In this phase you'll begin to think through the problem you're trying to solve, estimate the necessary resources and consider partnerships within and outside government. This will help identify goals and desired outcomes and determine if a challenge is the appropriate tool for achieving results.
Determine if a Challenge Is Appropriate
When defining a problem, it's important to assess if a challenge is the best or only approach for achieving the desired outcomes. A challenge is only one way agencies can entice innovators to take risks and invest resources to potentially secure a future benefit such as a cash award, recognition or advanced market commitment. Likewise, a challenge is only one possible intervention that could help address challenges through market shaping and facilitation.
Depending on the nature of the problem and anticipated outcomes, a challenge might not be the best intervention. You can support new market activity through either "push" or "pull" approaches. When you push, you pay for research inputs. When you pull, you pay for research outcomes.
Push mechanisms typically aim to reduce the cost of research and development by directly funding research. Traditional push mechanisms such as contracts or grants are most appropriate if a solution is obvious or additional research is needed.
Pull mechanisms are structured to incentivize private sector engagement and competition by creating viable market demand for specific products. If you can be flexible about how to solve your problem, it may help to pursue a mechanism that can be customized and achieve a number of different outcomes. Keep in mind that you can combine a challenge with another vehicle to achieve certain goals and outcomes.
Consider who might enter the competition and present innovative and creative solutions. A challenge provides a way to reach solvers who aren't engaged through grants and contracts. How will you reach them? What would they bring to the problem that other methods don't? Will the targeted solvers have the time, funding, facilities and other resources to compete?
A challenge shifts some risks to solvers, most of whom won't win. Be thoughtful and creative in what incentives your challenge offers. Even large prize amounts may not be enough if solvers can't enter or don't want to take on the risk without additional support.
A challenge isn't just a different way to address a problem. It works best when traditional methods aren't providing sufficient incentive or direction or when a new perspective is needed. But a challenge is unlikely to produce a better outcome if your problem can be solved by a grant, contract, interagency agreement or other traditional method.
You can be flexible in many of the steps when designing your prize and challenge. Still, you need to consider a few things to determine if a problem is "prizable."
- Can you clearly define and explain the problem you want to solve? Have you identified key issues that can be addressed by a challenge? If you can't be precise in defining the problem, it will be difficult to develop a challenge that can effectively solve it.
- Can you describe what a successful outcome should look like? Can you explain it clearly to potential solvers?
- Can you identify experts from other disciplines that you want to participate in your challenge? Can you provide sufficient incentives (prize money and others) to convince them to participate?
- Is there a way to measure and judge the winners? The evaluation doesn't have to be quantitative, but you should be able to define a way to select the winners.
A challenge is often seen as a faster process than traditional grants, but that's not always the case, especially when you factor in the time required to develop and approve the challenge.
Challenges also may change the order of certain processes. Funding for more traditional acquisition is generally provided up front before work is done. Although prize funds may need to be committed up front, awards are made to participants after work is completed.
A challenge approach has many advantages, and it allows you to engage a more diverse set of solvers. Identify the aspects of this approach that best address your problem so you can apply them in other activities. If you decide a challenge isn't the best method, you may be able to incorporate some of those elements into the approach you do take. For example, you can use communications strategies common to challenges to reach a broader group of problem-solvers for a variety of projects.
Consider other Mechanisms such as challenge-based acquisition. In some cases, you and your contracting office may determine that a challenge is inappropriate. For example, if you intend to purchase production units or lifecycle support for a solution under the umbrella of a single acquisition effort, then a challenge may not be the best approach. Challenge-based acquisition takes the challenge concept a step further by making it part of the procurement process. It brings the innovation opportunity of a challenge into the procurement framework of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR).
If procurement is one of your goals, you should assess if a challenge is sufficient for your needs or if the use of a challenge-based acquisition or other FAR-based procurement approach is more appropriate.