The concept of gamification is increasingly popular as a means of motivating employees, increasing productivity, and moving ideas forward. This trend is one driving force behind the proliferation of innovation competitions around the world, but it’s also true that these kinds of competitions aren’t anything new.
The concept dates back to the 1700s when governments and leaders were known to offer prizes in exchange for solutions to problems. For instance, Napoleon is believed to have given a substantial financial prize to the person who could come up with the best idea for food preservation. That isn’t much different from some of the innovation prizes offered today. Our problems have just become more complicated. Can competitions really spur world-changing innovation in the 21st century?
What Is an Innovation Competition?
These competitions take many forms, from small challenges within companies or even departments, to international idea contests to solve pressing global issues. There must be a set of rules or parameters, and also some kind of reward for the winner or winners. It may be a cash prize, seed money to advance a startup, or simply industry recognition or attention from consumers.
There are competitions of this nature bringing new ideas to life in every industry imaginable right now. Some of the more prominent innovation competitions in 2015 included:
- Insight Innovation Competition – Driving innovation in the marketing research field
- Extreme Tech Challenge – Giving startups a boost through vendor sponsorship and other lucrative rewards
- Imagine Cup – Sponsored by Microsoft, this competition challenged students aged 16 and up to create new, innovative software
- European Social Innovation Competition – The European Commission’s attempt to find new ideas to help Europe grow sustainably
- NOVA Innovation Competition – Rewarding innovative startup companies in the fields of renewable energy, high-efficiency products, sustainable products, and habitats
But there are also plenty of smaller competitions that happen within organizations and communities that can be just as effective (if not more so) in solving specific problems and spurring innovation and progress.
There’s also gamification, another side of the same coin: while there may not be a prize for the best idea, gamification turns innovation into a game, setting many minds to the same task and transforming a group of disparate people into a “swarm” that is focused on a common goal. One example of this is the online game called Foldit created by AIDS researchers, whose players solved a puzzle about the structure of an enzyme involved in the production of HIV. A problem that had scientists stumped was solved by the gamers within three weeks.
How Competitions and Games Can Spur Innovation
A competition that is well designed and thoughtfully executed can both prompt new ideas and accelerate good ones that are already out there. At its core, it is an excellent way to bring attention and resources — both monetary and intellectual — to problems and spaces that might not draw those resources without some kind of external force to help. Innovations that don’t necessarily have immediate or lucrative market value, for instance, might may have trouble getting off the ground without the extra push and reward that a competition or game provides.
Innovation competitions and games can set many creative minds to the task of solving a tough problem, a problem that the competitors may not have even heard of before they heard about the challenge. It can also bring together creative thinkers who may not have met or collaborated otherwise. Essentially, competitions and games can artificially create the conditions that have fostered some of the greatest innovations in history. When many great thinkers come together to attack a problem, good things tend to happen.
Within organizations, competitions open to third parties are often designed to challenge the status quo in order to think beyond structures that have always existed. Many executives hold tight to the way things have always been done, and innovative ideas are often shut down if they challenge the current system or approach new market needs rather than focusing solely on current customers. When companies are really ready to change, allowing creative thinkers to compete with the intention of embracing winning ideas is a great way to stimulate that change.
It really comes down to identifying problems or opportunities for progress and setting many minds to the task of coming up with solutions and ideas. While most competitions only award one prize, many of the creative ideas and products featured along the way will receive media attention, increased consumer awareness, and investment propositions due to their participation.
How Innovation Competitions and Games Can Be Most Effective
You don’t need thousands of entrants from around the world, tons of media attention, and $50,000 in the prize bank to create a successful challenge that highlights creative solutions to a problem. What you need is all of the following:
- A problem that is difficult to solve or an area in need of improvement and growth: open-ended competitions will likely produce vague results, so it’s important to make the challenge or question as specific as possible
- An identified group of people with the expertise and creative powers to come up with new ideas in that identified space
- Some kind of incentive that encourages innovators to bring their best ideas forward
- A system for advertising the competition and getting the word out to the right communities
- Plans for pushing the winning ideas forward to implement solutions to your problem or bring world-changing concepts to life
Competition between your employees to solve internal problems can be just as rewarding as massive competitions open to entrants from around the world. Allstate, for instance, has “innovation blitzes” that invite all employees to submit ideas for how to solve pressing business problems, and the best ideas are chosen for follow-through by the innovation lab. That’s an important key: to make sure the competition is just the start of the innovation process, not the end in itself.
The prize package or goal should be more than just an incentive to get participants interested in the contest. It’s also a strategy for turning the ideas reality. Innovative ideas are great, but that follow-through to implementation is critical. Ideas themselves don’t change the world — people working hard to implement those ideas do.
If you can successfully bring creative entrepreneurs or innovative minds to the table and connect them with investors and industry professionals, you can create new relationships that take ideas from the drawing board into the real world. Since innovators don’t always have the ability to fully implement and market their creations effectively, networking is one of the biggest advantages to participating in this type of competition. This not only means that entrepreneurs are connected with other thinkers that can help them accomplish their goals, but also that a swarm of creative minds is connected to a problem they might not have otherwise used their skills to address.
Are you intrigued by the concept of competition-generated innovation? Feel free to contact me with your ideas, questions, and suggestions when it comes to putting creative ideas into the world.