What is a Hackathon and how can we use it in internal communication?

Hackathons are commonplace in the IT world, but what are they and how can we use them in internal communication?

Today I have a guest post for you by Katie Marlow, Chart.PR, PG (Dip), of Little Bird Communication. She recently attended a hackathon and is here to tell us more.

Katie @ktmarlow, is a communication consultant who specialises in internal communication. She started her career after graduating in PR from Bournemouth University and has worked in public and private sector in-house roles before founding her consultancy, Little Bird Communication in 2010.

Her mission is to help workplaces work better for everyone, and her consultancy supports a range of clients and partners from different sectors to do just that. Katie is also an active member of the CIPR Inside committee (the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ sector group for IC pros) and teaches the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma at Bournemouth University.

I’ll hand you over to Katie…

What is a Hackathon and how can we use it in internal communication?

Back in 2014, I first heard about hackathons. I didn’t have much idea what they were or how they worked. I was working with CIPR Inside and we had hosted the team from the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) who shared their experience of using a hackathon approach in their digitisation of the driving licence and customer service at our annual conference.

It was a big project and a huge change in the way of working for the DVLA and their employees. The DVLA undertook a three-day hackathon to find answers to core problems and find solutions.

The history of the hackathon

Hackathons have come from the tech industry.

The name is a portmanteau of ‘to hack’ and ‘marathon’.

It’s an intensive and deep session, which can take place over days to explore a challenge and find a solution. A group of people from designers to subject matter experts get together to find a quick and effective solution to a problem, to create a minimum viable product. Technologists are often natural problem solvers, they are always looking for better and different ways to make systems work better. A Hackathon takes design thinking and agile working to make it happen. The work happens in a sprint.

Hackathons have been used in the tech industry for the last 18 years or so.

Attendance at my first ever Hackathon

At the end of September 2018 I took part in my first ‘mini’ hackathon. I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but MC’d by Perry Timms, who is a master of the techniques of agile working and using hackathons, I expected to enjoy it and I did.

This hackathon was on neurodiversity. Jane Green, ed. Psych specialist advisory teacher to local authorities, trainer, speaker and autistic woman, gave us a brilliant introduction to neurodiversity, what it means to individuals and in their work.

Perry then gave us the introduction to Hackathons, how they work and what we needed to do before we set to work in our groups to hack neurodiversity at work. (The topic of this hackathon is a whole other blog post.)

What are the key features of a hackathon?

Hackathons are an inclusive, open, democratic and social approach to solving a problem or harnessing a new opportunity.

They take a staged and iterative approach to solving problems. You use a sprint approach to working, which means working at pace on each iteration or sprint to get to create a minimum viable product. It is not about the creation of a perfect solution.

It’s a highly collaborative way of working, that crowdsources innovation from everyone involved. It works in contrast to our normal process ways of working and hierarchies in organisations, and so it is a great way to be inclusive, and participative. It levels the organisational structure because everyone’s input matters and everyone has an expertise or knowledge to bring to the development of that minimum viable product no matter what it might be.

Hackathons are light on process and help you to move your thinking beyond the normal boundaries so they are fast-moving and purposeful.

I found the whole experience fun and energising.

What makes a good hackathon?

Subject matter

The kind of subject that makes for good hackathon material are critical issues or opportunities.

Great people

You need the kind of people in the room who have the energy, are creative and will collaborate

The right environment

This means the culture to be open and collaborate, to trust and be open to big bold ideas that are outside of the normal boundaries. The right physical space helps too. Space to move, write on white boards, flip charts and space to break out to all help the flow of ideas, as well as everyone being well catered for of course.

Courage and belief

Because a hackathon goes against the grain of traditional working patterns and processes, the people involved need to be able to believe in it as an idea to get behind it and make it work. And for the very same reason they have to be bold, determined and prepared to fail along the way as they discover new solutions.

So how do you run a hackathon?

  1. Set the scene – having Jane tell us about her experience as a woman with autism and her experience of work and helping to educate others was essential to help us understand neurodiversity. Get users, customers, employees and those directly affected involved in explaining the challenge you are attempting to hack.
  2. Explain how the hackathon works and provide all the materials people will need. You can use the intro to this blog as a starting point, and there are many more examples to draw from.
  3. Tell people what you need them to do with a quick-fire hackathon timetable. Give them a set amount of time to cover each section to keep the momentum. Ours was a morning workshop and we had about 1.5 hours to create our minimum viable product.
  4. Ask your groups to develop their Hack Hypothesis first.

