What’s the most effective way to design an idea competition that doesn’t just result in a huge pile of ideas, but enables teams to implement ideas that will help to make your organization more creative? Jeffrey Baumgartner shares one practical framework for making this happen.

Recently, a human resources professional asked me about how to do an ideas competition in her company. Since the advice was freely given, rather than part of a contract, I shall freely share it here as well.

Teams versus teams

Firstly, rather than having individuals submit ideas and reward the best ideas, I recommend you have teams submit proposals or project summaries. There are three reasons for this:

  1. A small group collaborating on a problem offers a higher creativity potential than does an individual.
  2. When teams compete, you team’s member are motivated to collaborate with each other in order to build ideas. When individuals compete against each other, you motivate them to keep secrets from each other rather than collaborate to build ideas. After all, if a person shares an idea with someone else, that other person might steal the idea.
  3. If you have an ideas competition between individuals, you can expect about 20-30% of eligible participants to submit ideas. The other 70-80% will not bother. If you pressure them, they may share mediocre ideas in order to discharge their responsibilities. If, however, you put people in relatively small teams, each team member is more likely to participate to help her team.

Ask for more than ideas

Rather than ask people to submit simple ideas to a problem, ask them to come up with something more detailed, such as a project summary, a proposal or a design. The problem with raw ideas is that very little normally happens with them. A lot of ideas are a headache to administer, most will be rejected and those ideas selected for further development are seldom further developed! (And none of this is particularly motivational!)

On the other hand, a project proposal is taken more seriously, can be discussed in detail and can be modified to meet business needs. If you want a high level of creativity in the solutions, do not ask for ideas and hope some of them will be creative. Rather, formulate a provocative challenge that pushes people to think differently than they usually do.

For example, rather than ask them to come up with new telecommunications products to offer customers, ask them to design the worst possible product – that your number one competitor could launch!

Evaluation criteria

Do not, I repeat, do not tell people you will choose the “best ideas” or “best proposal.” This will motivate people to submit proposals that are very similar to existing products, services or processes. Rather, define a set of criteria for evaluating proposals and inform participants of these criteria. If you want very creative ideas, make sure “creative” or “crazy” or “outrageous” is the first criteria.

If teams feel they need to develop the “best proposal” they will follow your company’s typical, best practice in developing a predictable solution. If, however, teams know they need a highly creative proposal that will increase market share and help your company develop a reputation for innovative products, they will respond accordingly.

Define teams randomly

When you ask people to form teams, they will naturally form teams with other people they know and are comfortable working with. That’s fine if you want a low level of creativity. If you want a high level of creativity, you need diversity and a bit of tension. The easiest way to do this is to devise a means of assigning people to teams randomly. If the competition involves multiple divisions in your company, then ensure that at least one person from each division is on each team (assuming, of course, that is mathematically possible). People may be uncomfortable with this initially. But, that discomfort and the diversity will pay dividends in terms of the results. As an added benefit, you help people in your company develop new internal networks that will benefit them in the future.

Two rewards

The winning team should win two rewards. The first reward should be mostly symbolic and need not have much material value. A trophy or a plaque will suffice. A celebration lunch together in a nice restaurant is also good. The aim of this reward is to acknowledge the winning team’s efforts and ideas. The second reward is the more important one. It is to allow the team to develop their proposal into an actual project. Note, however, that if the proposal is very creative, it may be challenging to implement, particularly if your company does not have a culture for implementing highly innovative projects. If this is the case, the first step the winning team should perform is to prepare an implementation plan that addresses the potential hurdles and defines approaches to leap over those hurdles.

Results oriented

That’s it! This approach is very different to the usual ideas-based competition using a suggestion or idea management tool. However, its aim is not to create a list of creative ideas. Its aim is to enable teams to implement creative ideas in order to make your company more innovative.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.