How do you make idea contests work?

Insights from doctoral research into best practices for the successful organisation and management of idea contests

Over the last ten to fifteen years, the concept of open innovation or crowdsourcing has become increasingly popular. More and more companies and organisations have embraced it and use idea contests as a low-threshold way to collect innovative ideas. But do these actually deliver what is expected of them? For his PhD, Mathias Boënne explored how these idea contests can be better organised and managed.

  • Idea contests are now an integral part of the innovation process.
  • The way in which an idea contest is set up determines its success.
  • Idea contests that combine different characteristic parameters, for example both sophisticated promotion and feedback and a reward for participation, succeed in attracting more ideas that contests that are characterised by just a single parameter.
  • Feedback plays an important role in the development and thus the quality of ideas, and in their ultimate selection.

His research focused on idea contests for the employees of an organisation. “Originally it was mainly customers and users who were involved in contests of this kind”, Mathias explains, “but these days they are also organised amongst employees. This should come as no surprise, as employees are uniquely placed to have inside knowledge of the organisation. Indeed, thanks to the emergence of digital business platforms, it has become easier to streamline the various phases of an idea contest: collection, development and selection.”

Three measures of success

An idea contest can go wrong in all kinds of ways: too few ideas are collected, or from too few participants; the ideas are not original, their quality leaves much to be desired, or they are insufficiently developed; there is a failure to select the best or most promising ideas, or ideas are selected that do not enjoy support, etc.

Therefore, the academic literature about creative processes uses the following performance criteria: (1) the number of ideas collected: the more ideas you collect, the greater the chance that there will be good ones amongst them; (2) the quality of the ideas, which looks at the variation in quality, average quality and quality of the best idea; and (3) the extent to which the selection process succeeds in selecting the best ideas.

These three performance criteria helped shaped the structure of Mathias’ PhD.

It pays to combine

An initial exploratory study analysed the characteristic parameters of 37 idea contests organised between 2014 and 2020 by 34 organisations, as well as the connection between these parameters and the number of ideas that were collected.

“With characteristic parameters”, Mathias explains, “you have to think about the way in which the task is formulated – very vaguely, for example ‘digital innovations’, or more specifically, for example ‘wearables for diabetes patients’; the period within which ideas can be submitted – continuously or at set times; how the idea contest is promoted – ranging from a single email to a sophisticated promotional campaign with banners, posters and videos; the reward for participation in the contest; the role of the moderator; and the way in which feedback – if this is provided – is given.”   

Based on semi-structured interviews, a qualitative data analysis was carried out which gauged the characteristic parameters of the contests and the choices made by the organisers. All the organisations analysed used the innovation management platform Yambla, a digital collaborative platform for innovation, which delivered the data for the quantitative analysis.

“We saw that there was a great deal of variation in the way idea contests were set up. Organisations that focused on just a single parameter consistently scored badly. Only offering a reward for participants, for example, is not sufficient. In order to collect as many ideas as possible, it is advisable to combine different characteristic parameters”, Mathias concludes from the results.

Feedback can take many forms

Encouraging a great many ideas is one thing, but what about quality? Mathias researched how feedback influences the development of ideas and hence their quality. For this, he analysed three successive idea contests organised by Accenture Belux between 2014 and 2016. These contests were set up in such a way as to allow the ideas proposed to be commented upon and evaluated – rejected or admitted to the next round – for a period of four to five months. Mathias looked at the impact of the nature of the feedback and of the hierarchical position of the person providing the feedback on the quality of the ideas that remained at the end of the process.

What was his conclusion? “This feedback really did impact the quality, and this quality evolved”, says Mathias. “Ideas that seemed like the best ones at the start did not necessary end up being the best ones, and conversely there were ideas that did not originally seem that promising, but which evolved into the better ones. ‘Winning ideas do not always shine first’ is a memorable quote from Terwiesch & Ulrich[1], and in this study we have confirmed that empirically.”

But feedback can take many forms. Substantive feedback positively influences the quality of ideas and this impact is greater if different people give similar feedback. The hierarchical positions of those providing feedback and those receiving feedback are of no significance. But purely motivational feedback such as “well done” has little effect, apart from on idea development by staff in low hierarchical positions.

Hierarchical selection

Finally, for a third study, an idea contest was set up within the Economics and Business Faculty which explored how you steer the selection of ideas. How is the final selection influenced by favourable assessments over the course of the contest process, and what is the impact of the hierarchical position of those giving the assessments? “Your hierarchical position influences how you think about certain ideas”, says Mathias. “How does this opinion affect that of others?”

“We established that ideas that are supported by people high up in the organisation have more chance of being selected”, he continues. “That sounds logical, but the guiding influence of that support was more clearly apparent in participants who were themselves higher up the hierarchical ladder. And that is somewhat surprising. Based on the literature, you would expect that it would mainly be staff lower down in the hierarchy who would be influenced by the judgement of more senior colleagues.”

The effect of the hierarchical position on the development of ideas through feedback and on idea selection is therefore not that straightforward. “Sceptics will say that the hierarchical effect is pernicious; that it leads to group think. If the CEO says an idea is good, everyone agrees with their opinion. But equally, you can say that it is important to select ideas that enjoy support,” Mathias believes. “Ideas with no support are often doomed to failure, and in that sense it is good to know during the selection process which ideas can count on the approval of the managers in the organisation.”

Tips to make an idea contest succeed

What advice does Mathias have for companies and other organisations that want to use idea contests?

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Combine different characteristic parameters when you set up this kind of contest. And also bear in mind that there is no standard formula or configuration that works for every organisation. Keep the organisational structure in mind and consider different combinations.
  • Make sure you allow sufficient time, both for developing the set-up and for the contest itself. Because if the initial contest comes to nothing, the next one is also doomed to failure. As the organiser, you only have one chance to make a good first impression.
  • Feedback, especially feedback from other participants, is essential. It stimulates the development of ideas, improves the quality of ideas and provides information on the basis of which ideas can be selected. Digital collaboration platforms are useful tools for facilitating feedback.
  • Set a good example. If as a manager you post feedback right from the start, others in the organisation will follow.
  • Ensure that there is a phased selection process, with feedback of course, so that ideas can mature.
  • Involve staff from right across the organisation, and at different levels, in all phases of the process. A diversity of participants increases the chance of a diversity of ideas and of feedback from different points of view. And that is a plus point, both during the initial development of ideas, and for the development of those ideas and their selection.

Source: ‘Designing idea contests to optimize the front end of the innovation process’ by Mathias Boënne. PhD in Business Economics at KU Leuven in 2021. Supervisor: Professor Bart Leten (KU Leuven and Universiteit Hasselt). Co-supervisor: Professor Walter Van Dyck (Vlerick Business School and KU Leuven).

[1] Terwiesch, C., & Ulrich, K. T. (2009). Innovation Tournaments: Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press

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