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Lessons from Hackathons

#19 Innovation Newsletter

Innovation Newsletters

The term “hacking” usually brings to mind the activities of rogue computer programmers with bad intentions working to breach the security of a network. In that context, a “hackathon” might sound like a race to see who can be best and fastest intruder. In fact, hacking can also be a beneficent and valuable art.

It is, of course, associated with computer programming, but a hacker is someone who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of systems and who tries to extend their capabilities.* Hacking implies a spirit of excitement, cleverness, and breakthrough.

Hackathons started as intensive days during which programmers, designers, project managers, and others get together for all-out collaboration on a software project. The hackathon concept has recently been spreading to other settings and applications, as an event designed to solve problems through intensive collaboration by a diverse group of stakeholders in a short period of time. It’s a kind of focused open innovation session, and it can be an effective process to use in the context of a systemic approach to innovation.

Hacking medicine

One hackathon model has been developed by MIT H@cking Medicine,  a group whose special focus is innovation in healthcare. They think of hacking as a positive: getting things done in a short time to make a big impact. Their vision is to “energize and connect the best minds across MIT and the health ecosystem to teach, learn, and launch disruptive healthcare solutions to solve healthcare’s biggest challenges at home and abroad.”**

Their style of hackathon is a 48-hour session that connects diverse stakeholders and interested people with different backgrounds, skills, and perspectives to collaborate for rapid innovation on problems in healthcare. Here’s how it works.

Framework for a hackathon

The event typically kicks off on a Friday evening with time for participants to circulate, socialize, and listen to a couple of presentations from key stakeholders. The presenters describe “pain points,” or big problems they experience in their work. The evening program sets the stage for a common understanding among the diverse group of participants, which may include engineers, clinicians, technicians, businesspeople, and others. It also gives them a chance to meet, begin the cross-pollinization process, and start to share perspectives.

Saturday (day 2) starts with a series of “pitches.” Anyone in the group can get up and, in two or three minutes, describe a perceived unmet need. That could be based on a problem they’ve experienced at work, dealt with personally as a patient or consumer, or heard about in the news. The key at this stage is to focus on describing and hearing needs – not on proposing ideas for prospective solutions.

As the pitches continue, attendees begin to gravitate toward one need or another, leading to the next process: “collisions.” That’s where the Hacking Medicine facilitation team goes to work among the attendees as they begin to discuss the pitches that excite them. Facilitators help to formulate cross-disciplinary teams that are interested in working together on one need or another.

The teams then get to work, hacking through their problems. They are encouraged to iterate rapidly as they articulate and re-articulate the need, formulate ideas, test them by talking them through with a pool of “experts” (on-call clinicians, patients, entrepreneurs, and others who are available to consult in person, on the phone, or on Skype), validate or fail to validate the need, pivot (adjust), and hone in on potential solutions. Some teams fall apart quickly when they discover their target need can’t be validated, and participants are free to move from team to team.

Sunday (day 3) is dedicated to building a rough prototype of their solution and presenting it to the group in the afternoon. Again, the emphasis is on validating the need and testing the solution design through presentation to a panel of expert judges. The key benefit for the team is the feedback they get throughout the event, especially from the panel of judges. Typically, awards are given to the teams with the best solutions, but also to the teams that took the most risk or did the most pivoting.


Mantras for hacking

Throughout the entire event, the facilitation team keeps the attendees focused on a few essential elements (which they call mantras) that make for a successful hackathon:

  1. Unmet needs
    Always focus on validating the need first, using multiple sources. Even the coolest, most amazing new technology won’t be viable if it doesn’t meet a real need.
  2. Diversity
    The most successful teams are the most diverse teams.
  3. Payment 
    Teams must be able to figure out who will pay for the solution. This keeps them focused not only on wonderful technical solutions, but also on business models that could actually work. Teams are given basic business model tools, such as the business model canvas, to use during their hacking sessions. (For more information on business model mapping, see What Is a Business Model—And What Is Yours?)
  4.  Iterate and learn
    Teams do aim to find breakthrough solutions that can become viable business ventures. One example of a successful idea launched from a H@cking Medicine event is PillPack, a full-service pharmacy that organizes and delivers medications in packets according to the date and time they should be taken. The idea arose as a solution to an unmet need to improve patient compliance with treatment plans. But the overall goal of the teams is to learn, iterate, learn some more and iterate some more. Test an idea, find the holes, fail fast, pivot, make changes to adjust to barriers, and repeat. It’s the learning process that helps teams succeed in a sustainable way.

Using the hackathon model

The hackathon model can work in other contexts to foster innovative collaboration among employees with different skillsets and backgrounds, suppliers, customers, outside parties that bring expertise or new perspectives, and other stakeholders. The MIT H@cking Medicine group encourages others to pick up on the model. In addition to the mantras listed above, they offer several tips for running your own hackathons, including these:

  • Pick huge problems as themes. Big challenges stimulate big creativity, and make the most of the assembled expertise.
  • Be disciplined about the pitches. Keep them very brief, to the point, and focused on needs, not solutions.
  • Let hacking teams self assemble, but ensure that the hackathon facilitators have a good idea of who’s in the room so that they can help bring together truly diverse teams.

Hackathons in context

Like any innovation concept, event, or tool, a hackathon is not a panacea or innovation system in and of itself. But it is an approach that can contribute to the infrastructure and processes of systemic innovation. A true innovation system relies on the ability to capture and interpret the articulated and unarticulated needs of your current and future customers. It thrives in organizational cultures that create space for new ideas and foster collaboration among employees and enterprise networks. And, most important, it requires the leadership behavior, infrastructure, and processes to execute effectively on key insights.

The hackathon model, used well, fits within these system parameters. It focuses on unmet needs, provides a safe space for collaboration across disciplines and networks, and can be an effective process. Plus, it’s a take on open innovation that supports a culture of learning and drives home the value of fast failure, and fast iterations. Of course, it’s got to be followed through with a great system for governance, funding and executing ideas as well.

* Gehring, Verna (2004). The Internet In Public Life. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 43–56.
** Ippolito, Andrea, and Allison Yost, “Hacking Medicine and the Rx it Offers for Innovation in All Industries,” MIT SDM Systems Thinking Webinar Series, June 16, 2014.