Lessons from Whirlpool’s Internal Hackathons

By Kelsey Alpaio |  August 31, 2017

Hackathons are at risk of getting a bad rap. Sometimes, a company organizes one — and never holds a second. Sometimes, they’re underwhelming and lack the right mix of participants. Sometimes, they generate a handful of great ideas that never make it past the “paper prototype” stage.

But one company that has been working hard to get hackathons to generate real value is Whirlpool Corporation, the $21 billion appliance manufacturer based in Benton Harbor, Mich. And a big part of how they’ve been doing it, explains Subho Moulik, Head of Global Innovation, is through persistence, learning, and continual improvement.

Whirlpool’s innovation team works to address two types of innovation: sustaining, and disruptive. On the sustaining innovation side, the team works mainly on feature upgrades that are new to the consumer, and on small, low-cost innovations that “makes people’s lives easier.” On the disruptive side, the team partners with technology engineering teams at the company to explore new business models and entirely new products. Participants in the company’s internal hackathons now work to create solutions in both of these innovation buckets.

Moulik says the first iteration of the employee hackathon, in 2015, was really only an experiment.

“We were quite interested in what we could do with crowdsourcing, but [we wanted to] take a much more practical lens to it,” he says. “The first hackathon we ever had was in North America… It was 40-50 people, it was focused on IoT [Internet of Things], and it really was an experiment to see if we had something interesting. What we saw was that there were a bunch of interesting ideas. There were some that we thought could go somewhere, but this was more of an experiment, and those ideas did not fully make it into our product plans.”

Whirlpool Corp. is now on the third iteration of its official hackathon. Moulik shared with InnoLead some of the lessons he’s learned from one iteration to the next, like how the innovation team incentivizes employees, measures success, and generates solutions that can be fed into the company’s product development cycle.

Location is Key

After Whirlpool Corp.’s first “experiment” in North America, one of the major changes the innovation team decided to make was to the location of the event.

“We see that emerging markets are leap-frogging developed countries in many spheres,” Moulik says. “If you look at mobile innovation, you see a lot more mobile innovation in India and China than I think you see in the West…There are lots of analogs where innovations from emerging markets have leap-frogged developed markets. We had a hypothesis that perhaps we could see that happen [with our hackathon] as well. So we chose to kick off our hackathon series with an annual event in India.”

The first “official” hackathon was held in May 2016 at Whirlpool’s Global Technology Center (GTEC) in Pune, India. The event had 100 participants, who developed 40 concepts from idea to prototype in less than 72 hours. Two of these concepts ultimately made their way into Whirlpool Corp.’s product plans.

But the Whirlpool innovation team wanted to see more ideas from the hackathon make their way into actual production. So that became a main focus for the company’s second official hackathon.

Getting from Idea to Product

In the second iteration of the hackathon, held in April 2017 in Pune, India, even more employees wanted to participate: 220 people signed up for the hackathon, and the innovation team decided they had to implement an idea-vetting stage into the process. After selecting the projects they found most promising, 100 people were invited to participate. And this time, the team had given more thought to the timing of the event. This second event was held in April, which Moulik says aligned nicely with the company’s annual product cycle, which concludes in July.

“[At first], we were not very successful in making the linkage [between idea and the product development process],” says Moulik. “As with all experiments and innovation, you’ve got to tinker with this. So what we’ve learned is we have to make sure that our platforms, our engineering organization, and our marketing organization are well-involved and integrated into defining what the focus areas for these hackathons should be. We see that the most value comes if you have the platform and marketing organizations jointly define, ‘Look, here’s a nut we are trying to crack.’ The hackathon cycle is such that increasingly we are timing it to intersect the ideation stage of the product development process, so that these ideas can then compete against other ideas and get the right resources to develop them.”

Moulik says that he believes this integration with the product cycle has also helped with participation in the hackathons, as most of the “incentives” related to participation are intrinsic in nature.

“You have teams who have maybe thought about [their idea] for six months, and now how a chance to showcase it to senior leaders in Whirlpool,” says Moulik “There are no formal incentives, other than the kudos that you participated and that your idea is actually going somewhere. And, of course, the experience itself.”

Measuring Success of the Hackathons

Moulik says the innovation team measures the success of hackathons based on three criteria: Engagement, conversion, and integration.

  1. Engagement: “[Are we] inspiring people and making sure that they’re energized, and then how does that energy translate into day-to-day work? I think we’re already seeing success on that front.”
  2. Conversion: “What’s the uptick of ideas that come out of the hackathon and get resources, or get added to existing projects? That is the true measure of tangible solution success. I think we have to be reasonable about this. I think by year three or four, we should see this trending towards the level that we want. We expected a pretty low success ratio initially, but we expect this to go up significantly, to at least 30 or 35 percent.” 
  3. Integration: “We embedded the idea that this is truly a part of our product-planning process,” says Moulik. “Are we timing it and taking the input and outputs as an ongoing activity that’s not special? Because it always starts as something unique and special, but it dies if it doesn’t become a part of how we do things…That’s one measure of success to say ‘Hey, how’s adoption going?’ Because otherwise, it’s just another cool thing that we did and that’s it.”

‘Make a Splash’

Moulik says there are several lessons he has learned about these criteria from the different iterations of the hackathon.

  1. Engagement: “In engagement, I think the lesson is, if you’re trying to start something, don’t overplan it when you start. Because otherwise, you could take forever to do that. At the same time, once you have had the first event, do the post-mortem extensively so you understand what worked and what didn’t. Truly follow up. Because what people really want to know is, what happens next? How is this used? Engagement goes through the roof when they understand, ‘this is what happens to my idea and this is how it adds value to the company.'”
  2. Conversion: “It’s critical to have upfront involvement with product development partners, both marketing and engineering, to make sure that what you’re working on…and getting people to ideate and build against is something that is a priority. You can have some robust discussion there to say, “How do we define those priorities? Where do we shine the spotlight, and how much of the core should we tackle and should we also tackle outside the core?” But I think alignment is critical, because otherwise you won’t get the conversion you want.”
  3. Integration: “It’s pretty important to make sure that the timing is right. If you have a hackathon at a time where it doesn’t fit into the much larger product development process, then these are orphaned ideas that die. You’ve got to make sure from an integration perspective you’ve understood the toll gates, and you’re making sure that you’re connecting the input and output of this event to those product development toll gates, which are structured and planned.”

“I’d also say, make a splash. You’ll get more awareness and several ancillary benefits — in terms of inspiring people and getting more people to participate. So if you’re going to do it, jump with both feet in. It’s difficult to get excited about an initial hackathon that has 10 people participating. You could still do it to pilot and understand what you should do, but then that’s part of your learning plan, and not really something that you use to engage the organization [and drive impact —which is what it is all about.]”