Many well-known tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, are known to hold regular internal hackathon events. (Facebook's "like" button and chat feature were both born from hackathons.)
Hackathons are traditionally a competition where developers, designers, product managers and other roles get together in teams to create a new piece of software or application in a given amount of time, then present it to a larger group.
For internal hackathons, the idea is to get a cross-section of people to come up with new ideas or programs to boost business or help solve a business problem. Participants get to flex their creative muscles by building something new from the ground up. The company sees and hears new ideas that can actually get implemented. And last but not least, people have fun and get inspired.
"But wait," you say. "I'm not in the tech business."
No problem. While "hacking" and "hackers" are usually associated with technology, the idea of a hackathon can be applied to nearly any industry. You might not have developers and engineers, but you do have employees with diverse strengths and talents. And they all know your business well, including its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.
My email marketing company, VerticalResponse, recently held our first-ever internal hackathon, called Code Jam 2014. Five groups came up with new ways to make our email marketing platform even better for small businesses. We're now putting a work scope around the winning idea, to see how we can integrate it into our release schedule and define resources to work on it.
Thinking about organizing your own internal hackathon? Check out these five quick tips:
1. Provide time (and space).
Don't make it feel like it's a ton of extra "work" to participate. Give employees the time they need to work on their hacks. At our hackathon, the teams were given an entire day to dedicate to their projects. We also gave them access to spare offices as well as extra whiteboards, so they could kick up their feet and hack away in comfort and with a little privacy.
2. Feed them.
If your hackathon starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., provide breakfast, lunch and plenty of snacks to keep participants fueled throughout the day.
3. Provide idea starters.
Although you don't want to limit the types of ideas that your hackers come up with, it's helpful to outline some themes related to your company or business that might be interesting to work on and expand upon.
4. Get the entire company involved.
At the end of our internal hackathon, the groups demoed their prototypes to the entire company and it was great to see everyone so excited about how our products and services could evolve. There was even a "People's Choice" award where everyone could vote for their favorite idea.
5. Have a cool prize.
It doesn't have to be super expensive, but a substantial prize for the winners is a nice way to acknowledge their hard work. For our hackathon, we gave out gift cards and an old-school trophy engraved with the name of the winning group.