Embrace the Power of Hackathons to Bolster Creativity and Innovation

In an era where technology is advancing and evolving at a rapid rate, many of the most tried and true problem-solving techniques are proving ineffective. In order to compete successfully, companies and consultants alike must reimagine and modernize their approach to cracking new codes, crystallizing the complex and unearthing new ideas and solutions to create transformational change.

But how can business leaders effectively broaden their horizons and explore all possibilities? What is the secret sauce to strengthening your innovation muscles and ultimately sparking that big, disruptive idea that galvanizes the masses and turns clients into loyal brand ambassadors? While there are countless books, conferences, certifications, networking events and coffee chats you can consult on the subject, the most powerful strategy is simple - practice. It truly does make perfect.

In Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the startup community, hackathons provide an unparalleled opportunity to practice, develop and perfect your skillset and foster groundbreaking new innovations on a grander stage – many of which have significant impact far beyond the technology sphere. In a nutshell, Hackathons are multi-day intensive boot camps where willing participants (with or without coding expertise) are placed at the heart of a complex issue and challenged to collaborate with real-life stakeholders to brainstorm and operationalize a scalable, budgeted solution. According to Harvard Business Review, the value of Hackathons is four-fold: 1) they create a rigorous structure and process for idea generation; 2) they reinvigorate and inspire professionals (regardless of industry) to push boundaries and think outside the box; 3) they demonstrate that innovation is critical to compelling insight creation; and 4) they produce concrete new ideas that improve the customer experience and drive lasting business impact (i.e. increased customer adoption and sales). 

On a mission to sharpen my own problem solving skills, while fueling my passion for social good, I recently participated in the Parks and Tech Challenge with 50 other like-minded technologists and sustainability enthusiasts in Golden Gate Park. Organized by the Pew Charitable Trust’s “Restore America’s Parks” Campaign, our task was to dream up new digital tools to refurbish the National Park Service (NPS), and ultimately remedy the $11.6 million backlog in maintenance and repairs to the park’s historic campgrounds, trails, buildings, facilities and infrastructure. With three legislative bills currently on Capitol Hill, the issue had massive ramifications to San Francisco’s parks and public lands, so it presented the perfect opportunity to practice tackling complex challenges, while giving back to my own community.     

After spending two days brainstorming with former park rangers and NPS stakeholders to get a stronger pulse on the underlying dynamics at play, our team had a big idea. Realizing that 117 of the 417 National Park units currently charge entry fees, we designed an integrated hardware/software solutionto automate the process. This would allow park staff to capture untapped revenue, enable visitors to enter quickly and easily and provide real-time data on how many vehicles enter the park and when. Ultimately this data would empower park staff with the intel needed to load-balance accordingly, and educate visitors on park information and safety precautions, when needed. 

On a national scale, many parks could greatly benefit from taking a page from our playbook on automated entry. For instance, Yellowstone National Park would gain tremendous value from an electronic tolling system where 100 percent of entrants pay a fee, effectively eliminating the entrance bottleneck created at peak times. In a similar vein, smaller parks could automate entries with self-service stations, enabling staff to be reassigned to different areas, based on the respective need.

In the end, our team’s idea brought home the gold, and we were invited to Washington D.C. to present to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, NPS employees and Department of Interior officials. The Hackathon was an immensely rewarding and awe-inspiring experience that recharged my creative juices, bolstered my ability to dream big and revitalized my professional consulting skills.  

If your strategic problem-solving muscles could use a power-up, consider these five critical steps to Hackathon success:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize

It’s imperative to deeply understand the overarching Hackathon objectives and stay laser focused on the judges desired outcomes at every stage of the journey – from brainstorming, experimentation, implementation, prototyping and execution – to successfully solve the business problem and deliver exceptional results. 

2. Keep it simple

When project possibilities are endless, it can be easy to shoot for the stars with the biggest, boldest idea imaginable. Yet while flashy solutions attract intrigue and eyeballs, they require rigid and complicated project plans, so it’s best to keep it streamlined to ensure a seamless customer experience.

3. Be transparent about budget projections and conservative in revenue assumptions

As with any accelerator program, it’s important to carefully consider the associated budget allocations and earnings required to achieve a return on your investment. 

4. Scale your solution with the most important element first 

Idea generation and concepting requires diligent experimentation and trial and error. Your best laid plans may go astray, so it’s critical to develop the most important component of your solution first and then build out your complete prototype. 

5. Be the storyteller of your solution

How does your project solve a market, customer, societal or environmental need? How will your solution make people’s lives easier, faster, more productive? How will your solution transform or disrupt the industry? People will rally behind your why (not your what and how), so it’s essential to clearly communicate the greater purpose behind your project to drive buzz, advocacy and adoption. 

Creativity, innovation and strategic problem solving isn’t a fixed skillset. With the right mindset and lots of practice, anyone can master the art of idea generation. Hackathons provide an excellent outlet to spark the inspiration, motivation and peer support needed to cultivate your next big idea and ultimately take your organization to new heights.