3 biggest hackathon mistakes businesses should avoid

Hosting a hackathon can be transformative for organizations, but not if you do these three things.

Office-wide hackathons not only bring teams together in an organization, but also promote innovation. Hackathons allow employees across departments to work toward a common goal, resulting in the exchange of new ideas and skills. 

SEE: How to develop your IT team's capabilities (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

However, hosting a hackathon doesn't immediately mean the event will be a success. To begin, the hosting organization must set a clear agenda and expectations, said Joseph Carson, chief security scientist at Thycotic, a provider of privileged access management (PAM) solutions. 

Without some sort of guidelines, the hackathon itself might not even come to fruition. If the hackathon does happen though, there are some key mistakes the company must avoid making. 

3 biggest hackathon mistakes

1. Not defining the office hackathon goal 

As with any company initiative, a hackathon must have a goal, said Hunter Yaw, vice president of product and business development at Loadsmart. Participants must know what outcome they are working toward. 

This outcome shouldn't be too narrow, however, leaving room for participants to get creative, Yaw said. 

"A narrow target is going to result in very consistent results and people being frustrated, feeling like everyone just basically did the same thing," Yaw said. "But also having no goal or no targets runs a high risk of the results being all over the place. You have to very carefully calibrate the scope of the challenge and the rules of the challenge."

Once guidelines are set, hackathon hosts shouldn't change them. This can be frustrating and confusing for participants, Carson said. 

2. Poor hackathon timing

Hackathon organizers need to be strategic when it comes to timing, especially for companies that operate on a seasonal basis, Yaw said. 

"If you're in a business that has seasonality, it's important to make sure that you're respectful of the load on all the teams that are involved," Yaw said. "If you're in retail and you decide to have your hackathon in November, then almost certainly your operations and sales teams are going to end up being left out.

"Timing of when you do it is important, as well as how long to do it for. Some people have hackathons that go for 24 or 48 hours and maybe that works well for them. Ours last two weeks because we believe that the odds of someone building something really impactful in a short space of time are low." 

Timing will vary by organization, but is a critical factor to consider, Yaw said. 

3. Lack of hackathon collaboration between departments 

"The biggest mistake you can make is designing [the hackathon] in such a way that you fail to achieve the most important goal: Getting people who don't normally work together to connect and to collaborate," Yaw said. 

The entire point of an internal hackathon is to promote collaboration. If people who normally work together decide to form a team, then that defeats the purpose. 

Yaw said the organizers must formulate the hackathon in a way that requires diverse teams. For example, a guideline could be that teams must be comprised of members from different departments. 

"You can understand why people do what's most natural to them, but sometimes you have to create a little bit of structure to get people outside of their comfort zones," Yaw said. "That little nudge that can make a big difference in terms of whether people actually collaborate."

For more, check out 5 ways to optimize a hackathon on TechRepublic. 

Also see 

black woman employee speaking at diverse meeting

image: Fizkes/Getty Images/iStockphoto