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Design the Challenge Structure

Design the Challenge Structure

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In this phase you'll determine the challenge structure and implementation timeline. During this critical step, you'll work with internal groups to establish eligibility and submission requirements, terms and conditions, and judging criteria. You'll connect with your communications team to outline your announcement and ongoing outreach strategy to engage potential solvers.

Other Phases

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Design the Challenge Structure

Once you have defined the problem, researched the state of innovation and established desired outcomes, it's time to create the challenge structure. The term "challenge structure" refers to the design for the overall process, elements and timeline of the project.

You'll make several design choices when finalizing the structure to help you achieve goals and outcomes you defined for your challenge. Challenge design is exciting, because you can use myriad approaches and structures to arrive at your desired outcomes.

In some cases, you can conduct your challenge in stages to achieve iterative and incremental innovation and to target different solver populations. Alternatively, you can design your challenge with one competition phase in mind.

You also have choices when it comes to offering incentives to participants. In addition to prize money, you should determine what other incentives would be most valuable to innovators. Non-monetary Incentives could include access to testing facilities, time with influential experts, advanced market commitments and services such as business incubation and acceleration assistance.

So, yes, you have to consider a number of questions when structuring your challenge:

  • What's the timeline for the challenge?
  • What are the competition phases? Is it just an ideation? Do you want to have demonstration or pilot phase?
  • What incentives and support will you offer to participants? What are the monetary and non-monetary incentives? Will you make bulk payments or milestone payments?
  • What's the setting for the competition? Is it totally virtual? Will it be head-to-head in person? Will you have a staggered performance competition?
  • What's the award structure? Will there be a single winner? Will you make multiple awards across different categories?
  • What are the performance requirements for submissions?

As you can see, there's a lot to think about in terms of structure. Also, always consider the challenge type and desired outcomes to get the best possible solutions from your participants.

Key Takeaways

1. Key considerations for your challenge structure.

Deciding how to structure your challenge is integral to the design process and ultimate success of your challenge. Some challenges can be implemented with a simple approach, and others require more structure. A challenge aimed at developing new technology may require the use of multiple milestones or phases to guide participants toward desired outcomes.

For a more complex competition, the milestones and phases should divide the overall goal of the challenge into smaller parts, each with a clearly defined outcome, deliverable or evaluation criteria that will lead participants to a successful solution.

Here are some things to consider when designing your milestones and phases:

  • Is there a way to divide your challenge to align with the solution development process? If you're asking for prototypes, you can align your challenge with the traditional prototype development process with a design, implementation and final testing and evaluation phase.
  • If your solution requirements allow for a wide range of possibilities, it may make sense to start with an ideation phase in which participants submit their proposed solutions for evaluation before implementing them. This allows you to weed out unsuitable ideas early and saves time and resources. It also removes a potential barrier to participants, allowing them to have their ideas validated before putting an extraordinary amount of time and work into their submissions.
  • Should you use one round of judging or multiple rounds? Consider whether different judging panels are needed for different rounds (e.g., technical experts to assess technical feasibility and policy experts to assess legal practicality). Also, consider where you need different evaluation criteria at different points in the challenge.
  • How much guidance will you give the participants to develop solutions in line with the goals of the challenge? When should you provide this guidance and how will you do it? For instance, will participants need to work with a technical mentor or specialized equipment during the challenge? If so, you might tie these resources to a specific phase so they are used efficiently.

You can also use a contractor or a facilitator that can help your team discuss, design and implement the challenge. GSA maintains a list of competition and challenge services providers.

2. Integrate incentives into the challenge structure.

Once you have an idea of the challenge structure, make sure each part has appropriate incentives that drive sustained participation and achievement. One option is to offer monetary awards (as authorized by the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act and other legal authorities) for results at any of the challenge milestones. Cash prizes are a great way to motivate participants, but they require careful consideration. A legal authority may come with stipulations, such as whether participants must be U.S. citizens. You'll need to account for prize amounts in the challenge budget and determine the process for paying the participants.

You can also use non-monetary incentives to encourage participation. Review the Key Takeaways in Step 4.3 (Awarding Non-monetary Incentives) for ideas and best practices.

Consider your audience and your desired outcomes when deciding how best to incentivize participants. For example, providing a trip to present their results to your agency leadership may be a great incentive for K-12 and university students. However, startups and small businesses may be more motivated by access to government resources and expertise.

For monetary awards, make sure the size of the award matches the amount of effort, resources and expertise required of participants. If you're asking participants to design a logo, you can offer a smaller prize amount. If you're asking them to design a self-driving car, you may need millions of dollars for them to justify their participation. Review the case studies in this toolkit or the listing of all federal challenges on Challenge.gov to see a range of prize amounts offered.

