Key to Successful Prize Competitions: Define Your Problem Statement

In a prize competition, failing to properly define your problem up front can result in lower participation and submissions that don’t actually solve your issue.

To create a challenge that produces viable results, start by doing your own homework. Vaguely defined problems invite less-than-desirable solutions or scare off potential entrants. So use all the data available or even collect new data to pinpoint the crux of the issue. Don’t run a competition for the sake of doing it. Competitions can be powerful tools to solve real problems facing your agency — if properly designed.

In some situations, you might find the solution is already in the hands of your agency, but had been scattered across departments or secluded in a silo you hadn’t tapped before. In that case, research may show that you may don’t need to run a challenge after all. Doing this research will save a lot of work you would have put into running a challenge, and that’s a great thing. Then, plan your challenge. The most important step is to think through your strategy.

Here’s one scenario to illustrate the importance of planning your challenge and taking the time to define the problem you’re trying to solve. Take the case of Company X, a fictitious orange juice manufacturer:

Company X is the sole orange juice manufacturer in a valley located in a state not known for its oranges. The type of orange the company juices, cultivar YZ, is found only in that valley. Company X finds that sales are good nationwide, but the directors want to increase profit without raising prices to remain competitive. The company brainstorms the following problem statements, which I’ve rated:

OK, but needs work: “Company X seeks solutions to increase profit”– This problem statement is ok as a starting point for brainstorming, but it’s overly broad and could seem too large a problem to many potential entrants. Those who do give it a shot might submit a far ranging set of solutions that are hard to judge and compare, such as marketing plans, business plans, farming models, technology, or other solutions.

Better: “Company X seeks a method for greater orange juice output” With this problem statement, the possible solutions begin to narrow, and solvers might submit ideas for farming techniques, efficient harvesting machines, or new methods to juice. Still, these solutions may not make a difference if the company doesn’t know what could create the most impact.

Best: “Company X has found the commercial juicers designed for other cultivars of orange are less effective on cultivar YZ oranges, due to a firmer flesh and different seed structure. The company seeks a design for a more efficient, cultivar YZ-specific juicing mechanism to maximize juice extracted per fruit” Here, the exact problem is defined, and information about the specifics of the solution are detailed. The best of the three statements, this challenge would provide Company X with the most accurate solutions and highest quality submissions.

By the time Company X arrived at the third statement, it would have had to invest time to do research with different stakeholders to really define the problem. But it’s easy to see how the company will get better results when the issue has been properly identified. And as this example shows, you may have to iterate your problem statement multiple times before you arrive at one that is concrete enough to attract the best solutions.

If you need help thinking through your problem statement and designing your challenge, get in touch with us at one of our weekly office hours or at For more information, visit the page.