Every Hackathon’s Achilles Heel
Picture this: Friday afternoon, judging stage of a so far successful hackathon. Last team presents a surprise: not product but a different imagination tickling business model to tackle the challenge. Moreover, the business model can boost most of the ideas presented before. The discussion within the judging panel can be summarized as: “We expect new product ideas, our current business model works, why change?” The last team got dismissed after a short debriefing session.
Hackathons have become a staple name in many innovation management programs. Some programs, wrongly, use them as the one and only idea production tool. Hackathons became enormously popular, most deliver a high level of excitement and public relations, some of them even deliver good ideas. It became so popular that there are consulting companies devoted to help conduct inhouse hackathon activities.
Hackathon methodology is plain forward (remember you will need a huge order of pizza late night!): fling an important and specific challenge to the arena, allow for heterogeneous teams compete with each other, give them creativity, data analysis and idea selling tools, and set an impossible timeline to deliver. Towards the climax, teams pitch their ideas to a judging panel of experts, who declare who the winner is.
Wait, did I say a panel of experts? It turns out that many wonderful risky innovative ideas get “hacked” at this step. Most expert panels, are really that: experts in their field, but not experts in innovation. Most are top level managers, entrenched in the current management command and control paradigm. While their overt agenda is to “choose the best idea”, their covert dynamics is one of “risk management” and “damage control.” They get no guidance on how to be effective in their “judging panel” role. Often, they confuse their role with “let me show off my expertise with the teams or even my panel colleagues.”
At best, judges are equipped with feasibility criteria, most times even these are absent. At Poiesys we use 8 feasibility categories, the last one being “Other relevant criteria.” When it comes to ignite innovation feasibility criteria, although important, are not the most important. More important questions include: what is the potential of the idea (or the team!), what is the vision the idea enables? Can this idea improve our business model? Can this idea become disruptive?
Many expert judges are blind to disruptive ideas (“this idea does not belong in our production portfolio,” or “it contradicts actual company strategy”), they do not understand the Core Competencies of their organization or are unable to visualize alternative business models to the ones actually (successful) held.
Reminders: Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was considered too long, Blockbuster passing up the Netflix opportunity, Yahoo passed up the Google opportunity – twice or Friendster not selling to Google. Groupthink, have you heard how efficiently it deskills good teams? I have seen it working extra time at Hackathons.
Want an excellent judgement panel? Team them up as an heterogenous team (yes, this is another required team building activity), legitimize their Signature Skills, establish with them how to identify idea and team potential and train them on alternative business modelling … as well as the required feasibility criteria. Now you can have Achilles power without his weakened heel, what a hack of Greek mythology.
Jaime Amsel, Ph.D.