Do Hackathons Still Matter?

by Nelan Schwartz

The term might be outdated, but the idea of bringing teams together to solve big problems has never been more relevant.

I’m a runner, so I like to think that the word is a combination of “hack” and “marathon.” Or more accurately, a creative tech sprint aimed at solving some problem or creating something new.

It’s a novel idea—or at least it was a decade ago. Many people in my field may see the term now and think, “Hackathons are so 2010. Why are these things still around?” And indeed, it’s worth asking if these get-togethers are still relevant.

As usual, it’s all about context. Strip away the semantics, and what you’re left with is the essence of how business works today: through creative teamwork. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, collaboration in the workplace has increased by 50 percent over the past 20 years. And this new dynamic has spawned an entirely new strategic focus about how to create the most productive teams. Says Charles Duhigg, the author of Smarter Faster Better, “If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.”

So, if you remove the term “hackathon” what you have is a compelling event. And it’s an event most people in the design/tech/innovation space should be intimately familiar with. Many agencies and firms provide elaborate versions of hackathons for their clients—they just don’t call them hackathons.

At T3, we use a workshop format called a Think Tank to solve hard problems. These events are typically one day long. They open with a presentation about the topic at hand to help get everyone on the same page, followed by a discussion of opportunity areas. Small teams then form to work through the problem using a variety of methods. And that’s where the fun begins! No idea is too crazy, and there are no bad ones. The goal is to open minds to the possibilities, to explore areas not previously explored, and to approach problems from new angles.

It’s not so different from a hackathon. Our Think Tanks are more elaborate to be sure, but anytime you combine strategic thinkers, talented designers, and skillful developers with an interesting problem space, you can expect useful results.

That’s because during Think Tanks and hackathons, you are providing a forum for collective thinking and a team dynamic. When you’re working alone, it’s all too easy to censor your ideas before they’ve had time to develop. When you’re working with a team you trust, you are able to put rough and incomplete ideas on the table so that another team member can build on the potential and the promise in your idea. This collaborative thinking and doing is the real magic behind the teamwork we foster in our Think Tanks… and hackathons.

This weekend, I’ll be judging one such event at Capital Factory. Hopefully, I’ll get to see some great teamwork and collaboration.

Nelan Schwartz

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