Denise Dersin, Editor in Chief,
Anje Jager/ Denise Dersin, Editor in Chief,

Are you faced with a business problem for which you simply cannot find an answer? One that seems too large, too complicated, and perhaps even insurmountable? Some years ago, a builder told me about one such dilemma. He was already building extremely energy-efficient homes and wanted to go all the way to net zero, but he also wanted to make it standard in the new community he was starting. He knew he couldn’t raise prices enough to cover the additional costs without showing customers, in a simple way, that they would actually pay less money each month even though the home cost more initially. Something short, yet brilliant, that said it in a nutshell. Something like Dave Miles’ ingenious tagline for C.P. Morgan, “More square feet. Less money.”

A few industry consultants gave it some thought, but never really hit on the perfect combination. Eventually, rising energy prices and consumer education helped many customers to understand the benefit of being able to control their own energy costs. But I think more of us would have profited from getting that idea out there sooner.

I was reminded of this as I listened to one of the presenters at Builder’s Housing Leadership Summit last month. The speaker was Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, the group that captured the attention of many of us by offering a $10 million prize to the first person who could build a manned spacecraft that could take off and fly 100 kilometers above the Earth, and then do it again within two weeks’ time. Twenty-six teams competed, and, in 2004, one of them won the prize. More importantly, the competition spurred the creation of a private spaceflight industry. (An unmanned private vessel successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station on May 25.) The foundation currently is offering millions of dollars of prize money for other challenges, including medical, energy, and technology issues.

Perhaps you are already aware of this, but I was surprised to learn how many inventions and accomplishments have come about because of prizes offered for solving a specific challenge. An incredibly wide-ranging group of innovations and inventions have occurred as a result of these prizes: textile machines, lightweight thread, navigational instruments, lifeboats, fire extinguishers, canned goods, tuberculosis remedies, an almost endless list of processes and products that we still use today. And don’t forget that Charles Lindbergh piloted the first nonstop flight to Paris from New York for a $25,000 prize offered by hotel magnate Raymond Orteig.

Prizes and competitive challenges fell out of favor for a time when large companies set up their own labs and research departments for proprietary R&D. But now they’re back. Sites such as are proliferating on the Web, offering anyone who wants to solve a problem an opportunity to try. Opening up the challenges to people outside of a given field seems to be the most important part of the process. Crowdsourcing, an open call for solutions, is yielding great results for any number of quandaries, even technical ones. In fact, people with little expertise in the area of a problem may have an even greater chance of solving it since extensive knowledge of a subject tends to get in the way of thinking creatively about a solution.

You may want to think about trying this in your own company. Have some difficult issue you’ve been wrestling with for a while and just can’t seem to find a way to solve it? Or some part of your process that needs a good jolt to make it as successful as other parts of the business? Try framing the challenge, open it up to everyone you work with, and offer an incentive that makes it worth their while to give it their best shot. You may be lucky enough to not only get some answers to the problem at hand, but also get some ideas for issues you hadn’t even been thinking about. It’s worth a try.

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