Get unstuck & empower leaders through LEADERSHIP Hackathon

Running a Hackathon is not just for software companies. Spotify HR (yes HR!) has been using hackathons as early as 2015. Their first hackathon successfully increased diversity and gender-parity of at that time male-dominated organization. But their most recent hackathon did not have developers or engineers, but rather middle-managers and organizational leaders. As recently shared in their HR Over the Counter Podcast, they run a LEADERSHIP hackathon to first uncover and then empower leaders and managers to resolve key organizational issues. That’s right! Imagine 100 managers grouping themselves in small teams and collaborating real-time on overcoming big and small organizational issues from onboarding & training… to revising standards & policies… to creating new employee COVID & work from home resources. Then imagine a virtual party sharing their final work, getting peer recognition, and most importantly solving real urgent problems. And in roughly one day you will be able to identify and partly action great ideas, ones you can grow further in days to come.

The BIG Why

Primary reasons for running this hackathon

  • Gain a rapid clear understanding of top leadership issues in the organization
  • Enable faster localized decision making
  • Quickly unstuck complex operational issues
  • Re-engage and reconnect people working from home

Excellent “fringe” benefits:

  • Encourage higher levels of autonomy and accountability
  • Getting to know new people and building new relationships
  • Totally re-energized and motivated for days ahead
  • Ability to identify rising stars and great natural leaders

Great Challenges for a Leadership Hackathon

Here are a few great challenges that are perfect for the Leadership Hackathon

  • How to enable WFH or hybrid working model post-covid?
  • Thriving in both the needs of the business and the needs of the staff
  • Creating a new resilient org culture in context of the post-covid reality
  • Advancing organizational equality, diversity, and inclusion

Are you excited now? Do you want to find out how to run one?

Who to include

Let’s start with who to involve in a leadership hackathon. This essentially boils down to a question “Which leaders do you want to empower and energize to take practical steps on the challenge you set?” Here are the typical participants:

  • Business managers (product / service / sales / marketing)
  • Functional managers with people reporting to them
  • HR managers and partners
  • Operational managers (e.g. finance / procurement)
  • Project Managers & Coordinators
  • Team leads / domain leaders (e.g. IT)

While you could make the session open to others, even the whole company, focus your marketing and invitations on this list.

How to run one?

Let’s start with a fundamental understanding that in a hackathon you direct the energy by providing and communicating the WHY (a clear powerful challenge)… but you liberate participants to self-organize on the HOW they address it and WHAT they create. It is this autonomy of HOW & WHAT that creates innovative ideas and energizes people. You can of course provide some guiding constraints, for example ”do no evil” or “must align with organizational strategy” but generally focus on providing a clear WHY challenge that already points ideas and solutions in the right direction.

1. Define & Communicate a Compelling Purpose / Challenge

The most elusive yet very critical step is choosing the right challenge. Here are a few questions you can ask to confirm you have the right challenge and one stated in the right way:

  • Is it powerful and compelling enough to engage your staff to participate and get excited?
  • Is the ask clear or does it require a lot of explanation? Clearer challenges will yield better solutions.
  • Is the solution obvious or does it require ingenuity, innovation, and outside-the-box thinking? The second type is deal for hackathons.

Remember that hackathons stimulate ideas. You don’t need to end there. Your organizations will ideally take the best ideas and evolve them further.

2. Create a Flexible Plan

Use a simple planning tool like a Hackathon Canvas to figure out the 20% of information to drive 80% of your decisions. Much like the actual Hackathon, the plan doesn’t need to be complete nor air-tight to be actionable. Leave space for the Assessment (next step) to shape the overall event.

3. The Assessment

The best and fastest way to get a better understanding of the challenge is by administering a type of assessment. You are actually trying to do several things:

  • You want an opportunity to connect directly with your participants so don’t send this by email! Get facilitators to explain it, administer it, and get people excited about next steps.
  • You want to ask questions to help you better understand how people across your organization, especially leaders, perceive this challenge. How do they understand it? What words to they use to describe it? How do they feel about it? Do they feel safe engaging on this topic?
  • Lastly, you want to invite initial solutions. This will give you an initial list of ideas for hackathon groups to work on, and it will also generate a lot of “OMG my idea got selected! I have to tell others!” engagement.

4. Preparation

You have (1) a great challenge, (2) a hackathon canvas plan, and (3) results of the assessment including initial ideas. You are now ready!

