Hackathon is an increasingly common catch-all phrase for something businesses have done for years-just faster, more focused, and (the best part) finite. Typically, programmers and designers get together around a known problem with an unknown solution. They work in a highly collaborative environment for a couple of hours or days in the hopes that their collective powers will add up to a fresh, innovative solution that wouldn't have been possible without people thinking and working together.

But why should coders have all the fun? There is much to learn and apply from this approach when considering business process improvements.

You're a business leader and you want to streamline processes. Of course you do. What's not to like about getting the same or a better result quicker with less hassle and thunderous applause when it's all done? Nothing!

But are you applying your energy in the right place? A business process hackathon might help you answer that question while revealing interesting insights and possibilities for time and headache savings. Too often, organizations (and sometimes under advisement from their management consultants) chip away at lengthy, complex processes- think recruiting, training, sales, and so on.

Tweaking around the edges is expected and safe but, in the end, the incremental results aren't likely to justify the time and money invested in refining the process to begin with.

This pattern presents a tremendous opportunity for any organizational leader to spark an alternative, hackathon-inspired approach-one informed by a deep understanding of the business needs and current processes, one that includes multiple perspectives, and one focused on where your business needs help the most. And perhaps best of all, the time required is minimal. Here's how to set up your own business process hackathon.

  1. To start, find six to eight staff members from at least two divisions. This group will ideally consists of people who are genuinely interested in innovation and able to work comfortably with imperfect information.
  2. Refer to your business process maps. If you don't have a set, capture the main boxes on a whiteboard. There is no need to agonize over these. Generally right is better than exactly right.
  3. Flag any point in the process that touches an external customer.
  4. Highlight decision points requiring C-suite signoff.
  5. Note steps with highly variable investments of time or money.
  6. As you consider drawing an arrow between steps, make a note of the average transition time and whether or not a handoff to another division occurs.
  7. In a group discussion, ask the "room" the following:
    • Where are we spending most of our time? Where should we be?
    • What steps do we dread?
    • What steps do we love?
    • Where do we get the most customer questions and complaints?
    • Which steps occur identically (or very similarly) by our competitors?
  8. Of those steps that rise to the top, pick two as a starting point for seeking innovative alternatives.
  9. Make some short-term research assignments (with less than a 48-hour turnaround). (Avoid the temptation to search for other approaches to the whole problem. You won't find a precise match, the search will be overwhelming, and you risk losing momentum.) Overlapping assignments work great here because no one is going to find everything relevant to solving that step. Task your team with finding one of each of the following: (1) a case study describing how someone else does that step, (2) a tool or app that performs that function, and (3) an outsourced service delivery model.
  10. Come back two days later to share findings: 2 process steps times 3 research assignments equals 6 "show and share" presentations. Limit these presentations to 10 minutes each (and set a timer, if needed). At the end of the hour, identify the two that generate the most questions.

A business process hackathon is useful in identifying the steps that are most ripe for improvement and savings. Here's one clear, easy-to-understand federal government example of the type of insights that can result from a business process hackathon. Beth Altringer further explores the trends in internal innovation and process improvement in her Harvard Business Review piece that is loaded with great examples from a case study with the Kuoni Group, a travel services company.

Hackthon teams composed of staff from across divisions are can help focus and break down complex processes into bite-size pieces. As the leader assembling these teams, the trick is to help the process and to help members avoid feeling overwhelmed and overly influenced by industry group-think and marketing.

Coming out of these 10 steps with a handful of precise ideas informed by your unique business process is the goal. A process hackathon is the how.