Mastercard: Achieving an Agile Work Culture Though Hackathons

Hackathons feature heavily in Mastercard’s innovation strategy, so much so that the financial services leader regularly hosts both inward and outward-facing hackathon events. According to Matt Miller, Mastercard’s VP of Conversational Commerce, these hackathons foster an agile work culture, bring great ideas to life and strengthen the company’s relationships with partners.

Hackathons Stimulate Agility

Flexible, dynamic, alive and growing — these are some of the hallmarks of the agile companies competing through adaptation and action. For Mastercard, internal hackathons are a way to stimulate agility across the entire company. How? — because the nature of hackathons calls on the same characteristics agile companies like Mastercard encourage.

Of course, hackathon competitions can generate projects, but beyond that, participants acquire valuable know-how. Challenging people to deliver a project in a limited space of time (often two-days) allows employees to learn new agile processes, including digital project management. Participants overestimate what it takes to launch a website or develop a new feature, generally due to lack of experience. For the company, that’s an opportunity because being taught how to achieve great results in a short space of time has a lasting impact. It equips employees with the knowledge and impetus to apply new-found understanding and methods to tackle daily tasks. Whether it’s project or team management or working with partners or external agencies, companies can expect improved optimization and output.

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This being the case, we recommend to create the format for running internal hackathons with training aspects in mind. This might include incorporating workshops and webinars, or bringing in external mentors to train and share insights in their areas of expertise. The result is team members emerging from hackathons newly enriched, regardless of their success in producing the next groundbreaking innovation.

“For us, hackathons are important in… instituting (them) as a component of our culture.”

Building an Intrapreneurial Army to Develop and Launch Products

“Hackathons-as-a-process” is a growing trend among corporations, including MasterCard, which hold regular hackathons as part of an internal innovation strategy. The practice fosters intrapreneurship, enables cross-departmental collaboration and lets companies explore new ideas rapidly while capitalizing on employees’ experience and skill sets.

Mastercard puts it into practice through monthly “Ideabox” hackathons. Employees are invited to generate ideas, and the promising ones go through an internal incubation program. Incubated projects are, in a way, a newly formed internal startup.

Ideabox” hackathons regularly generate new ideas, but also build the business case for them. Having a post-event incubation support program in place ensures continuity of projects. If done right, projects enjoy further development into a minimum viable product that can be market-tested — all within a limited time frame.

In order to run such a program, companies but be prepared to allocate time and budget. This could mean a few hours a week to a whole new position for the project team or lead, as well as the cooperation of other internal resources such as coaches and mentors. Budget should be provisioned for external experts or for an external agency if the development of the project is to be outsourced.

Having such a scheme excites internal talent who will want to dedicate their time and effort to the entire process and want to see their projects through to the end.

“We have employees who have been pulled out from their day-to-day roles to take an idea they came up with at a hackathon, and create it as a business product that we look to deploy within Mastercard.”

Hackathon Partnerships Deepen Relationships

Matt says Mastercard actively works with bank partners through hackathons. This is in keeping with the trend of companies using hackathons as a vehicle to build external relationships with clients, prospects, and partners. It’s understandable. Having clients and partners use your APIs or technology is a great way to train them, explore new use cases and generate new leads.

For clients, hackathons are a convenient and attractive format since they require minimal time (1–2 days), but yield huge benefits. Hackathons are exciting for a company and its staff, whether it be for learning agile methods, a new tool, or the chance to identify potential intrapreneurs.

Additionally, the strength of the relationships built between the host and client at hackathons are hard to beat. Collaboratively working hard to launch a project establishes a unique connection among participants. Better still, your company will be recognized for taking the initiative.

Mash It Up to Up the Learning

If your hackathon is for training purposes, leverage mashups. To inspire the mashup mindset in participants, Matt recommends using external APIs. Your participants will be exposed to many new tools and technologies, and they’ll be able to apply those to their daily tasks.

Try to think long-term when selecting the APIs you will use, concentrating on how to best help participants build valuable projects that you can potentially implement. For instance, building an app on an incompatible cloud solution or one prohibited by your IT department could prevent it from being pursued. The same goes for new or buggy APIs: Avoid them or risk losing out on innovative projects to take into your future.

In Summary: Habitually Hosting Hackathons Keeps Your Company and Relationships Growing

Mastercard’s innovation strategy benefits from hackathons aimed internally toward their employees and externally at their partners. This practice yields the company ongoing benefits:

INTERNAL HACKATHONS: The “Hackathon-as-a-process” approach of running regular hackathons for employees has a double effect.

  • Employees constantly generate new ideas and solutions. A follow-up incubation program ensures that their innovations continue into viability and investment decisions are made quickly.
  • Employees learn new work methodologies that can be applied to daily tasks. This ongoing growth ingrains an agile culture throughout the organization.

PARTNER HACKATHONS: Mastercard’s hackathon adventures with business partners mean:

  • Evangelizing partners regarding company technology and processes, and
  • Forging strong bonds by working closely with partners to solve challenges.

Mastercard’s agile culture demands ongoing innovation. Hackathons provide the means by which employees, partners, and the company itself grows.

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