Hackathons and strategic play. The last few years, the tech trade press has been obsessed with them and so have Millennials. And not just the tech industry or with startups, by the way, albeit hackathons originated and gained popularity with tech startups as a way to engage and preview talent in a laudably playful way.
Today, they’re everywhere and people from all walks of life are participating — not just Millennials. Nonprofits are using them to solve social issues, academic institutions are doing it to create technology and solutions that students feel vested in, and large companies are bringing together diverse teams for short-bursts to solve limited scope challenges.
Hackathons are a wonderful way to redesign meaningful employee experiences. I have recently worked with several large companies to rethink how they reach out to, recruit and engage Millennial (and more seasoned) talent and integrate those ideas into the company. Gen Y folks don’t care about team building and they don’t value traditional approaches. They want to make a difference, apply their talents and they want you to take your “onboarding” plans, your idea and suggestion boards (that go nowhere in most companies!) and your superficial team building methods and burn them. Like mom jeans that should never be seen or heard from again.
The truth is most people feel this way and it’s about time.
And I am a huge fan of Hackathons, too — as a tail-end Gen Xer. Every company should be. There is a reason they have become team building’s cooler, younger, hipper, more in-your-face alternative. And that’s not to say that I don’t believe in team building. When done well (and that doesn’t happen a lot in my experience), it does wonders. That’s the issue — most team building aims at the wrong things, the results are not lasting and it does little to engage and develop creative talent and keep it there.
I believe in something better: the power of a hackathon and strategic, focused play. I’ll explain…yes, hackathons have had their share of bad press, too, and have been parodied for often good reasons. When they’re great, they are incredible.
The Hackathon High
I have done many hackathons. And experienced hackathon hangovers and “hackathon” highs. No, not from alcohol. From lack of sleep, and high on fun, insanity, productivity and newly-formed friendship. Three of my all-time favorite hackathons I participated in were comedy app related as part of Comedy Hack Day.
As part of SketchfestSF, Cultivated Wit holds its annual Comedy Hack Day #comedyhackday event. It’s a weekend where comedians, developers and others come together to pitch some fun, practical, even crazy apps, form teams quickly, do rapid prototyping, complete speed-round coding execution, and give 5-minute app presentations in one amazing whirlwind weekend. It is the ultimate in productivity and engagement.
Team Building Needs to be Hacked NOW and “Like” is Overrated
I believe deeply in team building. And I believe employee engagement is critical to company success. No question. However, I know from personal experience that traditional approaches don’t always work in rapidly changing environments that require improvisational team approaches. Moreover, team building can sometimes be separated from real work situations that build trust.
Most efforts at it also don’t make people feel creative. Trust does matter and the best way I know to deepen it in teams (and it’s not about liking each other) is by simulating pressure conditions where people are forced to collaborate and have each other’s backs while solving real challenges for an organization. “Liking” each other is overrated — people want to be valued, engaged, creative and use their talents to solve real challenges. And they want to know that they are respected.
Hackathons Simulate Dynamic Conditions
My experience is that a hackathon is the perfect, modern way to strengthen team bonds. It is the ultimate improvisational experience. Teams must form and decide direction quickly, delegate, ‘yes, and’ the heck out of each other to move forward, make each other look good, coalesce around a single ‘best’ idea and execute with lightning-round precision in an insanely short amount of time to create something real and of value to solve real problems. There is no time for drama, for conflict, for egos to dominate. There is a short term clear goal everyone understands — limited in scope and clear in vision.
My Hackathon teams worked so well together because we all supported that improv mantra (we are all storytellers, tech folks and many of us comedians): “Yes, and!” where we agree quickly and build on each others’ ideas. There is no endless talking; only doing and helping and adding on. I saw other teams doing the exact same thing: working as a ‘team’ pretty darn flawlessly. Teams that couldn’t get past egos floundered.
In one case, I worked closely with 7 other people to develop a fun app that converts texts for ios8 into naughty or nice posts. We developed it as a bookmarklet that integrates with social media platforms. Under extreme conditions, we laughed together, we were sleep-deprived together, a few of us drank at happy hour breaks together (some a little too much and yet there was no judgment), we shared often very personal details of our lives together, and occasionally we caught quick naps side by side as we added onto each others’ ideas on UI design, marketing introductions for the app, and back-end coding.
By the end of the weekend, we had high trust — we had each others’ backs. And under pretty crazy conditions, we built something cool together that worked. We were having fun working together towards a common goal and everyone was engaged. And we weren’t driven by winning. Our goal was to have fun and take some bold risks. When you must work together or risk not accomplishing a goal, most people put the success of the team first. And that is what happened. People didn’t always agree, and people compromised to move everything forward.As a result, everyone felt that every person was there to catch a ball and run with it. That’s trust built under trial by fire — it’s real and it’s the best trust to deepen relationships with. Who cares if we all like each other at the end of the event? We respect each other and we still keep in touch. That’s right — when you go through something spectacularly stressful and creative together, the bonding is meaningful.
Creative Intensity That Clicks
The weekend started with 25 pitches for apps. Teams were formed for 22 of those and 6 teams made it to presentations finals on Sunday. We were one of those 6 final teams (2 out of 3 times I participated in the Hackathon). While we didn’t win the final trophy, we became brothers and sisters in arms. We met other teams doing the same thing — laughing, growing, making great apps together — all with a penchant for great comedy. I know more about my amazing teammates than I do about some of my clients and colleagues. Why? Battle conditions (hey, markets are competitive) forge a strong sense of community — of ‘we-ness.’ That makes a cohesive team.
(image source above rhondak via unsplash.com)
Regular Hackathons That Solve Challenges and Engage Talents — Be Strategic About It
In all my corporate experience managing marketing teams, I had never experienced team building that did all these things effectively and engaged people in such a compelling way in such a short amount of time to accomplish something meaningful. A hackathon simulates the most intense, passionate, crazy, fun, supportive, improvisational conditions teams experience building great products in rapidly changing markets including high-technology. I am looking at you. software! Agile development, rapid prototyping, empathy, humor, improvisation — all play important roles in creating an environment conducive to success in any organization. A hackathon is the perfect engagement and team building microcosm for what great organizations and teams should be.
And hackathons can be for anything — storytelling, culture, products, just to name a few areas. The point is to bring people together to solve a challenge, create something innovative, and have some fun.
If you want your people to engage and bond more fully, forget traditional approaches to team building. Create a hackathon instead. And do it regularly. Sleep can wait. Increasing employee engagement, trust and creativity can’t.
I am a speaker, author (“Stop Boring Me!”- on Amazon), storyteller, improv comic, and creative excavator. I help organizations solve problems creatively and collaboratively with idea orgasms. Getting rid of jargon-monoxide and boring storytelling and content, I also help companies create powerful cultures from the inside-out. I am a fan of good nonsense in the name of creativity. My 8-yr-old thinks I am hilarious. I know that window is closing soon. My company is Keepingithuman.com. Join the community! Follow Kathy on Twitter. Kathy speaks on humor, improvisation, and organizational storytelling and how to generate new ideas. I do also like to write occasionally about serious stuff too.