Go ahead, stage a hackathon. But pray it doesn't work too well

Are you ready for an idea from the playground to challenge your organisation?

By Mark Pesce

Posted in DevOps, 23rd May 2017 06:01 GMT

OPINION Fidget spinners may be the biggest thing since the yo-yo, but they can’t hold a candle to the latest fad to sweep the business world: hackathons.

As is the case with any fad, lots of people jump in overnight and some end up looking a bit ridiculous.

Hackathons have their uses because they give people permission to solve problems they find interesting. That's more appealing than working through priorities generated by ever-more-distant corporate leaders. It also gives hackathons the allure of the illicit: “look at what we can get away with when no one’s looking!"

But I recently attended an event at which hackathons went half a step too far. The event was flavoured with ‘regtech’ – a nearly religious faith in our abilities to innovate our way out of garden variety bureaucracy, and into more agile bureaucracy – and it showed how permission to rebel can too easily tip over into something much uglier.

At this event one team had quite a good idea, with a well-developed business model and marketing strategy. All good, you’d think, until it became clear that their idea flagrantly flouted all of the relevant commercial law. For a hackathon team, that’s a perfect opportunity to “pivot" and change the essence of the idea to conform with the existing legal frameworks.

This team thought they knew better, changed nothing and hurtled towards a brick wall of regulation at full speed. They wanted to crash through, and pointed toward the stellar, shining example of startup disruption – Uber – as the category-defining example of how that should work. Their attitude was that if you don't like a law, why not ignore it and force regulators to catch up.

A year ago we might have smiled at that kind of cheek, but today – amidst a rising sea of troubles, it’s become clear that although Uber fought the law, the law won. All of those paeans to “disruption" now look like window dressing for a long grift.

On the other side of that – chastened and wiser – there’s less tolerance for rebels who seek to disrupt by kicking over the traces of the law. This hackathon team didn’t crash through. They crashed, never really understanding why the wheels had come off. They should have listened to advice – but, given the nature of their error, perhaps they could not.

Large organisations entertain other sorts of fantasies about hackathons, reckoning them a good way for mid-career employees to blow off some steam and in a playground that yields results without demanding any follow-through. Have the hackathon, have some fun – then leave it all behind to continue with the important task of keeping the big org keeping on.

It doesn’t always work out that way. On rare occasions it all works out too well – when a hackathon project succeeds beyond any expectation. Then you’ve got real trouble on your hands, because suddenly an organisation has been midwife to something that can’t simply be ignored or put aside for a more opportune moment.

A really good idea immediately takes on a life of its own, drawing people and resources to it – so the organisation can’t starve it. And should the organisation refuse to take it up, the bright folks who developed the idea – often highly prized in the business – will walk out the door, taking the idea and their talent with them.

Businesses want their hackathons to be fun – but contained. The last thing they want is a breakout success, upsetting neatly-laid plans, making demands, dividing focus, fighting for resources, and drawing attention. This new, wildly good idea isn’t in anyone’s growth plan, or on any list of KPIs. No one gets a pat on the head for making this much trouble.

Many businesses have forgotten their glory days of rapid growth, preferring ‘strong and stable’ over an explosion of new life that would transform every aspect of the business. It’s feared as an end, but it’s actually a whole new beginning: uncertain, anxious, but full of promise. Play with matches, and you might set the whole business ablaze. ®

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