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Can You Hackathon Your Way to Innovation?

By Joanne Jacobs

Everywhere I look it seems like I see “yet another hackathon”. Each week, we add more and more events to our Big List of Hackathons in Australia page – far surpassing the number of events that were listed for the same time in 2016. Yet in conversations I have with both corporate innovation managers and startups alike, we return again and again, to the same old question – “can you hackathon your way to innovation”?

Before I answer that question – I want you to try a little design thinking exercise on yourself. Ask yourself “Why the answer to this question is important (to you)”?

Then ask the same question again. And again. Ask it five times.

Often, when I am asked this question, it’s really a proxy for other, more challenging issues – how do we know when we are innovating? How do we measure innovation? And what happens to all those ideas we innovate around?

Despite all the work that we do to “think outside the box”, when it comes to innovating in corporates, all we want to do is put it back in the box. We want to be able to point to a program, a hackathon or an Innovation Lab and say, “oh yes, innovation, that’s what we do over there”.

But innovation’s not that neat. If you are innovating properly, it feels messy and uncomfortable. It makes you look scrappy and less in control. It messes up your head worse than a $2 barber. And if you can point to a box marked “innovation”, then you might just find you’re looking in the wrong direction.

Now, don’t get me wrong, hackathons, accelerators, bootcamps and innovation labs can be great things. But they are things. Events. Artefacts. They make for great stories, experiences and moments in a career.

But great innovation requires great change. Disruption, after all, is about disrupting, not keeping your “business as usual” tick-tocking along. Which is why you can’t hackathon your way to innovation. The only way to innovate is to change.

And the secret is managing that change like your business depended upon it. Because, you know what? It does.

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