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March 20, 2015

Hackathon: Bringing Design Thinking and Agile to Life

Posted by Jeff Kavanaugh (View Profile | View All Posts) at 7:19 AM

Fly me to the moon!...
Droning on...in a good way! Uplifting ideas from Team DroneIT

March Madness began a little early at Infosys last weekend with its first US Hackathon, conducted in the Dallas area. While the rest of the country was busy contemplating their NCAA basketball brackets, several intrepid teams were in their local office working around the clock to create working prototypes. What better way to spend a weekend?

Besides the lure of the champion's prize and the adrenalin rush of conquering a tough problem, this was a great opportunity to see Design Thinking at work in real time. It was amazing to see the teams start from essentially a zero base, armed with only an idea, and create a technology stack and demonstrate a working prototype in less than 48 hours.

The hackathon is also noteworthy because it offers a microcosm of formal projects and initiatives in general. If a small team can make so much progress in a single weekend, why do projects take so long? If so much can be learned testing low-fidelity prototypes, then why do companies wait so long to test solutions? To be sure, the typical enterprise project approach is not the all-night, caffeine- and sugar-fueled sprints of startup lore, but hackathon elements can be incorporated to improve and accelerate results in the "real world."

Hackathons embrace Design Thinking, a method for increasing the creative confidence of people who operate in an environment of ambiguity but also great opportunity, like the beginning of a product lifecycle or initiative. Design Thinking is the simultaneous consideration of customer desirability, technical feasibility, and economical viability. Who wants this product or service? Will it work? Is there enough value? The elements for successful innovation are knowledge, imagination and conviction. Many of us live and work in environments where knowledge dominates everything - in fact this is our core strength. However, knowledge alone works well only on well-defined problems, the puzzles of our world. Grabbing opportunities early requires grappling with a large measure of ambiguous problems, and requires knowledge, imagination and conviction in equal measure - these are mysteries, and problem-finding takes precedence over problem-solving. This allows people the courage to test ideas without having all the facts - prototype early and often!

Design Thinking brings in tools to release the shackles on your imagination, and encourages conviction by moving quickly in small steps, by learning from failure, and building on success. When a person has creative confidence, they are able to fully leverage their domain knowledge, but also articulate a vision, engage rapidly with stakeholders, make quick decisions, and succeed in new opportunities without being discouraged by early failures.

Meanwhile, back to the hackathon...the winning project was the intermodal terminal mapper using a combination of drones, image processing, and optical character recognition. Again, amazing to see such energy and progress made in a short time.

While the rest of the nation turns its attention to the basketball brackets, this group of hackers will move on to the next round of their own competition, accompanied by teams from similar events in offices from Palo Alto, Atlanta, and other major US offices. They remind the rest of us to 'prototype early and often' and to incorporate other hackathon principles into our own projects.

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