Why innovation contests are designed to fail.

The supposedly easiest way for corporates without innovation structures and processes to enter the topic of innovation and to make existing innovative projects visible seems to be the innovation contest.

What is an innovation contest?

Teams working on innovative projects come together to present their projects. An organizational team invites all colleagues, organizes a suitable location on the company premises with a small stage. Posters with project and team descriptions hang on bulletin boards around the room. Name badges are distributed at the entrance. Sometimes there is even a small camera team.

The teams pitch, colleagues take a seat in the audience who are interested in the topics or simply in novelty topics and want to broaden their horizons. Some are there just for the drinks and snacks – and because participation counts as working time. Fair enough. Colleagues from abroad join in for a pitch via video call. The transmission is smooth, the sound only breaks off once briefly. The organizing team nods appreciatively to each other: the worst fear of the event – a broken connection – has been overcome.

After the pitches, there is usually feedback from a jury. The jury is made up of senior executives and specialists. Sometimes, victory or defeat is decided by the applause-o-meter – an app that measures the volume of applause from the audience. The order of placement is announced, the teams come on stage once again, receive prizes.

Drinks, snacks, networking. The winners are congratulated, the runners-up are confirmed that their project is also very good. Participants disband at the end of the event, with some arranging to meet again in the near future. The next day, business as usual again. See you next year.

Have you ever participated in an innovation contest? Does that sound familiar?

The flawed design of innovation contests.

Perhaps the preceding description was a bit exaggerated. Nevertheless, such approaches to promoting innovation can be found again and again in medium-sized and large companies. There are certainly variations – both positive and negative. The following section explains why innovation contests in this form are not suitable for driving innovation forward in a company on a lasting and sustainable basis.

📅 Once upon a time… (aka “once every other year”)

What sounds like the start of a bad fairy tale is unfortunately mostly the same. Successful innovation should be pursued permanently and steadily. Innovation contests usually take place once a year or every other year. A more frequent execution is usually not worthwhile because of the effort and because one fears not being able to present enough exciting projects.

Moreover, one runs the risk of comparing apples and oranges, as the teams are at significantly different stages of their implementation.

Conclusion: Corporate innovation is a process along the value chain and has structures – it’s not an event.

💡 Ideas that don’t solve underlying challenges

The invitations of many innovation contests are addressed to teams that want to present their ideas. And this is what they do: present ideas, blue ocean, everything is possible. Good teams present not only their ideas, but also the challenges behind them, the target groups and the market they are addressing. The comprehensive package incl. problem-solution-market-fit. Some teams, on the other hand, lack methodological know-how. They do not solve any challenges with their ideas, they are unclear themselves who will later become users or even customers of their new business model. In short, they lack the challenge to solve with their supposed innovation. Sometimes a pitch template is provided in advance. Ideal! Now the fictitious problem is simply created quickly afterwards – without any basis or necessary validation.

Conclusion: Don’t pitch your idea, pitch the pain, the target group, your solution and the impact. Search for pitch deck templates for start-ups and use those as a reference.

⚖ Missing objective participation criteria

Objective approval and evaluation criteria could help here. However, these are rarely found in practice. The fear of excluding participants or even having too few participants because the entry barriers are set too high prevails.

Conclusion: Clear evaluation criteria derived from the company’s goals (vision, mission, strategy) not only help teams to work on meaningful projects, but also to provide fair and constructive feedback.

👨‍⚖️ Highly political game

Due to the mostly missing objective evaluation criteria in combination with the non-transparent choice of the winning team (combination of jury, public vote, etc.), the victory can be easily manipulated. Jury members are usually fixed and communicated before the event. They can be given the right information in advance, directly or indirectly, so that they can boast an informed decision.

Bring your allies: How can the team that gets the most cheers end up losing? Impossible! The possibilities to manipulate are endless and of course, vary per contest.

Conclusion: Avoid manipulation opportunities by providing not only objective but also transparent criteria and decision processes.

🏆 Winner takes it all

This criticism is directed at the fundamental nature of a competition: winners and losers. By design, there are already losers in this construct. Yes, not every project presented is worthy of victory, but a loser usually only has obstacles placed in his path. Politically and in terms of external perception, a poor ranking means that, for example, other teams are reluctant to continue working on the project with a losing team. Team members themselves often lose interest in their project – in some cases unjustifiably, since continuing to pursue the project would still make sense for the company.

Conclusion: Make all participants winners. Those who already meet meaningful participation requirements also deserve to be promoted further.

🎁 Incoherent incentives

Now we have chosen winners, it comes to the awarding of prizes. It is not unusual for the team to receive non-cash prizes such as electronic gadgets, a bottle of wine or even tickets for leisure activities. However, these prizes are rarely directly related to the wishes and incentives of the team or their project. They are usually a token of appreciation that personally benefits the individuals involved. A recognition, nice gesture, no one goes home empty-handed.

Conclusion: Align team members’ incentives with their project and its progress. Teams typically crave support, sparring and mentoring from otherwise hard-to-address executives (e.g., larger time slots with top management), financial funding, time off for the project from their day-to-day work, or even attending an appropriate professional conference or booking outside experts.

Not everything is as bad as it seems.

Okay, to be honest, not every aspect of those innovation contests is bad. There are some positive features, that are worth mentioning:

  • teams receive valuable feedback from experienced colleagues.
  • Employees learn to present themselves and their projects, to be concise, to get to the heart of the matter.
  • healthy competition between teams is fundamentally good for spurring teams on and satisfying the greed for success.
  • Events ensure visibility: internally and also externally. This brings projects to the attention of executives, other teams that could provide support, and job candidates looking for an employer that promotes a culture of innovation.
  • and in the end: at least those companies tried to foster innovation. Bad execution is not always worse than no execution at all. Start small, iterate and develop your innovation process.

Speaking of innovation processes: Are you curious to find out how to set up your innovation process from scratch? Read our Knowledge Hub Resource on setting up an innovation process from scratch.

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