How to Run a Hackathon That Unlocks Creative Problem Solving

Published on
September 26, 2023

Who doesn’t love a good hackathon? They’re a great way to break up your daily grind, and can be a huge opportunity for dev teams to innovate and collaborate. A successful hackathon isn't just about non-stop coding (although that’s a common misconception). Participating in a hackathon can help your team or organization to create solutions in a day that might otherwise have taken much longer. Plus, you have the added benefit of getting to identify and nurture outstanding problem solvers. 

For software development leaders, a strategically planned hackathon can help draw in exceptional talent, foster team cohesion, and highlight new and effective ideas. 

If you’ve been interested in running a hackathon, but you’re not sure how to get started, we’re here to help. Keep reading for our comprehensive guide on hackathon best practices, and tips to get started.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is a focused and intensive event where a diverse group of tech enthusiasts, from programmers to designers, come together with a shared purpose: to rapidly develop a new product or solution within a limited time frame, often spanning 24 to 48 hours. Beyond the immediate goal of problem-solving, hackathons foster collaboration, knowledge sharing, and the cross-pollination of ideas among participants.

So, why are hackathons significant? They act as dynamic incubators for innovation. When you put a diverse group of designers, developers and stakeholders together, the mix of perspectives can help unlock groundbreaking solutions and products. For companies and leadership roles, it presents an invaluable opportunity to identify talent, boost teamwork, and uncover potential new business avenues. Equally important, it cultivates an environment of persistent learning and agility.

A step-by-step breakdown for how to run an effective hackathon

Now that you have a better understanding of what a hackathon is and how it can be a valuable and energizing event for teams, let’s dive into how to run a successful hackathon, step by step.

1. Choose a theme for your hackathon

First, you need to set the stage with a compelling hackathon theme. Most hackathons revolve around a specific theme or challenge, setting the tone and direction for the event. Whether it's sustainability, fintech, or even augmented reality, a well-chosen theme acts as a beacon, drawing in participants excited about that particular area. Remember, your theme is a signal of what's important and what problems you're hoping to solve. Choosing the right theme will attract the right crowd, get people excited, and spark inspiration. 

2. Choose a location (or make it remote)

The right location can either make or break your hackathon. A physical venue can provide an environment of camaraderie, fostering in-person collaborations and brainstorming. However, the beauty of today's digital age is that hackathons can also be an online event. Hosting a remote hackathon allows a broader reach, inviting participants from various geographies without the constraints of travel. Whether you choose a buzzing city hub or a virtual platform, ensure it's accessible, inclusive, and conducive to creativity.

3. Define your audience

Who do you envision sitting in those chairs or popping up on those video screens? Defining your audience is paramount. Whether you're targeting university students, seasoned professionals, or a mix of both, being clear on your audience helps tailor your hackathon's content, challenges, and marketing strategy. With a clear picture of your attendees, you can curate problems that resonate and foster an environment where they can shine.

4. Establish roles and responsibilities

Running a hackathon isn't a one-person show; it's a collective effort. And like any significant event, having clearly defined roles and teams will ensure everything runs smoothly. Here are the key players to consider:

  • Organizational teams: These are the folks behind the scenes, handling logistics, tech support, marketing, and everything in between. These team members are the glue holding the event together.
  • Sponsors: Crucial for funding and support, sponsors often provide resources, prizes, or even platforms for the hackathon. They can be local businesses, tech giants, or anyone interested in fostering innovation.
  • Evaluators: These individuals assess the work of participants. They should be impartial and have expertise in the hackathon's theme, ensuring that the best ideas get the recognition they deserve.
  • Mentors: Ever been stuck on a problem? That's where mentors come in. With their expertise, they guide participants, helping them navigate challenges and refine their ideas.
  • Hackathon participants: The stars of the show or the “hackers”! They bring energy, ideas, and solutions to the table. With a diverse set of participants, the hackathon's output is rich and varied.

5. During your hackathon, share skills and create teams

While some might arrive at the hackathon having already formed their own teams, many participants arrive solo, burning with ideas but unsure where to start. That's where matchmaking becomes vital. Facilitating team formations based on complementary skills ensures everyone has a chance to contribute. This mix-and-match not only makes for balanced teams but also fosters new connections and collaborative learning.

