however there are many pitfalls to running one, and often there are more efficient ways to achieve more (for example running online competitions). Understanding best practice Open Innovation is key – ensuring that you’re making the most of the energy you and the crowd are putting into innovation activities.

Are you looking to run a hackathon and want to understand how to get the best from it, or understand what are the Open Innovation best practice alternatives? To find out more about Open Innovation please contact us to have a chat, either by commenting directly in this article, or by contacting me at tim@axiaorigin.com. You can also find out more on the topic in our Insights Library.

Tim Ip | Co-founder