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“We’re cool, we’re doing a hackathon!”

“We’re cool, we’re doing a hackathon!”

A lot of show, but little added value - how useful are hackathons in large companies?

2/27/2019 Editor Annika Remberg Reading time: 3 Minutes
Colourful post-its cover the walls, concentrating faces peering at screens, energy drinks keeping everyone awake and people gesticulating wildly in front of a flip chart. Put simply, this is what a hackathon looks like. “Hackathon” - a buzzword for modern, innovative and cool.

However, this format has plenty of sceptics. One of them is the New York sociologist Sharon Zukin, who carried out a study concentrating on hackathons. To present her results, heise online used the title “Hackathons are self-exploitation”. At least, that’s the result of the study: it seems that hackathons rarely lead to a marketable product. A lot of firms also admitted feeling compelled to hold these events in order to be seen as a cool company. Is it fair to say that companies that organise hackathons are like 40-somethings in a mid-life crisis, who will try their hand at anything in order to appear young, modern and not remotely old-fashioned to the outside world?

Dr Dirk Radtke suggests a change of perspective is required. He and his team work on questions concerning cooperation, management, self-organisation and New Work at OTTO. He believes that “Hackathons should not primarily be used as purely a PR instrument or as an aid for recruitment.” For him it is not the brand image or recruitment that draw the most added value from the format, but the company’s own employees.

Many find this unstructured work to be highly efficient and an incentive for their own creativity.

Dr Dirk Radtke

A sprinkling of creativity in the rhythmical daily grind

It’s fair to say that quite a few employees welcome taking time out from their day-to-day business every now and then and simply doing something a bit different. A hackathon can be a good instrument for this, provided it is carried out properly. Coca cola and flip charts are not a good way of going about it. It’s important that everyone in the company gets behind the event. “If the prevailing tone beforehand is ‘we’re not going to produce anything useful in three days, so let’s just do it part-time and after hours,’ the motivation to take part isn’t the highest and the results will reflect that,” explains Dirk. A much more promising approach is when companies make a green space available. So time, location and equipment are important, as is pushing your own event. On internal OTTO hackathon “InnoDays” (see info box), for example, a member of the board is on the jury that examines the ideas and crowns the victor at the end of the day. “A lot of hackathons are just an opportunity for developers to let off steam by themselves. I recommend a different, more interdisciplinary approach. This is why here at OTTO, we involve every role and level of management, and have set ourself an additional objective: innovation,” Dirk explains.

Creating space for contemplation and experimentation

For him, the most important thing is to involve as diverse and wide a range of participants as possible. “The more diverse the better”, seems to be the recipe for success. “When teams are made up of members who otherwise have little interaction in the course of their day-to-day work and perform different roles, it’s the perfect mixture,” Dirk clarifies. “There are no predefined roles or hierarchical structures. I will be working together with new people and a clear goal, but without self-restraint or defined roles.” This creates freedom and encourages thinking outside the box. “Many find this unstructured work to be highly efficient and an incentive for their own creativity,” Dirk says. “They get an enormous push out of it and strengthen their self-belief when it comes to overcoming hurdles and implementing innovation without revolution in their day-to-day work. This is where the format adds value for the company’s employees.”

What might be cool for the employees can be even better for customers

Companies have clever ways of converting this creative power. How? At OTTO’s InnoDays, for example, the mantra is always “the customer comes first!” Many ideas revolve around aspects that make the shopping experience on even easier, more stimulating and cooler. Other projects are concerned with how internal working processes at OTTO could be even more efficient. Even real clients are part of the InnoDays, assessing the projects at the end of the day and awarding their own special prize. A precise timetable is drawn up for the winning ideas to ensure these prototypes do not end up gathering dust in the corner. In an ideal scenario, by the end of the day the budget and time capacity will have been assigned in order to develop the ideas further.

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