How to run a great open innovation competition? Our advice is to SCAMPER

Global Knowledge Initiative
5 min readJun 29, 2023

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Written by Global Knowledge Initiative’s Accelerating Innovation for Resilience Pilot Program Team

If you work in innovation, you probably know the acronym SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, and Reverse). SCAMPER is an ideation method that invites innovators to take a product or solution and turn it on its head. You can throw out ideas about how things are done currently and consider what might happen if you tried very different approaches.

At GKI, we turned the tool on ourselves to think about how we might run future competitions based on lessons we’re learning from our current programs. What should we substitute? What should we reverse? What should we add? The SCAMPER methodology is not intended to take ideas directly from brainstorming to execution. They probably need refinement! And some may not be very good. Instead, they help us ask, what if? SCAMPERing opens us to new possibilities.

Substitute: What would happen if we substituted short-term advisors and judges for longer-term coaches and relationship-building?

Most innovation competitions rely on rapid feedback from external advisors and judges. The results are often mixed. Very few innovators in global development benefit from a “shark tank” style interrogation of their solutions. Even the kindest contributors may struggle to offer relevant insights in a short engagement. Rather than recruit high-profile participants as judges or for rapid-fire “advisory” sessions, bring on coaches or mentors who will support teams for the entirety of the program. Focus on one or two key relationships or partnerships that the team must have to be successful and put effort into building those connections over time. Instead of expert advisors, why not bring in people impacted by the problem to provide feedback? Instead of relying on external judges, consider alternatives such as having participants choose the winner amongst themselves or leverage previous challenge winners as judges and advisors.

Combine: Would we have more impact if we asked teams to combine efforts instead of competing with each other?

No matter how brilliant the solution is, one organization alone is unlikely to effect change for complex problems. Instead of individual prizes, use group prizes. Find clever ways to incentivize collaboration. Encourage consortiums to form around systemic problems and open space for more integrated, creative solutions. Use competitions and prizes to break down barriers and bring groups together that have no incentive to collaborate otherwise.

Adapt: What would change if we adapted to the needs of innovators rather than having them work off of our timetable?

Innovation competitions typically have much shorter time frames than traditional projects. Sustainable impact takes time, however. Concurrently, these competitions often come with capacity-building goals for the participants or relationship-building goals, which again take time. Yet, we know that the time-bound nature of competitions can help innovators progress more rapidly. How do we use time effectively in competitions?

Competition participants run their organizations daily — so fitting into these programs can be challenging for staff and resourcing. We know that time to participate in intense programs and competitions is a barrier for local organizations and women-led startups. Therefore, more space could help significantly. Creating more time-bound micro goals and incentives spread over a longer period could significantly improve learning, increase participation, and lead to better solutions and outcomes.

Magnify: How might we amplify the aspects of innovation competitions that spark interest and excitement?

It’s easy to be cynical about the impact of short-term interventions like innovation competitions. However, there are elements of innovation competitions that participants love. They focus the attention of the innovation community on specific challenges and goals, which can act as a lever for systemic change. They offer a significantly lower barrier to entry than traditional funding mechanisms and bring attention and credibility to new organizations. They generate excitement, commitment, and community by creating short-term, transparent, and easy-to-understand goals. Rather than having unrealistic expectations for what innovation competitions can achieve around the scaling of solutions, how might these positive elements be magnified to drive value?

What if, instead of a traditional pitch, the competition filmed “commercials” that organizations could use in their communications strategies? What if participation could double as a path to vetting or certifying participants as preferred partners for donors or investors? What if, instead of asking participants to compete, we offer awards to honor innovators in the community?

Put to Another Use: What if instead of giving prizes for solutions, we used competitions to reward learning and growth?

Open competitions are often combined with accelerator or incubator programs; one of their stated purposes is building innovation capacity. While we know many solutions will fail, there is a lasting impact in building the skills of innovators that will last long after the competition is over. What if we doubled down on learning and capacity building as the point of the program? What if we awarded prizes to the teams who showed the most progress? Teams that took a big risk, but had the biggest learning curve? Teams who won at lean startup bingo? (Ok, maybe not that last one).

Eliminate: What would a competition look like that eliminated… the competition?

Good innovation programs create connection and community. How does the traditional competition format help or hinder that? What if we eliminated competition between solutions? What if, instead, innovation competitions were more like video games and teams worked together with a shared objective? What if participants competed to unlock funds along the way as they cleared certain challenges? What if there were shiny bonus coins to be won for solving other teams’ problems or making connections for them?

Reverse: Instead of starting with a pitch about the solution, what if innovators apply with a problem to solve?

Many social innovators face similar challenges, especially if they work in the same sector or geography. What if we asked innovators to apply with a barrier their organization has that they’d like to try to solve rather than pitch an idea or a solution? Fund them to collaborate with others from the innovation ecosystem where there is shared energy rather than pitch ideas against others. By focusing on shared problems, competitions could broker partnerships and collaborations to do true co-design for more complex challenges.

Final idea: What if we made donors compete with each other to fund the best solutions? Of course, this goes against real-world supply and demand, but it would be a lot of fun!

When we open ourselves to idea generation, not all ideas will be winners. We do hope, though, that something on this list inspires you to iterate your next innovation competition.

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Global Knowledge Initiative

Our mission is to activate collaborative networks globally to deliver innovative solutions that build more resilient systems.