Why corporate hackathons are mostly a waste of time

Imagine this scenario. You’re lost in a desert. You’ve €1,000 in your pocket, but no water. You’ve wandered for hours. You’re desperate now. And really thirsty. There’s nothing, nowhere on the horizon.

Then, magically, a man appears. He’s walking towards you. He looks well equipped: hat, boots, a backpack with stuff dangling off it. Better still, he looks like he know’s exactly what he’s doing & where he’s going.

Your heart leaps with excitement.

You get close enough to talk. Hi, you say. So good to see you. Do you have any water?

No, the man says. But I do have this solar-powered, IoT-enabled, sand minimiser. It’s really cool. Would you like one?

Barter, not trade

In a barter economy, with a hole in your shoe, what’s the likelihood that you’ll bump into a shoemaker, who also happens to want exactly what you’re offering, at exactly the right time?

Impossibly low.

A hackathon is to value creation what barter is to trade: a supremely inefficient way to get to the wrong place.

So it’s no surprise that you have never heard of a successful product or company or even customer-proposition that has emerged from a hackathon. Not one.

Why hackathons don’t work

Hackathons don’t work for the same three reasons that doing meaningful new stuff and driving change is hard.

First, strategic alignment: the barter problem.

The likelihood that a hackathon actually solves a real, live, burning strategic corporate strategic priority perfectly enough to be adopted is infinitesimally tiny.

Second, the ugly baby problem.

An idea is nearly always beautiful to its parent; and nearly always ugly to everyone else. So even if a breakthrough concept does emerge, it’s highly unlikely that it will be recognised for what it is. The Big Boss, with the Big Chequebook, will smile, will encourage, will pat on the back, will pay lip service. But all the while he’s (it’s nearly always a he), thinking “that’s the shittest idea I’ve ever heard — going nowhere”.

Third, resources and priorities. Hackathons are easy: 1-day, a bit of theatre and razzmatazz, some marketing budget, a venue, and some clapping and positivity.

But making good new stuff, to the point that it’s actually useful, is really, really hard.

Nothing meaningful can be built in a day. The long tail of execution requires smart, dedicated people. Space. Time. Money. Investment. Salaries. Patience. Persistence. Doggedness. Untold amounts of mental, physical, emotional effort and resilience.

A hackathon is a stroll in a summer park. Building a new business is invading Russia in winter.

When push comes to shove, very few organisations have the stomach for applying the resources needed to deliver on such big visions.

Mostly, but not always

So are hackathons a complete waste of time? Mostly, but not always.

You need to be crystal clear on why you’re doing it, and what outputs you expect.

If you want to raise awareness and create some brand affinity and community outreach, then a hackathon can be a meaningful exercise.

But if you want to drive genuine organisational change, come up with something new, or solve real customer problems, then don’t waste your time (or anyone else’s), and do something else.

If not hackathons, whatathons?

What can you do instead? How can you apply that budget and headspace in a way that’s more meaningful, and that will deliver more value to your organisation in the longer term?

Here’s just three suggestions:

  1. Do a Challenge: Set a specific, meaningful challenge to a specific, well-thought out group of your colleagues — and give them the time & space to explore and shape the problem properly before jumping into potential solutions
  2. Learn from your customers: Pick an interesting subset of your customers, and do a deep dive on their needs, goals, frustrations — what new insight can you gather that can help drive new, better customer outcomes and solutions?
  3. Invest in your people: Provide new, tangible and useful skills to your colleagues via training or attendance at conferences or by providing space for them to pursue their own stuff.

Written by Morgan McKeagney, Founder at FRAMLABS. A version of this article first appeared on the FRAMLABS blog.

FRAMLABS designs future business, helping smart organisations create future revenues, faster and with less risk. Join us in Dublin in June 2017 for a series of workshops that will help your company innovate better.