PMO Hackathons!

Hackathons have been around since the late 90's and have been used successfully by big companies and small start-ups alike as a was to quickly create new software solutions, and to innovate. Their are numerous Hackathon success stories - one of the most notable being the creation of GroupMe at a TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 conference. GroupMe quickly became a major company and was sold to Skype a year later for $85m.

The word 'Hackathon' invokes images of rooms full of coders locked away in a room without windows whilst lines of code scroll across large screens. But here at HotPMO! we ask; "Why should software developers have all the fun?" If the format works for software, there is no reason why the PMO cannot adopt the format and use it elsewhere in the business.

By Sebastiaan ter Burg from Utrecht, The Netherlands (Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sebastiaan ter Burg from Utrecht, The Netherlands (Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


What's the format for a typical Hackathon?

Hackathons typically have a theme or focus. The focus could come up with an innovative way of using an existing piece of software, or to build something from scratch to solve a specific problem. The focus can be broad (eg come up with a new tool to reduce world hunger) or focused (eg find a way of improving the way the company notifies customers when products are out of stock). Once the focus is agreed, you need to decide on how much time you want to devote to your hackathon. Full-day hackathons are common, but they can be anything from a few hours to several days. Ing once held a hackathon that ran for 24 hours straight! 

The Hackathon starts with a presentation describing the theme, or challenge that people are trying to over come. Teams are formed and they work the problem in short iterations - sharing progress and ideas with the wider group at regular intervals. Whilst the teams usually work together collaboratively, it is common to introduce an element of competition with prizes for the best product demonstration, most innovative idea, or idea with the most potential. 

Sometimes external speakers are invited to talk at various points during the hackathon (eg after lunch). Food and drinks are provided throughout to keep teams energized. At the end of the Hackathon the teams present (or demo) their work and there is time for QA. Prizes are awarded, and the team celebrate the Hackathon over a few drinks and nibbles.

What makes Hackathons so powerful?

Despite best efforts, most organisations have some sort of silo mentality. Hackathons pull diverse talent and skills together to focus on a specific challenge for a short period of time. As well as the solutions that are presented at the end of the hackathon, there are benefits long after the event itself as the relationships that were forged on the day continue to bear fruit. Make no mistake, if you run a successful hackathon, you will see cross-silo communication improve massively afterwards. 

What type of Hackathons could we run?

Data Hacking - One of the key things PMOs do is act as a 'single point of truth'. They collate reports and information from various sources and turn it into coherent and actionable Management Information. In an ideal world, the data are located in a single location in a format that is easily understood. In practice however, data is held in a variety of systems and spreadsheets and formats can vary wildly. Often the PMO are held back because they don't have the right access, or the right skills to access data sources that could help them produce better management dashboards. A PMO-lead hackathon could be a solution! Invite technical resources from different teams, vendors and PMO analysts. Snr Management should set the scene by explaining what they need and what challenges they face. Attendees should be assigned to teams to ensure a good mix of skills and knowledge in each team. At the end of the hackathon, Snr Mangement should return to observe the demos and award prizes. 

Innovation/ Ideation - If you find your business strategy is typically developed 'top-down' then maybe an innovation hackathon as part of your strategic planning process could be just what you need. Once the high level strategic goals are agreed (sell more/ spend less) organise a hackathon where different departments come together to come up with ways to achieve the strategic goals. This approach generates fresh thinking and avoids ideas being filtered through conventional silo mechanisms. Another advantage to this approach is that it garners buy-in for the strategy, as more people have an active role in shaping some of the strategic initiatives.

Supplier Evaluation - If you've been involved in PMOs and Projects for a while, you've almost certainly been involved in the evaluation of a tool or service. But what if there were a way to get all the suppliers to demonstrate their capabilities, whilst getting a better understanding of the challenges that your organisation faces? A supplier hackathon could be the answer. Invite your suppliers to attend, give them the theme for the event and let them know how teams will be evaluated. Once the teams are in place, provide them a realistic scenario and grant them access to the feeds and data that they need to work the problem. Suddenly you move from evaluating suppliers based on fancy presentations, to evaluating them based on their ability to help solve your real-world challenges. At the end of the hackathon, be sure to give all suppliers detailed feedback so they can learn from the experience too. 

Others - There are many ways the PMO could apply the hackathon model could be applied outside of software teams - share your ideas in the comments section below!