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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Ways to Make Your Company Hackathon (or Any Creative Project) a Success

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Getty Images/Tom Merton

Sometimes thinking outside the box means—quite literally—disrupting your typical workday.

Luckily, there is an HR-sanctioned way to step away from your 9-to-5 routine to work with colleagues you wouldn't normally collaborate with . Enter: hackathons.

Running from 24 to 48 hours on average, hackathons bring together cross-functional teams to tackle a specific business problem. In other words, it's when Greg from marketing joins forces with Laura, an engineer on the product team, to maximize their brainstorming power. Ideally, a hackathon produces a new tool or strategy, but the event can also lay the groundwork for a future project or company-wide initiative.

Because the hardest part of a hackathon may be getting those creative juices flowing, we've put together some techniques for spurring innovation across the company.

Warm Up Before You Flex Your Creative Muscles

You wouldn't run a marathon without a quick stretch (and a lot of peer pressure, presumably), and the same goes with a big creative endeavor. To get ready for out-of-the-box thinking, teams can get loose with creative exercises that perform double duty as ways for employees to get to know each other.

A game of telephone is an easy ice-breaker that doesn't require a long time investment. You can also get inspired by this list of creative activities Foursquare's Product Experience team has experimented with in the past.

Make Room for Prep Time

Hackathons are an efficient means for creating change in a company—they boil weeks or months of work down into mere hours.

“The primary goal in organizing hackathons is to reach objectives faster," says John Karp, co-founder of BeMyApp. A company can develop and design innovative ideas in two days, and potentially launch it in three months. “For a big company where any new product needs at least 18 months to be born, it is almost a miracle."

In order to make use of that coveted startup speed, however, employees should have space to prepare. Companies can do this by releasing the hackathon's purpose well in advance. The goal can be as broad as, What have you always wanted to experiment with?, or as specific as, Create a product that improves communication with our customers. To really get team members excited, the hackathon theme can be presented at a company-wide meeting or happy hour. This way employees can be given some guidelines—and maybe even time to start mingling with their co-workers and forming teams.

That brings us to our next point: The more ideation that happens before the hackathon, the better. Teams should be advised to move quickly on their ideas by breaking apart projects into doable action items. All of this extra lead time means people can enlist the expertise they need and create a game plan before the word "go" on hack day. With the logistics out of the way, everyone can focus on creative problem-solving and collaboration.

Reward Risk-Taking

A hackathon jump-starts new ways of thinking by stripping out approval processes and foregoing the dreaded email chains of never-ending feedback. But old habits can be hard to break, so hackathon hosts should think about how they can push employees to push the envelope.

One way is to provide real-world examples of success. In 2013, Hasbro, the 94-year-old toy company, hosted a hackathon at its Pawtucket, Rhode Island headquarters. Facilitated by AngelHack, the two-day event challenged developers to incorporate technology into physical play.

More than 150 developers participated in the event which resulted in 45 new products—the equivalent to billions of dollars of R&D.“Hiring a developer is really expensive, so it's often cheaper for companies to host a hackathon," says Kelsey Ruiz, AngelHack's media relations manager.

Another idea to push an innovation agenda? Host an awards ceremony that prizes creative thinking and cross-team collaboration. How about a Breakthrough Product award or Innovation MVP trophy? Awards foster the competitive spirit necessary to any hackathon and also recognize the hard work employees are putting in for the event.

After the frenzy, your colleagues will feel energized and your company will have new, cool projects on its hands. So make sure to get one on the books annually. It'll give employees something to look forward to and keep the innovative juices flowing.