Hack Your Way to Innovation with Hackathons

Meeting Planning

Beautiful chaos spins out innovative ideas

Are you looking for radically new ways to approach your events? Then you have to brainstorm in a completely different way. Hackathons borrowed from Silicon Valley are emerging as a tool for hot-wiring the path to creative solutions in the meetings industry across the country.

What is this hacking magic, you ask? Jamie Murdock, vice president of sales for Experient and co-facilitator—along with Retirepreneur founder Donna Kastner—of the “Hackathon Mastery” workshop at PCMA Convening Leaders 2019, defines it this way: “Gather teams of smart people in a space wired for creative thinking. Put a complex challenge before them, with helpful tools for their problem-solving journey, plus a chance to compete for a cool prize. Then step back and watch the amazing solutions they create.”

The intensive problem-solving technique started in tech in the ’90s as coding sprints and is now making its way to other industries as a means to gain perspective, focus and borrow brainpower. Josh Linkner, author of Hacking Innovation, defines the term as “the act of solving complex problems in unorthodox ways.”

The exercise grants employees, members and anyone else you invite to the table permission to escape their day jobs and dream in a safe space—an idea incubator where all ideas are welcomed and considered.

“If you are an event strategist who likes timetables, this isn’t for you,” Murdock said. “It requires getting really comfortable with beautiful chaos, but it is very powerful.”

The Winning Pitch

Murdock and Kastner have been hosting hackathons in some form for PCMA since 2017. The Convening Leaders exercise in Pittsburgh in January gathered 40 participants early Sunday morning and gave them a day to come up with new strategies to ensure sticky learning so that PCMA can remain relevant and attract a diverse audience. The seven teams started with bursts of questions, rather than going right for the solutions, and encouraged everyone to contribute. New to the formula was the concept of mentors who had been through the process before. They floated around the room, asking questions when groups felt stuck, pushing teams to go beyond obvious answers and generally acting as a sounding board.

At the end of the day, the teams pitched their ideas in three-minute, low-tech presentations in front of a panel of judges. One group suggested “educon tribes” to help attendees “move from knowing to doing” by holding them accountable for actually implementing what was learned at the conference when they return to their desks. A Cause Lab would make it easy for planners to help local charities with mentoring.

The winner was a #knowthyself quiz that would allow attendees to find out what learning style works for them and suggest an agenda based on the results. The prize was $200 for each member of the team and the pride of seeing their idea implemented at the next PCMA event.

A Manual for Breakthrough Ideas

Just because brainstorming is innovative doesn’t mean it is completely improv. Hackathon Design Playbook: Gathering Brilliant Minds to Reveal Breakthrough Ideas is an eguide Murdock and Katner put together to share their experience experimenting with formats and approaches.

Some of the hard-won lessons include the following.

  • Establish basic hacker etiquette rules. Tips borrowed from design firm IDEO include deferring judgement, encouraging wild ideas, building on the ideas of others, staying focused on the topic, allowing only one conversation at a time, being visual and demanding quality.
  • Set the stage with a white space that includes flexible furniture so participants can get comfortable, write on the walls and access brainfood at their leisure. Bonus points if you include access to nature and exercise breaks.
  • Choose the problem based on time available and a reframed understanding of what really needs to be solved—the waiting experience versus the time it takes for the elevator to get people from floor to floor, for example.
  • Eliminate groupthink by building diverse teams of different ages, genders, education levels and titles. Heck, to make it really productive, throw in a wild card from a different industry or department for a fresh perspective.
  • Reward good ideas at the end with a judging session based on originality, design, potential and effectiveness of the pitch.
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