How to Innovate Through a Hackathon

A hackathon can unlock the power of crowds. Here's how to run a successful one within your company and supercharge your innovation process.

By Francisco M Garcia, director of Enterprise AI and Courtney Rodriguez, Global eCommerce Advisor, Dell Technologies

UNESCO has used them to help combat the pandemic. NASA has used them to create powerful ideas for reducing flooding and spot locusts from outer space. The smartest organizations are tapping into collective talent with this powerful learning and collaboration tool. Could hackathons help your company foster knowledge and perhaps even create the next ground-breaking product idea?

A hackathon brings together teams of people to solve pressing business, social, or environmental problems using technology. Focusing on a mixture of technological innovation and entrepreneurship, a hackathon can unlock the power of crowds, which in turn creates new levels of innovation and amps up enthusiasm among its participants.

Despite these benefits, Dell Technologies’ Digital Transformation Index shows that the proportion of companies hosting hackathons is still low. Half of all companies surveyed say they invest in digital talent and encourage knowledge sharing across different business functions. A hackathon is an ideal tool to help with that, yet only 17 percent of organizations are running them. The hackathon is potentially the most potent digital transformation tool and also the least used. It’s time to change that—but how? Here are some critical success factors based on our experience of organizing hackathon events at Dell Technologies.

Be Virtual

Hackathons have traditionally been in-person events, but innovation need not stop in the middle of a pandemic. Turn a challenge into an opportunity by using collaborative tools to bring together remote and virtual teams. Tools like Microsoft Teams can handle everything from registration to team allocation and assignments. Use your collaboration platform to collect videos, presentations, and other artifacts that showcase work accomplished during the virtual hackathon.

When tapping into a global virtual community, remember that people will be participating in different time zones. There is a benefit to this. Aligning with managers around the world could stretch out a hackathon across a 24-hour time span and sustain momentum. A virtual hackathon also supports more participants than a typical in-person event, so use strict rules to limit presentation times and keep things equal.

Be Inclusive

A hackathon isn’t just about encouraging people to be innovative. It’s about sharing knowledge between different groups to elevate everyone’s understanding. That’s why it’s important to encourage diverse participation. In an ideal hackathon, technologists will get to know business experts and share their experiences. The best outcome is a community of practice that spans multiple disciplines, making your overall approach to innovation more mature and well-rounded.

Decide on a Structure

A hackathon should have a predefined duration and a structure for the competition so that everyone knows what to expect. One common format includes teams working over a 24-hour period to build and showcase a solution.

The structure should define a specific problem you’re trying to solve, such as an automated approval process, a tricky pricing conundrum, or a way to apply an emerging technology like artificial intelligence (AI) to fulfill a pressing business need.

At Dell Technologies, we often use a simple problem statement that already has one or more solutions. This serves as an improvement exercise while also challenging less experienced participants. We complement that with an expert-level problem that has not been solved before.

Then go beyond the problem to articulate how people will work together: Should they form teams before they sign up? Unless you intend to assign them to a team, is there a way to help individual entrants join the most appropriate team? Depending on the problem statement, you might have to define clear rules, such as requiring at least one coder or setting a maximum of four participants.

Make the deliverables clear: Will they be required to present a solution, and, if so, in what form?

Teams must also understand the evaluation criteria. Many hackathons offer awards in different categories, such as most innovative project or those most plausible to deploy. Explain who is judging the projects and how.

Prepare Your Resources

Provide attendees with all the resources they need ahead of time, especially as many people competing in your hackathon will be doing so for the first time. Helping them feel prepared will put everyone at ease and result in time well spent.

A historical repository of previous techniques and codebases (a collection of source code used to build a particular software system, application, or software component) is a great way to empower people and make them productive quickly. Another effective tool is a resource playbook including an IT roadmap. Both keep participants on the right track by aligning their initiatives with existing corporate technology standards and preventing them from duplicating ongoing projects.

Have a Post-Hackathon Game Plan

Collecting hackathon exchanges and artifacts using collaborative online tools helps overcome one of the biggest hackathon challenges: Capitalizing on the work. Few things are as discouraging as a hackathon project that gathers dust without anyone taking it further. While not every project translates into a world-beating product or service, the knowledge that it generated can fuel more innovation. Absorbing the hackathon’s best outcomes into a knowledge base or wiki can unlock its future value.

Ensure that the business unit sponsoring the event has clear, achievable goals for the hackathon and a strategy for extracting and using intellectual property from the event. Include someone in charge of the IT roadmap during the planning phase so they can use the information afterward.

Eventually, you might start seeing patterns in the techniques and tools that participants are using over the course of various hackathons. This can help you refine your hackathon planning and update the resources and techniques you offer to enhance teams’ performance in future events.

Measure Your Success

Analyzing project outcomes will enable you to address an oft-ignored challenge in hackathon management: measuring success. These events take some heavy lifting. It’s important to quantify their value where possible. The measurement criteria will change with the problem you’re trying to solve. For example, AI-focused projects might measure performance based on how the projects improve a commercial learning algorithm’s accuracy. The sponsoring business unit plays a key part in defining those evaluation metrics.

With a little planning and preparation, a hackathon can be a powerful tool in your digital transformation journey. Positioning it as part of a broader innovation discipline can connect employee talent to solve the most pressing business problems and even drive entirely new business models. Don’t ignore this powerful technique to unlock your employees’ talent.