Peter Drucker’s famous quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” captures the essence of building long lasting organisations. Culture is connected to well bonded teams. Having cohesive teams is considered the heart of a strong organisation culture. Organisations invest a lot of money in building teams. Unfortunately, team building in many companies falls under the HR organisation. However, the core team building happens through open problem solving, and hackathons are a powerful tool in that regard.
Team building is seen as a check mark that HR organisations should drive for other teams. Hence, team building is a budgeted activity with monthly/quarterly outings ( It can include lunch or dinner). Yes, those activities help teams connect , and know about each other. For example, internet search on team building resulted in the following articles.
Such mechanisms are definitely valuable in getting to know people. However, under pressure and stress in work environments you may have fallouts with your best friend and completely collaborate with a complete outsider. Getting to know people in your team can help but that’s not sufficient to form professional trust and understanding. The rhythm and harmony of working together can only happen when you resolve problems together. Best teams are often built under tough challenges. Regular day-to-day work that is chiseled for the team’s abilities, aspirations, and expectations do build great teams. When regular problems are not completely under control, hackathons could be great mechanism.
What is an Intra-team Hackathon?
Hackathons are by nature quick solutions to problems faced by companies with regards to the service they provide. In terms of data, you could let the participants choose their own data problems or come up with a list of data problems to choose from. For better logistics you could conduct company wide or within data team hackathons. Post the hackathon, depending on the nature of the hackathon (defined or undefined problems), you could take 1-2 weeks to announce the winning teams
Hackathons as a Tool for Building Teams
Hackathons are a great tool for building cohesive teams for the following reasons
- Controlled Problem Solving: Hackathons help you control the problem solving environment. Hence the noise that gets in regular work is eliminated. Less dependency on external climate and it is focussed about only data problems.
- Right Stress:. There is pressure to complete the problem but it’s for a game and hence the psyche is more on problem solving than on deadlines. There is competition but a positive one towards constructive mechanisms.
- Greater Purpose to solve the problem: You are solving an interesting problem especially when the participants are choosing from a list or coming up with their own problem. The purpose is larger and the fun of solving something directly useful adds to the team spirit.
- More involvement: The problems stretch for a few days and they require more involvement from the team than short lived team games. The problems are more complex than regular games.
How to run Hackathons in Data
At Yubi, in this current financial year, we ran about 4 internal hackathons across different areas in Data. Most hackathons arose out of serendipity. Came up during casual chats or during brainstorming sessions. We did not target that there will be this many hackathons. All are organic. Once we decide on the theme of the hackathon, the person who suggested forms an interest group. We then make a detailed proposal on the hackathon covering objective, criteria, date, venue, panel, prizes and logistics. The prizes are not very huge, they are moderate. We have also conducted hackathons, which only consisted of recognition and not material prizes. The format could be hybrid however we pick a central location for the event to take place and nudge people to participate to get the vibe and collaboration going
You could have hackathons with specific problem(s) or completely open for a business context. The criteria of judgment have to be well thought. For instance, in the open problem hackathons, the weightage should be given to the idea, and the relevance of the idea to business problems. In the specific problem hackathon, the evaluation could be more on solution, scalability, code quality, and model performance (if applicable) etc.
It’s important to note that hackathon organisers would have a lot of post hackathon work, in terms of eliminating entries that don’t meet the criteria, and working with the panel for the final decision.
Taking the Solutions Forward
Hackathons in organisations don’t end with just prize announcements. These solutions need to be integrated with the core platform or put to use for a real use case. This is possibly more valuable than the prize itself. The usage and how we are going to take it forward could also form part of the planning itself. If the hackathons come for specific problem statements, it could be easier to take them forward. However even for open ended problems, the success of the hackathons lie in how many of the proposed solutions get to real applications
Innovations mostly result from fun, creativity, and a vibrant environment than out of mere necessity. The self organised teams in Hackathons prove the efficiency of teams in 3-7 days, which is not even close to the performance of well groomed OKRs in a quarter. Formal mechanisms like OKRs create competition whereas hackathons create collaboration. Of Course we need formal mechanisms to run the organisation but having occasional hackathons would result in the much needed freshness and boost to the organisation climate.