Hacking the hype: Why hackathons don’t work and what leaders can do to spur real innovation within their organizations

6792100891_fb5e692fbd_zAs buzz-worthy business trends go, hackathons—where people from different backgrounds come together to work on a project for a few intense, caffeine-fuelled days—are a top contender.

They’re most common in Silicon Valley: at Facebook and Google, hackathons are hallowed traditions. Even old-economy companies like GM and GE use them. They’re popular in research and education, too: this year, MIT hosted numerous hackathons, including Hacking Arts, Hacking Rehabilitation, and, of course, the second-annual breast pump hackathon: Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!

We get it. Hackathons are fun. There’s all-you-can-eat pizza and Red Bull flows freely. For participants, they’re quasi-social opportunities to work on something real with smart, passionate people. For companies and universities, they represent quick, relatively inexpensive ways to encourage collaboration, produce new ideas, and generate publicity.


But there’s a downside to the hackathon hype and our research on designing workplace projects for innovation and learning reveals why: innovation is usually a lurching journey of discovery and problem solving. Innovation is an iterative, often slow-moving, process that requires patience and discipline. Hackathons, with their feverish pace, lack of parameters, and winner-take-all culture, discourage this process. We could find few examples of hackathons that have directly led to market success.


The biggest disadvantage of hackathons is in many ways their draw: they are divorced from reality. The hackathon formula is pretty standard: throw a bunch of diverse teams together in a novel setting. Provide them with more playful materials than they’d normally encounter. And then put them to work on a worthy challenge where, at least at first, no ideas are rejected. These attributes can be positive: Exposing people to different perspectives is a surefire way to get them to look at problems in a new light. New spaces and unusual materials can stimulate creativity.

“Solving” a problem in a vacuum is, however, a waste of time and money. When hackathon participants lack necessary contextual knowledge and technical expertise, the result is often ideas that are neither feasible nor inventive. Worse yet, these flaws tend to go unrecognized, owing to the limited time for the event.

Hackathons rely on a pared-down framing of the challenge at hand. Exploration is confined to what can be done in the room or online. It’s difficult to do serious market research, use-case studies, and financial modeling, let alone to investigate potential unintended effects. Long after the hackathon is over, due diligence may reveal that several competitors in the market are doing something similar; clients already rejected the idea years ago; or the company can’t manufacture a prototype that meets the specs.

Such stories hint at an insidious side effect of hackathons: once they become synonymous with innovation, everything else is cast as plodding downstream work, demeaned as “mere execution.” But the study of innovation shows that everything hinges on the hard work of taking a promising idea and making it work—technically, legally, financially, culturally, ecologically. Constraints are great enablers of innovation.

Another drawback of hackathons is that they create a false sense of success. Every hackathon proclaims its winners and awards prizes. What if none of the ideas are any good? Doesn’t matter. The top team still gets a check and the very fact that the organization hosted a hackathon ticks the innovation box.

If not hackathons, then what? How can leaders embed innovation capabilities within their organizations by tapping into some coolness and excitement?

Every team project could benefit from well-placed injections of energy. Let’s move beyond the belief that open-ended exploration is important only for the initial ideation phase. Fluid discussions are needed at the middle and end, too.

Leaders must seek out people from other divisions and disciplines to challenge the project team’s thinking with both a critical eye and a creative spirit. A mid-project meeting ought to include participants with varied expertise to explore interim findings and rework plans—radically, if needed. At a project’s end, fresh perspectives could energize and add context to the process of reviewing results, pinpointing lessons learned, and sharing the best discoveries.

Managers must also cultivate new approaches to failure. It’s well known that many organizations have difficulty exiting projects. Bosses feel on the hook so they punt while the team limps along; team members are punished for sharing bad news so they bury it. What if projects were designed to combine a hacking mindset with rigorous examination of the data and experience they glean? This would reward smart failures that reveal new insights and equip leaders with the information needed to rescale, pivot, or axe their projects.

Hackathons trigger blips of great energy. But to sustain energy and deliver real impact, leaders must enable all the steps needed to innovate effectively. Hacking our workaday projects to challenge assumptions, test ideas, and fuel data-driven creativity might turn out to be the ultimate innovation.

A version of this post appeared on Fast Company, December 1 2015, under the title Why Hackathons Are Bad for Innovation.

Anjali Sastry, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Kara Penn, the cofounder and principal consultant at Mission Spark, are the authors of FAIL BETTER: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner (Harvard Business Review, 2014; see www.failbetternow.com ).


Photo sources: https://flic.kr/p/bmchXM and https://www.flickr.com/photos/zitec-com/5718483135/

About the authors of “Parenting Your Child With Autism”

M. Anjali Sastry, PhD, is senior lecturer in system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She investigates global health delivery and management, focusing on systems thinking and practical business-based approaches for increasing medical and prevention services in low-resource settings via numerous field studies in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. She serves on the boards of Management Sciences for Health and the Learning Project Elementary School. She, her husband, and their two sons, both of whom have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, live in Brookline, MA.

