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How to drive new ideas in an accountancy firm

13 July: The post-COVID business landscape has ratcheted up the pressure on the accountancy sector to innovate, find new ways of working or create new revenue streams. Robert Collings, Finance Lead at Flux, explains how hackathons can help firms generate new ideas.

 I’ve often wondered how tech companies continuously come up with new products and new ideas. Is it their culture? The competition? The heaps of VC money?

It’s probably a combination of all of them, but there are certainly tools some of them use to promote innovation. One of these tools is something called a hackathon.

What on earth is a hackathon?

Traditionally, it’s an event where groups of software developers come together to test new ideas.

They're designed to be fun. Take a trip to Silicon Valley and you'll find hackathons lasting all night, with developers fuelled by Red Bull, with pizza deliveries at 1am and a DJ to start or finish the event.

Facebook is (naturally) a big advocate of hackathons. The Facebook "like" button, Facebook Messenger and Video all had their genesis in the humble hackathon.

It's a great place to air ideas that have been nestled away in the imagination of employees for months. A chance to try something with a high risk of failure. A chance for employees to participate in the future.

Can accountancy firms run hackathons?

Just because hackathons typically revolve around software, it doesn't mean the concept is just about coding. If you flip the focus from developing software to developing ideas, then it becomes a very real possibility for accountancy firms.

Let's look at how it might work for a typical accountancy firm: 

Firstly, you'll need to identify who will be involved. Ideally, it will be the whole firm, but if not then you'll want enough people so there are several groups (with different team members in each).

Next, you might decide to set a theme . "Internal projects", external projects" or "sustainable projects", for example. For the first hackathon, it's probably worth going quite broad on this.

Now it's time to set people free in their groups. It's down to them to come up with an idea and follow that idea into a plan. There should be a final goal ie a presentation or pitch at the end of the hackathon to "sell" the idea to the decision-makers of the firm.

Once the time limit is over, it’s pitch time. Each team should have around 10 minutes to explain their project and why it should be taken forward. 

Why should an accountancy firm run a hackathon?

Hackathons won't be suitable for every firm, but the ones that give it a go will find some common benefits:

  • They're a safe space to try ideas. The hackathon might end with several failed ideas or with several amazing ones. Either way, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • The ideas could be anything from new products to new processes. One team might explore a sector specialism. Another might explore a new service offering. The exciting thing about hackathons is ideas might be born which just haven’t been thought of before.
  • They're a great team-building activity. The idea is to work in teams with people from other departments. Employees will gain some insights into how other departments work simply through the hackathon process.
  • They're fun! Order some pizzas and make sure the final pitch event is something to remember. It'll give employees a break from their normal day-to-day activities.

Ultimately, hackathons are a great way to generate new ideas for a company or test ones that have been floating around for a while. Firms that can pull this off will develop more innovative products for their clients, faster than others. And that's important. Particularly in a time when technology is moving so fast.

Robert Collings is a chartered accountant and Finance Lead for Flux.