First, craft and send out your communications

  • Review answers to the assessment to see how your staff understands this topic. Use their words in crafting event communications and announcements.
  • Look for patters and themes? What’s most common? What’s most emotive? What’s most controversial? Use these patterns in your communications to increase interest and engagement.
  • Send communications in waves that cruciendo in the event itself.

Second, post the initial list of hackathon ideas (from the Assessment above)

  • Screen but try NOT to curate hackathon ideas. Yes throw out ones that are inappropriate or dangerous… but allow the dare-devils, the underdogs, the crazy ideas, as well as the expected, the obvious, the usual aspects. Have a good mix. Not every idea will get support from others.
  • If there is a significant amount of time between the assessment and the actual event, consider releasing hackathon ideas in waves.
  • Allow people to submit new ideas even after the assessment. This not only allows for “late followers” to participate in a meaningful way. Ideas birth other ideas… and that too creates engagement.

Finally, send out the main even invite and ask participants to form groups ahead of the event

  • Use intent to action by asking participants to register for idea groups (even simple Google doc)
  • Use scarcity by limit number of people that can be on any one team (e.g. max. 10). That way people will sign up faster.
  • Have fun by asking people to create team names, logos, t-shirts, etc.
  • If there is a significant amount of time between the communications and the actual event, you could use these group signups as content for updates.

5. Run the Leadership Hackathon

The most common format is for the hackathon to last 24-48 hours after which each team gets ~20 mins to showcase their solution / creation (explained in the next section).

The agenda and your role is deceptively simple

  1. Open the event (ideally get senior executive to do the intro)
  2. Provide few rules of engagement (what behaviour is ok / not ok)
  3. Get out of the way!… and let people do their thing. Support (e.g. provide food / snacks) but don’t interfere.

You don’t have to be on the sidelines. You too can be part of the team and get on the action.

6. Showcase Results & Engagement

There is a reason why the word “showcase” is used instead of the present. This part of the hackathon both demonstrates its value but also sets the tone for future engagement on this topic. Yes, each team should demo / present their solution in the best way possible. That is the short-term goal. How well you recognize and celebrate both individual and group contributions has a far more powerful and lasting effect. So here are some recommendations on how to set the tone for these showcases (based on ~20 mins per team):

  • 2-3 mins – Invite the team to share how they personally connected with this challenge and why they chose to come together around this specific idea + solution.
  • 10-12 mins. – Challenge teams to truly showcase their WHAT idea + solution the most powerful, most visceral, most relevant, and most creative way… but also to share the WHO they are (motley crew across the entire org) and their HOW process (how they came together as a group, how they collaborated, how they made key decisions). This complete narrative is critical to the long-term engagement and lasting effects of this event.
  • 5-7 mins. – Invite the audience to engage with kudos / recognition, feedback / questions, but more importantly with solution extensions and contributions “How can we make this idea + solution even better?”
  • 1-2 mins. – Leave final moments for one of senior executives to actually reflect then recognize the WHAT (idea + solution), the HOW (how they came together), and the WHO (individuals themselves).

Prizes for top ideas are common ways of recognizing best contributions. But instead of bonuses, gifts, or distinctions… we recommend that the organization actually perusing and investing in specific ideas is the best and most meaningful recognition.

We also recommend you allow all participants to vote on their favourites, ideally using a variety of fun voting badges (e.g. most promising, most audacious, rubber chicken award), instead of quantitative scores (e.g. impact, productivity, ease of implementation). This should create further positive engagement and reinforcement.

7. Feedback, Ideas, & Retrospect for Future

When you run this activity for the first time, you will get some things really right but also a few really wrong. Perhaps messaging didn’t connect. Perhaps some logistical aspect failed. Perhaps executives were not happy with the resulting ideas. Whatever it is, leave the door OPEN right at the end of the event by inviting everyone to provide feedback and ideas for the future. This mechanism will allow you to turn frustrations into positive opportunities.

After a week or two, take the group that organized the event as well as a few vocal leaders and run a retrospecting on the entire event. The goal of this session is to come out with a few key improvements for future leadership hackathons.

There you go… You now have the information to run your own leadership hackathon.

Need a Partner?

Let us know if you need some help running your leadership hackathon… or if you need assistance with your larger organizational issues.

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