Binary code over a tilted maze
Design, Multidiscipline

Curveball to hack a hackathon

How to strengthen fast and furious collaborations with strangers in a competitive, multi­disciplinary brainstorm and hack.

It’s nearly 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. I am putting a grey foam elephant into a miniature CT scanner below waist height. An animation plays to reveal it’s accidentally sucked two fish into its stomach while drinking in the pond. In our current state of minds, the natural thing to do next is to jam its friends, the foam robot and the crocodile, into the scanner as well to try and crash the system! Nope, it didn’t go haywire. How annoying, this thing was designed to be child-proof!

Far from being in a drunken hallucination, I am with one of my team­mates trying to beat ideas into shape at a two-day hackathon hosted by Philips Design at the Philips Museum in Eindhoven (The Netherlands). And it’s all about coming up with healthcare solutions to make people’s lives better. Like this toy scanner they’ve designed in 2004 to help sick children under­stand that they needed to stay still and hold their breaths during a scan, which had reduced sedation need by 30 to 40% in three to seven year olds. ((People-focused innovation in healthcare. How Philips Design supports development of solutions for the ever-changing healthcare landscape, page 17 (2010). (PDF file, 2.7mb)))

“So, what do you do?” That was the question on everybody’s lips that morning as we tried to organise ourselves into groups. I started with a short introductory answer to gauge the reaction of the tech guy standing in front of me. When I mentioned “…graphic design…” I saw his brain churning but not lighting up. He probably saw some relevance in working up user interfaces. I continued to “…communication…”. Lights out. Looked like I’ve lost his interest. (What’s the point? We can all speak, right?)

At another huddle nearby, I heard the ABCs of SDKs and APIs rolled off someone’s tongue (at least that’s what I thought he was reciting!). Two guys were speaking the same language and it seemed like they were getting along like a house on fire!

It reminded me of how little we truly understood about what each other did beyond a superficial level, even though our skills were probably highly complementary. It reminded me of the alarm bells that had rung in my head a few weeks earlier when I had read the call for applicants: “The hackathon is a multi-disciplinary cross-over involving 40 participants… We are looking for a creative mix of professionals including designers, coders, entrepreneurs etc to bring some new insights on Digital Health using datasets.” The disciplines quoted included programming, creative coding, graphic design, interaction design and data visualisation.

Reading between the lines, I sensed a potentially harder and more interesting challenge than winning the competition itself…

The challenge, redefined

In education and in work, it seems impossible to avoid the funnel of specialisation. Whether because of the necessary focus to pursue know­ledge at a deeper level, or an economic drive towards a factory-model of operation – compartmentalising skills in favour of efficiency (to the detriment of creativity).

But in areas where newness is desirable, like innovation and creative problem-solving with multiple stakeholders, the value of bringing specialised minds together is increasingly recognised. Thence spring a variety of initiatives in different guises to facilitate this. At least in terms of bringing different people together, but there is usually less focus on exactly how they could work together smoothly. And there’s the catch!

I’d need to curb my own competi­tive streak, mentally for­feit any prizes, in pursuit of a different goal… and then see what happens.

Multi­disciplinary does not automatically equals synergy. Unless we make a conscious effort to work at working together, and to constantly get better at it, we can’t truly unlock those potential benefits. It’s like picking out random cogs from different machines, with different teeth, reassembling them and expect the new ensemble to function better than any of the original tried and tested ones. Far from working efficiently, it’s likely to just get stuck!

At the extreme end, I have seen people thrown into another world so alien to their own ((A handful of artists invited to attend a science and technology conference about superhuman enhancement and the future governance of cyborgs.)) that they looked like deer frozen in headlights. However, it actually doesn’t matter whether the disciplines are polar opposites or close cousins, because I’ve also observed gaps of understanding between designers from different sub-disciplines.

It’s hard enough and takes long enough just to get everyone on the same page of understanding, equalise the playing field, before one can make a truly meaningful start on creation. Two days to produce a tangible result would be challenging, if for this reason alone. Never mind that we would be working with complete strangers for the first time!

So how can I use my skills and experiences to get those cogs turning smoothly? (I will be digging into a mis-matched mish-mash as my resource – working within both high- and low-conflict teams, within multi­disciplinary teams, within separate single-disciplinary teams that are funda­men­tally very different from each other, brainstorming with people not used to having to think creatively, winning design competitions, picking the brains of specialists with different expertise, and other results of general nosiness.) In order to do that, I’d need to curb my own competitive streak, mentally forfeit any prizes, in pursuit of a different goal… and then see what happens. If hacking is about prototypes and proofs of concept, rather than perfectly polished results, then you could say that I am hacking the hackathon!

Ownership of concept

Back at the venue, the initial round was a false start – the intention was a little like speed dating, but without the benefit of that structured process. Team formation changes to a marketplace of ideas – individuals who already have a project suggestion pitch for teammates. That sounds like a very sensible approach. But I am looking for the exact opposite – preferably people with no clue whatsoever!

Having an idea, and therefore a direction to focus the team, may feel like you are already off to an advantageous head start, but that can be a false sense of security. When someone comes with a set idea, it is some­times difficult to influence or change his/her mind during sub­sequent developmen­tal phases. The collective sense of ownership of the project might also be biased towards one person.

Instead, I am looking for people who don’t have firm ideas yet, but have an open mindset to develop one together. Coming up with an idea in this way takes time, but it means everyone can contribute their thoughts on a level playing field and feel heard from the onset. The result is a shared sense of ownership that can help to keep the group together, especially later on when things may get tough. The extra develop­ment time spent now may be saved in time wasted in conflict later on!

