A few weeks ago, I attended my first hackathon. As a somewhat jaded grey head, I went in with a bag full of expectations. Some of these expectations were validated and others were corrected. Most significantly, there were expectations that I didn’t have that were exceeded.
Why a hackathon?
The hackathon – named “Unleash Toronto: From Paper to Prototype” – was sponsored by Manulife, and held in Toronto’s MaRS district. It marked the opening of Manulife’s permanent innovation presence in MaRS FinTech Cluster, with its Lab of Forward Thinking (LOFT).
According to a Manulife release, “Centered on innovation, the tangible LOFT spaces provide a platform for employees across the company to collaborate and devise new technological solutions for Manulife’s various wealth and asset management, and insurance business lines.”
In other words, Manulife is tightly focused on the holy grail of cross-marketing. The final objective of the hackathon was to address the question: “How might we help our customers re-imagine and redefine what it means to invest with Manulife, utilizing new business models, channels and technology?”
How it works
Unleash started with 140 participants, which included outside participants as well as Manulife employees from Canada, Asia, Europe and the U.S. who brainstormed 61 concepts. Nineteen teams were assembled by self selection. The teams then developed and fine-tuned approaches, built new products and services, developed business cases, and mocked up prototypes for review by a set of judges.
Eleven of these teams were selected to do presentations and demos. The judges then quizzed each of the finalists, and then retired to select a winner and two runners up.
End to end, the whole process took 48 hours. I showed up in time to see the demos and attend the reception where the winners were announced.
I expected that there would be a lot of energy and enthusiasm by the young team members. I wasn’t wrong. What I didn’t expect was the pressure on the teams.
Of course, building a demo, prototype,and presentation in 20 hours is non-trivial. But I thought the judges would cut some slack.
I got my first hint when Steven Douglass,the professional facilitator from Scramble Systems, introduced the demo sessions by saying that the teams were engaged in the “war for attention”.
Each team had 2 minutes to do the presentation/demo. Then the teams had to respond to questions from the jury for the next two minutes. Then the team left the stage, and the next team started.
The judges were all senior executives or board directors from Manulife with titles like CIO, CFO, EVP, etc. None of whom tossed any soft balls.
The questions had precious little to do with technology. It was all business. Much of it involved revenues, expenses, cash flow. Some involved regulation and confidentiality. A good number dug into the analytics, data, and customer engagement.
And, by and large, the teams had the answers. Some elevator pitch.
So, Who Won?
The winning team was named “7 Deadly Hacks”. The construct would use algorithms to suggest ‘best practices’ to Manulife Bank consumers and reward the consumers who follow the suggestions by making additional financial contributions.
Behind the scenes, the data would be aggregated from a variety of internal and external sources to keep the process relevant. The judges asked about the benefits and the expansion capabilities of the construct. The international team had the answers.
The team walked away dividing $10,000 amongst themselves.
Who were the real winners?
This was the tip of the iceberg. Chatting with participants, judges and others, the real winners were Manulife’s customers, its employees, and its shareholders. As a Manulife policy holder, I’m looking forward to seeing the retail results.
The products and services were cutting edge and customer focused. The ‘Ask Rose’ team protyped a Siri-like product to provide on-line advice. ‘Discovery Channel’ showed how consumers could be encouraged to direct a portion of claims payments into Manulife investments by showing time value of the funds.
The teams were all on-point with a serious customer focus and the senior managers revealed their pride in the teams (after the grilling sessions).
Joe Cooper, Manulife’s EVP and CIO for Global Services summarized it well: “”We want to be an organization that is disruptive and forward-thinking. Through LOFT events like this, we’re building upon that culture and spirit internally.”
Are you seeing this in other organizations? I’d be interested in your thoughts.