Hack day, hackathon, hackfest (noun): an event or day where a person or company takes time out from normal daily activities to brainstorm, create, or develop.
Originating in the tech world, the earliest hackathons were designed for coders to brainstorm a particular problem and develop a solution in a short time. And they still continue in this vein to this day. At a recent hack day at The Guardian, for example, the tech team created 40 different innovations, including a tool that forces internet trolls to donate to charity before commenting on sensitive articles, and an audio-commenting tool which lets readers record voice responses to articles.
But hack days aren’t just for developers. Big Spaceship, a Brooklyn-based digital agency, launched a hack day to get the whole workforce coming up with new marketing ideas. The team were told to spend the day “making things that are shareable”, and they produced some pretty groovy concepts – from emoji-fueled fighting games to virtual reality “happy places.”
The benefits of hack days
This is what hack days are all about. For one day a year (or more frequently if you like!), everyone at your agency gets the chance to drop tools and bounce all those cool and unusual ideas they’ve had rattling around their heads off each other. Pausing normal business operations so that your entire team can follow their creative urges may sound slightly left field to say the least – but the benefits are numerous.
First, taking time out to organize a hackathon for your team is a fantastic opportunity to form new strategies and innovations simply by bringing the whole team together to work towards one specific goal. But hack days offer so much more than that, not least in building team morale – for what hack days offer is a chance for the whole office to mingle, and that might be something that doesn’t happen enough at your agency.
Indeed, according to recent research from the MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, the most valuable form of communication between team members is face-to-face, with email and texting showing to be the least valuable. This is why organizing a hack day at your agency will be so beneficial – it will provide an opportunity to get your team involved with some proper in-person interaction. How many great ideas get lost in endless email exchanges? How much valuable insight from the sales department never makes it through to the marketing team? Organize a hackathon, give these separate departments a chance to have some fun and share their ideas together, and you might just unearth a brand new strategy with potential to make real changes in your company.
Put simply, a hack day gives your agency the chance to generate new ideas, rekindle your employees’ passion for their work, unleash new swathes of creativity, and bring your team closer together.
Let’s run through the three Ps of running a successful hack day – planning, participation, and prizes.
How to organize a hack day at your agency
PLANNING your hack day
It should go without saying, but give yourself plenty of time to organize a hack day. Ensure you have picked a date and time when the vast majority of those you wish to participate are available. Give everyone at least a month’s notice, and see that the event is diarized and timely reminders are sent out. And be careful that you’re not planning a hack day at a time when it will clash with a major event, or workload is likely to be particularly heavy. The runway must be clear.
Next, decide which team members will be involved in the hackathon. Do you want to focus on a small part of the team who you feel will work well together, or do you want to get everyone involved? A team-wide hack day can be incredibly invigorating and fun, and by including everybody, you may find that the most innovative ideas come from the unlikeliest of sources.
Think about how you want to structure your hackathon. Choosing a theme can be a great way to give the day some structure – suggested themes might be internal culture, customer focus, productivity, new marketing initiatives, or ways to boost conversion rates. A thematic approach works well if you have a specific problem you want to solve or an initiative you want to develop. Alternatively, you could keep things completely open, meaning everything from office hacks to art hacks to food hacks to life hacks are encouraged – nothing is off-limits. This approach may well generate more ideas, but it should be noted that it could also become disjointed if there is less direction to what you are trying to achieve. Think about the outcomes you want and plan accordingly.
Lastly, don’t forget the basics in terms of a suitable venue, refreshments, and the equipment you’ll need. Ideally, a hack day should be held away from your normal working environment, a change of scene may well heighten the enthusiasm of your team members and enhance their creativity.
PARTICIPATION in your hack day
Depending on the size of your team, you will need to think about the logistics of how everyone will work together to generate the innovative ideas you’re hoping will emerge when you organize a hack day. For smaller agencies, you may be able to work as one group – larger companies may need to separate out a bit. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to plan the day so as to ensure that your team members do not stay in the same group all day – perhaps by planning several different sessions. One-to-one ideas generation can also be great for encouraging collaborative working and thinking, and will push your team members out of their comfort zones by ensuring they speak to others they don’t normally work with. One-to-ones can be easily facilitated with a simple speed networking session.
Which brings us onto facilitation. A good facilitator is essential for your hack day, as they will be able to plan and time the sessions appropriately, encourage the more reluctant team members to participate, and keep things under control if minds (and mouths!) start to wander. Your facilitator could already be on the payroll, but there is huge value in bringing in an external facilitator if your budget allows.
PRIZES for your hack day
Without putting too fine a point on it, some of your team members may be less than enthusiastic about participating when you tell them you’re going to organize a hack day, assuming it’s a sort of “touchy-feely” management initiative, or that the day is taking them away from all the far more important tasks on their to-do list. Injecting an element of fun through prizes or incentives may help increase enthusiasm and introduce a healthy competitive element into your hack day.
And competitions – even the healthy varieties – of course need prizes. Top prizes will naturally go to the members who generated the best new ideas – and the better the prize (tickets, vouchers, cash!) the better the incentive. However, the best hack days also keep an air of informality about them, and so don’t forget the fun prizes, too. For instance – offering a fun prize (a badge, t-shirt, or some chocolate!) to the participant who presented his/her idea in the most humorous/memorable/original way will certainly encourage some entertaining pitches. And, it must be said, that even if your hackathon doesn’t end up producing a wealth of great new growth ideas, if it gets everyone laughing, bonding and having fun together, then that’s a success in itself.
Over to you
Organizing a hack day will undoubtedly unearth some great new objectives for your company. But, in addition, it will also give everyone a break from the normal everyday grind, a chance to express their creativity, and a real opportunity to interact with team members they don’t usually get a chance to work with. Communication is the lifeblood of a happy, successful workforce, and when you organize a hack day, you have the chance to enrich it.
Got any great ideas for organizing a hack day that you’d like to share? Head down to the comments section below and let’s hear ‘em! Happy hacking, everyone!