This includes:

  • The Belief – what are the assumptions that guide the idea or problem that we are working on?
  • The target market – who are the people we are helping or trying to reach?
  • The impact – What will those people be able to do as a result of your hack?
  • The measurement – how will we know it works? For example, because Y and Z is our evidence that proves success.

[You can see naturally easily a hackathon can lend itself to a communication challenge, change or transformation in workplaces]

  1. Set out the steps in the hackathon process for the participants to go through.Ask them to:
  • Discuss and capture thoughts to create their desirable outcome, goal or state. They can write this on whiteboards, flipcharts or paper.
  • Capture the barriers to achieving the desirable state on sticky notes – what are we up against, what are our challenges? Park these barriers to tackle later.
  • Mini-hacks – capture ideas and suggestions to sticky notes and cluster into categories and themes with your barriers – park them for later
  • Build your ‘hack’ and test it against the hypothesis set out at the beginning
  • Agree your pitch back to narrate your ‘hack’ (solution) – why have you chosen it? What will you achieve with it? How you’ll start and when?
  1. Once you’ve pitched your hack and a winning hack is chosen to progress, you get to work to turn that idea into reality. By continuing to work in small teams or squads dedicated to this project outside of normal day-to-day work, a team of individuals with the autonomy, mastery and purpose that Dan Pink discusses in his work, the team can achieve something really powerful. It’s at the real work stage that the barriers and the mini hacks we parked earlier can be tackled and flattened or avoided to make the solution work.

What we discussed…

In our hackathon we discussed neurodiversity at work. It’s a huge topic and how you help make workplaces more accommodating to people on the neurodiversity spectrum is an important step for many organisations. 70% of people with autism are unemployed, and 26% of autistic graduates are unemployed. This is a huge problem for society and individuals.

Making the world of work more accommodating can help everyone find meaning and purpose in their work and a workplace where they feel they belong. Each of our groups came up with very different ideas to help tackle this challenge, from throwing away the job description and focussing on tasks instead, to making work spaces ‘show flat’ and ready to accommodate any individual’s needs.

What I loved about the process

I always enjoy working in teams to co-create something new and different. I tend to reflect so I won’t be the first out of the stocks with the ideas, but it’s great once they start coming. The process is empowering because you actively ignore the hurdles and just ‘go for it’. As a communicator it was brilliant to see groups of people who didn’t know each other before entering that room, work together so effectively to create some really powerful ideas. The energy and excitement that the process creates is palpable.

Of course, this was just an exercise, but it’s given me so many new ideas and fresh thinking to use in my work and I can see it working well for communication challenges. So I wanted to share the experience.

Sounds good, how do I apply it to internal communication?

  1. Take a broad and interesting challenge. Neurodiversity was a great topic. Others may include subjects like transforming your employee experience, customer services, working with AI and much more…
  2. Have a sponsor who is able to give you the support and leadership to make this happen. Who this is will depend on the challenge and what it’s set to change and improve.
  3. Recruit the right people – these people are energised and full of ideas. From the warehouse to the shop floor, the call centre to the sales team – these are the people who are deeply involved in the topic, they have the knowledge and expertise but are also most likely open to change and bold ideas that will improve the way they work or communicate. Be mindful of the dynamic in the groups, especially if you have strong leaders or personalities attending.
  4. Prepare the space and set the scene. Do the ground work to help get your people in the right mindset. Jane gave us her personal account of neurodiversity. Only an autistic person could have given us the insight that she gave us. So engage with your customers, end users or target audiences, and involve them to help you set the scene. Create the right space and place to do your hackathon. This may also mean a little education around the nature of open and collaborative working.
  5. Be clear on your challenge, any business timelines and dependencies there may be. Understand what the objectives are and how the challenge could help you achieve them.
  6. Get to work and start your hackathon. Give your teams the challenge and facilitate them in the project.
  7. Repeat your hackathon and sprint working pattern to create the product / solution / service that you set out to build.

I hope you find this useful and inspiring. And perhaps you’ll give it a go.

I’d love to know how you get on.


Post author: Katie Marlow.

Thank you Katie. Are you using hackathons at work? If so and you’d like to share what you’re doing, do get in touch.

First published on the All Things IC blog 28 October 2018.



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