6. Roll out your “Hack”

Now, to the main event – the 'hack' itself! This is where all the brainstorming, collaboration, and innovation come alive. The hacking phase should be clearly defined, giving participants enough time to ideate, prototype, and prepare their presentations. Ensure there's a structure but avoid being too rigid – the magic of hackathons often lies in those unplanned moments of brilliance.

7. Provide breaks for your attendees

Continuous hacking can be exhilarating, but it's also draining. Breaks are not just a good idea; they're essential. Periodic pauses allow attendees to rest, refresh, and even engage in side activities or networking. Whether it's a quick snack, a mini-game, or just some good old stretching, breaks keep the energy up and prevent burnout. After all, even the sharpest minds need a moment to breathe and recharge.

8. Put in place a deployment process

The thrill of a hackathon lies in seeing raw, exciting ideas come to life. But what's the point if those ideas never see the light of day? Enter the deployment process. By setting up a clear path for the best projects to move from the hackathon environment to real-world applications, you're not just rewarding innovation; you're enabling it. This step underscores that the hackathon isn’t just about ideation but also about execution. Ensuring there's a mechanism for the most promising solutions to get tested, refined, and eventually deployed can be the difference between an ephemeral event and lasting impact.

9. Hand out awards and opportunities

Awards recognize the hard work, innovation, and dedication of the participants. But it's not just about the trophies or cash prizes. Providing opportunities, be it in the form of internships, mentorships, or further development support for their projects, adds layers of value. It signals that the hackathon is a platform for genuine growth and potential future collaborations.

10. Wrap-up

The awards have been handed out, and all the pizzas have been consumed – but your responsibilities aren’t over just yet. Wrapping up a hackathon means gathering feedback, analyzing what went well (and what didn't), and documenting everything for future reference. You don't have to do a whole formal retrospective if it doesn't make sense for the situation and team, but you should take some time to reflect and write down learnings and insights from your hackathon, while they're still fresh in your mind. At the end of the hackathon, it's also a chance to thank everyone involved – from participants to sponsors. Consider sharing the event’s successes and learnings on social media or a blog post. Not only does this provide closure, but it sets the stage for future hackathons, building anticipation and ensuring they’re even more successful!

Hackathon best practices

Now you have a 10 step guide to running a successful hackathon. You’re almost ready for launch! Keep reading for a few best practices that can help make sure your hackathon is energizing and inspiring for everyone who participates. Our expert team of hackathon veterans put together this list of tips to take your hackathon from good to epic. 

  • Embrace diversity: A variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and experiences can lead to the most innovative solutions. Encourage participation from a diverse group to bring different perspectives to the table.
  • Mentorship matters: Ensure that you have seasoned professionals on hand who can guide, provide insights, and mentor teams. This can drastically improve the quality of projects.
  • Clear communication: Regularly update participants about schedules, changes, or any other crucial information. Transparency and open channels of communication keep everyone aligned.
  • Tech readiness: The last thing you want is a tech glitch slowing things down. Ensure that all the necessary tools, platforms, and software are in place and working smoothly.
  • Feedback loop: After the event, gather feedback not just from participants, but also from mentors, judges, and sponsors. This will help you iterate and improve for your next hackathon.

Find out how Spinach can improve your next hackathon

Seamless communication and organized task management are crucial for running a successful hackathon. As your AI Scrum Master, Spinach brings agile methodologies to your hackathon's workflow, and takes notes during all the high-level discussions, so you can spend less time documenting and more time innovating. After your hackathon is over, you’ll get smart meetings summaries (not long transcripts) plus decisions and action items to accelerate your dev team.

While your teams are burning the midnight oil, brainstorming their next big idea, Spinach is right there, ensuring every discussion, every breakthrough, and every nuance is written down, so nothing falls through the cracks. 

Ready to elevate your hackathon experience to a whole new level? 🚀 Set up Spinach for your next event and watch the magic happen!

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