How do companies use competitions to develop new ideas?

Corporations are great at refining, building on, and reimagining products and concepts that have come before. But when it’s an entirely new idea that you need, it’s all about competitions. From a contest to improve ship navigation in the 18th century to the GoFly Prize spurring the invention of a personal flying device today, there’s something special about the high-stakes prizes and the anything-goes attitude of a good old fashioned contest — and by harnessing that spirit, traditional companies might get the best of both worlds.

Competitions have a long history of spurring innovation. In 1714, the British government put up a prize of £20,000 for anyone who could come up with an accurate measure of longitude. Less than a century later, Napoleon offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a novel method of food preservation, and canning was born. These days, universities, governments, and companies are realizing how effective competitions can be at coming up with new solutions to age-old problems.

One such company is TE Connectivity, a global industrial technology leader specializing in connectivity products and sensors used in everything from aircraft to smart homes. TE is partnering with rFlight as the team competes for the GoFly Prize, a $2 million challenge to develop a personal flying device. But why would a technology company that’s been in business for more than 75 years back an independent team for a technology prize?

“There are two dimensions to this adventure,” says Thierry Marin-Martinod, CTO, Aerospace and Defense at TE. “The first one is technology. You know that TE is a world leader in innovation … that’s in our genes, that’s in our blood.” Contributing to such an ambitious project is right in line with the company’s purpose.

The second dimension, Marin-Martinod says, is the human element. “I was focused on the exchange, the tools, the organization. Sometimes it looks like chaos. In fact, it’s organized chaos, with a huge amount of productivity … I can see opportunities for applying this approach across TE.”

One big piece of the puzzle for Marin-Martinod is the passion of the people involved. rFlight is a team made up entirely of volunteers with day jobs, families, and social lives, yet they’re willing to make sacrifices to contribute to the team’s central goal. According to research, that passion is a big reason a competition works so well. In 2013, MITSloan Management Review published a research paper examining the dynamics of prize-based competitions and how they differ from the traditional R&D approach of a company. They found that often, teams will end up spending more money than they could win in the prize purse. Why would someone do that? Well, most competitors are there for reasons beyond money. The participants in the research reported taking part in the competition for the thrill of competing, the love of the project, a passion for the cause, and the boost in reputation and publicity that could result.

But there’s more to it than passion. There’s also the difference in approach. Even in the most innovative companies, traditional R&D teams are bound by predefined goals and old problem-solving habits. Competitions, on the other hand, involve huge numbers of teams from a wide variety of backgrounds. Because they’re so diverse, they can come up with a wide swath of possible solutions. Many ideas won’t be nearly as good as those of an experienced, professional team at a traditional company — but a few will be even better. While a company might focus on improving the quality of the average innovation, a competition boosts the variety available, and that increases the chance of finding that once-in-a-lifetime solution.

“I’m always surprised by how fast a team of self-motivated persons can produce,” says Marin-Martinod. Business-driven companies, he says, “will recognize that [they] are too slow compared to this kind of competition. There is this extra passion, this crazy cohesion. You have how many brains, 400, 600 people [competing for the GoFly prize]? We can’t afford that, to have 500 brains working all together on one project. So, there is a kind of exceptional efficiency in the team.”

“That’s why I’m always looking to try to understand the mechanism, trying to duplicate it,” he says. “That would be the magic for me within a company.”

In the end, that’s why TE has partnered with rFlight in its goal to create a personal flying device and win the GoFly prize. It’s a way for TE engineers to see innovation in a new light. “TE is also developing technology found in drones, it is creating innovations that would apply to the development of flying cars and taxis, it is helping design and connect military applications. So, the opportunity for the TE engineers is to be an actor, to discover, and to be a customer within the company. TE will understand the needs for the customer. And these needs are just coming, so it’s the right time.”

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