Is it worth organizing a Hackathon?

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The world is getting busier and busier. In order to stop the flow of our everyday life and think about how we can do things better, we need to first acknowledge our need of acquiring new skills and techniques to do things more efficiently. In the middle of a busy OKR season and in the approaching months of the year end, it is quite hard to decide to stop the usual flow and focus on something completely different. 

Just a week before the start of the Hackathon, the organizing team was facing a troubling question: Should we skip it this time? Before we could answer this question, we needed to clarify the reason why people were not enthusiastic about the upcoming Hackathon and why only a handful had subscribed. And we decided to open the first aid kit and try to save the Hackathon, if it was not too late. 

Deciding on a broader theme

Before starting any Hackathon, it is advisable to stop and think: what is the reason and the main drive behind it? What makes people stop their busy day life and take 3 days off their path to be part of one of the Hackathon teams? The main assumption behind the decision for a Hackathon theme was that teams needed a focus – a suggestion that helped them decide on what to develop in such a short time. This assumption proved to limit, rather than send the people’s imagination free. So the next thing that we did was to open the doors and have teams choose from a much broader area of subjects. Our mistake was not to make it clear from the beginning that the Hackathon’s purpose was to unleash creativity and the acquiring of new skills, whether that was connected or not to the current business. 

Once we opened the doors to choosing whatever subject was preferred, we noticed an increase in the projects proposed for the Hackathon November session. We could thus finally kick-off the detailed organization of the event. 

The prize – a more sustainable trophy choice

In our journey at Visual Meta, we noticed here and there little trophies collected from previous Hackathon sessions, lying around almost forgotten in the clutter of everyday workflow. We could not help but notice how these little objects of pride and joy become obsolete in time, with teams constantly changing and shifting. We had been discussing internally the possibility of less material waste and more care for the environment and so we decided to go with a so-called Wandering Trophy: a trophy shared by the organization, shifting from team to team and from season to season to a different side of the organization. It would come to represent the pride of the Hackathon winners throughout more generations of Visual Metans. And it would mean less plastic for the environment and for our oceans. 

A culture of collaboration

It takes more Hackathons to get it right. A system had thankfully been put into place by previous Hackathon organizers to make things work, so that the ordering of food and vouchers and other necessary things would work seamlessly. It took more trials and errors to come to an eventless self-organized distribution of responsibilities. For example, the teams only needed a rough plan for cleaning their stations after eating. Responsible teams moved around to keep Playground, our colorful event-space, clean and looking less like a restaurant and more like a real collaboration space. We needed minimum support from the Office IT team with the organization of the space, for the teams knew what they needed and, again, were self-organized enough to do the setup themselves. Agile enough? Definitely. 

The Hackathon Vibe

We spent 3 days with the Hackathon teams and we could only express our wish to have every day of our working life look and feel like a Hackathon: more focus, less meetings, more ad hoc talks, more open collaboration. And a lot of cross-team alignment. If the Hackathon doesn’t look and feel like an Agile space, I don’t know what does. 

Enjoying the ride with an eye on the Prize

This time we tried a less formal presentation style. We gave up the microphone and a bit of our Powerpoint presentations in favor of migrating from team station to team station and of participating in live demos. We wanted hands-on proof of their concepts. We gave up chairs in favour of a roadshow-style presentation round, in order to keep everyone engaged in the conversation. We kept the jury close, so that they could have an overview of all the promising ideas and promote them, but we focused also on the power of the crowd, to better understand the needs of the organization. The round of votes that followed was meant to give the Visual Metans the chance to speak out anonymously their views of innovation and creativity. Next time we will most probably do the voting session digitally with an online smart tool to avoid overhead for the jury. 

Was it all worth it?

We definitely had a close insight of what Visual Meta daily work life can look like if we encourage highly ambitious teams and people to work closely together. We saw prototypes of ideas that have potential to develop beyond MVP, we had new brave perspectives of where business value is not yet tapped and we even had an AR game that challenged the developing team to design and think differently. The Wander Trophy went to one team only, but all 6 teams are winners, and that is because they learned precious lessons and got inspired to look beyond tomorrow and into the future of Visual Meta. 

We at Visual Meta firmly believe that it is indeed worth organising a Hackathon, and benefit from unleashing creativity and innovation.

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