Organizational Revolutions through Idea Hacking

Businesses face the dilemma dividing resources between protecting the current value chain and developing new value propositions that in time replace the old ones. Not every organization has the luxury to have its own dedicated innovation unit and still then the ideas might not always be too innovative. Hackathons are an affordable and energizing way to generate innovative ideas that can revolutionize your organization.

Why should your company care about hackathons?

  • A multi-disciplinary/perspective approach to innovation is more effective.
  • Organisations tend to develop a bias over time, which creates blind spots.
  • Young, unbiased (academic) talent can spot unexplored opportunities.
  • Students and (young) professionals are eager to show their skills and have a positive impact on business and society.
  • Hackathons generate a lot of enthusiasm that can be used to accelerate innovation.
  • Employees can become ambassadors of change and mobilize fellow employees.

“Are we capable of making rational strategic decisions without involving our emotionally biased intuition?”

Most of us business professionals tend to think of ourselves as rational human beings, capable of making unbiased business decisions that are based on facts, rather than emotions, intuition and personal experiences. Research has shown otherwise. The majority of our decisions are triggered by an intuitive emotion that we automatically rationalize afterwards. This often feels so natural and logical that we will only take off our biased perspective goggles when we are confronted with an alternative fact.

This pre-biased perspective is great for making quick decisions in already existing structures and processes, but tends to get in the way when we need to do things differently or have the ambition to innovate.

‘Hackathons’ are an effective open innovation approach to truly get an outside-in perspective on your organization. The results are a wide pallet of alternative ideas and solutions that could broaden the perspective of your organization.

What are hackathons and where do they come from?

The term hackathon comes from the combination of the words ‘hacking’ and ‘marathon’ and finds its roots within the computer programming industry.

In the late 90s, the term was introduced by Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle), and was used for an event where various computer and programming experts worked on big technological challenges in a short, structured programming sprint. These experts came from all over the world and brought in various specialties: some of them were freelancers, others were professionals from competitive organisations. The idea was that certain big (technological) challenges need a broader perspective and the best experts in the field; by facilitating these sprints radical innovation could flourish.

Through the years, the term hackathon has spread to other domains which resulted into business, societal and sector-specific challenges which weren’t necessarily technological challenges.

How to setup a hackathon?

For every hackathon, it is crucial to find a well-balanced challenge that is both specific as well as generic. Being specific is important to ensure that you get results that are useful for further development, but being too specific also has the risk of inhibiting creativity.

Creativity and innovation thrive when different perspectives find a new common ground. It is important to find a way to form a diverse group of individuals that have a different background, age, gender and personality. Universities and other knowledge institutes could provide these fresh young minds. It can also be beneficial to include customers into these hackathons to get fresh solutions that already match the end-user’s needs.

The length of a hackathon can range from a couple of hours to a couple of days depending on the depth of the challenge, practicalities and the structure of the hackathon. The aim is to get new concrete concepts in a limited amount of time. It is important to set a timeframe that turns the event into a pressure cooker, without “over cooking” the participants. Besides the length of the hackathon, it is important to have some low paced intervals to let new insights sink in. Often the best ideas are created when the first rough ideas have been mentally digested.

Be aware that you are working with different types of participants. Some people might need more guidance than others. It is important to be clear on the instructions, and to give these instructions when they are relevant. Overloading the participants is counterproductive.

Also the location can play a big role in the output of the ideas. It can be inspiring to organize the event at the company itself so that participants can have a look inside the kitchen of your organization. Another option is to organize it within the city center so that participants can interview customers and receive direct feedback on their ideas from potential customers.

As a lot of the participants might be unfamiliar with hackathons it might be good to introduce certain tools to conduct research, filter insights, capture ideas and built prototypes. Fields such as service design can have a lot of practical tools that can be introduced during the hackathon when relevant.

How to incorporate the ideas within your organization

New innovative concepts often generate a lot of momentum in the form of enthusiasm when they are pitched in the end of the hackathon. A common mistake made by hackahton organizers is that they do not think of the continuation of the momentum generated in the hackathon. Too often we see that good ideas lose momentum rapidly, as the next day it is business as usual.

There are two tips that ensure the continuation of the momentum:

  1. Free up resources and time upfront for a follow-up project or a pilot
  2. Incorporate your employees in the hackathon

When setting up a hackathon, it is important to paint the bigger picture and see where potential ideas could land within the organisation. Often, follow-up research or a pilot is needed to test the feasibility of the ideas or see how it can fit within the organization. Making this commitment beforehand by freeing up resources and employees will help to follow-up on the ideas after the hackathon.

