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How can your business continue to disrupt after you have leveraged your first mover advantage in a given field? If you’re unprepared for this question, your business can flat line fast. You should continue to generate ideas that improve the business so that it remains relevant to the people it serves. This article is a guide on how your business can leverage a collaborative hackathon to fulfil this need.

We have split these concepts into a three-part series. This article looks at the idea of a hackathon and presents a model so that you can replicate hacks in your business. The second analyses the power of sprints, sprint weeks and accelerated performance. The third examines the finished product, including an example from our experience, giving you a flavour of what you can achieve using this guide.

What is a Hackathon?

Your employees have great ideas, period. The opportunities you create for your employees to express these ideas will transform your business into a hive-mind.

But what is a hackathon? A hack is a participatory device where employees can nominate innovations to drive a business forward in some way, for example:

  • improving internal operations;
  • handling client enquiries; or
  • tech innovations like web platforms and applications.

Typically, there is an event attached to the round of innovation proposals. A hack should be pragmatic, but also fun. Host it off-site. Make a day of it. Make the team the stars. You could even have a prize and award (budget permitting of course!).

Hackathons encourage you and your executive team to reconsider how you are approaching problems at work. This thinking is incredibly powerful for your business. It challenges biases and instances of groupthink by introducing a culture of dissent and challenge. Hackathons can help empower your employees, enabling them to take control of projects. It also gives new players a chance at leadership, teaches them new skills and creates cohesion between teams.

The Stages

1. Planning

You should plan your hackathon and assign a team member to run the hack. In our experience, it is also good to have a support committee that assists the team leader. The committee can sit in on coaching sessions with the leaders and scrutinise proposals as they develop. Try not to be too prescriptive – you don’t want oppressive rules that stifle the team’s creativity and autonomy.

At LegalVision, we organised the event into key stages and designated a team leader for each group. So, our plan looked like this:

  1. team formulation
  2. proposal deadline (soft)
  3. proposal deadline (hard)
  4. event + presentations
  5. selection of ideas and new team elections
  6. internal project management for deliverables
  7. time allocation for development
  8. due date (prototype)
  9. testing
  10. roll out MVP.

You can use each section that follows as a means to reverse engineer your planning process.

2. Team Formulation

There are two psychological states that you want to develop when setting up your teams – norms and flows.

Norms are essential team ingredients. They are the traditions, behavioural standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function. The five key norms according to Google’s research into “what makes an effective team” are:

  1. psychological safety: can team members take risks without feeling insecure or ashamed?
  2. dependability: can team members count on one another to deliver high-quality work on time?
  3. structure and clarity: have the teams set clear goals, roles, expectations and execution plans?
  4. meaning of work: is the work personally important to the team members?
  5. impact of work: do the team members believe that the work makes an impact?

Google found that the best performing teams had these five norms present. They found the most important norm was psychological safety. However, if you miss one, then the team won’t be effective.

A flow is a state that produces optimal performance in a group. Creating an environment where these norms are present and imbuing them with flow triggers can launch your teams into group flow. Some triggers include:

  • clear goals
  • deep focus
  • good communication
  • risk
  • familiarity
  • close listening.

Try introducing these concepts into your coaching sessions and see if groups report a high level of connectedness.

The hack is a perfect time to grow new leaders within your business. In choosing the team leader, try to pick an employee that is an unlikely candidate for the job. Your support committee and the member responsible for the hack will be responsible for the growth and development of these leaders so they can, in turn, grow their teams.

Individual personality is also important. When creating the teams, be sure to have an appreciation for the different personality traits of team members. It will allow the teams to draw the best out of their group dynamics.

3. Event Selection

This step is primarily for fun. Why not make an event out of the hack? It signals importance and lets everyone participate in an integrated way.

At LegalVision, our Hackathon was a day event that combined good food, speeches and voting. We had a celebration at the end and it was a great team experience.

The event can scale depending on the size of your startup. Are you employees located all over the world? Why not do cross-country hacks? Telecast it as a promotional tool so that the whole company feels the energy. Really small? Keep it intimate without ruining the ‘event’ aspect. Your hack doesn’t need to be excessive, but it should be exciting.

4. The Day

Run a tight ship. Have a schedule and stick to it. The employee responsible for organising the hack should hopefully have done the legwork and each team will want a chance to showcase their idea. You should not rush through hack proposals due to bad planning. After all, that may cause you to miss a huge opportunity contained within that proposal.

5. After the Hack – Pursuing Projects that Matter

For our part, LegalVision subjected the proposals to an internal vote of the executive to determine which projects to pursue further. Maintaining momentum and turning the hack proposals into real company innovations is important. It solidifies your employee’s efforts and validates the usefulness of the hack. Even if you abandon projects later due to lack of client uptake or funds, this selection phase adds real credibility to the whole hack process. Be discerning. As a business, you will need to make some tough choices, and you will need to shelve some proposals in the early days or as they progress further.

Overcoming Challenges

You will not always be able to check off each element in a successful hack. There will always be challenging moments – teams may be lazy or uninterested, budgetary pressure may scuttle the event, or the proposals appear outlandish and impossible to implement. Here are some tips to overcome these challenges.

Constantly Re-evaluate Team Dynamics

You might find that there are some internal struggles within some teams as the hack proposals move forward. Your aim is to be proactive, not reactive. Questions you should be asking include:

  • Why is this team not functioning correctly?
  • Is it presenting all of the norms?
  • Is its leader the best fit for that team?

Beware the False Negative

The false negative can cause you to evaluate the outcomes of a proposal incorrectly. It usually happens when you base your reasoning on a false vision of the surrounding circumstances. For example, you might decide a hack proposal is too expensive, when in fact, it isn’t. Always keep an open mind and distance yourself from the proposal where possible.

Key Takeaways

  1. Hackathons are great investments in your business’ future and your team’s happiness and job satisfaction.
  2. By introducing a multitude of new ideas from your employees, you defend against biases and push your business closer to relevancy in the eyes of your customers.
  3. Team formulation is a science. Getting the science right can be applied outside of the hack context and will ultimately drive your business forward both in growth and overall employee satisfaction.

Have you run a hackathon before? Let us know how it went on LegalVision’s Twitter.


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