12 Jul 2023

Collaboration, Brainstorming, and Innovation: IT Hackathon Tackles the Back Office


by Shona Simkin

Liz Flaig and Joseph Leniart present their proposal.

If you had a few days to brainstorm and solve a pain point at work—anything from how to better manage department documentation and files to quickly accessing answers to common questions—what would you choose, and with whom would you work to solve it?

That’s just what HBS IT did earlier this summer with a hackathon event. Seventy-seven staff, representing six of nine departments and nearly 30 percent of all IT staff, came together with the problem-solving theme of modernizing the back office. Organized into 18 separate teams with participants joining remotely and in person, over the course of three half days they engaged in get-to-know-you exercises, chose a problem to solve, and presented their solution and next steps at the finale. All participants voted on final presentations and awarded multiple prizes.

Seeds of this idea were planted back in November, when members of the IT leadership team were working on their strategic priorities. Having seen similar activities in smaller departments and in other organizations, they knew the potential for inspiration, collaboration, and knowledge sharing.

“As part of our organizational health efforts we are continually seeking ways to motivate the team to think outside their functional areas in new, creative ways. The hackathon provided an innovative way to bring staff together to solve real problems,” said Rachel Noiseux, HBS IT’s senior managing director, strategy, planning and governance. “Staff were excited and energized and it was so rewarding to see everyone’s creativity come through. The quality of ideas was also topnotch, and many could serve to help us, and our partners, make notable operating improvements.”

The hackathon planning team, IT business relationship managers Aileen Tschiderer, Mike Marre, Jaye Schneider, and Michelle Doherty, homed in on four principles to guide the teams and evaluate proposals:

  • Innovative Thinking. Are teams experimenting with new approaches to entrenched problems?
  • Curiosity and Persistence. Are teams thinking thoroughly through the implications of their ideas and potential next steps?
  • Creative Freedom. Are staff members able to take on roles and challenges that are outside of their comfort zone or a stretch for their skill set? Are participants learning something new or experimenting with new skills?
  • Collaboration. Are new relationships forming? Are existing relationships being strengthened?
  • IT Leadership Council with special guest Ravi Mynampaty.

    The hackathon aimed to be accessible to many different skill sets, and solve problems that everyone wanted to solve. To kick off the event, the planning team put out a call for problem statements, hoping to inspire excitement and participation.

    Ideas poured in, covering multiple categories, including:

  • Documentation and knowledge management—can we prevent document and work duplication by improving visibility and organization?
  • Learning and professional development—how can departments share benefits from trainings and conferences that staff attend, and could there be a mentor or shadowing program to learn about colleagues’ work?
  • Workflows and automation—can we automate the cumbersome paper process for the TSS stockroom? Can we increase visibility into closed incidents to share solutions?
  • Teams could choose from the many submissions or create a new problem statement.

    On the first day, Batten 301 was abuzz. After a welcome from CIO Beth Clark, Tschiderer, Marre, and Schneider, the teams scattered throughout the building to get started. Stickies popped up on whiteboards, participants started discussing their individual strengths and goals, questions and ideas were batted about. The organizers looked on with excitement, answering questions and observing the work underway.

    “We all thought this was a great investment,” said Doherty. “I’m really excited to see the balance of ideas that come out of this. We tend to care about our own things in our own circle, so to broaden the concept of ideas is great. It’s permission to step out of your day-to-day work and think more broadly.”

    “If you’re a developer, maybe you’re deep in coding every day but have always wanted to see what it’s like to be a project manager, or vice-versa—that’s the sort of thing you can try out with an event like this,” concurred Marre.

    At the end of day two, teams rehearsed their presentation and submitted their final proposals, which they then presented and voted upon on the final day. The five final awards celebrated effort and camaraderie—no “bests” allowed. And the winners were:

    The “Ted Lasso Award” for congeniality
    Tier 0 Chatbot for Canvas: Solution for the high volume of Canvas tickets from faculty support specialists, which largely have a set of common answers.
    Team 1: Melissa Burton, Helen Silverman, Nathan Paquet, Zach Christo

    The “Chopped Award” for a surprising solution
    HBS IT Player Cards: A comprehensive resource that displays IT hierarchy, provides team role clarity, promotes knowledge sharing, facilitates networking opportunities, and fosters diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
    Team 13: Jonathan Parker, Julia Henry, Ally Filler, Kendall Poulson

    The “Mandalorian Award” for going beyond
    Analyzing HBS IT Retrospectives: Identifying topics, emerging themes, and patterns in SharePoint project records from 2010-2021.
    Team 7: Ravi Mynampaty, Harry Levinson

    The “America’s Got Talent Award” for best presentation
    Finding Nemo/Coworkers at 114: How to find on-site teammates and colleagues at the 114 Western coworking space.
    Team 14: Dustin Hilt, Aizan Radzi, Rich Borgatti, Kevin Wilson

    The “The Parks and Recreation Award” for embodying HBS IT values
    JIRA Optimization: Improve the widely-used project management tool to improve access, address design limitations, and allow for archiving.
    Team 6: Eric Berntson, Damon Constantinides, Yanira Gonzalez, Vipin Kannekanti, Alex Spencer

    The hackathon planning team had one main metric for success as a whole: that everyone would want to do it again. By that standard, it was a hit—they’re already tweaking the structure and noting possible improvements for next year.

    “My favorite part of the hackathon was the camaraderie that filled Batten each day—that energy has stayed with me,” said Tschiderer. “It was so rewarding to watch my colleagues discuss, sketch, brainstorm, laugh, and present a wide range of ideas. I am still blown away by the creativity and ingenuity that was showcased. It felt like a celebration of teamwork and talent, and I am proud to have helped create this opportunity for IT staff. We hope to create a tradition.”

    And, of course, stay tuned—IT leadership is evaluating the proposals for possible inclusion in their project lineup.

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