Blaise Aguirre, MD, is an expert in child psychiatry including psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. He has worked extensively with children and their families and is an author and speaker on various aspects of mood, personality and development in children and adolescents. He is medical director of 3East at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, a residential dialectical behavior therapy program for young women exhibiting self-endangering behaviors and borderline personality traits. He has been a staff psychiatrist at McLean Hospital since 2000. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and lives in Lexington, MA with his wife and their four children.

Early praise for “Parenting Your Child With Autism”

What experts we admire say about the book

This book is highly readable and makes the complexity of autism highly accessible to parents, who have an urgent need to know how to help their child. The authors bring to the book their invaluable mix of first-hand and professional experience.

—Simon Baron-Cohen, FBA, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University and director of its Autism Research Centre

A refreshing, parent-centered approach that empowers parents to go with their gut feeling while also providing realistic advice that promotes critical thinking. This book is an inclusive guidebook with practical notes for parents at all stages of the autism diagnosis.

—Lisa Borges, executive director of the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, Inc.

This wonderful book will bring comfort and practical help to many families as they search for creative ways to relieve their children’s distress, develop new skills, and find areas of joy. The biggest gift that Anjali Sastry and Blaise Aguirre offer is that their shared wisdom will spare some parents from the painful and slow trial-and-error process of sifting through the sea of options they encounter on the internet. Their book is deeply respectful of every parent as the true expert on their own unique child’s strengths, interests, and challenges. It is also uniquely thoughtful about mindfulness and other ways that parents can sustain themselves along the journey. This is an important addition to the family literature on autism spectrum disorders.

—Joseph Gold, MD, chief medical officer at McLean Hospital

Parenting Your Child with Autism is a guide to managing your life and family when you have a child on the autistic spectrum. This is not a book of answers, but a book of methods and process. Sastry and Aguirre teach you how to find the help you need, how to manage all the meetings with doctors and educators, and how to evaluate all the conflicting opinions and recommendations. Most importantly, they teach you how to do the best for your child.

—Brian G. R. Hughes, parent, entrepreneur, and university trustee

This book is a user-friendly, insightful, and practical guide for parents of children with autism. It empowers parents to take a leading role as an expert in their child’s care and to bring their invaluable expertise as the primary care providers to the table. I highly recommend this book and believe that it will be of enormous benefit to children with autism and their families.

—Roya Ostovar, PhD, author of The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder

As a lay person who has both worked with adolescents for over thirty-five years and is an aunt to a nephew with Asperger’s syndrome, I found this book captivating. The simple (without being simplistic) explanations of the autism spectrum and the practical guides to coping left me feeling empowered. The mystery of autism was swept away and, in its place, I was left with a feeling of hope. Although there is currently no cure for autism, Sastry and Aguirre are encouraging with their advice. They assure caregivers of children with ASD that they can significantly improve the quality of life of those affected by autism. A very practical and optimistic read.

—Linda Schuyler, cocreator and executive producer of the award-winning Degrassi television franchise

A parent who has been there and a compassionate doctor combine to create a winning combination of practical assistance and compassion. I recommend this book to any parent who wants to learn more about taking care of their child with autism—and themselves.

—Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director at National Alliance on Mental Illness and assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School

Finally, a book for parents of children newly diagnosed with autism that’s accurate and practical without being intimidating or alarmist. This how-to guide will help parents focus their energy and efforts so that their child benefits. I wish I had this introduction to autism when my daughter was first diagnosed.

—Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation

Feeling overwhelmed and confused about what to do to help your autistic child? Help awaits you with this book, an authoritative yet deeply empathetic and highly practical guide to navigating the challenging terrain of autism, from getting a diagnosis to choosing the right therapy. I wish my wife and I had had such an enormously useful primer when my son was diagnosed with autism in the late 1990s. It would have been our bible, like What to Expect When You’re Expecting is for pregnancy. The authors have done parents of children with autism a huge service with this book, which, above all, offers a truly hopeful way forward.

—Peter Tyson, father of fifteen-year-old autistic boy

As indicated by its subtitle, this book is not a how-to manual, nor is it a book that advocates one view or another regarding this very complex disorder known as autism. The authors have presented a guide for parents, families, and caregivers with regard to understanding what is and is not known about the disorder, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the child, establishing medical and educational teams to best support the needs of the child and the family, becoming an effective advocate for the child, handling potential family stresses, and negotiating a multiplicity of interventions and treatment options. This book is well-researched and exceptionally well-balanced in its approach and is a thoughtful, common-sense guide to setting reasonable expectations and successfully negotiating the world of the autistic child.

—Margaret L. Bauman, MD, associate professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School, director of the Autism Research Foundation and the Autism Research Consortium, and founding director of the Lurie Center for Autism

With the assurance and steadfastness of a Sherpa climbing Mt. Everest, Sastry and Aguirre expertly guide parents through the process of learning, providing intervention for, educating, and ultimately understanding their child on the autism spectrum. This is a must-have for every parent, educator, and medical professional supporting individuals with autism.

—Stephen M. Shore, EdD, assistant professor of special education