A Guidebook to Successful Hackathons

By Scott Cohen |  October 12, 2015

Our Q&A series gets member questions answered; if you’ve got one, just drop us an e-mail, and let us know if you’d like an answer from a company of a particular size or industry (or even from a specific person or company.)

One member asks:

I see you’ve written a lot about hackathons, and have some great case studies from companies on how they run theirs. But I wonder if you have a kind of “guidebook” or “top 10” list of things to do to (a) get started; and (b) succeed. Do you or any of your members or partners have this? Thank you in advance.

This question was tackled by Sara Husk, a managing associate at Imaginatik. We asked Sara to tackle this question due to her direct experience in the field; she was previously with The Hartford Insurance Company.

That’s a great question, as there are many kinds of hackathons being used by large corporations.

Let’s start with the common threads that run through all types of hackathons:

  • Objective — Hackathons, at their core, are a way to collaboratively solve tough problems by devising clever process or technology “hacks” that yield workarounds to current obstacles and constraints.
  • Composition — The collaboration is usually among small teams of four to six people.
  • Timing — Hackathons are usually structured in a very compressed timeframe of 24 to 48 hours.
  • Support — During the hackathon there are typically short workshops or support services available to the participants.
  • Rewards — At the ending of the hackathon, there is usually a round of judging. This is where teams share their prototypes, top concepts are chosen, and winners are recognized or rewarded.

Solving Tough Problems

Every large organization has tough challenges to address, and hackathons should aim directly at those challenges. NBCUniversal, for example, recently used hackathons to create millennial-focused advertising models, rethink subscription-based video, and integrate sales transactions into social media platforms.

To gauge what might be the best challenge to address with a hackathon, start with three key questions:

  1. What are the biggest strategic challenges to the operation?
  2. Which challenges benefit most from collaborative problem solving and prototyping?
  3. Which challenges can be clearly articulated and shared with a large group of people?

This should bring you to a “short list” of possible themes for your hackathon. It’s important to start here, because the rest of the planning relies on the outcomes you’re seeking.

Small Group Collaboration

An overall hackathon can be very big, and involve hundreds or thousands of people. But most hackathon teams are no more than 6 people. Your key to success is to ensure the teams are well structured for success.

  • Who should be invited? Who within your company can act as subject matter experts in small teams? Would working with tech start-ups be helpful? Your suppliers? Other industry experts who are solving similar problems?
  • How will teams form? You’ll want to allow participants to register as full teams. The more open to the public your hackathon is, the more you’ll need to consider matching individuals who want to participate, but are not yet part of a team.
  • What is the individual team mix? For example, if you are focused on how technology could solve one of your toughest customer problems, but there is no one on a team with a technology perspective, the team may struggle. You can help by advising these teams before hand.

Structured Sprint

The short timeframe and large amount of people with a variety of knowledge creates unique challenges to running hackathons. You should include the following key items as you structure the flow of your hackathon.

Where do Hackathons fit in? The graphic above illustrates various “Programs of Engagement” for collecting and building ideas, courtesy Imaginatik

  • Clearly articulate the issue, ideally by the executive(s) who own the outcomes. Share a clear, compelling vision for the “future state,” as well as the way that top concepts will be chosen for further development. This will ensure the concepts are on-target for the business issue you’re facing.
  • Provide brief workshops to augment the knowledge and skills of the participants. For some participants, this may be the first exposure to rapid prototyping, so a short workshop on prototyping basics may be in order. For example, if you are trying to develop a mobile app, consider having a “Mobile Apps for Business Leaders” workshop to support the non-technical participants.
  • Consider your logistics, specifically food! You’ll have a large group of people for 24–48 hours, and they will need care and feeding to stay productive. Consider your venue as well – is it inspiring? Creative?

Making Decisions

Plan for a great ending to your hackathon by thinking through decision-making in advance:

  • Presentation format. Before the hackathon gets started, make sure to establish how post-event presentations will be made. Consider a common format and a time limit to make the process fair and simple.
  • Create a panel of judges. Include the executive(s) who own the business issues, experts in the relevant domain, and possibly a target customer. You’ll want a well-rounded solution, and your panel should reflect this.
  • Think carefully about prizes. If one of your goals is to engage people with whom you’ve never worked before, large prizes help to garner attention. However, don’t overlook intrinsic motivations, which for most hackers means gaining respect from their peers. So, rather than cash consider offering an opportunity to be published, or highlighted at a trade conference. You may also consider a peer-recognition trophy, where the participants get a chance to vote for their favorite solution.

Test Internally

As you consider engaging in hackathons, you might want to start with something small and internal to learn what hackathons entail for your specific organization. Tests can help gain buy-in, and dispel the typical concerns that accompany innovative approaches to problem-solving. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use it yourself. After your next internal strategy session, consider using an internal hackathon to rapidly prototype some initial concepts around one of your strategic pillars. This can help executives understand the value of the approach.
  • Tackle hard issues. Target a thorny problem that causes conflict between two business units or functional silos. Require the participating teams to represent more than one of these areas. Ask the leaders of all of these areas to co-present the business issue as you kick off the hackathon.
  • Engage the right audience. Target your interns, millennials, or other cohorts you’d like to engage and leverage. LinkedIn actually did this recently by inviting their HR interns to imagine the future of HR.

These quick tips should get you started. We’d love to hear how it goes! If you have further questions or would like to share your experiences, don’t hesitate to contact me at