The InnoCentive Insider: "Strange" Challenges

Posted by Connie French on Apr 7, 2009 8:07:01 AM

Imagine that you invited a contractor to your house and asked him to paint a wall in your dining room blue.  The contractor arrives, looks at the wall and says: "No way, you should paint it pink."  He thinks for a moment and adds: "Actually, you don't need this wall at all.  Tear it down!"  He then looks around and suggests: "Better yet, sell this house and buy a new one."

Sounds strange, doesn't it?  Well...a couple of months ago, I posted a Challenge for a Seeker who was making a product from Material A.  In order to improve the quality of this product, the Seeker wanted to replace Material A with another material.  A good number of proposals had been submitted in response.  Some Solvers argued that Material B could do the job; some Solvers pointed to Material C; some Solvers suggested taking a careful look at Material D.

But there was one Solver who claimed that there was no need to replace Material A in the first place, because the Seeker would be better off with throwing away his product and replacing it with the product that the Solver had proposed.  When I tried to argue that the Challenge was about a new material and not a new product, the Solver insisted that his solution was of "out-of-the-box" type.  The Solver has also politely intimated that, perhaps, the Seeker simply didn't know "what he needs."

I have to admit that this wasn't the first time in my practice that Solvers implied that a Seeker didn't know "what he needs."  So, let me speak a few words in defense of our Seekers.   

Leaving aside InnoCentive's not-for-profit Seekers, a "typical" InnoCentive client is a large, successful, commercial enterprise employing hundreds of highly skilled and experienced scientists and engineers.  This enterprise has also a huge marketing department (with a multi-million dollar budget).  So, when it comes to posting a Challenge, the Seeker usually has a very clear understanding of what he "needs."  (Besides, let me tell you a little secret: posting Challenges at InnoCentive isn't free.  Every time the Seeker wants to post, he has to go through a rigorous budget approval process with management.  Challenges that no one "needs" have practically zero chance of reaching our website).

I suspect that in the case of Material A, the Seeker was aware of extensive marketing studies showing that consumers were generally pretty happy with this particular product, but wanted some improvements, improvements that could be achieved by replacing Material A with some other material.  In addition, replacing one material with another is one thing; replacing the whole manufacturing process to run a new product - in the midst of economic recession! - is another.

I agree that some InnoCentive Challenges may look "strange."  But I would argue that there is always a reason why the Seeker decided to post a "strange" Challenge.

Back to Material A.  A Seeker posts a Challenge asking to replace environmentally "unfriendly" Material A with something "green", but adds: "Material B won't be accepted."  "Why?" many Solvers would immediately ask.  Why does the Seeker reject Material B, which is much better - and a thousand times "greener" -- than Material A? (Does the Seeker really understand "what he needs"?).

The answer is simple: Material B is patented by the Seeker's sworn competitor.  As much as he loves Material B, the Seeker cannot use it.  He needs something else.  Anything else.  But not Material B.

Strange" challenges come in different shapes and flavors.  My personal favorite is a Challenge "that has no solution."  "This Challenge has no solution", write several angry Solvers, "what's the point of posting it?"

I know that the Challenge has no solution.  And so does the Seeker, but he or she still posts it -- just to make sure that no new revolutionary technology has appeared in the past few years that would pave the way to a possible solution.  No solutions this time?  All right, let's wait for another couple of years.

A Seeker working for one of our oldest clients told me a story.  Many years ago, he designed a synthetic process, which he's been trying, to no avail, to optimize.  His boss never missed an opportunity to remind the Seeker about the "shortcomings" of his process.  The Seeker then posted a Challenge to InnoCentive asking Solvers to come up with an improved design of the process.  He received a few dozens of submissions, but none was even close to providing the efficiency of the original process.  The Seeker's original design was unbeatable!  He collected all the submissions, entered his boss' office and dropped the whole package on his table.  His boss has never raised this topic again.

So, next time you see a "strange" Challenge, don't rush to criticize the Seeker.  Open a project room and give the problem some thought.  However fulfilling solving a "normal" Challenge might be, nothing can be compared with the intellectual excitement of solving a "strange" Challenge.  Want to try?

By the way, what is the color of the walls in your project room?  Paint them blue!

Eugene Ivanov
Innovation Program Manager, InnoCentive

Topics: Challenges

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