I hate competitions and awards. Some say it’s because I’m not sufficiently competitive, others will consider it a sign that I am too competitive to consider losing. Be that as it may, experience has mostly confirmed my suspicion of the genre. We’ve seen competitions that burnt up hundreds of working days and resulted mainly in frustrated applicants who didn’t win. Other competitions run out of steam after one or two editions, or become a chore that employees grudgingly collaborate with for fear of retaliation. On the other hand, I must admit that introducing an innovation competition or award in a company or organization can be beneficial in several ways, some more obvious than others:

  1. Certain associates who otherwise would not bother to offer a novel idea or embark on an innovative initiative, may do so in the hopes of winning;
  2. Teams may be formed to tackle the challenge jointly thus promoting collaboration;
  3. If the prize is substantial, it can serve to communicate management’s true commitment to innovation;
  4. If the competition culminates in a grand event, it can be an opportunity to put innovation in the organizational spotlight;
  5. If successful, a competition can serve to showcase an organization’s abilities to its stakeholders. Competitions can be excellent PR opportunities;

These and other, less lofty reasons (egos involved, power struggles, etc.) can definitely tip the scales` and lead an organization to launch an innovation competition. This post refers to internal awards or competitions rather than those that are open to the public. Considering some of the following five points can increase the probability of making this kind of activity successful.

1. Ideas or achievements? In most cases, for an internal competition, we strongly recommend the latter.

  • Awards for ideas can be useful to create deal-flow for an internal VC or accelerator. You set aside some funds and turn to the public (or your employees) to uncover ideas that can be developed into startups, whether to be developed internally or to be spun off.
  • Awards for innovative achievements, rather than mere ideas, are much more conducive to actual implemented results. In order to even qualify for consideration, the applicant cannot just present an idea, but must also make sure it is implemented. A much more challenging task, but also much more useful to the organization.

On balance, therefore, for most cases we recommend that participants compete on achievements rather than ideas: they are easier to evaluate and they communicate the message that what the company is after are results, rather than only concepts.

2. How do you define which applications can be considered legitimate innovations? For this, we turn to our definition of innovation (to read the post), by requiring that associates submitting achievements should demonstrate:

  • The impact of what was achieved (a product, a process, a new strategy, etc.), as quantitatively as possible;
  • The fixedness (or several) that had to be broken in order to arrive at the impact, as specifically as possible;

3. Should the call for application be completely open? On one hand: why not? You can send out a call to any associate to submit any achievement in any field, given that it complies with the two abovementioned criteria. On the other hand, we have found that it is useful to nudge or direct applications, limiting possibilities and thus increasing focus and improving quality. You can do so in one or more of the following ways (and, of course, others):

  • Define a number of categories with a separate prize (or prizes) for each. For example: Marketing and Sales, Digital Technologies, Sustainability, Organizational Culture, etc., according to the organization’s strategic priorities;
  • In order to break professional silos, you can require that applications can be submitted only with the participation of, say, both R&D and Commercial. The requirement can be adapted to the characteristics of the organization and/or the silos you wish to break. In any case, when you accept only achievements rather than ideas, applications will naturally tend to be submitted by teams rather than individuals, promoting (by definition) teamwork, but not guaranteeing cross-silo collaboration, which can be achieved through specific requirements like those mentioned above.
  • Chairperson’s (President’s) Challenge: for certain organizations, we have found, a motivating and goal-sharpening way to kick-off a competition is through what is often called “The President’s Challenge”. This requires that top management spend time and effort to select one or several challenges whose solution can have a strong impact on the organization, and then publish their conclusions in the form of a brief. The down side of this format is that it excludes many potential ideas and initiatives from competing, but this loss is more than offset, in some organizational cultures, by: 1) the extra effort invested by contestants when a demand comes directly from the top, and 2) the power of a coordinated effort of many minds to tackle a specific problem with a large potential payoff.

4. The jury – it is recommended to assemble a jury combining high level executives from the organization, including the President or CEO, with external experts. Participation of top executives from the organization is usually the strongest motivator, for obvious reasons. But external judges can play important supporting roles. First, they confer a sense of importance and gravitas on the proceedings, second, they are useful for PR, establishing your company as a reference for innovation (if you deserve the title), and third, if selected wisely, they can contribute a useful external perspective and relevant references from other industries. A fourth reason is that this type of invitation can be an opportunity to strengthen ties with suppliers, other players in the ecosystem and sometimes even clients.

5. Prizes come in many forms and monetary values. A general rule of thumb we tend to use is that prizes for innovation work best the further they are from purely monetary compensation and the nearer they are to the professional and personal needs of innovators. Motivating examples can range from the modest (a voucher for an interesting course) to the extravagant (a 5-day exploration trip for the winning teams to an exotic and challenging location for innovation-by-adventure), and from the purely professional (vouchers for simulation experts and designers to further develop your ideas) to the more personal (a dinner or weekend activity with you spouse and maybe the kids, to compensate for all those extra hours you spent working on this project instead of being with them).


In summary: do we recommend that you set up an innovation competition or award in your organization? Yes, we do. But with a caveat: although the concept seems pretty straightforward, it is probably easier to get it wrong than right, unless much care is taken with the details. I believe our 5 tips can serve you as a good starting point, and I am sure there are many others that you, our readers, are aware of. It would be excellent if you shared some with us in this space.