The Juice in Hackathons is in the Teams, Not the Ideas

hackathon team

Hackathons come in all sorts of shapes and sizes these days. From the Food Hack to the Sustainability Hackathon to the classic Hack Whatever-You-Want style event, they can be invigorating. I’ve spent time at several Hackathons this year, both as an observer and an Ombudsman (conflict advisor). From a team dynamics standpoint there aren’t many places where you can watch the entire life cycle of a team (sometimes 30+ teams) in less than 48 hours. It’s like watching a bunch of startup companies run themselves through a time machine, only it’s more complex. That’s right, more complex. In this article I’ll briefly explain what I mean from a team dynamics perspective and then pass along some fast and simple steps that will help you get to higher performance with your next team.

Like Running a Startup Through a Time Machine – Just More Complex

When teams are built at a hackathon, many steps are the same ones we take in our organizations, except in the hackathon we do it really fast. We explore and take on talented people, collaborate on ideas and goals, plan strategies and actions, build, shift, pivot, build again, and, in the end, we hope that we have created something awesome. At hackathons, all of that work gets done in a pinched time frame that reduces the chances of genuine open and trusting communication. You know-- that sweet spot in a team where everyone is in sync and can speak openly and stuff gets accomplished, all in record time?

The lack of that in-sync sweet spot is problematic. I have observed two problems from a conflict management and team dynamics perspective at hackathons. The first is more rare than the second. (1) Teams become snared in some kind of unmanageable conflict that lingers for the balance of the event. They are slowed down because of the dispute and in some cases they disband. (2) Teams lean naturally toward avoiding conflict and accommodating unhelpful behaviors in order to keep things smooth. This prevents them from really being super-creative and innovative.

The Juice in Hackathons is in the Teams, Not the Ideas

The teams and events that I have seen to be most successful (e.g., winning prizes, having fun, reaching goals) are the ones where the human communication and team dynamic stuff is worked on right up front.  In my opinion, that is true in all teams – hackathon or non-hackathon. I have seen that happen when event organizers set up well-thought-out rules and codes of conduct, as well as when teams designate a facilitator who is skilled in bringing out all voices and helping the team lean into difficult conversations. Not all event organizers and team leaders are skilled in these areas, but the skills are needed in order to get the most out of the time and energy they will spend. The key to the riches here is simple; teams that develop communication protocols (ground rules) are higher performing than teams that do not. The trick in a hackathon is to have a brief period of slowing down in the very beginning so you can go fast the rest of the time.

Lean In, Then take 3 Simple Steps

So, if you have come this far in this article, it probably means you’re working with a team (or you will be soon) and you really want it to be a great experience for everyone. There’s a rush going on around you because most people are not thinking about this like you are, and they just want to dive in and start working. They may not have the experience you have, or they may not understand that sometimes you need to go slow at first in order to go fast. Ironically, this entire writing is about not being afraid to try new ideas, and that’s exactly what you have in front of you-- a new idea for most people. So how do you start the conversation?

Hackathon Team

Lean In

Pull in everyone to this conversation using your best persuasion skills. Be transparent and honest and as open as you can about your real hopes for the team. Keep in mind that everyone in front of you wants to be on a great team that performs well and is fun. Nobody wants to be on a team that sucks. So if you also believe that, you are well on the way to starting the conversation. The conversation will take approximately 30 minutes and will be fun!

Some lean-in facts:

  • Conflict, properly managed, is critical to avoiding groupthink. (Troyer)
  • Creative performance in teams needs cognitive confrontation. (Schaub)
  • 40-95% of new organizations (teams) fail; of those that fail, over 60% fail due to negative outcomes from conflicts. (Wasserman)
  • Without some constructive conflict-planning, teams tend toward avoiding conflict and accommodating behavior that can lead to stagnation and destructive situations. (Resologics)
  • The unplanned-for and haphazard use of conflict within teams can sometimes enhance performance, yet it carries with it the greater risk of negative outcomes when compared to anticipated and structured intellectual conflict.(Resologics)
  • “Swift Trust” theory posits that a temporary and/or quick-starting group or team assumes trust initially and adjusts the trust norm(s) based on experience as it progresses. (Meyerson)

3 Steps to Higher Performance

1.) Normalize Deep Communication and Conflict as a Tool
(Time Frame: 5-person team; 5 minutes)

Once the team has given itself permission to have this conversation, keep it moving and fast- paced, and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak.

  1. If you can, lead this step with basic introductions.
  2. One or more of the subjects from the “Lean in” list above can offer a great conversation starter. Choose one that feels right to you and start talking about it.
  3. Cognitive Conflict has been supporting evolution and innovation since the beginning of time. Setting up and managing that conflict so the influence on a team is always positive is the key.
  4. Taking the next two steps is one simple way to thoughtfully manage some of the communications your team will have over the next couple of days.

2.) Talk Over How You All Want To Work as a Team
(Time Frame: 5-person team; 20 minutes)

Dive right in and get to the heart of how you will have deep, innovative, safe, inclusive conversations as a team and what you will do if things go off the rails. Use the questions below to start a conversation or makeup your own that may better fit the team. If you have a skilled facilitator in the group, use that person to lead this. Make sure every person on the team answers these questions. Record the answers in some way.

  1. For this team to be the best it can be, what do we need to count on from each other?
  2. What is the best way to deliver feedback to you?
  3. If I am having a problem with you, what would you like me to do?
  4. If a team member comes to you to complain about someone else on the team, what should you do?
  5. If the method(s) developed in #1-4 above is not working, what should you do next?

3.) Implement
(Time Frame: 5-person team; 5 minutes)

If you just had the “Talk It Over” conversation above with your newly formed team, congratulations! Your team is now one of the very few forward-thinking teams around the globe who are tackling this type of conversation. On average, you will perform at a higher level than all the other teams you are competing against. Take an extra 5 minutes right now and make sure it sticks. Use some or all of the following questions, or come up with your own that will help you implement what you have talked about.

  1. How will we remember to do what we have talked about here?
  2. Do we need to write this down somewhere?
  3. What should I do if I see us getting off track from what we have agreed upon here?
  4. Does everyone think they can embrace what we have decided here?
  5. What did we forget to talk about that feels important to you?
Hackathon Collaborating Team

Now it’s time to go faster than you’ve ever gone before. Go!


Outline for communication protocols developed from our experiences and several sources including (Hoover).