When people think of hackathons, a scene of programmers huddled around a coffee maker at 3:00 AM trying to finish developing their app is typically what comes to mind. This isn’t untrue by any means, however there is a new type of hackathon that is growing in popularity: the innovation hackathon.

These events are similar to the traditional hackathons in many aspects, but they differ in an important way. Innovation hackathons do not focus on the development, but rather on the idea and overall vision for the participate’s product or solution.

Over this summer, I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to participate in several of these aptly named events and therefore have learned a few things. Things that I thought I’d pass along to you.

1. Your First Plan Is Wrong

It’s an exciting moment when you finally decide on an idea to run with. The frustrating spinning of ideation finally comes to a close and now you’re able to switch gears towards production, right? Not quite.

Idea development is key. By spending extra time in the idea development phase, you are able to expand on your vision for the product. This step is crucial for not only understanding, but also for execution. I find that getting a firm grasp on the bigger picture is an absolute prerequisite to diving into the low-level work.

This may seem counter-intuitive to someone that is working on a strict deadline, however this is not the case. Due to the iterative nature of bringing your idea to fruition, you will find yourself back to the drawing board at some point. While this is a non-negotiable part of the process, the number of times you end up there is not. It can and will be reduced dramatically just by spending a little extra time developing your ideas.

2. If Your Answer Is Longer Than 30 Seconds…

There will be several times in the idea development process where you or your team finally has it. Everything is starting to click. The idea sounds awesome. It’s totally doable. And then it happens. Someone asks you the simple question, “So, What is it?”. The following answer begins with exuberant confidence and ends with uncertainty as you stumble over your words and struggle to articulate your novel idea. This isn’t uncommon whatsoever. Even if you can explain it flawlessly, you still may have cause for concern. In general, use the following rule.

If your answer to “What is it?” is longer than 30 seconds, you’re in trouble.

Most great ideas sound simple in hindsight. The iPhone was the mobile device that does it all. Twitter lets you update your friends on what you’re doing. Snapchat is based on sending temporary picture messages. Venmo lets you send money directly to your peers. The list could go on and on. This isn’t a coincidence. Ideas that are complex are not only hard to execute, but harder to sell. Keep this in mind.

3. Don’t Focus Too Much

Once you start working on the business plan, design, and functionality, things can seem like they are moving fast. It can be tempting to just put your head down and grind through the work. I mean you have been brainstorming for countless hours and are eager to make something concrete. And you should. Just remember to take a step back and reassess on a regular basis. In doing this, you should be taking a serious look at where you are in regard to the overall problem and product vision.

This step is another crucial one when it comes to avoiding unnecessary backtracking. These sessions should include your entire team and should go over everything you can. Be on the lookout for dangerous assumptions in these sessions. These assumptions can take you down the wrong path or even worse — can make another path disappear entirely. High level assessment acts as a safeguard against assumptions and wrong turns. Utilize it.

You truly are only as strong as your weakest link. When working with a small team like I was, all it takes is one wrong turn by one person and hours of crucial time are lost. Avoid this by ensuring that above all else, everyone truly understands the ins and outs of the product.

Nothing can hurt you and your project more than an unclear message towards the user. In order to make that message as clear and effective as possible, everyone on your team has to be on the same page. The extra time explaining concepts to someone will come back around and save you countless hours of backtracking. Not to mention the higher quality work that will come from that particular team member.

5. Innovation Hackathons are Pretty Awesome

Hackathons often are viewed as being specifically for programmers and programmers only. Innovation hackathons redefine this in an interesting way. They build off of the notion that deadlines can bring incredible things out of people. Especially when you put them in the right environment for collaboration and learning.

As far as my experience goes, it was incredibly rewarding for me. Going from ideation and brainstorming sessions to building an entire user interface and experience for the prototype and ultimately presenting to a panel of judges was undoubtedly difficult. However, it made me stretch and use creative muscles that I didn’t know I had and for that I’m thankful.

At the end of the day, if you have the opportunity to sign up for an innovation hackathon or simply have an idea you want to ship, don’t pass on it. Just do it and thank me later.

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