Hackathons—where people from different backgrounds come together to work on a project for a few intense, caffeine-fueled days—are already well-established practices in some corners of the business world. They’re hallowed traditions in Silicon Valley, and even old-economy companies like GM and GE use them. Hackathons have become popular in research and education, too. This year, MIT hosted several, including "Hacking Arts," "Hacking Rehabilitation," and even the second-annual breast pump hackathon, "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!"
Hackathons are fun. They're quasi-social opportunities to work on something important with smart, passionate people. For companies and universities, they represent quick, relatively inexpensive ways to encourage collaboration, produce new ideas, and generate publicity. But they very rarely spark real, lasting innovation.
Innovation is usually a lurching journey of discovery and problem-solving. As a result, it's an iterative, often slow-moving process that requires patience and discipline. Hackathons, with their feverish pace, scant parameters, and winner-take-all culture, don't just sidestep this process, they discourage it. And while that's a reason for their appeal, there's very little evidence of hackathons that lead directly to major market successes.
Arguably the biggest disadvantage of hackathons is also their draw. They're often willfully divorced from reality. The formula is pretty standard: Throw a bunch of diverse teams together in a novel setting. Provide them with more playful materials than they’d normally encounter. Then put them to work on a worthy challenge where, at least at first, no ideas are rejected. This can have some real upsides; exposing people to different perspectives is a surefire way to get them to look at problems in a new light. New spaces and unusual materials can stimulate creativity.
"Solving" a problem in a vacuum, however, is a waste of time and money. When hackathon participants don't have the right contextual knowledge and technical expertise, they tend to come up with ideas that are neither feasible nor inventive. Worse yet, these flaws tend to go unrecognized in the limited time that the events take place.
Hackathons usually frame challenges by paring them down artificially. Exploration is confined to what can be done in the room or online. It’s difficult to do serious market research or meaningfully use case studies and financial modeling, let alone investigate potential side effects of any given proposal. Long after the hackathon is over, due diligence might reveal that several competitors are already doing something similar, clients already rejected the idea years ago, or the company can’t manufacture a prototype that meets the specs.
Overlooking that can have real consequences. Once hackathons become synonymous with innovation, everything else is cast as plodding, downstream work or demeaned as "mere" execution. But those of us who study innovation know that everything hinges on the hard, sometimes tedious work of taking a promising idea and making it work—technically, legally, financially, culturally, ecologically. Constraints are great enablers of innovation, but they can take a long time to overcome.
What's more, hackathons typically create a false sense of success. Every hackathon proclaims its winners and awards prizes. But what if none of the ideas are really any good? It tends not to matter. The top team still gets a check and the very fact that the organization hosted a hackathon ticks the innovation box.
If not hackathons, then what? How else can leaders spark real innovation inside their own companies?
Every team project could benefit from a well-placed injection of energy. But open-ended, flash-in-the-pan exploration only helps in the ideation phase. You need to have meaningful, fluid discussions during the less glamorous middle and end stages, too.
Leaders must seek out people from other divisions and disciplines to challenge their own project team’s thinking, with both a creative spirit and a critical eye. A mid-project meeting ought to include participants with varied expertise to go over interim findings and rework plans—radically, if need be. And as a project nears its finish, bringing in fresh perspectives one last time can help energize and add context to the process of reviewing results, pinpointing lessons learned, and sharing the best discoveries.
Bosses feel often feel responsible when their teams are limping along. When things go wrong late in the game, bearers of bad news can be punished. Bad news itself can get buried. That's all the more reason to combine a hacking mindset with rigorous examination of the data. This would reward smart failures and equip leaders with the information needed to rescale, pivot, or ax their projects at the right time.
After all, companies can—and even should—have it both ways. Hackathons trigger blips of great energy. But to sustain it in a way that creates real impact, leaders still need to inject the same excitement into every stage of the development process. That's not an easy thing to do, but real innovation depends on it.
Anjali Sastry, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Kara Penn, co-founder and principal consultant at Mission Spark, are the authors of Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner (Harvard Business Review, 2014).