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Design Thinking: Hackathons Secret Sauce

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Design Thinking in Color
Design Thinking: Hackathons Secret Sauce

If you’ve been on the tech scene for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of hackathons. It’s easy to dismiss hackathons as sessions where techies gather to flex their dev muscles. There’s some truth to that, but hackathons aren’t just for techies anymore. The word is out and the business world has woken up to what the most disruptive tech product development teams have known for a while.

Brainstorm, build, break and build again

Hackathons are a proven problem solving tool. It’s where people who are interested in developing SOLUTIONS to a problem (or any number of problems), come together to put an intense focus on ‘hacking’ the problem at hand. We’re not talking about hooded figures with malicious intent, looking to inflict ‘cyber-pain’.

Hackathons are for everyone and anyone. Got a problem that’s begging for solutions?  Are you a government agency that wants to come up with innovative ways to generate revenue? A retail bank looking to seamlessly delight clients at every channel? A manufacturing plant struggling to cut production costs and optimize your supply chain? Set aside a half-day, a day or a few days to brainstorm ideas, build prototypes, break and build again, and you have yourself a hackathon!

Hackathons and Design Thinking are a match made in innovation heaven

Design Thinking InnovationThe best hackathons require a diversity of ideas. There are no bad ideas and no irrelevant sources. Let’s take the banking example, want your clients to keep griping about your horrible customer services on social media? How about you invite your couple of your most irritated customers to share their idea of good customer service, while you’re at it, have folks from your marketing team join in, bring in some of your call center team members, invite a couple of people from your web design team, some client relationship managers, maybe even a former client or someone who has never done business with your bank, your could even throw in a couple of people from the finance department or may be even reps from the company that service your ATMs. Get the idea? There are no rules!

 Bringing together innovators from diverse backgrounds and varied view points fosters what the Institute for Design at Stanford refers to as ‘radical collaboration.’

As one would expect, there is an initial awkwardness that comes with creating a diverse team and tasking them with working toward a common goal. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman coined the phrase “forming, storming, norming, and performing” to describe the path that most teams follow to high performance. Tuckman must have run a few hackathons as part of his research to reach this widely accepted conclusion.

Dribble, tackle, refine and repeat

Design Thinking provides a proven blue print for navigating the awkwardness of challenging a team of diverse thinkers to come up with innovative solutions within a short period of time. While thinking or ideation is a very critical part of design thinking, there is a strong bias toward doing, taking action to quickly build out ideas, test and refine.
Design Thinking Steps

Taking Stanford’s methodology* as an example, the key steps involved are:

Empathy: Stepping in the shoes of your end users (citizens, employees, students, clients, etc.

Define: Clearing the ‘noise’ to get to the heart of the problem you’re trying to solve.

Ideate: Casting a super wide net to catch all ideas.

Prototype: Giving your ideas form, it could be by putting them down on post it notes, creating user story boards, building a ‘quick and dirty’ app, etc.

Test: Socializing your prototype for feedback, be prepared to revise and iterate based on feedback.

Hack like a Boss!

The marriage of hackathon and design thinking is a sure fire way to birth disruptive innovation when leveraged properly. Pick your favorite problem and start hacking. Hack your department, your school, your organization, you’d be amazed at the genius that lies in your ‘every day people.’

Let’s hear about your persky problem that’s begging for a hack. Contact us  or drop a line at

*Reference: Stanford