Hackathons are the golden children of many tech startups. Successful ones revolutionize company operations and often bring out completely new ways of approaching a problem. And while hackathons typically mean that a bunch of twenty-something programmers gather around a table stacked high with pizza boxes and rivers of caffeine and type away all night, there’s plenty of ways they can work for almost any company. While the outcomes will look different depending on the type of business, the advantages will likely be the same.
Hackathons in their most organic form pull together programmers from either inside the company or from the local community. Sometimes there’s a prize for whichever person or team achieves the programming goal, but there’s often a lot of freedom to experiment and try solutions you wouldn’t otherwise entertain. They can last for anywhere from an 8-hour work day to 50 hours or so and are often epicenters of creativity. Companies like PayPal have hosted tech-based public hackathons, and others like Shutterstock are known to host internal hackathons for their employees.
“It’s not just tech companies and developers that can get involved. Hackathons can be held by any kind of company that feels it’s in need of a productivity boost,” wrote Jodie Pride, a content marketing executive at software company Veeqo. Often the hackathons result in a website redesign, a new marketing strategy, and other viable ideas for how to improve the company. It’s basically a brainstorming session on steroids, with the hope (and expectation) that tangible products will come out of it.
You can call it something else if you’re afraid that the technology-based name will scare people away. But no matter the focus, hackathons often help employees to be more productive — or at least inspire more productivity down the road. Here’s a few ways hosting one will likely improve your office, and some tips for holding effective ones.
1. They organically improve teambuilding
Don’t have the stomach for making your employees go through a ropes course or sumo wrestle on the beach, Michael Scott style? Hackathons can be just as creative, without the terrible employee relations. “No matter where you work, there’s always going to be some level of segmentation between departments, no matter how often you collaborate,” Pride wrote. Hackathons, she said, can bring people together and form bonds of unity over a common project. Because the projects are less routine, it allows people to collaborate in ways they wouldn’t normally have the chance to do.
Sparkhouse CEO Torrey Tayenaka told The Next Web that coming together for a nonprofit cause sparked creativity and teamwork for his team. If you see your team struggling to find common ground and productivity is grinding to a halt, take some time to solve a problem in your community. A non-job-related project might inspire teamwork more readily, and you’ll also be doing good for someone else. Two birds, one stone.
2. Productivity gets a jump
Free creativity breeds innovation. When you openly allow your employees to think outside of normal work patterns, they’ll probably feel more freedom to suggest ideas that otherwise wouldn’t come up in a meeting. Plus, hosting internal hackathons will allow employees who aren’t normally in creative roles to suggest ideas that might just work.
Pride said that in Veeqo’s own hackathon, the company allowed employees to anonymously suggest solutions at the beginning of the session. Because people didn’t have the fear of being shot down right away, they received several good ideas that they used as building blocks throughout the program.
3. You can be highly focused on one problem and solution
Hackathons are extremely creative times, but they’re normally focused on solving one central problem. Your team might come up with 50 different solutions you wouldn’t otherwise consider because of time constraints or other issues, but they’ll all be focused on that one goal. At least, they will be if you’ve set up the hackathon correctly. Fast Company says that having a theme or common aim is especially effective for shorter hackathons (say, if you can only devote an afternoon to one). Entrepreneur agrees, and added that having one person to facilitate the hackathon will also help keep people on the right track.
To keep the focus going strong, RJMetrics CEO Robert J. Moore suggests setting up checkpoints ahead of time. “Hackathons are a major part of our culture. One tip that always works is to schedule food and surprises for specific, pre-announced times all night. This keeps people hacking through to each milestone,” Moore told The Next Web.
A few other things to keep in mind: If you’re hosting a true hackathon with a tech focus, make sure your Wi-Fi can handle the level of traffic. Otherwise participants will get bogged down waiting for their pages to load – a guaranteed inspiration killer. If you’re turning a corporate retreat into a hackathon and you’re expecting to be at it for more than a few hours, make sure there are comfortable places for people to sleep, Tech Republic advises.
“It’s important to remember that hackathons take place over a short space of time, which allows teams to work intensively on their projects. If workers applied this to every day, they would soon burn out. But you can still apply this kind of ‘hackathon mentality’ to the workplace to keep the team focused,” Pride writes. Veeqo allows employees to revisit projects they started during the hackathon once a week or so, which Pride said has improved productivity well beyond the actual event.
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