Good intentions alone don’t make for a successful hackathon. Here are some lessons learned at Adobe.

Routine tasks can easily eat up most of your time and destroy creativity at work. To continually innovate for customers, top brands from Netflix to Ebay use hackathons to inspire their employees, motivating them to think outside the box and develop new ideas.

At my company, Adobe Document Cloud sponsors a hackathon called “Hack Week” each year, which has grown into a huge morale booster and innovation driver for my team. Employees are free to hack anything in our products with whomever they want. It’s spread over three or four days during business hours, so it’s hardly the Red-Bull fueled all-nighter that may come to mind, but the energy is just as electric.

While it’s clear why we hack – and the results often speak for themselves – there’s always room for improvement. Here are some ways we’ve hacked Hack Week, what we learned along the way, and how we’re getting better results.

The basic DNA of a great hack week

There aren’t guidelines for a successful hack, but here are a few elements that worked for us:

  • Get support from leadership. This is essential.
  • No meetings.
  • Minimal management. Stay away from “hacks” assigned by managers that look like work.
  • Maximize freedom. Hack on what your team thinks is best, with whoever you choose.
  • Share the demos publicly
  • Ensure a thorough review of the hacks for new directions, features, and patentable ideas.

Hack weeks are not without challenges

Hack Week is about going fast, having fun, and breaking things. But there are obstacles, which we’ve faced, along with some solutions we’re still trying to figure out:

Different geos & time zones. With 500+ developers, designers, product managers and QE spread over three geos (California, Boston, and India) and other remote locations, coordination is a challenge. We created a travel budget, setting aside money for people to gather together. Collaboration tools like slack, git, and video can also make seamless communication doable.

Hacking across functional groups. Originally, Hack Week involved only engineering. We quickly learned that having a more diverse group led to more diverse hacks. Product management, design, operations, and even marketing participate now.

Feedback and recognition. With a large, geographically diverse team, it’s an ongoing challenge to ensure that hard-working hack teams receive attention, feedback, and recognition from their peers and senior management. We try to tackle this problem by having a core group of judges who curate the content, share it out, and publicizing relevant work to other groups.

Evolving Hack Week

Based on these learnings, here’s how our Hack Weeks have evolved throughout the years:

Version 1.0: Live Demos. During demo day, each team had seven minutes to demo their projects. But with upwards of 70 hacks to watch, we were swamped. Spread across three geos, and 11 time zones, most people didn’t even see all the demos. We also discovered that many live demos didn’t work perfectly or weren’t quite ready, causing them to go much longer than seven minutes.

Version 1.1: Canned Videos. In efforts to cut down on demo time, we tried video. The organizers settled on four minutes, so that teams wouldn’t spend valuable time editing. The more interesting hacks were recorded so we can revisit them. They also become part of an individual’s portfolio of accomplishments. The canned videos worked OK, and the demos were easier to schedule. But again, gathering together to watch a bunch of videos was pretty boring.

Version 2.0: Science Fair. This time we scheduled in-person science fairs. This allowed us to ask questions, and spend as little or as much time on each before moving on. Oh, and we were also able to socialize and drink beer — never a bad thing. We still created videos, to share with other geos, executives, and for posterity’s sake. The problem, however, was that people in Boston had no idea what had been done in Delhi or San Jose, and vice versa.

Version 3.0: Combined Science Fair, Big Gathering. For the latest version, we had local science fairs running in parallel with a demo theatre. The demo stream is something everyone can watch, while still getting the local jazz. 3.0 struck a healthy balance between fun, learning about other geos and interacting directly with participants.

Always be hacking!

Despite these challenges, we’re constantly looking for hacks that will drive fresh ideas. We’ve prompted product and engineering leadership for things they’re interested in, and encouraged shy hackers to share by creating an “Open Space” pitch day. We’ve even made it competitive by having judges award the most outstanding hacks, which has certainly upped the caliber of projects we see.

The lesson here is that a successful hack week requires continual tinkering and a company-wide commitment to success. How are you hacking the hack?

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