In Business Week’s Innovation supplement dated November 20, Steve LeVine offers a summary of innovation prizes for everything from space travel and hydrogen-fueled vehicles to faster airport checkpoints. Citing Peter Diamandis, who sponsored the X prize and now heads other incentive efforts, he highlights the virtues of these prizes (it worked to measure longitude, begin the canning industry, and create a chess-winning computer program) and the problems (doesn’t work all that well for big challenges where lots of money has already been spent.)
So what does motivate people to solve the insoluble? The answer, of course, is as different as the people who create the breakthroughs. The first element, of course, is the natural curiosity that is inherent in the human brain—everybody has some of it, although some people seem to be born with characters that are more open to novelty and exploration.
The second element, as Malcolm Gladwell notes in his new Outliers, is just plain practice. People who put in 10,000 hours of practicing anything tend to be pretty good at it. As he also notes, the third element is circumstance. If you are in the right place at the right time with the right skills and character and the right contacts plus the right idea, you might be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
The fourth element, however, just might be those prizes. For the thirty years I spent in advertising and marketing, I knew that the best motivators for creative people to do their most original and effective work were little plexiglass trophies. In fact, in advertising, there’s a whole industry devoted to delivering awards and their attendant publications and black-tie dinners.
Why are those prizes so effective? I suspect that the admiration of your peers is a very powerful incentive—it speaks to social networks and the pecking order, not to mention the desire for fame in a media-driven world. The multi-million dollar sums that go with the prizes are nice, but I think they help rationalize the thousands of hours and millions of dollars inventors spend to win them.
Would a prize help to speed up the breakthroughs you’d like to see in your industry or the world at large? The answer, according to LeVine is a solid “it depends”.
To read more: Can X Prizes Spur Innovation? ; Pop!Tech Gives Social Innovators a Boost; Ford's Green Plan to Drive Sales