Hackathon 2.0 – Stop the Innovation Theatre

Sofie Lindblom, CEO and co-founder of the global innovation platform ideation360 reminds us of some of the key aspects to creating successful events.

The world is changing faster than ever but it will probably never change this slowly again. This means that organizations around the world need to organize for constant change, for always exploring new opportunities – in parallel with their current core business.

A common approach to do this is to organize events with the purpose of spurring innovation. The events are called a variety of names: Innovation Week, Hack Day, Innovation Getaway, Innovation Stayaway, Innovation Challenge, Creative Day, Think Tank, Brainy Days, or simply Hackathon. Regardless of the name the overall setup is often the same: to generate and explore ideas during a fixed time period. These well-intentioned events are fun, but too often lead to nothing but a fun day or week for the people invited to take part. It becomes one item on the never-ending to-do list for managers. When done, we can cross it off, feel good about ourselves, and go back to our everyday jobs. Instead of fulfilling its potential for business impact, it becomes another “innovation theatre”, an empty promise about creating the future and reaching that vision far up in the sky.

How can we avoid this?

Here are a few things to consider when organizing your next event to avoid it having the feeling of theatre:

Connect your event to a clear purpose: Why are you investing in this? What do you hope to get out of it? Do a quick calculation of the salaries of people you take away from day-to-day operations for the event – it usually adds up to a big investment. Even though you want to keep your event open and creative, you want to make sure everyone is moving in the same direction, certainly in terms of time invested, but also because this actually makes possible the best creative outcome.

Always have an internal sponsor for the event. This adds credibility and reassures the organization that someone is interested in the results. The sponsor should have the budget and authority to move promising ideas forward.

Connect your event to strategic initiatives important for the company to explore. Innovation is not just a fun side-event we do only to promote employee engagement. It is business-critical, and crucial for survival, future growth, future profit, talent retention, and talent attraction. Keep an open track if you wish, but provide guidance to achieve more focused and relevant results.

The expression “kill your darlings” comes from the hard process of letting go of ideas you really believe in. This is, however, the case for most ideas. We can never know exactly how many ideas will see the light of day, but generally speaking, 5-10% of ideas are taken up and move forward. All ideas are, however, important in determining which are the promising ones. Setting the right expectations is very important to avoid disappointment further down the road: not all ideas will be selected. Detach the value of your idea from your own value in your role. And celebrate both wins and the learning that comes from failure.

Provide structure and tools to guide your teams through the process. Exploration requires a radically different approach from day-to-day operations. This is new to many. An innovation process helps teams to organize for exploration of many different options, to look at ideas and problems from different angles, and to package their pitch in a good way.

Your event should not only be for engineers or the one team who happened to have a visionary manager. Innovation happens when different perspectives come together to solve a common challenge. Invite the great minds that don’t think alike in HR, Finance, Production, Marketing, Technology, etc. Your approach here says a lot about what type of company culture you want to build: is everyone part of contributing to the future or only a selected few?

Give teams the freedom to spend a small amount of money on running experiments. By engaging in early, small-scale testing you can collect indicative data to guide decisions about what gets further funding. Good bye to decisions based on only gut feeling.

Passionate people will pour everything they have into making their ideas come to life. Just leaving these ideas in a folder somewhere in the cloud is a tremendous waste of opportunities, and acts like poison on the company culture. If you ask for ideas, you need to be prepared to act on the promising ones and give structured feedback to everyone involved. Hence – follow-up, follow-up, follow-up!

It is easier said than done to organize an event that will spur innovation. If you are not willing to fully commit to what it takes, it is often better to consider getting help or to start small and prototype your way forward. If done right an event can have tremendous power to motivate every corner of an organization, create real impact, and provide a good return on your investment.


Author: Sofie Lindblom is an Innovation Expert, Diversity Champion, Speaker, and Writer. She is the CEO and Co-founder of the global innovation platform ideation360. Prior to this role she was the Global Innovation Manager at Spotify. In 2014 she received Microsoft’s award “IT girl of the year” for her work to break down stereotypes and inspire more girls to choose a profession within technology. She has given 2 TEDx Talks, and in 2016 she was awarded one of the top 111 most influential women in Business, one of the top 101 super talents and “Digital Influencer of the year”. In 2017 Inspiring Fifty listed Sofie as one of the top 50 most inspiring women within technology in Europe.

Catch Sofie as an Innovation Stage keynote speaker at #DTS18, 18 & 19 April 2018. Click here for tickets.

This post originally appeared on ideation360.com.