Making Challenge Prizes Better

by Adi Gaskell

Challenge competitions have become ever more popular in recent years, to the extent that it’s almost hard to image a cause or problem that hasn’t tried to utilize them in some way.

To a large extent I’m in favor of this, especially from an organizational perspective. After all, they open your challenge up to a much wider and more diverse pool of thoughts and ideas than you contain within your workforce. What’s more, most challenge setups only see organizations paying for the winning contributions (although there are, of course, other costs involved too).

This leads me to a number of reservations I have with the challenge-based approach to innovation:

  • Winners take all – with only winning entries receiving any financial compensation, there is often a huge amount of wasted effort in challenge competitions.  The biggest of them receive thousands of entries, with each entry often taking up hours of time – time that for most contestants is largely wasted.  It’s hard to see how that’s either efficient or indeed ethical.
  • Ideas above implementation – the majority of challenge competitions are judging entrants on the perceived quality of their ideas.  Whilst there is ostensibly nothing wrong with that, innovation only happens when ideas are implemented, and it’s often the implementation part that’s the real challenge.  As such, the success rate of winning entries is often very low, and the whole process becomes little more than a PR exercise for the backers.
  • A narrow field – the costs involved in submitting to various challenge events also play a part in narrowing the field of participants.  The chances of success in any competition are relatively low, and therefore many participants may believe that their time is better spent in other ways.  This contributes to many challenge winners being more traditional ‘suspects’ that quite probably could have been hand-picked without needing to go through the rigmarole of a challenge contest.

A better way

Now, I should say that I’m still a fan of open innovation, very much so, but do think that it can be done better than is often the case at the moment.  A good example of an organization that’s attempting to do things better is the Global Resilience Challenge’s Water Window, which opened for entries recently.

The challenge, which is offering up to $1 million to help mitigate the risk posed by floods around the world, attempts to overcome the wastage so common by making the initial proposal process a straightforward one, with entrants required to submit a two pager as their entry.

There is also a strong emphasis on the implementation process, which is crucial as many of the solutions proposed will have social and political elements to them that require careful management if a real difference is to be made.  As such, entrants are required to partner with a local organization to help ensure that these kind of obstacles are overcome.

They are also attempting to ensure that a wide variety of organizations throw their intellectual hat into the ring.  Whilst the idea remains very much king in terms of judging, as opposed to team based accelerators such as Entrepreneur First, there is still an expectation that teams have a diversity of experience from academia, industry, government, and of course the local area.

“The Water Window allows us to bring together a group with different skills but a common goal to tackle problems and find solutions for the most vulnerable people. What’s more, by working together, we can go beyond simply providing funds to become potential ‘investors’ in solutions,” Linda Freiner, program manager for the Zurich Flood Resilience Program, told me when we met this week.

I would love to hear your own experience of challenge competitions, whether it’s in running them or participating in them.  Do please share them in the comments below.

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Adi Gaskell tells us: “I am a free range human who believes that the future already exists, if we know where to look. From the bustling Knowledge Quarter in London, it is my mission in life to hunt down those things and bring them to a wider audience, with my posts here focusing particularly on the latest research on innovation and change.” Follow Adi @adigaskell

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