In the vast expanse of human endeavours, competitions have always held a unique place in human history. Whether it's the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome or the modern-day bruising rallies between the world’s top-tier tennis players, the spirit of competition has always been a driving force for innovation and excellence.

At first glance, the technology and software-based world of corporate hackathons might seem worlds apart from the intense physicality, drama and action that we see unfold on the courts of Flushing Meadows in New York, at the US Open.

Copyright: 2018 USTA

Yet, beneath the surface of it all, they share striking similarities, both serving as platforms where competition and pressure can help forge, shape and upskill top-tier talent, in addition to developing game-changing innovations that truly revolutionize businesses and industries.

1. The Essence of Competition — Surpassing Boundaries

Competition inherently drives individuals to surpass their boundaries. One needs to look no further than the recent Cincinnati Final where Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic pushed themselves to their very limits in the longest best-of-three-set final in ATP Tour history (since 1990) — lasting nearly 4 hours in length.

Copyright: The US

As we have seen in many global sports, such as the Olympics, FIFA and Rugby World Cups, “competition” is a universal phenomenon that transcends cultures, geographies, and various fields of expertise.

In the business realm, competition often translates and leads to innovation, as companies vie for early market share and dominance. Much like the world’s best tennis players, organizations and companies must learn to be agile. They must know how and when to move quickly, adapt, change up their mindsets (when needed), pivot their positioning, and make rapid decisions in the face of emerging new data and information — hurtling at them at over 130 miles per hour.

2. Internal Corporate Hackathons - The Grand Slam of Innovation

Hackathons, intense coding marathons where developers, designers and business people collaborate together to form diverse teams and build collaborative projects that solve specific business problems and use cases, have become a staple within the tech industry.

Much like a Grand Slam event, where tennis players give their all in a series of matches across one fortnight, hackathon participants work tirelessly, often pulling all-nighters, to develop their projects. The stakes are high (with senior leaders within the company looking on), the timelines tight, and the rewards significant (with thousands of dollars in cash prizes up for grabs for the winning teams and finalists).

In our most recent two-week GenAI hackathon with Capgemini and Google mirrored the rigorous two weeks of focus that tennis players must dedicate to a Grand Slam event. Just as a tennis player relies on a robust support team (from coaches to physiotherapists), hackathon participants need to join or recruit a diverse team with complementary skill sets. Each member brings a unique perspective and valuable skillset to the team.

GenAI Hackathon 2023 - By the Numbers

During these pivotal two weeks, preparation takes on “centre court”. It goes beyond merely showing up to the event or workshops. It's about the diligent work that goes on behind the scenes — delving deep into the homework, doing proper customer research, grasping the intricacies of the problem, and understanding the various use case challenges presented to participants.

3. “Pressure is a Privilege” - How pressure can be used as a catalyst for employee upskilling

In the famous words of Billie Jean King, "Pressure is a Privilege." This quote, enshrined and embossed on a plaque that players pass by, as they enter onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, in New York – encapsulates that when someone reaches the top in their respective field, they should expect to feel pressure, and that it is a privilege to be in a position where they can compete for the biggest prizes in their chosen profession or sport.

Copyright: 2019 USTA

This iconic statement encapsulates a profound truth about challenges and growth. Whether it’s playing in front of a crowd in one of the biggest arenas in sports, or delivering a Final Round Hackathon Pitch to to a room filled with senior leaders and hundreds of colleagues, the weight of expectations can be immense. The secret, however, lies in our perspective of the situation.

Instead of viewing such situations with fear or trepidation, we can reframe these situations as opportunities, seeing the crowd or audience as “support”, and the challenge as a chance for us to truly shine and show off what we are capable of.

High-pressure situations, like a Grand Slam Match or Hackathon submission deadline — force individuals to adapt and evolve extremely quickly. The urgency to deliver a functioning, well-designed, high-fidelity prototype drives and propels hackathon team members to learn, build and execute at an unparalleled pace.

