The world of hackathons requires the art of balancing high-speed, creative autonomy and administrative control to blend in many interesting ways. Both the hacking and making cultures are centered on creative autonomy, curiosity-led problem solving, and freedom to independently build solutions. Managing hackathons requires bringing together myriad technologists, designers, and other professionals and supporting their free exploration while simultaneously helping them finish with working prototypes.
It has been found that there is a difference in the way hackathon organizers approach the act of managing. Instead of attempting to manage the innovation process when it happens, they focus on diligently setting the stage, and then they step back. The distinction from traditional management is akin to that between directing actors in film versus theater — in the former arena, directors are expected to control and intervene in the process to perfect the finished project, while in the latter, directors’ focus on preparation in advance as they accept the uncertainty and improvisation which is integral to the live performance. Like a theater director preparing her cast for opening night, hackathon organizers set the stage and conditions for innovative work, giving tools and guidance at times of need, but they minimize interventions to allow for creative exploration and experimentation. Three key strategies are needed to do so. They are: (1) Set the Stage for Filling Knowledge Gaps, but Don’t Manage Learning. Successful hackathon organizers set the stage before the hackathon to allow easy access to experts in relevant fields. (2) Set the Stage for Experimentation, but Don’t Manage Experiments. Many hackathon organizers create a “sandbox” — a space that attracts and allows for curiosity and experimentation even when located within a regular work environment. (3) Set the Stage for Early Feedback on New Ideas, but Do Not Supply Feedback Yourself. Hackathon organizers promote new ideas by removing themselves from providing feedback and creating a safe environment in which new ideas receive very early peer-to-peer feedback. This is done, in many hackathons, in the form of a first ideas kickoff session. A kickoff allows participants to be “on stage” presenting, articulating, and elaborating on the initial idea they have in mind to solve their challenge.