Collaboration in Innovation Competitions

Point: Innovation tournaments can be run either competitively or collaboratively, with each approach yielding better results for different purposes.

Story: In his second book, Best Practices are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition, (named the 2011 best book on innovation by CEORead) innovation speaker Stephen Shapiro offers 40 tips on how to innovate efficiently.  His tip #11, for example, tackles the topic of innovation competitions and tournaments. The tip focuses on what role, if any, collaboration should play in these bounty-driven events.

Innovation tournaments can be run either competitively or collaboratively, Shapiro says.  In a competitive tournament, such as ones run by Cisco and LG Electronics, no participant can see rivals’ submissions.  In a collaborative tournament, such as GE’s Eco-Imagination challenges, anyone can see a submission and comment on or vote on the entry. The Netflix Prize and X Prize use a hybrid version, running the tournaments as competitions for prizes but allowing for collaboration within each submission.

Which approach generates the best solutions? Collaborative tournaments work best in areas where problems require “cumulative knowledge” or “building on best practices,” Shapiro says, citing research by Kevin Boudreau and Karim Kakhani in the Sloan Management Review. The collaborative approach lets players build on to each other ideas and create more refined ideas based on feedback from other participants.

Competition, in contrast, is most effective when the problem requires broad experimentation with an emphasis on truly new ideas rather than refined ideas  The competitive aspect means that many different ideas are pursued simultaneously. Whereas collaboration enjoys the benefits of players influencing each other, competition enjoys the benefits of players being independent of each other, thereby avoiding problems like groupthink, which might artificially narrow the ideas along the basis of the first idea suggested.  In some cases, a hybrid approach will use competition in phase one of the tournament to gather a lot of ideas and then use collaboration during a second phase to flesh out and refine the most promising ideas.


  • Hold an innovation tournament to access the innovative energies of suppliers, customers, and smart people from around the world.
  • Use a collaborative tournament if you need ideas that are cumulatively built and more carefully refined by the players.
  • Use a competitive tournament if you want a wider range of “left-field” ideas and plan to do your own refinement or hold a two-stage contest in which the second stage refines the ideas of the first.

4 Comments »Creativity, How-to, Innovation, open innovation, Strategy

4 Responses to “Collaboration in Innovation Competitions”

  1. Scott Wagers Jan 11th 2012 at 08:06 pm 1

    Cumulative problem solving is also quite useful. Combining perspectives to address acute issues. This is most relevant more in a project phase of open innovation as opposed to idea generation. The building upon ideas creates some unique solutions. The downside can be a delay in decision making or a solution borne out of compromise.

  2. Andrea Meyer Jan 12th 2012 at 09:44 am 2

    Thanks for your comment, Scott. You’re right, a collaborative approach is very good in the later phases of development in which one needs to convert an idea into a viable product or service. To the extent that a particular innovation has a very long list of strong requirements (e.g., safety, effectiveness, cost limits, size restrictions, customer expectations, etc.), then a collaborative approach can certainly help solve all the myriad subproblems of creating a viable solution.

    In contrast, as you note, the competitive approach may be more appropriate for idea generation/brainstorming phases in which one seeks lots of divergent ideas without the filters of feedback and voting common in collaborative tournaments.

    Neither approach works all the time. One pitfall of the collaborative approach is the design-by-committee sinkhole which delays the effort and creates an overburdened design. The curse of the competitive approach is that it might generate lots of crazy half-baked ideas, none of which are practical.

    Both approaches belong in the open innovator’s toolbox with the proviso that they have different uses for which they are better suited.

  3. Eduardo Hernandez Jan 20th 2012 at 10:15 am 3

  4. Andrea Meyer Jan 20th 2012 at 11:30 am 4

    Interesting, thank you for sharing this, Eduardo!