Ideation Challenges

Nov 14, 2013

Tips for Conducting an Ideation Challenge

Examples of Ideation Challenges

Criteria for Choosing an Ideation Platform

Online Platforms and Tools

Challenge and prize competitions are one tool that federal agencies use to drive innovation and solve mission-centric problems—whether technical, scientific, or creative. One type of competition is ideation, which allows you to collect ideas from a wide and diverse population to solve a particular business problem. Ideas could include suggestions, approaches, plans, proposals, designs, or other proposed solutions in written, graphic, or video form.

This section provides tips on running an ideation challenge, resources, examples, and information about online platforms you can use to host your competition.


Ideation is the process of generating and developing new ideas to solve a problem or improve a product, process, or service. Public and private sector organizations commonly engage in ideation with the public or their customers. Challenge and prize competitions can gather ideas from the public, including experts, academics, students, and the private sector, on how to solve a problem. Sometimes the ideation phase is the first of several stages, where ideas are implemented in later phases, such as an apps or technology demonstration challenge.

Tips for Conducting an Ideation Challenge

  • Clearly define the problem: This is the most critical part of setting up any challenge. If you don’t clearly define the problem, it will be hard for people to engage and submit relevant ideas. For ideation, be sure to use plain language to ask the question you want people to answer.
  • Have clear evaluation criteria: This helps direct the participants and those who will evaluate and judge submissions throughout the process. The specific evaluation criteria should be outlined at the beginning of the competition to direct the focus of participant solutions. You should develop a clear plan for judging and evaluation during the competition planning.
  • Define policies, rules, and requirements: Identify the policies that your ideation challenge must comply with, such as privacy, Terms of Use, and the type of submissions allowed. Define the rules and requirements that entrants must comply with.
  • Identify success metrics up front: Don’t wait until your challenge is underway to figure out how you’ll measure the success of the challenge program. Develop a clear plan for this during the planning phase of your challenge. Evaluation metrics will depend on your challenge’s goal, but common metrics include: the number of submissions, the utility and relevance of solutions, level of community engagement, and the impact of solutions’ implementation on the public.
  • Determine platform type and capabilities: Think about the type of ideation platform you want based on the solutions you are seeking. You may want to have a more fluid ideation community in which ideas are submitted and other users can submit feedback to hone in on solutions. Or perhaps you want a platform to showcase ideas and have users rate their effectiveness. Any number of options exist for the submissions, judging, moderating, etc.
  • Plan competition communication strategy: Be prepared to invest staff time in reading and responding to competition entrants, especially in the few days leading up to the competition deadline. Updating the community frequently helps to engage the participants as part of the process. The more engagement you have with people, the better opportunity for solid and increasingly innovative results. In addition, this engagement can have long-lasting impact when you want to engage people for other initiatives.
  • Plan the judging process: It can vary depending on the overall goals of the challenge. For stronger community engagement, you might consider more peer-centered judging. To lend greater authority to the decision, you might want to have expert judges or internal representatives lead the judging process.
  • Include implementation plans: In order for people to participate in current and future efforts, you must invest time to provide feedback and actually implement winning ideas. After the challenge ends, let people know what you plan to do with the winning ideas.
  • Determine what prize will motivate solvers: Research shows that prizes or money are not always the primary motivator. While financial incentives can be important, people want to feel like they helped, made a difference, or improved something.
  • Allow citizens to form teams: Some solvers would rather do work in groups than tackle a problem alone. And if the idea wins, you could have a passionate group ready to implement.
  • How to manage public input: Develop a thick skin. Some people may use ideation challenges as an opportunity to vent, veer off topic, or give negative feedback to your agency. Don’t take it personally. Have a moderation policy in place, a plan for responding (as needed) and focus on all the good ideas you are getting.

Examples of Ideation Challenges

FTC Robocall Challenge

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asked innovators to create solutions to block illegal robocalls, on landline or mobile phones, and on a proprietary or non-proprietary device or platform. Entries were proposed technical solutions, functional solutions and proofs of concept.

USPTO Patents for Humanity

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office asked inventors to describe how they addressed humanitarian needs with their patented technology. Winners were awarded prizes for innovation in medicine, food and nutrition, and clean tech.

NEI Audacious Goals in Eye Research

Competitors submitted ideas to drive innovation in vision research. Winners presented their ideas to 200 researchers and experts working to develop a set of goals and priorities for the National Eye Institute.

