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The Hack on Innovation: Do Hackathons Drive Talent And Transformation?

Hackathons are a great way to amp up creative energy, especially those that provoke challenge-based innovation. We’ve participated in a ton of them, and each time we’ve come away charged up with some new insight, a unique perspective, a shift in convention, and a caffeine hangover. But there’s always the question, do hackathons really pay off in the long run?

The Challenge-Based Innovation of Hackathons

Originally started as an open-source community to fuel exploratory programming, hackathons are typically two-day, challenge-based innovation events that serve to create, build, and deliver a product. Participants collaboratively identify problems, experiment with solutions, and develop a working prototype.

Businesses all over the world use hackathons as a rapid, low-cost method to generate and actualize innovative ideas. They bolster the creative process, allowing time, space, and a suggestive environment for the free-flow of weird and wonderful ideas and collaborative enterprise.

Hackathons are also held for the purpose of employer branding and scouting out new talent. As a challenge-based recruiting tactic, businesses can use hackathons to engage higher education students and market their company. Students get a quick-hit of industry experience while being afforded the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills in a quasi-realistic setting.

We can say from experience that hackathons are never a waste of time or mental energy––but make sure you have good java. While they can certainly drive innovation and talent, can hackathons actually inspire lasting innovation? Are there better ways for businesses to garner those same worthwhile outcomes?

In short, is innovation hackable?

Let’s take a look at why hackathons may not be the best choice for spurring innovation and creativity.



It really comes down to purpose. Do you want to produce solutions to problems? Create a prototype? Recruit new talent? Build employer branding?

Hackathons are, essentially, research projects, and every investigation must begin with a question. That question drives the entire process, including the outcome. After all, the answer is only as good as the question.


The Drawbacks Of Hackathons

What does it mean to be innovative?

Innovation is an iterative process of collaborative problem-solving that requires patience, perseverance and time for trial and error. It also requires a great deal of discipline. But our get-rich-quick era applies not just to money-making schemes but to the thirst for and consumption of knowledge, ideas, and hacks.

What The Heck Is A Hack Anyway?

Among the proliferation of overused words in the English language is the word hack. We live in a time where the general belief is that anything can be hacked with just a few quick tricks. But hacking out a solution isn’t a quick or easy process. Hacking requires a great deal of intelligence, analysis, and more gusto than a 48-hour, caffeine-fueled intense collaboration session can provide.

During hackathons, sparks of creativity will fly and possibly ignite some life-changing ideas. There will be potential solutions for hard-core problems, so they’re certainly not a total waste. But––and this is not a take-it-lightly but––putting all your eggs into one basket rarely pays off, unless you watch that basket very, very closely.

The fervent environment and adrenaline buzz of hackathons are often what’s necessary to get people thinking outside the box. Bring that back to the traditional boardroom atmosphere and brainstorming sessions once again take on a cinder-block quality. They’re boring, flat, and uninspiring.

Hackathons allow participants to play with novel ideas in a suggestive (read: contrived) environment that rejects no propositions. Some would argue that such conditions are fundamental to the creative process. Others would say they’re unrealistic and don’t translate to a real business environment where there is conflict, criticism, and often zero creative gusto.

Hackathons set a precedent for how innovation can occur, and everything thereafter is merely process. It may misleadingly nurture a spirit of entitlement for young, creative enthusiasts who begin to expect that business ventures are always stimulating, exciting, and inspiring, when in reality, there’s a lot of trudging through muddy waters on long dark days for months at a time. Why mislead potential employees, especially students who have little or no exposure to the real world? It’s like promising a child Christmas 365 days a year.

What will a hackathon teach students about the true day-to-day functioning of your company?


Create A Hacker Ethos & Execute Real Results

One of the main benefits of a hackathon is the energy. They buzz and snap with spirit, enthusiasm, and conviction. They’re propelled by an ethos of let’s slay this! If not for a hackathon, how can you inject this kind of spirit into everyday business in a way that has a lasting effect?

If you’re going to host a hackathon––and we certainly recommend it, even just as learning curve––plan well before you execute (remember that basket of eggs?). Know from the outset that it’s a gamble with time, money, and energy. Invest your resources wisely, and ensure that you’re not limiting your attention to the winner’s circle.

Find creative ways to identify various talents that may not be obvious in a conventional way. Discovering something unique requires looking at things a different way. How will you know something is innovative? What markers will you use to determine innovation? How will you ascertain what ideas are feasible and inventive in a non-contrived context? What’s more, how will you inspire enthusiastic new talent, especially if you’re recruiting students, to bring an equal dose of realism to the office with them?


A New Take On Challenge-Based Innovation

Remember, the answer is only as good as the question. Challenge-based innovation doesn’t have to be an event. It can also be an everyday approach to business. Similarly, challenge-based recruitment options can engage students in open innovation that snatches up that novice genius, ripe for the picking, while introducing students to the doldrums of real-world business.

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About the Author

Colleen Thornton is a copywriter with expertise in research and higher education. She holds a Masters degree from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, where she participated in several collaborative large-scale research projects in education. Her Master thesis, which investigated educators’ perspectives on inclusive education environments, was nominated for a prestigious award and later published in a Taylor & Francis academic journal. Colleen is a former lecturer, supervisor, and mentor for undergraduate students, and she’s inspired by Telanto’s innovative approach to uniting students with real-world business.

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