Hackfests aren’t just for coders – take a page to take a break and innovate

Harvard Business Review recently posted an article on the value of hackfest beyond the scope gathering coders…

Hackathons are no longer just for coders. Companies far outside the tech world are using these intense brainstorming and development sessions to stir up new ideas on everything from culture change to supply chain management. For example, we recently helped a leading financial services company hold a small hackathon with 18 employees. The company wanted to make its banking services more enticing to millennials. We divided the company’s participants into five teams and collaborated with experts from the Stanford d.school to teach the basics of customer-centric design and rapid prototyping over three days…

At their best, hackathons create a structure and process around idea development. Sure, breaking out of the day-to-day routine can reinvigorate and inspire staff, but hackathons also demonstrate to employees that innovation is not only welcomed but also expected. Well-run hackathons lead to concrete ideas for new products and processes that can improve the customer experience and increase growth.

I know with the Hackfest I’ve attended (in the Cities, Red Wing or Willmar) some projects were very technology-focused; some were not. Teams were generally pleased to get a few hardcore coders on their team – but an ability to write, present, problem solve and have intimate knowledge of the problem being solved was at least as helpful. In short – a range of skills and experiences was what really made the teams strong.

The HBR article offers five tips for anyone hosting a hack – with or without a tech focus. I think the tips are helpful; I gave them a Minnesota spin.

  1. Stoke the creative mindset. This can be as simple as starting with a happy hour the evening before an event or as was the case with 2013 Hack in the Cities, the event was preceded by a daylong unconference to discuss municipal issues and problems in the community. That set the tone for recognizing what might be priorities for attendees. But really anything that helps to get people talking is a good thing – anything that helps draw out everyone’s talents is even better. Even that’s simply having everyone introduce themselves in a clever way.
  2. Empathize with customers and get personal. My favorite example was another Hackfest in the Cities where I brought my youngest daughter (maybe age 10 at the time). There was a team that wanted to come up with an idea for community homework helpers. They campaigned to have us join them – not because I can build a website, because we deal with homework, almost daily.
  3. Ask the right question. I have learned this one a little bit through process of elimination. One risk of having a diverse team, is the risk of rabbit holes. I think sticking with the basics – what problem are we trying to solve, why and for whom? Is a good start – worry about when to go public during phase 2.
  4. Prototype and test promising ideas quickly. I have noticed at most projects, it’s not always the best ideas that win – it’s the projects that get the best presentation. Some of that includes great speakers – but a sound prototype helps a lot. A prototype that is a series of screenshots that demonstrates an idea is often better than a coded project that is on track but requires too much imagination – because first you have to be able to share the vision.
  5. Nurture and expand the best ideas. Red Wing hosted last year’s Hack winner at the national Ignite event; Willmar invited all projects to apply for funding to continue to explore options. The Hack will jumpstart a project – but it needs gas to keep moving down the road.

I know a few Minnesota hacks are being planned. The next one I know about is on May 7 in Brainerd.

This entry was posted in Conferences, Government, MN by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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