The ‘not invented here’-syndrome is a second reason why good ideas are not picked up. Outside ideas often generate scepticism, or don’t fit internal structures. Identifying innovators within the organisation that can think outside the box, but also bring in the organisational perspective is a nice way to create a breeding ground for innovation by letting them participate in the hackathon. These employees can be the ambassadors of change, and should communicate the idea to fellow employees in a follow-up project once the hackathon has concluded.

What is the conclusion?

Hackathon events can play an important role in the development of new innovative value propositions for your organization. It is important however to look at the whole innovation chain when setting up a hackathon to make sure that the ideas land within the organization and will be further developed. Only then you will be able to make use of the new creative ideas and engagement in order to create an organizational revolution.

By Damiën Luciën Nunes and Dominik Mahr, Service Science Factory, Maastricht University 

About the authors

Damien Nunes is project leader and a service designer at the Service Science Factory (SSF). SSF is an important valorisation entity within Maastricht University that focuses on service and business innovation in the form of projects, research and (post-graduate) education. Damien originally has an engineering and design background and developed himself further in the field of service and business innovation from a design thinking perspective.

LinkedIn | [email protected]

Dr. Dominik Mahr is Associate Professor at Maastricht University and Scientific Director of the Service Science Factory. The Service Science Factory (SSF) supports companies to identify business challenges and design service innovations. Being a part of Maastricht University SSF combines research, education and practice on service design and innovation.

LinkedIn | [email protected]

  • Adam StJohn Lawrence

    Hi guys,
    A great article! I’d like to add some more outcomes: ones which for me are far more important than the ideas generated at the event itself.
    Pressure cooker events like hackathons, jams and camps are exceptionally good learning environments. They provide a safe space where participants can try out new ways of working and pick up tools for everyday use. When new ways of working demand a completely different approach to problems (like, say, a service design thinking mindset), it can be daunting to apply them for the first time on real projects. But try them at a short term event – why not?
    Crucially, these events can also let people discover new collaboration partners by truly working beside people, experiencing (low ante) conflict, failure and success with them. This is very different to meeting in a networking environment. We know that people who have met at these events do pick up the phone and call each other, sometimes years later.
    These two aspects, as well as the new motivation and knowledge from exploring a new field, are what make pressure cooker events sustainable. Not especially because of the ideas that happen there, but because they empower and connect people. As we say at the Global Service Jam, “it’s the projects which come AFTER the Jam which really blow you away”.
    We were able to see this at the first GovJam (#GGovJam) in Australia, where the 80 or so people at the 48 hour event launched or scoped about 18 projects in the few weeks after the Jam which were NOT Jam projects but which were direct results of the Jam.
    Or, as an Indian Jammer put it, “Jams don’t make innovation, they make innovators”.
    So in our curation tasks after our Jam and hackathon events, let’s not only foster and support those interesting idea seeds. Let’s also consciously support the new skills, knowledge, connections and ambitions which were forged there. :)
    Adam Lawrence
    Co-Initiator Global Service Jam, Global Sustainability Jam, Global GovJam.

  • Damien Nunes

    Hi Adam,

    I fully agree that learning new tools/methods and creating collaborations are an essential outcome of hackathons which is both beneficial for the participants as well as the organization that is organizing them.

    We have seen however that hackathons do provide a lot of (rough) valuable ideas. Sometimes these ideas need to be polished, merged or sprout a new thinking direction. But we see that always there are ideas worth pursuing.

    That is why we encourage to start rapid prototyping promising ideas after a hackathon to gather feedback and see how these ideas stand up to reality. Some will fail, but these learnings are always valuable as you now know what works and doesn’t work and more important why… In my experience, failure, if dealt with correctly, can spark a lot of creativity. That is why we should not get too attached to our first ideas but rather test them.

    That is why we at the Service Science Factory promote the saying: “Don’t say your idea is great, show that your idea is great!”. This also ties in with the ‘design thinking’-mindset that participants will get familiar with during these hackathons which is an important aspect of an innovation culture.

    Furthermore the more open crowd sourcing approach of follow-up projects that you refer to works for certain contexts and also depends on the organization. For instance companies that have an open innovation culture are more likely to encourage the crowd sourcing of initiatives but for companies that have a more rigid structure or deal with sensitive information it is often better to align the hackathon to internal processes and bring in a fresh perspective in a more structured way to maintain continuety. The first experience with a hackathon can besides creating new ideas also open the discussion about internal processes and the organizational culture… but this is up to the organization.

    Best regards,

    Damien Nunes (Service Science Factory, Maastricht University)