Integral Strategy Network works with organizations and communities facing wicked problems where collective action is needed. Tackling a challenge together increases collaboration — focusing the efforts of diverse stakeholders and creating a strong sense of shared purpose. Audacious challenges inspire people to think bigger, and often result in breakthrough innovations. Challenges are a proven way to make progress on seemingly intractable issues.
Challenge raises our aspirations and encourages ingenuity in a way that makes seemingly impossible goals achievable. It can move an organization, a community, or a nation. It can even change the world.
The Longitude Prize
In the 1700s, latitude was calculated in the northern hemisphere by measuring the position of the North Star relative to the horizon. In the southern hemisphere the position of the sun was used instead, with adjustments for the season. There was no comparable way to determine longitude. Ships fixed their location by estimating their speed and direction. Cumulative errors made it impossible to know exactly where a ship was or how much time was left in its journey.
Soon after taking the throne in 1598, Phillip III of Spain offered a pension, a life annuity and a cash prize for a solution to the longitude problem. In the following century, the Dutch, French and British announced their own rewards. A British Act of Parliament created a prize of £20,000 in 1714 (equivalent to millions of dollars today) to determine longitude within a single degree. (David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, 1998)
Many of the world’s greatest scientific and mathematical minds responded to the challenge, but it was a carpenter and self-taught clockmaker who solved the problem. John Harrison proposed a marine chronometer that could accurately keep time, so the difference in local time between two points on the Earth’s surface and the difference in longitude could be calculated.
Harrison spent six years building a working model that was tested at sea in 1736. He spent many more years perfecting it, making refinements until he was seventy-seven years old. Harrison received incremental payments of £23,065 for his work, but never received the official award. The Board of Longitude never awarded the prize, but he was recognized in an Act of Parliament in June 1773. The marine chronometer was universally adopted, increasing safety at sea, and opening up global exploration and trade.
We Choose to Go to the Moon
On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 40,000 people at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, about the decision to land a man on the moon.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
This was to be the largest government-directed peacetime engineering project in U.S. history. “It will be done by the end of this decade,” Kennedy said. And on July 20, 1969 – seven years after his speech in Houston –Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon’s surface. The Apollo program required breakthroughs in materials, technologies and systems, and new ways of organizing were developed to manage its unprecedented complexity.
The X PRIZE and Singularity University
Taking inspiration from the Orteig Prize, American visionary and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis established the X PRIZE Foundation in 1995, hoping to kick-start a commercial space industry. In 1996, the Foundation offered a $10-million prize to develop a privately-financed three-passenger vehicle that could fly 100 kilometers into space twice in two weeks. This was later called the Ansari X PRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight. Twenty-six teams from seven countries invested more than $100 million, and the prize was won by SpaceShipOne on October 4, 2004. The X PRIZE Foundation later launched successful challenges in many other domains.
“Besides being a way to raise the profile of key issues and rapidly address logjams,” Diamandis says, reflecting on the X PRIZE experience in his book Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think (2012), “another key attribute of incentive prizes is their ability to cast a wide net. Everyone from novices to professionals, from sole proprietors to massive corporations, gets involved. Experts in one field jump to another, bringing with them an influx of nontraditional ideas.”
Increased appetite for risk drives innovation, and Diamandis says “competitions inspire hundreds of different technical approaches, which means they don’t just give birth to a single-point solution but rather to an entire industry.” Drawing on the challenge model, he founded Singularity University with Ray Kurzweil in Silicon Valley in 2008. The university’s Global Solutions Program trains students from around the world to learn first-hand about exponentially advancing technologies and propose projects that will have a positive effect on the lives of at least one billion people within 10 years.
Pursuing challenges can drive organizations to new heights. Google X (now an Alphabet division known as X) is the Internet giant’s top-secret innovation lab. It works on big problems with attainable and radical solutions, creating breakthrough technologies. Engineers are working on space elevators, robots, autonomous drones, and self-driving cars. Its head, Astro Teller, has the title ‘Captain of Moonshots.’ The goal is not 10 percent change, but 10 times improvements – an order of magnitude increase in expected returns.
Quoted by Peter Diamandis in BOLD: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World (2015), Teller says, “if you choose to make something 10 percent better, you are almost by definition signing up for the status quo… But if you sign up for moonshot thinking, if you sign up to make something 10x better, there is no chance of doing that with existing assumptions. You’re going to have to throw out the rule book. You’re going to have to perspective-shift and supplant all that smartness and resources with bravery and creativity.”
First conceived by American pharmaceutical company Eli Lily, in 1998, Innocentive harnessed the power of the internet to find solutions to business challenges. The website posted challenges online, and matched ‘seekers’ with ‘solvers.’ As in the challenges of old, solvers competed for cash prizes. The project was quickly spun off as an independent company.
Innocentive provides access to a long tail of problem-solving capability that far exceeds the number of experts employed by a seeker firm and others in its industry. Innocentive connects with a much broader community of potential problem solvers that now includes more than 380,000 people from nearly 200 countries. Two-thirds of them hold a Ph.D. Innocentive solvers have been able to find solutions to problems in months or days that seekers have been unable to resolve for decades or years. The solutions often came from unexpected places.
In their book The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise (2011), Innocentive founders Alpheus Bingham and Dwayne Spradlin describe challenges as “an astonishingly powerful and uniquely effective tool for focusing the energies of multitudes of creative, inventive, talented audiences on the important problems facing organizations, nations and the planet on which we live.”
The authors describe the vision of a Challenge Driven Enterprise, “where the most difficult problems can be solved, effort is aligned with strategic goals, all talent inside and outside of the organization is brought to bear to deliver on the mission, and sustained performance improvement is possible.” The ability to tackle challenges with collective ingenuity will decide how the next century unfolds. The best way to predict the future is to create it.
This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on complexity, collaboration, and the challenges of transformative change. It was first posted on March 13, 2018, on LinkedIn.