But once in a while we find flash that really works, for any kind of firm. Facebook's Hackathons fit the bill. With the company having grown from tiny start-up to 1,200 employees in 6 years, management has worried about how to retain entrepreneurial flexibility and imagination. One way Facebook has kept its verve is the Hackathon -- an all-night quest to dream up an idea and make it real, immediately. This isn't just for engineers; marketing and even legal regularly attend. Anything is fair game, and resulting ideas have ranged from video messaging to a friend suggester. Facebook users can suggest ideas too. Usually the result of one night's work isn't something ready to go live on the site, but it is real enough to trigger detailed discussion and feedback.
The Hackathon can have plenty of flash (click for a short video) but don't be fooled by the sizzle -- the guts of this idea apply anywhere:
- Open the idea funnel wide, and invite your business partners to contribute. There is plenty of opportunity later to winnow concepts to the ones meriting serious investment
- Minimize discussion of vague ideas, and create prototypes that lead to rich dialogue
- Constrain innovation by giving people impossibly tight timeframes; one night can be plenty of time to generate enough for others to get the basic idea
- Create the right kind of discussion -- imagine how much innovation takes place discussing a half-baked idea produced at 2 am, vs. what occurs in a 100-slide Powerpoint presentation that a team has had 3 months to prepare. After a Hackathon, management can't take 100 potshots. It has to focus on the key idea and engage in a real give-and-take discussion, which is how meaningful innovations get generated
- Force people to be creative through having everyone contribute -- creativity is one of the brain's most lazy attributes, and almost any company function can become more innovative
- Establish a forum for reviewing out-of-the-box notions -- No one knows what a Hackathon will produce, so any output can receive serious consideration
- Lead by example -- Facebook's most prominent Hackathon participant is its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg
This post was written by Steve Wunker. Read more about New Markets' thinking on innovation capabilities.