Illusions of progress

If we can spear­head to ‘talking shop’ without pausing to explain tacit know­ledge, that probably means there is a ten­dency to think within the same paradigm.

It’s human nature to gravitate towards others like ourselves, with whom we identify. Every inch of common ground from the start means we don’t have to take more time or work so hard to find rapport. In this context, it would naturally be with others from similar disciplines to our own. Yet the point is to counter-intuitively fight that comfort zone of familiarity. If we can spearhead to ‘talking shop’ without pausing to explain tacit knowledge, that probably means there is a tendency to think within the same paradigm. Progress is then a jump within one stage of the project cycle, but not necessarily a leap in mental agility. For experts in fact-based subjects with high task-based competencies (such as engineers and computer programmers), their idea of progress tends towards the former (especially under time pressure). And getting straight onto the doing (such as building prototypes ((At hackathons, prototypes usually involve building with hardware and computer codes. This requires discipline-specific skills, therefore limits opportunities for multi­disciplinary input.)) ((‘Iterative design’ involves a succession of prototypes for design develop­ment, but this still needs meaningful design problem and concept to be defined beforehand.))) gives that sense of reassurance of moving forward. But if the ultimate goal is to generate new insights from multi­disciplinary knowledge, then the true advantage lies in collective thinking.

This means I have to get the whole team to come along for the ride of concept generation – that frightening mental space of uncertainty where discussions don’t necessarily lead to conclusions, nothing tangible gets produced and the amount of time invested has no correlation with the quality of the idea at the end. In fact, the only certainty is escalating pressure because time is always running out! Unsettlingly, I have to get everyone to stay in that discomfort zone for as long as they feel just comfortable enough to do so.

Skill distribution

The balance of skills within a team has a subtle but significant influence on the outcome. I have worked within project groups when a skill I brought was the majority skill, as well as situations when it was a minority amongst all the team members. Where these collaborations may have faltered included the perils of too many cooks, chiefs, or other conundrums inherent in majority versus minority.

An even distribution seems a better way forward. Logically, this would include one representative from each discipline. But the group we ended up forming had five people; within each broader category (of technology, design and communication), there was at least two people with those experiences. What I’ve learnt from this configuration is that two of each works better than one of each. When you are the only person from your discipline, it can be a harder job ‘selling’ your thoughts and recommen­dations to the group (even if these are already accepted practice within your own field). And if you encounter a problem within your domain of expertise, the onus is solely on yourself to resolve it, being the only person with that type of knowledge to do so. When there were two people within each specialism, there was another person to bounce ideas off, challenge, or validate. This probably helped to strengthen our overall result. What’s more, multi-skilled team members whose expertise span more than one field can help to bridge disciplinary gaps, because they can understand different points of views.

Avoid the short straw for short fuses and ego trips

Before you know it… last hour to final presentations and a bad night’s sleep. Not ready! The five of us are cramped around a tightly packed table for four. Its surface well-hidden by used cups, electronics and four laptops (not enough space for the fifth). Flipped up screens jostle back-to-back for vertical space periodically intersected by drafts of solder fumes. Heads down, concentrate and keep working. Everyone is too busy to speak!

Tap, tap, tippity tap.

The youngest amongst us starts drumming the table rhythmically with his finger tips and humming a tune. So far, we haven’t been over-polite with each other and we haven’t had any heated exchanges. “If it’s going to happen, now might be the time for it,” I think to myself. Without raising my head from the keyboard, I observe the moment while remembering an easily annoyed colleague who would have snapped under this circumstance.

The humming stopped and the tapping subsided. The moment had passed without anyone reacting. We are going to make it through the whole process without a single disagreement – I can’t believe it! It’s a lucky strike to be working with teammates without egos, bad moods, who can listen and are open to other people’s inputs as well as their own.

Talking and doing

The shortcoming of management culture has given ‘talking’ a stigma over ‘doing’, although the two should ideally go hand-in-hand. Talking without the doing is unconstructive; doing without the necessary communication leads to fragmentation. But as time got squeezed and more pressing jobs took over, communication effort became relegated.

…an egalitarian design without suffering the blandness of design by committee?

At the final hurdle – to bring all the separate elements we’ve worked on into a cohesive pitch for an audience to comprehend – I see in my mind a clear path to the finishing line. But it involves a lot of doing and not enough time for talking to make sure everyone was ‘on the same page’. As diplomacy gives way to impatience, my words become more abrupt and assertive. It’s like an instinctive drive to grab the baton off the floor and just run with it!

Oops, you may have caught me out! Is that my competitive streak kicking in after all?

I’d never abide by the mantra “it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts” because such mentality fosters mediocrity; but it’s not about a competitiveness projected onto others. It’s about always trying for better and never stop pushing for that spark beyond the status quo, as a way of life. Winning is a state of mind, with a side-effect…

Da-Dum! Da-Dum! Da-Dum!

Everyone starts drumming rapidly on tables with the palms of both hands. Drinks tremble with energy inside half-consumed glasses. The vibrations bounce off the walls and windows, resonating to a loud rumble for our makeshift drum-roll in anticipation of the result announcement.

Our two-day effort – a system that enables preteens to young adults with genetic heart disease to live a fuller life – wins a prize! Elements of its making can be traced back to initial ideas and subsequent inputs from every team member. That seems too good to be true – an egalitarian design without suffering the blandness of design by committee?

We just missed the mark to first place. But what no one knows is that I think we’ve come out on top when it comes to the inherently more difficult challenges of multi­disciplinary teamwork. The prize is just a side-effect of that success.


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