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12/13/2015

Hacking The Hype: Why Hackathons Don’t Work | TechCrunch

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Hacking The Hype: Why Hackathons Don’t Work
Posted Dec 10, 2015 by Anjali Sastry (@AnjaliSastry), Kara Penn (@kara_penn)

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As buzz-worthy business trends go, hackathons

Anjali Sastry
CRUNCH NETWORK CONTRIBUTOR



— where people from different backgrounds
come together to work on a project for a few

Anjali Sastry is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan

intense, caffeine-fueled days — are a top

School of Management and co-author of FAIL

contender.

BETTER: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed
Sooner.

They’re most common in Silicon Valley: At

How to join the network

Facebook and Google, hackathons are hallowed
traditions. Even old-economy companies like

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Kara Penn
CRUNCH NETWORK CONTRIBUTOR



GM and GE use them.
They’re popular in research and education, too:

Kara Penn is a co-founder and principal

This year, MIT hosted numerous hackathons,

consultant at Mission Spark and co-author of

including Hacking Arts, Hacking Rehabilitation

FAIL BETTER: Design Smart Mistakes and

and even the second annual breast pump

Succeed Sooner.

hackathon: Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!

How to join the network

We get it. Hackathons are fun. There’s all-youcan-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;
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.
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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 investigate potential
unintended effects.
Long after the hackathon is over, due diligence may reveal that several competitors are
already doing something similar; clients already rejected the idea years ago; or the
company can’t manufacture a prototype that meets the specs.

How can leaders embed innovation
capabilities within their organizations
by tapping into some coolness and
excitement?

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, as well.
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 necessary. 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
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discoveries.
Managers also must 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.
But 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.
FEATURED IMAGE: MARK LONGAIR/FLICKR UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

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