Why contests are a smart procurement tool

Research shows that groundbreaking ideas are more likely to come from people working on the fringe, writes FCW columnist Steve Kelman.

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Compared to many of my colleagues, I am more inclined to read academic journals from cover to cover rather than just the one or two papers that are directly related to my areas of research. This has the virtue of exposing me to ideas off my beaten track, which is good for creativity, but at the cost of my often being way behind on the latest issues.

I say this as an excuse for reporting only now on a paper in the September/October 2010 issue of Organization Science. Fortunately, academic papers have a longer shelf life than, say, a daily newspaper. And this article was worth the wait.

It has the forbidding title “Marginality and Problem-Solving Effectiveness in Broadcast Search.” The authors are Lars Bo Jeppesen of Copenhagen Business School and Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School. By “broadcast search,” the authors mean what in government jargon is called “contests” — that is, situations in which an agency announces a problem and offers a prize for the first or best solution.

The paper’s starting point is an observation from what was probably the world’s first government-sponsored contest and perhaps the best-known one, due to its popularization in Dava Sobel’s 1996 book “Longitude”: the prize offered by the British government in the 1700s to anyone who could solve the vexing problem of determining longitude at sea. The paper notes that Sir Isaac Newton, who served on the board of scientists that reviewed the entries, predicted that the solution would need to be based on astronomical science. However, the eventual winner was a largely self-taught carpenter and clockmaker, John Harrison, who developed a chronometer suitable for the task by coming up with a design that differed from the clockmaking establishment’s typical approach.

The paper also cites research showing that the scientists responsible for major innovations in medicine and molecular biology have tended to be marginal players.

With that in mind, Jeppesen and Lakhani reviewed the winners of a sample of contests launched on the website InnoCentive.com and found two results. The first is that the more the solution submitters characterized the problem they were trying to solve as at the boundary of or outside their field of expertise, the more likely they were to win the contest. The second was that women were more likely to win than men.

The researchers suggest a common explanation for those findings: Outsiders have “a useful ignorance of prevailing assumptions and theories.” Furthermore, the greater the number of different perspectives and toolkits that are applied to a problem, the greater the likelihood that one of them will work. Indeed, in many cases, organizations conduct a contest only after trying to solve the problem internally using conventional toolkits.

The greater success rate for women, the researchers say, relates to the enforced marginality of many women in science, which produces the positive side effect that women scientists might be less bound by conventional wisdom.

The findings suggest another reason why contests might be a good procurement tool for government. Because contests do not require an understanding of the government procurement system, they are more likely to bring in players other than the usual suspects, and such players might be better able to solve the government’s problems. Therefore, the advantage of using contests might be even greater for government than for the private firms studied in this research.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.