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Tips for launching your own innovation contest

07.30.2013
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In my last post I shared a new report by the Knight Foundation on the use of competitions and contests for philanthropic projects.  The report shared some tips on running a competition based upon the lessons learned from six years of running such events.

Ahmad Ashkar is the CEO and founder of Hult Prize has shared his own tips on how to setup a competition over at Harvard Business Review.  Hult Prize is funded by Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult and aims to establish student entrepreneurs who work on projects providing social good to the world.

The group works alongside the Clinton Initiative, with each of the six winning projects then pitching their idea to the Clinton Initiative, who will select the winner and award them their $1 million prize to help setup their venture.

They’ve been running their annual challenges for four years now, and in that time have picked up a strong set of guiding principles to help them do things that work, both for entrants and other stakeholders.

Here are the tips that Ashkar shared on HBR:

1.Define the boundaries. Open-ended challenges are rarely successful; participants aren’t engaged, ideas often aren’t actionable, and you’ll waste time combing through too many responses to find the few good ideas. Instead, clearly define the types of solutions that you are seeking, and the success metrics. For our latest challenge —solving the global food crisis— we set the boundaries to urban areas, which ensured that solutions were targeted to places where they could have the greatest impact. Similarly, GE’s recent Hospital Quest challenge focused participants on addressing operational issues, and intentionally excluded other pressing topics such as medical outcomes and patient comfort.

2.Identify a specific and bold stretch target. Frame the challenge in a quantifiable way. Making the target a stretch will inspire your participants to think big and ensure that solutions have a significant impact. When Netflix launched its Netflix Prize, it set an aggressive target, demanding that the winning solution present a 10% improvement over Netflix’s current ability to predict whether a viewer would enjoy a recommended movie. These sorts of targets may seem unattainable at first, but we have found that every time we set the bar high several teams manage to reach or exceed it.

3.Insist on low barriers to entry. The point in the early phases of the competition is to encourage as many ideas from as many different people as possible. Proctor & Gamble, on the P&G Connect + Develop site, requires only a name, email, and physical address to submit an idea. If your application includes an endless list of questions, you should start over. And if your janitor catches wind of a business challenge you plan to present to your team and expresses interest, why not let him contribute? You may find he delivers the most innovative, disruptive idea.

4.Encourage teams and networks. The social problems the Hult Prize tackles are often large in scale, and highly complex. A lone individual rarely has the expertise to harness ideas from adjacent disciplines, design a solution, and build a robust implementation plan. Diverse teams, on the other hand, generate solutions that no single individual could develop. The winning Netflix team, for instance, was comprised of a combination of earlier teams that came together and shared their expertise and partial solutions to reach the stretch target. Similarly, one of the winning teams of the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander X Prize at Armadillo Aerospace began as a venture between a game programmer and local rocketry enthusiasts in Texas.

In addition to encouraging team entries, you can go a step further and create networks of mentors, coaches, judges and enablers. These networks will help to refine, pressure test, and roll-out the great ideas generated through your initiative, encouraging not just breakthrough innovation, but long-term success.

5.Provide a toolkit. Once interested parties become participants in your challenge, provide tools to set them up for success. If you are working on a social problem, you can use IDEO’s human-centered design toolkit. If you have a private-sector challenge, consider posting it on an existing innovation platform. As an organizer, you don’t have to spend time recreating the wheel — use one of the many existing platforms and borrow materials from those willing to share.

I think they provide a good basis, whether your competition is designed for the public good or for more commercial ends.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.  Have you run your own innovation contest?

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