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A ‘product’ focused Hack Day without writing a line of code…is this possible?

Read 3907 times Last modified on Thursday, 14 May 2015 11:14
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It might seem a little bit contradictory, however, Hack Days or Hackathons don’t have to be limited to pure technology companies who employ large numbers of software developers.

Hack Days can also be successfully run in predominantly ‘non-technical’ organisations, particularly if they are themed around a real problem space that encourages creative thinking, experimentation and collaboration. This blog breaks down an approach we took with a recent client.

The particular brief that we received from the client was to design a Hack Day event linked to a ‘product and revenue’ theme.

As we probed to find out more around the problem space we also discovered that the leadership team wanted to incorporate some recent staff engagement feedback into the format. The final curve ball was…. the majority of participants would be coming from non-technical functions in the organisation (Product, Sales, Finance & Operations).

Our first reaction to this brief was that we were unsure if we could design a ‘high value’ experience with a predominantly ‘non-technical’ group? However, as we broke down the key elements that our client wanted to achieve we realised that this could be done if we engaged a different approach.

Employing a phased approach

My experience has been that successful Hack Day events are heavily dependent on meticulous planning. There isn’t a standard 20 step guide or ‘secret recipe’ that can be wheeled out to guarantee success. I believe that each and every event needs to be carefully shaped and crafted to ensure that it meets the business objectives and participant needs.

At Hack Days Australia we employ a three phased approach for every client engagement.

1. Discovery: The purpose of this phase is to gather valuable insights into the perspectives of different roles and departments that will be active participants during the event. This can be achieved via a number of stakeholder interviews, workshops that is combined with any relevant supporting data such as staff engagement results and continuous improvement initiatives. This is a critical component that can also work to surface any potential roadblocks or resistance to change.

For this particular engagement it was very important to gain a clear understanding of the leadership team’s objectives before we started conducting a number of interviews with several departments that had never participated in a Hack Day event.

2. Design: The purpose of this phase is to construct an event format that aligns with the overall goals (established during the discovery phase) that is also tailored to meet the needs of the participants. This will differ for every organisation or team and typically will evolve over 2-3 iterations via active feedback from the client.

The biggest challenge for this engagement was to find a method where teams could produce a ‘non-technical’ working model or prototype without the dependency of needing software developers to code… We overcame this by incorporating a ‘systems thinking’ exercise at the start of the event to demonstrate ‘the art of the possible’ with a tool kit of butchers paper, agile cards, post-it notes, blu-tack and sharpies.  


3. Delivery: The purpose of this phase is to deliver an experimental experience that meets the stated objectives whilst also promoting the benefits of creative collaboration, innovation and rapid prototyping. Depending on the needs of the client it may involve detailed lead in logistics (sourcing & booking a venue, catering, theming etc.) all the way through to MC duties.

One of the key components for this client was the incorporation of ‘hands-on’ lean startup coaching for each of the teams during the course of the day. This was particularly important given the compressed agenda and relative inexperience of the group to these types of methodologies.

The importance of getting ideation right

I’m going to state the obvious here; the quality of the ideation phase has a direct correlation with the overall success of the Hack Day event. The key to getting this right is directly linked to finding effective forums and tools where potential participants feel comfortable sharing, commenting and voting on ‘potential ideas’. Timing for this phase can run anywhere between 2-6 weeks, it is really important to build momentum with a targeted communications plan across multiple channels (kick-off sessions, posters, email, social, intranet, chatter applications etc).  

For this client we utilised the online collaboration tool over a focused 2 week period.

Cross-functional collaboration

One of the great dynamics that can be built into a Hack Day design is cross-functional collaboration. The opportunity to incorporate input and feedback from a diverse range of backgrounds, perspectives and skill-sets is often difficult to achieve within the cut and thrust of normal business activities. Hack Days are a brilliant way of encouraging individuals to ‘walk in the shoes’ of different roles or functions within their organisation as they work through the process of building a working model or prototype.

One of the objectives for this engagement was to bring together different individuals, who wouldn’t normally work together, to collaborate on a real business problem of strategic importance. We achieved this by asking teams to form around guidelines that ensured an even spread of functions (Product, Sales, Operations, IT & Finance) across each idea.  

Staff engagement

We believe that individuals and teams thrive in environments where they are provided with opportunities to solve existing problems or come up with new products and services.

This event was designed to ‘lift the collective gaze’ of the Hack Day participants by asking for their input on new ideas to evolve the company’s existing product line. The client’s leadership team reinforced their support with a commitment to progress the winning team’s idea to market (prior to the event).


To conclude, I hope that this blog/case study offers some insight on how Hack Days can be tailored to meet the needs of ‘non-technical’ organisations/teams.

At Hack Days Australia we are passionate about helping organisations achieve their objectives. Drop us a line to see how we can help you shape, design and deliver a ‘high impact’ Hack Day innovation event.



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