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Prize-Based Innovation Challenges: Learning From Yester Era’s Giants, They Were There Before Us!

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Longitude by Dava SobelWe live in a world of unabashed self-promotion. Politicians, academics, consultants, companies constantly in search of opportunities to unfurl their flag, looking for niches and coves they can invade, claim as their own. Not surprising, therefore, to find modern-day idea merchants claiming to be originators, pioneers, the first to have given birth to a concept or a way of thinking, without blushing or blinking.

But is it true? Are all the ideas and concepts that flood Fast Company, Wired, Fortune, BusinessWeek, and Harvard Business Review really new? If few create, and many emulate, as the sages constantly remind us, then we need a different coda. One that pays homage to those who have traveled before us on the very same paths we feel compelled to claim as our own.

Take the instance of prize-based innovation challenge. The juxtaposition of those four words gives the concept a distinctly modern ring. But words, no matter how cleverly paraded, are never enough to birth a phenomenon. They usually come after the achievement, when one has to explain what happened. Peter Diamandis is known for his X Prize Foundation, McKinsey has a white paper demonstrating the power of prize-based innovation competitions. But while Peter and McKinsey may have energized the concept, they most certainly didn’t create it.

One of the earliest examples of a prize-based innovation challenge, as we understand it today, can be found in the 18th century. Maybe not the first, but certainly one of the most consequential in transforming marine navigation, it’s the story of Longitude!

We all grew up hearing tales of seafarers, discoverers, and explorers. Those who landed and lived to tell their tale became household names — da Gama, Columbus, Cook. But a far greater number smashed against unnamed rocks and died, their stories silenced, all because they couldn’t figure out their longitude, their precise location at sea. And at sea, even small errors, a few degrees, can lead to fatal outcomes.

To overcome this intractable and embarrassingly costly problem in ships, cargo, and human lives, the British Parliament issued the Longitude Act in 1714 (following the recommendations of a committee, committees existed even then, headed by none other than the great Sir Isaac Newton). The Act urged Parliament to welcome potential solutions from all walks of life — science or art — from individuals, groups, corporations, and even countries — it did not favor British ingenuity over foreign, it just wanted a solution. Perhaps the most significant part was the recommendation to reward the solution that delivered what it promised handsomely, prizes ranging from £20,000 to £10,000 — millions of dollars in today’s currency.

The story of the Longitude has been told brilliantly elsewhere — in a variety of books and documentaries with eponymous titles (my favorite being Dava Sobel’s recounting), and is highly recommended for study for anyone even remotely connected with innovation — students, practitioners, prize-based innovation evangelists, and innovation gurus (yes, you heard me right, even modern-day innovation gurus can learn a lot from the classics, especially those they have not read).

The goal of the blog is not to retell but to provoke a realization that footprints of others exist where we think we are breaking ground. Everything that we consider cutting edge in the field of innovation today — open innovation, collaboration, silo busting, the dangers of fixed mindsets, welcoming failure, the value of experimentation, and a lot of what we have forgotten how to worship — the value of perseverance, diligence, self-education, and, most importantly, the value of backing ambitious projects with appropriate resources, notably expertise and time (because Rome was not built in a day then, and is still not built in a day), can be found in the story of the Longitude, and the prize established to specifically solve the riddle and develop an effectively scalable commercial solution.

It is at once enlightening and humbling, very humbling indeed to learn of how they missed nothing (or so little). How leading minds of that era were willing to give everything, their lives, their means (often meager), in the pursuit of unlocking the universe’s most sought-after secrets.

The two extremes, nothing is new under the sun, and everything is new, are not tenable, they are both partial truths. How then to resolve the new and yet not new paradox? There is a beautiful line in the TV documentary, “The American Triumvirate,” currently airing on the Golf Channel. It says Ben Hogan didn’t invent practice, he added several dimensions to it and raised it to a higher level.

Adding dimensions — we should take inspiration from that phrase and reframe our idea goals as adding dimensions, rather than discovering and invading white spaces. Those who reframe will by definition be more cognizant and respectful of the rich histories that have preceded us.

So, next time we are impressed by how tall we are (or appear) we may want to look down and see the shoulders of the giants we stand on. Very few things, if any, especially ideas, just materialize instantly, out of nowhere. They have ancestors, gradual accumulations of thought and experiences. To deny them would be tantamount to an amputation.