Even if you're someone who has never implemented an innovation challenge or contest, my hope is through you reading this column you're open to taking the plunge. Having been in the game for more than a decade now, I've noticed some common complaints about innovation contests and I want to dispel those once and for all. First, let's review the complaints.

  • Competitions are a waste of time.
  • Challenges focus too much on innovation, and not enough on implementation.
  • "Winner take all" design doesn't work.

Many people misunderstand what a challenge can or should be and how to design a competitive experience that is beneficial to all parties involved. Here's my two cents on how to refute these three common misunderstandings.

1) Competitions are a waste of time.

Sure, they can take a lot of time, but not if they're run well. Organizers can design a contest that minimizes participants effort to a few hours rather than asking for the kitchen sink.

First, submission forms that overload participants like an endless survey suck participants valuable time and discourage participation. To save time: keep it short (but not too short); and ask for more info, after the competitor advances to the next round. For example, one page form/ executive summary or a short slide deck with a 90-second voice-over is plenty to respond or convey the essence of the message.

If you have the right contest management partner, that helps too. At Skild, we've employed this strategy successfully for 10+ years with student teams from the world's top 300 universities via the Innovation Challenge. We also vetted 100+ judges that provided detailed constructive feedback to student teams.

Also, organizers should offer engaging education materials to help build skills and mentor qualified participants. Too often, participants are presented only with the rules of the game rather than educational resources that could help them succeed in the contest and excel in their career or profession.

For example, the National STEM Video Game Challenge provides training materials and guidance to help K-12 students create video games using open source toolkits.

2. Challenges focus too much on innovation, and not enough on implementation.

This is simply not true, and the successful implementations and outcomes generated through challenges are endless. Take a look at the Deloitte RightStep Innovation Prize or The Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge. We've listed some additional incredible examples here.

And forget implementations and new products for a moment and consider the positive outcomes challenges can generate for acquiring talent. Take Skild for example. We hired someone through a challenge (Melody King, an absolutely rock star!) as have our clients (notably, AT&T).

3. "Winner take all" design doesn't work.

I often hear this feedback in reference to prestigious, "legacy" prizes that have been around for ages and were designed for a top-down organizational structure, closed door decision making and judging, etc. They are not designed for the new world of bottom-up innovation, transparency and constructive feedback (coaching). Think of the differences between American Idol and The Voice.

Contests and awards help organizers recognize and reward achievement and are useful tools to find undiscovered talent from the bottom-up. People or organizations (winners) are validated and can get a boost after proving they can perform. Transformational challenge experiences are the ones participants promote, recommend to their peers and want to enter again.

The solution isn't to kill competitions. The solution is to educate organizers so they more thoughtfully design the participant experience. This isn't easy, but it can be done efficiently with the right knowledge and platform.