Agencies often run challenges to engage innovators that don't typically apply for government funds. Because a challenge lets an agency pay only for a successful solution, the research-and-development cost and risk shifts almost entirely to the innovator. The incentive piece of a challenge often limits participation to those who can afford the risk of not winning. Aim to create a fair, balanced incentive arrangement that doesn't exploit the innovator. You can accomplish this through a phased approach that provides seed funds as the competitors advance through the competition. This also sets up natural points in the challenge for generating publicity as you communicate the results of each phase.

You can also conduct a "needs assessment" to determine what types of non-monetary incentives will most benefit your solvers. Here are some broad categories of valuable non-monetary incentives:

  • Strategy and business model: Identify and connect innovators with appropriate business experts to design flexible business models capable of attracting financing and steering growth. Work with innovators to identify potential pathways to growth. Help them set and achieve scale goals and define an implementation approach.
  • Organizational support: Help innovators attract and retain the right people for the job. This can include on-the-job training that covers management, financial and professional development topics.
  • Access to experts and specialists: Provide access to relevant experts and mentors in technical, geographic or cultural areas.
  • Prototyping, testing, iterating, refining: Provide access to potential users and focus groups. Identify feedback loops in the design process and emphasize improved measurement and evaluation to inform the next iteration of the innovation.
  • End-user expertise: Provide funding for an innovator to gather data on end users. This can include community adaptation and integration, market research, user-centered design, product/service integration, maintenance and training.
  • Logistics, production, supply chain, distribution: Encourage an innovator to gather data on the distribution, supply chain, local/non-local manufacturing, tariffs and last-mile areas of their solutions.
  • Access to finance: Identify opportunities for additional funding (e.g., investment, grants, donations, revenue). This could include evaluation experts to help make the case for the potential impact of a solution.
  • PR, branding, marketing: Encourage an innovator to make use of communications experts, PR opportunities, media training, storytelling and marketing to drive demand and increase visibility.

3. Develop the challenge timeline.

Determine when to begin the challenge, how much time you need to allot for it and specific deliverable due dates.

Provide enough time for participants to develop a solution, especially for challenges that require extensive research or the development of software and hardware prototypes. Challenges typically allow between two and six months for these types of activities. Also, allocate enough time to evaluate the solutions and choose a winner. This could take a few hours if you convene a panel of judges in person to evaluate all the solutions, or it could take place over the course of several months.

When determining dates for your challenge, take into account time constraints your target audience may have. If you want to attract university students, think about beginning the challenge early in either the spring or fall semester and avoid scheduling milestone deadlines around exam season. If your challenge is for middle school students, it's probably better to launch it in the fall and allow for submissions over the summer.

When you're ready to make awards, look for ways to sync up with another agency event or date of significance to the challenge topic. For example, the Desal Prize announced winners on Earth Day to generate media exposure for the innovators and to maximize social outreach regarding the need for energy-efficient water technologies.

Don't forget about your own constraints related to funding. Will the budget you're planning to use expire during this fiscal year? After two years? Can your agency convert money allocated for prizes to "no-year" dollars? Can you extend the funding for the challenge by obligating the money through a contractor that can support the implementation of a challenge? Agencies running multi-year challenges often go through a contractor so the funds are obligated and remain available for several years.

Finally, include ample time for internal review and clearances, as well as any agreements or contracts you need to put in place.

4. Structure your challenge to enable the acquisition of winning solutions.

Your agency may want to procure solutions that result from a challenge. If so, consult early with your acquisition office. You may have to adjust the structure of your challenge to align it with the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). Small changes to your structure at this point can create a smooth path to acquire winning solutions in the future.

If this is one of your goals, there's a lot to consider and discuss with your acquisition office.

Leverage full and open competition: Stipulate in submission requirements and terms and conditions that results of the challenge may be considered part of the proposal and a major factor in a subsequent contract award evaluation. Determine ahead of time what information must be provided as part of the solution that will be necessary for the follow-on acquisition process. Think of the challenge results as an oral presentation that could be used to substitute for or augment a proposal for a follow-on acquisition.

Integrate challenge participation into past performance evaluations: Think about additional information you may need from solvers so you can use challenge outcomes as a source of past performance. You'll need this information to establish the relevance and currency of the solver to meet the specified need and "ability to perform" requirements of a follow-on acquisition.

Negotiate government purpose rights to intellectual property as part of the challenge terms and conditions.

Still have questions?

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Case Studies