Why you need to run a hackathon, design sprint, or innovation sprint
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Why a hackathon, design sprint, or innovation sprint are perfect ways to hack your business growth.

It sucks if your business results have hit the ceiling, and you can't see a way to increase them.

Running a rapid business innovation event is one proven way to achieve a breakthrough.


If you get it wrong, you can waste a lot of time, energy, and money.

I can help you eliminate nearly all the risks with the following hackathon and innovation sprint tips.

But first, what's the difference between these growth hacking activities and which one will work best for you?

I've run all of these growth hacking events before for my clients and taught them to run them themselves so they wouldn't have to put up with me anymore (haha, no, my clients do really like me).

The first noticeable difference between them is in their size.

Hackathon meaning

Hackathons are often run as competitions. They tend to be run with larger groups (15 to 200 people) that incorporate people from all areas of an organisation.

Think people from finance, customer service, operations, sales, the whole spread. The more diverse, the better.

Hackathons originally come from the tech world and are used to create new tech solutions or apps to help the company.

However, the exact process can be applied to any business or industry. It's the collaboration process and structure that matters most.

A hackathon challenges people to create something over a set time using technologies. It's an opportunity to connect, collaborate and create.

It's also an opportunity to network and meet other people and form teams with people from different skill sets and industries to tackle a problem or process together.

Hackathons are usually run over a 2-3 day period.

Quite often, they're run over a weekend so people from outside an organisation can join in (especially if a public competition) or so it doesn't disrupt a typical working week.

Design sprints, innovation sprints, or sprints (they all mean the same thing) on the other hand are run over five days.

They are smaller in size of participants (usually no more than 12-15 people) and work best when there is a cross-section of participants from different parts of the business.

How to run a hackathon without wasting anyone's time (AKA called how to run a hackathon for beginners)
Start with a briefing.

Most briefings are done on a Friday evening.

At the briefing, a list of problems is shared with the prospective teams or an area requiring innovation is identified.

Teams get the opportunity to interview the people with the problems.

For example, a brief might be, "We have all of this data from our customers. How can we use it?"

There may be mentors or experts from respective fields on hand to answer questions from the teams.

Have teams with a minimum of 3 people per team.

A traditional tech approach is to have one of each of the following people involved in a team:

  1. A business-savvy guru who can manage and coordinate the project. Usually, these are salespeople, marketers and project managers -  referred to as the Hustler
  2. A UX designer or graphic designer -  referred to as the Hipster
  3. A programmer/ coder - referred to as the Hacker

These three people make up the core team.
Team member roles
Each core team member has a critical role to play.

The Hustler works on managing the project and creating a business plan to ensure the team wins prizes and/or has a strategy to take the project further. The Business Model Generation Canvas is usually used.

The Hipster works on the User Experience process and design.

They'll deep dive into what core features are required and create an interface using tools such as Photoshop, InvisionApp and Canva. InVisionApp.com is a popular app that enables people to transform web and mobile apps into clickable, interactive prototypes and mockups.

The Hacker works quickly, creating something that works, be it a website or an app of some sort.

Many hackers use github.com, enabling people to store and collaborate and build software projects.

The hackathon goal
The hackathon goal is to test at hyper-speed what works and what doesn't work by running rapid experiments, validation and crude prototypes.

People learn from others as much as they learn from the projects.

Much of the success of Hackathons comes from failing fast. An idea that doesn't work quickly becomes the impetus for something else that works better.

Don't forget the customer
Just as important as the coding is persona and customer journey mapping.

What would the end-user think, feel, do and say?

Mapping the customer journey is key to creating an outstanding end product. Invite several customers or stakeholders to be involved throughout the hackathon.

Having them joining in at the start of the hackathon is critical so that people can ask the customer questions to generate insights.

