So, how the heck do you run a Hack Day?

If engagement with staff and students is a continuum, surveys and consultation can often end up on the passive end of the scale. Too easily, even workshops, which belong on the more actively productive end of the scale can become heavily facilitated and ultimately passive. Hack Days, which have emerged as an activity from the tech sector, can bypass this, by virtue of their main purpose: ‘How do I hack this problem, and not only suggest a solution, but prototype it?’

Hack Days are a distinct form for engagement, and can be infinitely rewarding, not just to participants but to organisers as well.

This Hack in a Box will hopefully provide you with the resources and inspiration you need to try an event of your own. The ideas and case studies in it are by no means exhaustive, and should be treated as a starting point. And although our experience has been in running Hack Days in a Higher Education context, there should be nothing to stop you adapting these resources for use in your own.

tick_wordle_graphicWhy a Hack Day?

An event like this could help you to:

  • tackle a design challenge
  • solve a problem
  • stimulate innovative and creative thinking
  • identify issues or opportunities
  • get out of your comfort zones
  • have fun!

Ask yourself what you want your participants to hack and go from there.

When should you have your Hack Day?

Depending on the purpose of your day, you could run it as part of a wider event, or as a team building exercise. If your Hack Day is going to be dependent on an externally provided date, make sure you scale the day according to the time you have available to arrange it. While we’e organised a major Hack Day in three weeks, we seriously don’t advise it.

Ensure you’ve taken cognisance of any protected dates, and that time required from staff and/or students is appropriately arranged, acknowledged, and compensated.

Who should participate?

Who you invite will depent on what your objective is from running the day.

Should you pull together a diverse team? Or do you need to focus on a specific area which requires participants with a particular type of expertise? For example, you may want to invite a mix of staff types and levels, or to include students or external staff. How can you make sure the event’s activities appeal to them all?

Different groups need to be engaged in the best way. More diverse groups may make this challenging, but also make for a rewarding outcome.

Where should you hold your Hack Day?

This will depend on the size and type of event you’ve decided on. If you have multiple teams, for instance, you’ll want some break out space. If some of your participants are remote, this will factor in your location decisions. Ask yourself whether you want to be near resources, or if you want to cut participants off completely from day-to-day requirements and distractions.

There’s a lot to be said for using a central, visible or even public location, which may help you create a buzz, generate interest, and get some last minute participants.

We’ve also had great success with allowing space for interested bystanders who want to just drop in for the pitches. It really adds a lot of interest to the event, and energy to the fun of the pitches. It’s also, importantly, a way to encourage senior management to attend part of the day.



Getting started checklist

  • Refer to the editable resources or the case study for ideas and inspiration.
  • Identify whose help and sponsorship you will need to deliver a really effective, fun event, and get their buy-in on your proposed outcome e.g. a committment to implement the winning pitch
  • Clarify the budget available. If you believe the day could have development or CPD potential, make sure to liaise with your training or staffing department to authorise this. It gives the event status and will help encourage participation.
  • Get any approvals you may need in order to proceed – for instance, if you’re planning to include Open University students at your event, you would need to clear it with the OU Student Association as a starting point.
  • Create an action plan to capture all the necessary steps in planning the event, and identify who you might need to draft in to help you.

Planning and preparation checklist

  • Identify a suitable date and send out save the dates to your chosen participants.
  • Decide on participants, and decide how to recruit them, and communicate that. Carry out the administration related to that.
  • If you are letting your participants submit ideas and vote on problems to hack before hand, carry out the administration related to that. Something like Google Forms can be very useful for managing this kind of work.
  • Promote your event offline and online. Use a hashtag to generate interest in the day.
  • Arrange venue bookings and catering
  • Prepare the itinerary for the day, including instructions or guidance, icebreakers, etc
  • Produce or purchase all the materials you’ll need for the day, as prizes and for the Hack Packs.
  • Prepare evaluation forms.
  • Keep your participants up-to-date, and communicate.

Final stages checklist

  • Run through the action list to ensure no dependencies have been forgotten – it’s easy enough to do when handling this sort of situation.
  • Put together the materials needed – Hack Packs, IT equipment, etc
  • Double check all catering is arranged.
  • Final communications with participants to ensure they have the correct locations and know what to expect of the day, including an emergency contact.

The importance of evaluation

You may want to opt out of evaluation, but if done well and not too onerously, it can add value to the participants’ experience. Because Hack Days represent a productive form of engagement, that often comes with a real adrenaline rush, and flood of wellbeing, it can be very jarring for participants to return to ‘work-a-day’ life, and evaluation means that these tthoughts can be captured, hopefully dealt with.

If you are using a Hack Day as a demonstration of a need that staff or students have, that is not being met, then an analysis of the evaluation offers important data that could potentially change how a unit or team carries out a project, no matter how tiny.

It’s best to get the evaluation forms (or survey) done before the participants leave the room. Observe the feedback objectively the assess whether the day achieved its objective.


You can now return to the main Hack in a Box page or get more information and ideas via our analysis, case studies, and downloadable resources.