10 tips for running a world-class innovation contest

When it comes to sourcing ideas from across the organization, there’s a number of well-proven techniques ranging from specific event-based ideation sessions and broader innovation contests, challenges and pitch days, to ongoing enterprise innovation processes, incubators and labs where ideas can be submitted and evaluated at any time.

The best approach is often a combination of these techniques so you have both ongoing and event-based mechanisms to source ideas for the innovation pipeline. In the past, I’ve written frequently about event-based ideation sessions, or innovation workshops, which can be utilized to source ideas from a highly targeted group of subject matter experts.

In this article, we’ll look at a broader mechanism to run an annual innovation contest across your organization and share best practices to make it a world-class event:

Get executive sponsorship

As a chief information officer or chief innovation officer, your contest already has C-Suite sponsorship by way of your involvement. Even better is to involve your president and CEO. Their visible enthusiasm and support for the contest and their encouragement for participants is one of the best contributors to success.

Align the contest to your core values

Along with CEO sponsorship, another way to add gravitas to your contest is to align with your core values. This helps clarify the purpose of the contest and illustrate how it contributes to those values. For example, “passion for people” aligns with and fosters a culture of innovation and collaboration. A core value of “be the change you seek” aligns to the pace of innovation and employees acting as catalysts for innovation across their divisions. A core value of “commit to greatness” aligns to the impact of innovation and looking for game-changing opportunities for growth and efficiency.

Communicate the process and timeline

Select a proven methodology (third-party or develop your own) and then communicate the process and timeline ahead of and throughout the contest. This may include posts on your corporate intranet, posters in local offices, and contest launch webinars open to all so you can address questions and share key focus areas, examples of the types of ideas of interest, contest timeline, rules and prizes.

Make marketing a strategic partner

With the above communications activity, marketing should be your strategic partner throughout to develop world-class materials to support the contest. They’ll also have a pulse on suitable contest themes drawing from corporate or pop culture and can coordinate logistics for pitch day presentations.

Involve your innovation evangelists as first-round judges

To get to a Top 10 list of finalists for pitch day, draw on your innovation evangelists across your divisions to perform a first round of voting. This has the dual benefit of providing you with trusted and knowledgeable resources, as well as further building their involvement and relationship with the innovation program.

Coach your finalists ahead of pitch day

Once you’re determined the Top 10 list of finalists for pitch day, be sure to coach them ahead of the main event. Whether pitch day is in-person, virtual or hybrid, they’ll need to know the format for their presentations, the precise timing in terms of their pitch and questions from the judges, and their transition time to be brought into the session. Be sure to include biographies of whom they’ll present to as well as the judging criteria for their ideas.

Involve your senior leadership team for pitch day

Since ideas may come from all parts of the business, a powerful approach is to include your senior leadership team, comprised of heads of divisions and heads of internal departments like sales, marketing, HR, and finance. This has the added benefit of helping connect these leaders with rising stars from across the organization.

Run a people’s choice award to involve the whole organization

A People’s Choice Award allows employees to vote for their own favorites from among the contest finalists, and helps to make all ideas visible to the entire company. For example, video recordings of each finalist’s pitch can be shared on the company intranet as part of the People’s Choice Awards so they can be viewed prior to voting. This further socializes ideas across the organization and involves everyone in the contest.

Celebrate all participants

It’s important to celebrate not just the overall winner of the contest, but the Top 10, the Honorable Mentions, as well as winners in other categories such as a category for “existing innovations,” which have already been implemented. Be sure to thank all involved including the senior leadership team, the first-round judges, the marketing team, and all contestants.

Explore how to implement all ideas

Just as executive sponsorship is one of the best contributors to success early on, its counterpart at the end of the contest and thereafter is to explore how to implement all ideas. Execution is critical and it’s important to follow through and explore with each contestant how to progress their ideas where it makes sense. Some may not be feasible, but it’s important to explore.

Of course, there are many ways to organize and execute any innovation contest, so the approach above is just one example. The most important aspect to make your contest a world-class event is involvement and making it a team sport that belongs to the entire organization so it becomes an intrinsic part of your culture and core values – even a shining example everyone points to.

Innovation, IT Strategy