The difference between hackathons and workshops

In the ever-changing landscape of professional development and innovation, events like hackathons and workshops have been popular. Both serve as powerful tools for learning, collaboration and problem solving. However, they differ in their format, goals and results.

Let’s explore the key differences between hackathons and workshops, using some simple examples.

Hackathons: Innovation within a timeframe

Hackathons are intensive, time-bound events where individuals or teams meet to brainstorm and create diverse innovative solutions to a stated challenge. They are often organized by companies, universities or societies. Here are some key characteristics of hackathons:

  1. The challenge
    Hackathons are known for giving participants a challenging problem to solve. For example, a technology company can organize a hackathon that focuses on developing a new mobile app, creating a new application, creating a collection or improving the user experience of its website, without specifying what solution it is looking for.
  2. The goal
    The primary goal of a hackathon is to prototype and develop a functional solution within a short time frame, usually from a few hours to a few days. The emphasis is on innovation, creativity and quick problem solving. The participants often have to compromise in order to reach the goal in the allotted time.
  3. The result
    At the end of a hackathon, participants usually present their solutions to a panel. Winners may receive prizes or recognition. Importantly, hackathons often lead to tangible results, such as a working prototype, which can be further developed after the event.
  4. Example Hackathon
    A company can organize a hackathon to tackle the problem of food waste. The participants work tirelessly for 48 hours and by the end they have developed several solutions, one of which is a mobile app that connects local restaurants with food banks to donate surplus food.


Workshops: Focused process and competence development

Workshops, on the other hand, are structured sessions that aim to impart specific knowledge or skills to participants often through defined exercises in a results-oriented process. They can be led by experts, educators or industry professionals. Here are some important features of workshops:

  1. The challenge
    Workshops are not centered entirely around solving challenges or problems in the form of a working prototype, like hackathons. Instead, they focus on teaching participants specific skills, concepts or techniques and applying them to a challenge. For example, a workshop on digital marketing can cover inspiration in topics such as SEO and content marketing and then apply them to your own company to gain an understanding of concrete next steps.
  2. The goal
    The primary goal of a workshop is to facilitate learning and create an experiential outcome from a proven process. Participants participate with the intention of acquiring new knowledge, thinking new things and applying this knowledge together to a challenge. Workshops often have a well-defined plan and defined goals for what a good outcome of the workshop is.
  3. The result
    Participants in workshops usually leave with a greater understanding of the topic and selected ideas. The results may include new skills, new ideas, defined actions for the next step and the ability to apply what they have learned and developed in their work or in their projects.
  4. Example workshop
    A company participates in a leadership workshop where they gain new knowledge, get to test this knowledge and exchange experiences with other participants and create a joint implementation plan when they return from the workshop.
    Another example is that a participant attends a workshop to solve a business problem. The knowledge and process lead to new ideas and ways of working that can be applied to create a plan to solve the challenges in the company in question.

What distinguishes a hackathon from a workshop


A hackathon is an intensive event where participants work together to develop innovative solutions to specific challenges and reach a goal with their work in a set time. These challenges can range from creating software applications to tackling real-world problems such as environmental issues or health challenges. A Hackathon can advantageously contain inspiration, music, food, materials and other things.
A workshop is an educational results-focused session led by an expert or instructor. It focuses on a process that teaches participants specific skills, knowledge or techniques, such as coding, cooking, leadership or creative idea generation.


In a hackathon, participants work in teams or individually to brainstorm, design and build prototypes or solutions within a defined time frame, often from a few hours to several days. The emphasis is on creativity, rapid problem solving and rapid development/prototyping.
Workshops follow a structured process, often with a set agenda and purpose/goals. Participants participate in devised practical activities, discussions and exercises under the guidance of the workshop leader. Workshops can range from a few hours to several days, depending on the topic and goals.


When to choose a hackathon

  • You want to encourage innovation and creativity and freedom to work with the solution that inspires the participants.
  • You have an area or challenge that requires suggestions for new ways to  solve a problem.
  • Cooperation and teamwork are essential to achieving your goals.
  • You aim to prototype or develop a concrete product or solution within a short time frame.
  • You are looking for a dynamic and fast-paced learning experience for the participants.

When to choose a workshop

  • You want to acquire new skills or immerse yourself in a certain area with a focus on results.
  • You prefer a goal-oriented process with the guidance of an expert.
  • You are interested in exploring a topic in depth, with the opportunity for questions and clarifications.
  • You seek a comprehensive understanding of a subject with exchange of experience and with the ability to apply what you have learned in your work or project.


Choosing the hackathon

  • Scenario 1:
    You work for a startup and you need a quick solution to improve your app’s user experience. Organizing a hackathon with your development team can create freedom and inspiration to generate transformative creative solutions quickly.
  • Scenario 2:
    You are part of a non-profit organization that works with climate change and you want new ideas for sustainability projects. Hosting a hackathon can bring together environmental enthusiasts to brainstorm and develop environmentally friendly solutions that inspire continued work in projects.

Choosing a workshop

  • Scenario 1:
    You are a product manager who wants to create new sustainable product ideas through inspiration about sustainability and a clear process that leads to new thinking and selection of product ideas to work on after the workshop
  • Scenario 2:
    You are a leader who wants to get a group to think anew through future scouting and guided group discussions about the way of working in the future with new ideas and anchoring on how you will work in the future


In conclusion, hackathons and workshops serve different purposes in the field of learning and innovation. Hackathons take freedom under time pressure with time-sensitive challenges, promote creativity and innovation, and often result in concrete prototypes. Workshops are designed for a deliberate process of learning or creativity and improve the abilities of the participants and have a clearer direction for what will happen afterwards.

The choice between a hackathon and a workshop depends on your goals. If you are looking for free problem solving and innovation where you want to capture different ways of approaching a challenge, a hackathon is the way to go. On the other hand, if you aim to understand an area in a short time and through steps land a focused result, a workshop is the most suitable option.

Both formats contribute significantly to personal and professional growth, and by understanding their differences, you can make informed choices in your pursuit of self-improvement and innovation.

Hackathons and workshops offer distinctive learning and problem-solving experiences. Your choice between the two should be consistent with your goals.