For businesses today, especially those that have been around for longer than your smartphone, innovation is key to survival. Yet the mere mention of innovation is often met with the digging-in of heels. With change comes risk, and for companies that over-equate longevity to efficiency, out-of-the-box ideas can seem like too much of a gamble.

However, innovation does not always have to mean large-scale change – nor does it have to feel foreign to a company’s culture or methods. In fact, every organisation already has the resources it needs to produce a host of innovation consultants, equipped with the in-depth knowledge required to tailor strategies to its needs. So who are these experts?

Your employees. Your people are your most valuable resource. More than any software, YouTube guru or online learning course, the people that make up a company are the only ones knowledgeable enough to pinpoint exactly where you can improve and implement the strategies to do so. Aware of the intellectual goldmine at their fingertips, many firms have been keen to get the creative juices flowing by organising intense ideation sessions, otherwise known as hackathons.

Accelerating new ideas

Hackathons are the evolution of brainstorming sessions but with accelerated oomph. Set with the goal of finding new ideas to solve old problems, hackathons often take place outside of working hours, with apparently nothing but the appeal of free food to attract (unpaid) employees to participate. And yet hackathons have proven to be a big hit – how come?

Instead of framing innovation in commercial terms, successful hackathon-hosts have gone straight to the heart of the matter and appealed to their employees’ passion. Longer sessions with no distractions mean that ideas can be developed from thought right through to model or business-plan level within a short period of time. Running supplies of pizza haven’t hurt, either.

An inclusive approach

One such example is the annual “Hack to the Future” hackathon, hosted by Shutterstock, the online stock photography, footage and music provider. Now in its fifth year, the event is a 24-hour push to find the company’s next big idea with over 600 employees participating in cities including London, New York, Montreal and Los Angeles. Grouped into teams, participants are challenged to generate ideas that benefit contributors, employees or customers. After presenting their work at the end of the event, the ideas are voted for and the winner declared.

However, this hackathon is not reserved for coders alone – staff from all company departments come together to collaborate in drawing up business plans for new ideas, helping operationally by, for example, purchasing domain names. Not only do diverse skill sets allow ideas to develop more reliably, they also promote an increased appreciation among participants of the value of different teams in a business.

Ensuring Results

Results have been rolling in thick and fast. Shutterstock’s 2012 “Hack to the Future” resulted in the development of Oculus, a data analysis tool put into use across the organisation. As well as tools, hackathons have produced entire companies. Twitter is one such example – the brainchild of Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey in a company hackathon, held in the hope of generating the idea that could save or pivot their then-current business. In the UK, the NHS Hack Day also encourages IT developers to innovate new digital devices for use within the national health system.

The challenge for hackathons is ensuring that good ideas are sufficiently nurtured so that they can grow. Fledgling ideas can die out easily and need company leadership’s support to encourage their development, particularly in cases where employees must dedicate time to them outside of working hours. Just like in school, it’s easy to fear punishment for diverging from the prescribed curriculum – but innovators, press on!

It may take a little time for the cogs of a large conglomerate to eventually whir in your favour, but if you feel strongly enough that something could work, then why not give it more than just a passing thought (or a pizza thought). It may take some dedication and hard work but the old adage stands - if you won't try you won't know.

Alexandra Whitton 14 December 2015