Hackathons Aren't Just for Coders

This article originally appeared on HBR.org.

Facebook recently hosted its 50th hackathon. It was the stuff of Silicon Valley lore: Employees from across the company took a break from their regular projects to develop mind-blowing ideas about artificial intelligence over an intense 24-hour period. Late-night thinkers enjoyed a 1AM meal to refuel.

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Inevitably, not all of the final pitches were winners but, to Facebook, the potential for uncovering groundbreaking innovations is worth pulling a couple hundred engineers away from their everyday tasks. After all, its past hackathons have given rise to wildly popular features, such as its instant messaging feature Facebook Chat and Instagram’s time-lapse tool Hyperlapse.

Hackathons are no longer just for coders. Companies far outside the tech world are using these intense brainstorming and development sessions to stir up new ideas on everything from culture change to supply chain management. For example, we recently helped a leading financial services company hold a small hackathon with 18 employees. The company wanted to make its banking services more enticing to millennials. We divided the company’s participants into five teams and collaborated with experts from the Stanford d.school to teach the basics of customer-centric design and rapid prototyping over three days.

The teams spent part of each day talking to consumers on the street. This exercise revealed an important insight: Millennials didn’t find switching banks onerous if they liked a bank’s products. Rather than devising ways to make switching banks easier, we realized the company needed to sharpen its product offerings. Armed with this information, the company developed prototypes for new tools that aim to help millennials avoid financial pitfalls and manage their money better.

At their best, hackathons create a structure and process around idea development. Sure, breaking out of the day-to-day routine can reinvigorate and inspire staff, but hackathons also demonstrate to employees that innovation is not only welcomed but also expected. Well-run hackathons lead to concrete ideas for new products and processes that can improve the customer experience and increase growth.

Just about any company can hold a productive hackathon by following these five steps:

Stoke the creative mindset. Hackathons require participants to step out of their normal roles and skill sets. This may mean interacting with different colleagues or performing unfamiliar creative tasks. A short team activity can help participants loosen up, think boldly and open their minds to their colleagues’ ideas. It can be as simple as challenging teams to brainstorm uses for an oddly shaped object.

An apparel manufacturer kicked off its hackathon with the telephone game, the one where a spoken phrase inevitably gets distorted as a series of players whisper it to each other. After collecting enough hilarious answers, the hackathon leaders shared them throughout the exercise to keep participants’ energy up.

Empathize with customers and get personal. A promising idea starts with a deep understanding of a specific set of end users — who they are, what they need and why. The best companies augment traditional surveys and segmentation tactics with old-fashioned conversations with current and potential customers and frontline employees.

Low-tech discussions, like the brief interviews the financial services firm conducted, are more likely to reveal the true thoughts and feelings that influence consumer behaviors, even unique needs that customers aren’t fully aware of yet. They also offer an opportunity to talk to consumers who aren’t typical users of a product, which could result in a compelling idea that a survey would never yield.

Ask the right question. The best hackathons start with an open-ended but clear challenge, such as: “How might we help our sales team interact with contacts more effectively?” The question should be aspirational, without prescribing a likely solution, and participants should have the freedom to think of as many ideas as possible — or even to rethink the challenge entirely if new information arises.

Executives at a luxury hotel chain that recently used a hackathon to devise ways to make its customer experience more personal found that employees felt inhibited by some of the company’s performance measures. These employees felt that they couldn’t use their best judgment to delight customers if it might compromise a rule. This critical insight allowed the company to redefine its central challenge during the hackathon and come up with more salient ideas.

Prototype and test promising ideas quickly. After participants pick the one or two most promising ideas, teams can immediately start to plan out potential solutions. Prototyping could be as simple as drawing a product on paper while thinking through how a user might interact with it. It could also be a process or a set of operating norms that set the stage for bigger changes.

Savvy teams will test the evolving prototype on customers and incorporate their feedback. In the best cases, user feedback influences the design and provides the ultimate measure of success. At Facebook, they say “code wins arguments” when it comes to deciding what’s best for customers. In other words, if users don’t love a new feature, then the effort has failed.

Nurture and expand the best ideas. The most skilled innovators put resources behind their strongest pitches and hone them further after the hackathon ends. They continue the testing and feedback process, and look for ways to turn these ideas into large-scale improvements that can help the company grow.

A large restaurant chain we worked with recently used a hackathon to revamp its dining experience. The exercise not only unlocked new ways to introduce menu items to customers, it inspired key elements planned in a major renovation of its dining space and bar.

While hackathons can help companies develop new products and services, the benefits reach far beyond the output of a single hackathon. We’ve seen companies use hackathons to promote cultures of innovation, to change the operating norms at the most senior levels of a company and to rally support around major initiatives.

Elizabeth Spaulding is a Bain & Company partner and leads the firm’s Global Digital practice. She is based in San Francisco.

Greg Caimi is a partner and leads Bain & Company’s Digital practice in the Americas. He is based in San Francisco.