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Finding big ideas: the power of virtual collaboration in tech

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Appnovation on the future of virtual collaboration and the benefit of a hackathon.

“The man who has no imagination has no wings” – so said Muhammad Ali.

Love it or loathe it, working from home is the not-so-new normal for most of us: but whether or not it’s conducive to creativity is a whole different issue.

Studies show that we need the stimulation of a different environment to turbo charge our creative thinking. Yet stimulation is in short supply when most of us face the tedium of the same four walls 24/7, without the opportunity to bounce ideas off colleagues face-to-face. Those water cooler moments are glaringly absent, as is the chance to brainstorm over afternoon drinks or get inspired by real-life seminars.

As a digital tech agency that prides itself on lateral solutions, we came up with the concept of a company wide digital hackathon: a one-of-a-kind online event that would kickstart the creative process virtually – despite the restrictions of Covid.

Billed as one day, eight teams, 50 participants and eight real-world solutions, here’s how the format worked to break through work-from-home fatigue and create that all-important spark for big ideas.

1. Throw out the rule book

During normal times, an average brainstorming session might take place in an away environment like a pub or a country hotel. Clearly this isn’t possible at the moment, so instead we need to eye up new ways to shake loose from the daily work/home environment. Our hackathon re-shifted the parameters of how our teams work in two important ways.

Firstly, we actively mixed up divisions between departments and locations. With 50 participants joining in on the event from offices around the world, people were split into eight groups alongside colleagues they’d either never met before, or had not worked with closely. This, in turn, prompted fresh perspectives and zero pressure to conform to type.

The second way we subverted business as usual was by handing teams open-ended briefs. Each group was challenged to use tech concepts to solve real-world problems within a broad theme at the nexus of tech, lifestyle and healthcare. Categories ranged from My Health Portal to Streamlining Emergency Services, Me & My Money, Hands Free Me and more.

Our team members are used to working to very tight and prescriptive briefs, so the hackathon immediately opened up scope for a more unbridled version of creativity. Rather than be constrained by a client’s vision in terms of demand or budget, they had a blank canvas to work from. They could take their product in whatever direction their imagination allowed, with the only caveat that it had to be workable in real life. In other words, it had to be the kind of idea that clients may want to commission.

There was a time element at play here, too. The hackathon contenders were given just a few hours to come up with a product and show how it could be applied in real life, before pitching it to a leadership panel in a Dragons’ Den-style showdown.

With team members free to be whoever they wanted, and follow whatever creative riff drew them in – coupled with the underlying sense of time pressure – it wasn’t long before this new structure began yielding results.

2. Mix up the teams and keep the time window tight

From a management perspective, it came as a surprise to see how well thought-out and viable the ideas were; especially given the tiny window of time teams were given to innovate in. Then again, maybe that helped: according to the age-old Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fill the time we allocate to it. With less time, we have less opportunity to prevaricate and second-guess; traits that anyone who’s worked within creative industries will all be familiar with.

It’s likely that the lack of bureaucratic structure helped, too. With a series of global offices, working well across geographies is a key differentiator for us; but that usually occurs with proper project management and support in place. Here we threw the teams in the deep end and they swam – with zero guidance.

Fast Aid was one standout idea that emerged in the In Case Of Emergency category; comprising a healthcare app that requires minimal data/bandwidths and functions without data roaming to help first aiders get to non life threatening incidents faster and tap into the community’s experience to provide support until emergency services arrive.

Familia was another great concept that came about in response to the Smart Family brief. The app proposed to tap into the desire to know who we are and where we come from, by charting family trees and recording events that happen in the present day. The app aimed to help families connect and engage virtually, even in the midst of a pandemic, in order to come together and create history for future generations.

For the Try Before You Buy challenge, teams pitched the idea of Trylly, a try-at-home clothing delivery service that supports independent brands by allowing shoppers to choose clothing from local retailers, have it delivered to their doorstep the same day, and giving them the luxury of 24 hours to decide whether they want it. If they like it, they can keep it and be charged automatically. If not, they can request a return to be collected from their doorstep – no return labels, return-shipping, or trips to the post office.

In the Streamlining Emergency Services category, Firemesh, a real-time tracking and analysis tool aimed to tackle the problem of bushfires which are increasingly a devastating reality for communities and wildlife in California and Australia. Firemesh proposed an advanced neural network of device streams that coordinates effective execution across country, region, and state boards through real-time Eye in the Sky technology. Streams from drones equipped with Infrared, Heat, and other scanners feed data into a unique ingestion engine, analyzing terabytes of data and creating real-time predictions to strategically tackle the global rise in bushfires.

3. Treat hackathons as a creativity boost - but be realistic

Virtual brainstorming isn't an instant remedy for companies grappling with remote working. Our digital hackathon suffered the usual slew of mishaps that come with the average online event, including the odd technical hiccup and silences as people tried not to talk over each other.

Nor can sessions like these combat the longer-term side effects of working from home, including mental health issues such as loneliness and burnout. But as far as creativity is concerned, hackathons provide a useful boost. Much like the fake office commutes that have become a social media trend under lockdown, they offer a way to break free to a life less ordinary and monotonous.

By mixing up global teams and breaking down silos, the foundations for new approaches are put into play. Add in a hefty challenge with a time limit and a fun, competitive element (Appnovation put its ideas to a public vote, with the possibility of a client commissioning the most successful hack) and you have all the elements needed for next-level vision and flair.

Will hackathons provide the launchpad for the next Uber or Airbnb? Probably not – but they are a great way to kickstart that journey and to energise and engage remote working teams at a time when that’s very much needed.

Andrew Dunbar, general manager EMEA at Appnovation.

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