Blog Post

Hacking the Learning Design Process

Published: Friday, April 3, 2020

Leverage the power of a hackathon to inspire cross functional teams to develop some truly great learning solutions.

In 2018 I led Accolade's L&D team to develop and implement our 1st learning hackathon we called the Designathon.  As a result we came up with some truly inspiring solutions that impacted the bottom line.  It's now a yearly event devoted to blue sky thinking, process improvement, and promoting change and innovation across our organization. 

​Here's how you can run your own!


Start with the goal in mind
Determine what you want to accomplish with your event before running it.   What are the challenges your team is facing now or in the near future?  What outcomes would help you solve them?  

Example Outcome:  At the end of the Designathon we'll have solutions presented that will reduce attrition of high potential employees this year.

Craft quality challenge statements
Once you've identified the challenges you want to tackle,  you'll need to turn them into challenge statements. (Alvin Chia, Hackathons Unboxed: A Field Guide to ideating, Leading and Winning)  Each written in a way that will help the teams craft solutions that fit expected out comes. 

Make sure to include any constraints in these statements as well.  They act as boundaries that the teams can use to work within or around as they form their solutions.  Are there any constraints around the solutions like budget, culture, or time?

Example:  How might we reduce attrition of high potential employees this year, without impacting current work streams, at little to no cost?
Make it a challenge
By limiting the time frame, and treating it as a competition, you provide a similar sense of urgency as being handed a tough project with a quick turnaround. 

Example:  The Designathon will run for one week with the expectation that each participant and team will dedicate at least 24 hours coming up with the solution. 

Commit to the event
There’s rarely a “good time” to run an event like this.  Whether you do it now on your own terms or later on someone else’s you’ll be investing this time either way.  Pick the time that works best for you and stick with it.


Recruit creative cross functional teams
To solve challenges you'll needed teams filled with resourceful people from across your organization and not just your learning team. This provides different perspectives, insights ,and in the end will lead to more holistic and creative solutions. (Alvin Chia, Hackathons Unboxed: A Field Guide to ideating, Leading and Winning) 

Create teams with:

  • ​Experience in the process you are trying to change,
  • those who have experienced the process themselves,
  • and volunteers that are noted by their leaders as individuals that are creative and can help you come up with great ideas.  

Draft a diverse panel of judges
To evaluate the solutions, recruit judges who are directly impacted by the outcome of the presented solutions. These judges can provide relevant feedback and appropriately evaluate the solutions that ware presented.  Don’t be afraid to have some diversity of thought here as well. 

Craft a solid score card
Be very careful when developing the judging score card. How you score the solutions will heavily impact the solutions that are developed.  The elements of the score card serve as a guide for the teams to ensure they’re including the right things in their proposals.  For example, if you focus on creativity vs. viability you may end up with solutions that you can’t start implementing this year or next.  Your score card should reinforce your goals for the event.

Prepare teams for success
Communication and making resources available to the teams is of the utmost importance. Provide pre-read documentation to get each team up to speed on current processes, make them aware of the judge’s panel, and the score card in advance of the kickoff session.  (How to Run a Successful Data Hackathon with This helps to connect team members early, acclimate them to the current way of doing things, the Designathon process, expected outcomes, and to whom they’ll be presenting their solutions.

Kick off your event
Get the teams started and then get out of the way. The goal is to get the teams ideating as quickly as possible, not listening to someone talk about what they’ll be doing.  (Alvin ChiaHackathons Unboxed: A Field Guide to ideating, Leading and Winning) 

Check In
During the event, be attentive and available to answer questions, share those answers with everyone, and provide any support documents such as templates or materials.  Provide time for each team to meet with members of the judge’s panel to discuss and get feedback on their solutions.  You should check in with each team and provided feedback as well. 

Present, score, and provide feedback
On presentation day, each team should get the same amount of time to present their solutions and answer questions from the judges.  For example, give each team 10 minutes to setup their presentation, 20 minutes to present, and 15 minutes to answer questions from the judges.  During the presentations the judges use the score card to evaluate each solution.

Keep scores secret until all presentations are complete.  Ask the teams to step out while the judges discuss and deliberate each presentation.  When the judges are ready, ask the teams to return.  To save time have one judge provide consolidated feedback for each team prior to announcing the winner.

Once feedback has been given, announce the winner, their prize if any, and celebrate!  Each team has worked hard and deserves a little fun to close out the event.   The prize doesn't have to be extravagant.  Some credit or money towards items from your company store should be enough.

Evaluate the event
Ask for feedback from the teams and judges via a survey or focus groups.  This information will help setup your next event for success.

Make the solutions happen
Now that you have your solutions, don’t waste time.  Choose the solutions you want to take to the next level and put resources behind them.  (Hackathons Aren’t Just for Coders)
Reach out and ask the teams to break their solutions into workable tasks, prioritize, and get to work on what makes sense!   There’s no reason you can’t include cross-functional team members in the work.  They’re just as invested in making them happen as you are.

Closing Thoughts
Running your own hackathon\designation can seem intimidating.  However, using the tips above and resources provided in this article will help you to achieve your goals.  

As learning leaders you know the challenges facing your team and company.  This process provides you with a means to tap into the creativity of your organization, over a short period of time, to address them. 


Want to learn more?  The following resources helped me to run a successful session.

  • Alvin Chia, Hackathons Unboxed: A Field Guide to ideating, Leading and Winning 
  • Data.World, How to Run a Successful Data Hackathon with
  • HBR.Org, Hackathons Aren’t Just for Coders

About the Author

Engaging people leader and accomplished Instructional Designer with over 13 years of experience creating effective learning solutions and building innovative learning teams.  I believe in the strategic value of learning to drive behavioral change and performance improvement to achieve business goals.  I'm a data geek who loves to collect and analyze learning data to make strategic decisions that impact learning program enhancements and long term business strategy.  

As the Senior Learning Manager at Accolade, Inc. I'm responsible for the onboarding and continuing education of all Accolade employees.  Hired, seven years ago, as the first Sr. Instructional Designer I've supported the growth and development of the Accolade Learning team as both an individual contributor and people leader. Together with my team we've made a lasting and positive impact at Accolade!

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Dear John thanks for sharing your successful story, it’s worth to be shared with all to take the advantage.
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