How internal “Shark Tank” competitions drive organic innovation


Never can one underestimate the role of a competition for driving innovation. Surely it can and should happen organically. But anyone who’s been to a middle school science fair knows that bragging rights can produce some very impressive results.

This concept has not been lost on applying “Shark Tank”-style innovation competitions within the corporate world. Not only has the concept gained traction in many enterprises, but there is also a growth of fledgling businesses organizing the competitions to better simulate the TV series.

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, innovation typically loses steam, especially after a major initiative saps the energy of key internal innovation agents. So, the fact that there is an annual shark tank competition keeps some of the momentum of grass roots creativity going through what would normally be innovation hiatuses.

From an HR point of view, the beauty of these competitions is that many employees who may typically be disenfranchised in the innovation process are able to submit projects that had a positive effect on their niche of the company. This also permits workers in groups not typically known for innovation to be paired with mentors in the organization.

While many companies view these competitions as a way for employee teams to pitch business plans, I find some of the more interesting competitions focusing on grassroots innovation that has already occurred, whether by design or organically. They also need to be focused on salable innovation as opposed to a fantasy product that has only long-term implications.

One of my favorites is a competition sponsored by Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Innovation Hub, and one of the most original grassroots innovations was an application of Google Glass. Stephanie Shine is a nurse who wants to give patients the option to remotely participate in a newborn child’s care when the child is placed in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU), using the technology of Google Glass.

Shine’s idea was inspired by a personal story. Last year, she herself was a new mother separated for 18 hours from her baby, who at less than two pounds was in the NICU. Her stress was slightly relieved when her relatives brought Google Glass with them and let her see her baby even as she sat as a patient in another part of the hospital.

More interesting is that, in addition to the incubator value of these competitions, many CEOs see them as the ultimate way of listening to the employee. We’ve all been through employee appraisal sessions where the boss might ask, “What do you think I could do to improve the company?” but is really only willing to implement his or her own plan of action. During competitions, leaders are actually interested in learning from the employee. These exercises also identify hidden skills among employees and collaborative groups that would never surface without a team effort.

All of these innovation competitions hinge on a culture of trust coupled with an ongoing risk reward structure. Great pains must be taken not to make innovation the corporate equivalent of a “Hallmark holiday week” that only happens once a year with great fanfare.

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