Agile & Digital / Matrix Management

What can we managers learn from hackathons?

A hackathon: conjures up images of hundreds of techies furiously programming away in a room full of futuristic gadgets, coming up with amazing ideas for how to get us more addicted to our smartphones…. How does this relate to our own day-to-day world of matrix or complex organizations? What can we borrow from how they structure these sessions to innovate?

This was the very question asked by researchers from New York University’s Stern School of Business. In particular how the organizers of the hackathons balance autonomy and control to produce the greatest amount of innovation in the short 72-hour hackathon sprints.

Their greatest insight was that, “instead of attempting to manage the innovation process when it happens, the [hackathon organizers] focus on diligently setting the stage, and then they step back.”

This allows people the freedom to experiment, try things out and share early glimmers of ideas – without worrying they will be micro-managed or  made to think about execution and risks before their idea has even got off the ground.

The researchers identified three key hackathon strategies that could be usefully translated to the corporate world:

  1. Set the stage for filling knowledge gaps – but don’t manage learning

In the hackathon world, the organizers think through what knowledge or skills might be required that the group don’t have. They then assemble relevant experts to be on hand to offer that support.

In our work with matrix and other complex networked organizations, we encourage people to build their own ‘learning ecosystem’. To consciously think through what they’d like to learn more about. Then identify who inside and outside their organization could offer insights in this area. And finally, how to best connect to them (via following on twitter, LinkedIn, podcasts, sign-up to blogs, networking groups).

  1. Set the stage for early feedback on new ideas – but don’t supply it yourself

As the researchers explain, in the corporate world “many managers provide critical feedback with the best intentions, hoping to improve their employees’ ideas efficiently and make them marketable — asking tough questions, finding faults, and poking holes in suggested ideas. This type of feedback often backfires and deters employees from sharing new ideas in early stages and even exploring such ideas to begin with.”

Instead, most hackathons start with a ‘First ideas kick-off’.  Each individual takes to the ‘stage’ for a few minutes and shares their early ideas for solving the complex problem.  Everyone answers the same set of questions to help clarify and rationalize their initial solution.  Peers then offer comments and initial thoughts – all in a constructive manner.  This also sets the tone for a peer-to-peer learning mindset throughout the hackathon.

In the corporate world, encourage individuals and teams to present their ideas to each other in a set structure and get feedback, before taking them to a manager. This will similarly help accelerate the innovation process and encourage original thinking.

  1. Set the stage for experimentation – but don’t manage the experiments

One of our consultants shared how he recently had to run a cutting-edge creative brainstorming session in a soulless conference room.  We can probably all relate to that feeling of being in a creative rut as we try to think of ideas from the same desk, day after day.

To overcome this, hackathons often create a ‘sandbox’. This is simply converting a space within the normal working environment to one that inspires ideation and creativity.  You don’t have to carry out a full interior design make-over, with low tables covered in jelly beans and bright bean-bags scattered around (although you can). With the hackathons sometimes they simply remove individual tables and chairs in one area and make the space more communal.  They will also add physical prompts to creativity. These can range from high tech 3D printers, to simple woodwork tools that inspire electrical engineers to think of simplified solutions to complex IT problems.

In remote and virtual teams, there is no physical space to make funky. But we can revamp the structure and style of virtual brainstorming meetings to inspire more original ideas.

How could you mould these hackathon strategies to set the stage for increased creativity and innovation in your team?


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