As a means of inviting innovation from outsiders, the competition has come of age over the past few years. Organisations such as the xPrize have taken most of the publicity in this area, but sites have emerged such as TopCoder and 99designs that operate along the same principles.
You set a challenge > you announce the prize for meeting the challenge > you open it up to the crowd to solve.
As an organisation the allure is an obvious one. Not only are you not required to have all of the expertise in-house, but you also don’t have to pay for all the failures that come along the path to success. All you pay out for is the successful outcome.
Are they a good use of time?
Whilst the appeal for organisations is clear, do such competitions benefit society as a whole? A recent report by the Knight Foundation for instance showed that across a dozen or so competitions, 25,000 entries were received, with 400 chosen as winners. So roughly 98.5% of entrants failed to see any return for their time and effort. Once you start thinking about the time each individual or team puts into their entry and it’s a sizeable chunk of time that is wasted.
Whilst this could be perceived as a learning opportunity, few of those failed attempts are ever made public. I’ve written previously about the value that can derive when the scientific community document their failures in public. This practice never happens in the competitive world of the prize however, so that basic feedback mechanism is missing. It’s a crying shame that much of the work that goes into competition entries is wasted, so at least making those efforts public would allow the collective to grow smarter as a result.
It should also remembered that there is often more than one way to skin a cat. Whilst the winning entry may be regarded as having the best chance of success, other methods may also deliver good results. By ensuring the process is open and transparent, they provide potential investors with an opportunity to back other solutions that could have merit.
Valuing ideas over implementation
There is also a tendency for competitions to reward entrants for the ideas they generate. That’s great, but ideas are often not in that short a supply. Implementing solutions is often far harder, and far more valuable, than merely coming up with an idea. It’s one thing paying someone for the idea they come up with, but who then will implement that idea? It seems unlikely that it will happen magically, so more needs to be done to ensure that winning ideas are helped to succeed in the long-term.