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Ready to start a hackathon

In this blog, we suggest how to start the creative process in hackathons or student innovation processes. We have organized many creative processes, innovation projects and hackathons, and this blog is based on our best practices.


Maria Haukka

lehtori, HR ja johtaminen
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Päivi Käri-Zein

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 03.11.2023

Innovation starts with a mission: there is a challenge that needs new solutions. It is important that the challenge is clear to the whole team solving it. The situation at hand, needs different angles and totally new perspectives.

First, it is important to decide who the customer is, whom the ideation is for. Is it a person or an organization? Another important factor to clarify is the value the process is supposed to create.

The aim is to decide on the framework of the actual challenge. The solving team creates a purpose, a research question, that needs solving. Those involved in the challenge have to agree on the key constraints, objectives and key results. The framework answers what and why –questions and focuses on the context and the challenge.

To form a framework, a background analysis is needed

There are plenty of tools to be used, depending on whether the process is linked to the entrepreneurial field, is purely client or customer-orientated or how strong the future perspective is. When the future perspective is strong, future thinking skills are emphasized.

To start ideating and getting hands-on with the challenge, there are many assumptions that need working on. One way to start working with the assumptions, to do the background research, is to analyze the information needed with the 5W1H-tool. It helps to understand the challenge better and to find out the root cause. The tool helps to clarify what the problem is, where it is, when and why it is, who is affected by it, and how it can be solved. Based on the answers, the assumptions can be prioritised.

However, we recommend that the question of how, is kept to the end of the process since it is quite difficult to answer at this phase. We believe, it is important to keep the process clear and every phase proceeds the next one in the same order. As this phase is not about problem-solving, it is better to keep the how out for later.

Tools for solving business related challenges

One of the most used and very clarifying tools to analyze any national environment is the PESTEL tool (Political, economic, social and cultural, technological, environmental, legal). It is especially used when a business-related problem is in focus. The students find it simple and fast to do.

From the teacher’s point of view, it is clear that students must learn to use AI tools. They should learn to reflect the information given better, or rather use it as easing the linguistic and writing process.

In business related problems we recommend using the SWOT-tool (internal strengths and weaknesses of the company and external opportunities and threats in the macro environment), competitor analysis and trend analysis. Students find SWOT easy to do, even though, a lot of information is needed to do it accurately. In customer or a client orientated challenges we recommend using tools like Empathy Mapping, Persona Mapping, 5WHYs.

These tools are helpful for diving into the assumptions.

Time taken in the beginning pays off later in the process

We have noticed, that in the assumption creating phase of a hackathon students have a tendency to speed up the process. They start ideating before the challenge and its framework have been defined and formed. Thus, making the thinking process too fixed, too shallow and blocking innovative ideas in the later phases of the process.

With the right tools at hand, and having the background research done, the assumptioning and ideating phase of a hackathon may start!

HACK-IT: Hackathon and ICT-based Innovative Methodologies in Higher Education is a multinational project and funded by the EU Eramus+. In addition to Haaga-Helia, Kaunas University of Technology (Lithuania), University West (Sweden), Polytechnic Institute of Bragança (Portugal) and University of Granada (Spain) are involved in this project.

Editing: Marianne Wegmüller

Picture: Shutterstock