7 tips to ensure success in the running of the hackathon 
  1. Having clear objectives & outline that informs everybody of the daily expectations and area of focus.
  2. You need clear deadlines and deliverables communicated. Make sure they stick to the step by step process. Have one clear head facilitator who ensures all is going to plan
  3. Visually show people where they are in the hackathon stages at the start of each day and at times after breaks. I usually have a big chart that plots the key steps so everyone knows where they are and what's happening next.
  4. Have a great mix of different people, but make sure each individual group is not too big. I prefer to cap each team at 7 people.
  5. Have a great environment that does not feel like the usual workspace
  6. Keep people motivated throughout the event. Have good food and fresh air breaks - oh, and good prize incentives can help too.
  7. Be flexible - things change, some solutions will develop faster than others, and you may not be able to solve everything in the time you have. Work with what you've got.
  8. Ensure all feedback is constructive - you're looking for the best parts that can work. Sometimes that might mean combining different components from different teams' ideas. Criticising people will ruin your chances of ever getting people to innovate again.
The Innovation Sprint or Design Sprint
An innovation sprint's primary focus is to quickly identify a bottleneck or business opportunity, create potential solutions, and validate the solutions or new product ideas.

If you're looking to run a safe innovation sprint, here are some of our favourite innovation sprint ideas.

Innovation Sprints typically begin with research into the trends affecting and influencing your existing, past & future clients.

This pre-session research will also include customer research interviews or surveys.

Day one starts with the key emerging trends that were uncovered. Together with the customer interviews/ insights, they turn them into insights.

Insights that might be a critically ignored customer need, desire, frustration or industry bottleneck that can be capitalised on. Learn about trend forecasting here.

Day two starts with defining the number one fundamental challenge that needs to be solved and the scope.

Next, the team then puts on their ideation hats.

They produce a stack of ideas that solve this valid problem and then storyboard potential prototypes. Use this ideation toolbox to create great ideas.

Day three typically begins with having a customer or stakeholder join in to share feedback on the ideas.

The best ideas are then shortlisted, and the best ones to prototype further are chosen.

The selected ideas then have a prototype storyboard created to help people work out how they will build their prototype experiment cost-effectively and rapidly.

Day four involves rapidly building the prototypes. To find out ways to build prototypes or validation experiments, check out The Reinvention Sprint Book.

Day five is about having an actual user experience by getting customers/ or stakeholders to interact with the prototypes.

Make observations and then interview the people who had used the prototypes.

Finally, the team creates clear next steps to capitalise on the newfound knowledge.

Running a hackathon or innovation sprints may seem like a big commitment.

Yet, these are the types of activities that companies such as Google and countless startups use to hack their growth through low-risk innovation.

You might wonder how often you should run a hackathon or innovation sprint.

From experience, we've found one hackathon a year works wonders for a large organisation.

While running one innovation sprint every quarter (12 weeks) keeps the momentum happening but, most importantly, gets you growth at minimal risk.

A good innovation agency like ours can make running one of these events a breeze, but doing them yourselves is not beyond you.

If you need any help, just give us a shout. We've got your back.


PS: If you'd like to learn more about our proven minimal risk business innovation techniques and courses, or have someone come and innovate for you, contact us here

Nils Vesk is a Four-Time Author and International Keynote Speaker. Nils has worked globally with over 200 bluechip companies including 3M, American Express, Canon, Caltex, Microsoft, Nestle´, IBM, Fuji Xerox, PWC, HP and Pfizer.
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About Nils Vesk

He's the founder of Ideas With Legs.

His  clients call him a Reinvention Renegade. Nils Vesk is an international authority on innovation and the inventor of the ‘Innovation Archetypes Process’.

Around the globe, leading companies such as Nestle, HP & Pfizer turn to Nils to share his proven innovation techniques for formulating commercial insights, ideas, extraordinary customer experiences and irresistible products.

Nils unpacks the million-dollar innovation principles used to create rapid growth for the future.

Nils is the author of a number of books including "Ideas With Legs - How to Create Brilliant Ideas and Bring Them to Life", and "Innovation Archetypes - Principles for World Class Innovation".

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