Participants learning how to best utilize AWS technology at our BMO in-person hackathon

Pressure can often act as a lens, sharpening focus and helping people prioritize the most important features and elements they need to work on. This increased “laser-like focus”, is what helps employees upskill and learn new tools at breakneck speed. Whether it’s learning how to “pitch like a pro”, or configuring how to integrate the backend of a new AI tool — employees benefit from having a tangible deadline that they are working towards. 

4. The Creative Boost from Competitive Environments - To Create High-Impact “Winning” Product Features

Competitions provide a unique platform for competitors to think beyond the norm and be creative. In order to win, competitors have to take calculated and smart risks. Just as a player might employ an unexpected drop shot to throw off their opponent and win the point, participants in a hackathon must also take creative risks — in order to stand out from the rest of the teams and their submissions.

Innovation and creativity both take courage. It requires people to be bold enough to take risks and be unafraid to change things up when needed. That’s what recent Wimbledon Champion, Carlos Alcaraz (the youngest World Number 1 in the Open Era) does so well against his opponents. He’s unafraid to change up a rally and truly go for his shots. He’s explosive, dynamic and incredibly innovative in his game (with players now having to train and prepare for the Alcaraz drop shot, as well as employing the tactic more themselves!).

Doing things differently is a key hallmark of hackathons. Participants are encouraged to be creative and to approach things differently from how they normally would. In a “competition” environment, they are rewarded for having the courage to ask deep questions and challenge the status quo. Participants at hackathons get the unique opportunity to experiment and try out new things (using tools that they were initially unfamiliar with).

From our own experience running dozens of internal corporate hackathons for Fortune 500 companies, we’ve witnessed game-changing solutions that have truly left their marks on the companies that we’ve worked with.

For instance, the “text-on-arrival feature” was a creative solution that came directly from one of our hackathons with McDonald’s (at Burger Hack 2020), and is now a fully, live functional feature across hundreds of restaurants on the McDonald’s app in Canada.

Hackers competing in person at our McDonald’s Hackathon (Burger Hack) in Chicago last year, 2022

High-impact “winning” product features are born out of creativity, discipline and strategy. Just as tennis players must know which points they can afford to take risks on, hackers (participants in a hackathon), must know which areas and product features are worth experimenting more on and which parts of their solution should be kept simple.

For Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and directors of global technology teams, understanding and harnessing the potential of competitive environments within Hackathons can help drive innovation and foster a culture of creativity and continuous learning — helping them stay ahead of the curve in this ever-evolving technological landscape.

5. The Allure of Elite Competitions

Elite competitions, be it the grandeur and tradition of Wimbledon, the big lights and energy of the US Open, or a global generative AI hackathon (run in partnership with Google), possess an undeniable and magnetic pull about them.

Just as the Grand Slam tournaments in tennis draw the world's best tennis players, eager to showcase their game and compete at the highest level, competitions, like internal corporate hackathons, attract the brightest minds within the industry. But what is it about these elite events that make them so alluring?

A participant on his way to the Final Round of Judging at BMO’s Innovation Sprint (Hackathon) last year

At their core, these top-tier events represent the pinnacle of achievement in a particular field, drawing in the crème de la crème (or “cream of the crop” for British folks) of talent. These high-level competitions offer participants an unparalleled platform to showcase their skills and challenge their creativity and previous technical limits.

In the realm of tennis, a Grand Slam title can define a player’s legacy and cement their place in the history books. Similarly, at a more modest scale – winning a hackathon can have ripple effects for a team or individual — as they have now made it clear and known to senior leaders and other important stakeholders, the quality of work that they can produce and the level of creative or technical insight that they possess.

Participants at Burger Hack last year driven and motivated to show off their technical skills and business insights

When you create a well-organized competition (like an internal hackathon) everyone wants to compete in it. Not only will you attract your most innovative thinkers and brightest developers, but you will also have a means of motivating and inspiring them to do their best work. 

