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/

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