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The Problem With Idea Competitions

Innovation success is, to a great extent, driven by having value propositions that resonate with customers and business models that are scalable and profitable. However, having cool breakthrough ideas is an important ingredient of the innovation process. To drive transformative innovation, you need to have people that can think outside the box of the existing business. The more breakthrough their ideas, the better.

So the question that leaders often ask is how do we get these breakthrough ideas? How do we get our people to come up with creative ideas of products and services that will take our company into the future?

The one method of generating ideas we can dismiss straight away is the white board brainstorming session. The worst possible way to generate ideas is to have one person standing in front of the board while everyone shouts their ideas!

Human beings are social animals. When having to engage in creative tasks as a group, people will worry about how others are judging their suggestions. This worry will lead people to present themselves to others in a favorable fashion. In the discipline of Social Psychology, this is referred to as social desirability.

Furthermore, this type of brainstorming session exposes people to other people’s ideas, while they are trying to come up with their own ideas. Hearing other people’s ideas and watching how the room is reacting to them in real time can constrain how creative people will be with their own ideas.

Given these concerns, the best way to generate ideas is to have people first ideate on their own privately (e.g. by capturing their ideas on sticky notes). After that, everyone is given a chance to share their ideas one person at a time. One way to break the social desirability constraint, is to start with everyone sharing what they consider to be their craziest idea!

So, what about the company wide idea competitions? Where do they fit in all this? How good are they as a tool for generating breakthrough ideas?

The Idea Competition

The idea competition is something that companies love to do. There are a few digital platforms that are used by companies to run these competitions. The typical process is that the company leadership sets challenges to which individual employees can respond with their ideas. The ideas are typically submitted online with varying levels of details required, depending on the company and platform being used.

The submitted ideas are typically open to everyone within the company. People can then comment on the ideas and vote for their favorite ones. At the end of the process, a winning idea or ideas are announced. The rewards for winning vary from cash prizes, innovation awards, a chance to pitch ideas to the CEO or an opportunity to work on the idea and bring it to life.

So how well do these competitions do with regard to the generation of creative and breakthrough ideas? Research published in the Journal of Marketing Research by Reto Hofstetter and colleagues suggests that idea competitions may actually stifle creativity. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. The Constraining Effect Of Exposure To Many Ideas: Hofstetter and colleagues found that exposing people to numerous competitive ideas of others actually reduces, rather than stimulates, creative performance. Due to the competitive nature of the exercise, people feel the pressure to differentiate their ideas to those that others have submitted. Exposure to a large number of ideas increases perceived constraints and reduces creative performance.

    2. The Impact Of Exposure To Poor Quality Ideas: In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Johann Fuller, CEO of the innovation consultancy HYVE, acknowledged that in idea competitions, if the first entries you show people are of poor quality, you will probably then get a lot of poor entries going forward. It seems that exposure to poor quality ideas constrains people’s ability to think more creatively.

In a strange way, idea competitions are similar to the brainstorming sessions where one person is standing at the front of the whiteboard. Idea competitions also create social desirability effects. As noted earlier, when ideation is done publicly, it is difficult to control the impact of other people’s ideas on our own creativity.

How To Make Things Better

So how do we make things better? According to Hofstetter and colleagues, there are two main ways to improve creativity during the ideation process:

  1. Downplay Competition: Lowering the level of perceived competition can increase creativity. Hofstetter and colleagues found that displaying only a few ideas, versus showing all of them, kept people motivated. This can be accomplished by grouping the entries together into buckets, glossing over the odds by using less competitive language and downplaying submitters’ identities. According to Hofstetter, companies should turn down the competitive element in their idea competitions if they want to generate the best results in terms of creativity.

    2. Show The Most Creative Submissions: One way to deal with the effects of poor quality ideas is to expose people to the most creative ideas.The researchers found that people were less constrained after seeing highly creative entries, compared to being exposed to less creative ones. Exposure to ‘crazy ideas’, can remove some of the social desirability concerns that people have and inspire them to put forward their own ‘crazy ideas’.

The inspiring nature of creative submissions is similar to the positive effects of having people share their ‘craziest ideas’ during a brainstorming session. Another suggestion is to have people share the one idea that they do not think the company would ever work on. This can then inspire conversations as to how we can get leadership to consider this ‘crazy idea’.

An Idea Is Not A Business

There could be a bigger problem beyond the creativity constraints in idea competitions. This is the belief among the leaders that the most important aspect of innovation is the generation of ideas. After picking the winning ideas, there is often no explicit innovation process that the winning teams can follow to bring their ideas to fruition. This excessive focus on ideation is innovation theater.

Beyond the competition, the winning teams need to take their ideas and transform them into value propositions that resonate with customers and business models that are scalable and profitable. This is the final, and most important step, in the innovation process.

This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at

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