Innovation and organizations – Hackathon vs. RocketLab

Innovation is usually part of agile product development methods. Sometimes, however, agile methods just replace other methods. SCRUM replaces Waterfall, KANBAN formalizes previously unordered work. Obviously, the innovation dilemma remains still open. Where comes the creativity from? The ideas? Where to test those hypotheses which are not part of the daily routine?

The hackathon as innovation tool

Some organizations run hackathons once or multiple times a year. We did and are doing this as well. We organized already 6 hackathons in the past. Once yearly. Did we see the innovation boost? Well, yes – and no.

How do we organize a hackathon?

A hackathon at is a timeboxed activity (usually 2,5 days) and surrounded by a lot of social activities. We cook, we bake, we experience Virtual Reality, we do some board games, we play the football table and have a good time and fun. The whole company participates usually and is excited to validate hypotheses which are usually not part of the product development. There are no limits from a topic perspective. Teams organize themselves via a democratic voting exercise right at the beginning. People pitch their ideas and convince other people to become part of this specific project group.

What’s the typical outcome?

During the hackathons at one out of five ideas launch during the hackathon. This one idea is production ready and creates value right from the launch. The other ideas typically proof aspects, create prototypes of various qualities, cover maximum the best-case implementation and still need an investment of 80% to be ready. The hackathon is a great team building event, it’s great for the morale, the culture. The hackathon drives people’s motivation and frustrates them if their project doesn’t make it into the finals.

What issues do we see?

The hackathon validates some hypotheses, some not and the question remains open what to do with all the started work? Will we follow some traces? Will we just abandon the work? Needless to say – after the 2,5 days hackathon there waits daily business in form of agile software development work. At we promised to launch the winning idea and typically abandon the remaining work. We found that’s not the most efficient way to drive innovation.

The RocketLab – our way to innovate

As a learning organization we drew some conclusions from the hackathon experience. Mixed teams with participants from all relevant areas worked very well. The one project going live was a real push for team and company motivation. The others weren’t as good for morale. Thinking about this for a while we came up with a slightly different format – the RocketLab.

What’s different between RocketLab and the hackathon?

The RocketLab stands for outcomes and can potentially solve any topic: Product, Technology or others of cross-discipline relevance. At day one of the RocketLab there is one specific hypothesis the team focuses on. The team exclusively works for a defined period solely on solving this one issue. No distraction, just 100% focus. The team contains all disciplines to solve the issue on hand. They are all committed to create the best solution possible within the given time budget. It’s a team of maker, not talker, not theorists, no visionaries. The hackathon is broad and unspecific by nature, the RocketLab has a given goal to accomplish with the solution delegated 100% to the team.

How do we organize a RocketLab?

It’s typically either Product or Technology bringing up a specific hypothesis (or a technical complex problem to solve). A short discussion determines the amount of time we’re willing to spend on finding a solution – usually 3 to 5 days. The organizers invite people to participate in the RocketLab and the Lab kicks off. It’s never the whole company, only few people but interdisciplinary.

The initial task after kick-off is an intense planning session. The organizers introduce the hypothesis to a greater detail and the team sets goals – together with metrics. Right afterwards with a clear goal in mind and a good understanding of the metrics solution ideation starts. Ideally, the team ends this activity with a solid set of tasks for each team-member.

The RocketLab needs 100% dedicated team members – no excuses – and sits co-located in a special meeting room.

What’s the typical outcome?

The expected outcome of the RocketLab is a solution for the hypothesis from the beginning. The solution is live, up and running. If the team was not able to solve it 100% they have a clear understanding of the remaining efforts and a thorough plan. The plan is then executed in regular agile development work. One hypothesis, one implementation, one proof. The RocketLab is an efficient and effective tool to work concentratedly on a hypothesis – goal-oriented but very intense.

What issues do we see?

We did around 10 RocketLabs for very different topics. Very concrete, technical topics up to very abstract conceptual work. The results were sometimes simply spot on, other times needed further perfection during daily work. In essence, the RocketLab is a tool which borrows aspects from the hackathon but is more effective and efficient. It simply works for us and produced some very surprising solutions.

We still see some issues with the spill-over effect of the RocketLab – but that’s a minor problem. Only 20% of the Labs experienced the spill over.

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