Employee retention and increased talent acquisition are natural by-products of hosting well-organized hackathons. We’ve seen this time and time again with our McDonald’s global hackathon (Burger Hack), where employees at the company come back to the event year after year and say that it’s one of the biggest highlights of working in their global technology department.

Top-tier talent will come when you host a competitive event, such as a hackathon or innovation sprint. Employees will have plenty of motivation to compete, improve their entrepreneurial and business “game”, and hone their technical abilities.

By embracing and investing in such competitions, companies send a clear message to the world that: "We don't just value innovation; we champion it.”

Winners and Final Round Judges from BMO Destination Digital (their internal corporate hackathon)

6. The Ripple Effect of a Well-Organized Hackathon

A well-curated hackathon becomes more than just a competition; it transforms into a spectacle — an event that professionals mark on their calendars and leaders keenly follow, eager to witness the next big breakthrough within their organization. The allure of these events often lies in their ability to foster collaboration, ignite creativity, and showcase the future of emerging technologies (such as generative AI), all within a condensed and well-defined timeframe.

Moreover, when companies make these hackathons a recurring feature within their culture, be it annually or even more frequently, they cement their position as epicenters of innovation. Over time, this consistent commitment to fostering innovation not only attracts top-tier talent but also solidifies the company's reputation as a trailblazer and pioneer within the industry.

For Fortune 500 CIOs, investing in and championing such events can be a wise strategic move, positioning their organization not just as industry leaders, but as true visionaries shaping the future of global technology.

CIOs are well-placed to lead digital transformation initiatives (such as global generative AI hackathons) at large companies. We have typically seen CIOs to be the main sponsoring leader behind large-scale global hackathons at multinational companies. Ensuring that they are bought into new company initiatives (such as hackathons or design and strategy sprints) is paramount to developing a long-term culture toward true innovation and intrapreneurship.

Burger Hack prize winners featured alongside senior leaders and directors within McDonald’s


In the ever-evolving landscape of business and technology, competition stands as a timeless catalyst for innovation, creativity, and as a way for people to learn and upskill. The parallels drawn between the adrenaline-charged courts and fervor of Grand Slams and the intensity of corporate hackathons underscore a vital, universal truth: that when individuals are challenged, they rise to the occasion, embrace “pressure as a privilege”, push beyond previous boundaries, and learn how to innovate, adapt and move quickly.

For Chief Information Officers (CIOs) steering the ship of large Fortune 500 companies, this isn't just an observation but a call to action. Embracing the spirit of competition isn't merely just about hosting an event for the sake of “innovation theatre”. It's about fostering a culture where innovation truly thrives, where creativity is celebrated, and where every challenge is viewed as an opportunity to excel.

As stewards of innovation, CIOs and senior leaders within global technology departments and organizations have the unique privilege and responsibility to harness this power, to channel the competitive spirit that lives inside us all, in ways that propel companies and organizations into the future, ever-ready to meet the next challenge and match head-on.

Game, set, match — innovation.

Tapping into the Magic of Competitive Innovation

For companies eager to tap into the magic of competitive innovation, the journey often begins with a single step: integrating events like hackathons into the very fabric of their long-term innovation culture. It's not just about hosting an event, but about fostering an environment where innovation is truly celebrated, where new ideas and challenges are welcomed, and where every problem is viewed as an opportunity for creative problem-solving. By embedding such events into the regular rhythm of working life, not only do companies signal their commitment to innovation, but they also create a space where employees feel empowered, engaged, and inspired to bring their best ideas to the fore. The future of innovation is competitive, collaborative, exhilarating and incredibly exciting.

Is your company ready to start innovating?

Interested in seeing how we can support you and your business in your innovation initiatives? Book an introductory call with Victor Li, Founder & CEO of Onova.
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