Post-hackathon reflections

A month ago my team held the fourth annual employee hackathon, bringing together 40 teams of almost 200 employees to solve one of three challenges posed by our new CMO, the CEO of our investments business, and the head of Ventures. The teams had 24 hours to create their solution, and then a half day of two rounds of pitches to present to judges. Coming from a non-technical company, I was impressed by the concepts the teams developed - I really had no idea what might come out of it, and I think each team showed up in force.

 However, now comes the hard part. The part where we actually do something with the concepts. Generating and sourcing creative and innovative ideas is kind of the easy part for companies. Many of our peers/competitors have talked about running idea challenges, hackathons, shark tanks, etc., which are all things we're either currently running or evaluating as part of our strategy. USAA notes that over 10,000 ideas were submitted to their Innovation Community for Enterprise in 2016, and many other companies run external-facing hackathons inviting the public to create better solutions for old problems. But what comes of those ideas, where do they go? Even a friend at Snap has complained about the lack of momentum after winning the startup's internal hackathon.

 To really start to shift the culture from what can feel (too) conservative or complacent, into one that is thirsty for change and innovation, we need to really start building things. To bring employees along on this journey and show the whole company that we can think and work and deliver in new and different ways, it's not enough to just ask them for new ideas. We should do something with those ideas, make them real. Much of the feedback we've gotten from past hackathon participants is that they loved the experience, but then felt like all the work they contributed was almost ignored as existing roadmaps and budget items took precedence over their new ideas. Which is understandable in the context of a large company that is still structured to focus on "horizon 1" priorities. And that is hopefully where my team comes in.

 One rarely reads about the details of what companies do to put innovative ideas into action, and as a former consultant we were often out of the picture after delivering our new concept recommendations. So to a certain extent, I feel like there's an opportunity to pave the path while driving down it. Do we create an internal incubation function? Is it an entrepreneur-in-residence model? How much external help will we need? It's exciting but also sometimes nerve-wracking to try to figure out what might work best in a company culture that does feel more unique.

A quick look at the hackathon experience: NYL Hack 2018