BREAD Ideas Challenge

The National Science Foundation asked researchers what they think are the most pressing issues facing small farms in the developing world.

MyMoneyAppUp IdeaBank Challenge

The Treasury Department asked the public what apps would help them better manage their money. More than 300 ideas were submitted. In phase 2 of the competition, Treasury challenged developers to build the apps. This is an example of a two-part challenge, where an ideation-style challenge is used to generate ideas on the most pressing problems to solve, followed by another challenge where people develop the solutions.

Accessible Voting Open Innovation Challenge

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission collected ideas on how to make voting easier for people with disabilities, difficulties with language or reading, or limited mobility.

Criteria for Choosing an Ideation Platform

There are a range of ideation platforms available to federal agencies—online websites that provide the functionality to promote, administer, and judge ideation challenges. Here are some criteria for choosing an ideation platform.


  • Does this tool have (or has it had) any federal government clients?
  • Is the tool 508 compliant for accessibility?
  • Does this tool have a specialized audience you would like to access/reach?
  • How much does it cost per challenge? For an enterprise license? Is a free trial available?


Can citizens:

  • Easily create an account with an email address?
  • Submit their idea in a text box/field with a large character count?
  • Upload a file with their idea?
  • Vote on other people’s ideas, perhaps with an “up” or “down rating? Comment or vote on ideas?
  • Link out from their idea to documents, PDFs, images, videos, photos?
  • Share the challenge or their idea with friends and family via social media, like Twitter and Facebook?
  • Receive email updates on the challenge?

Can federal agencies:

  • Brand the challenge with agency seal, photos, video, etc.?
  • Keep submissions private, make them all public, or a mix of the two?
  • Easily receive and answer questions from entrants?
  • Conduct judging online, or easily download submissions?
  • Offer a prize at the end for best idea and publicize the winners?

Online Platforms and Tools

The following list of tools and challenge platforms is provided as a resource and is not an endorsement for any company or technology. Those companies that are on the GSA Schedule 541-4G for Challenges & Competition Services are noted with (GS) next to the company name. Those that have a federal-compatible Terms of Service are noted with a (ToS) next to the company name.

BrightIdea is a 15 year old company that focuses on internal innovation at large organizations. Clients include SAP, GE and Cisco. SAP is collecting ideas from 2 million of its customers, and GE Ecomagination has invested $137,000,000 in ideas that have come out of their internal challenges. BrightIdea uses a unique reputation points system, where participants can earn 3 points for an idea, 2 for a vote on an idea, and 1 for a comment on an idea.

Delib Dialogue App (ToS)
Delib is a digital democracy company. Their Dialogue App product has allowed several government clients to surface ideas from the public:, the UK, and the Department of Homeland Security for their Quadrennial Security Review. Solvers submit their ideas into an unlimited character text box, and can link to documents, images, videos, and photos to augment their submission. This product is 508 compliant, has a federal-compatible Terms of Service agreement, and free trials are available.

GSA Ideation Platform
This is a no-cost, online tool for federal agencies to run ideation crowdsourcing competitions. The team built this ideation tool on the platform and launched it in February 2014. Watch the on-demand webinar to learn how to use Contact for more information.

Hype Innovation
Hype helps you manage innovation from beginning to end. In the first phase, you collect, score, rank and prioritize ideas. In the second phase, ideas are converted into projects that are implemented and tracked to help companies generate revenue and reduce costs. They have 150 customers around the globe, and work in a variety of industries.

IdeaScale (ToS)
IdeaScale is a tool that promotes civic engagement. They have been working with the government since 2008, and have over 30 past and current federal customers, such as Education, HHS, Labor, Social Security, DOT and the President’s SAVE Award. One IdeaScale challenge generated 400 ideas from 3,000 participants in 1 month. NASA used IdeaScale to get ideas about redesigning their website, and VA used the site for an employee innovation competition. IdeaScale’s platform is 508 compliant.

Imaginatik has been used for internal and external innovation by clients like Kellogg’s and the World Bank. Ideas are collected on the platform, and reviewed against the criteria with a scorecard. Teaming, commenting and voting are encouraged. There is flexibility for phased rollouts, and gathering ideas from different audiences. For example, Kellogg’s used Imaginatik to get ideas from inventors and the public at the same time. Ideas can be archived, for later consideration.

InnoCentive (GS)
InnoCentive has run over 1,600 challenges. Government clients include NASA, the State Department, DoD, EPA, the Air Force Research Lab and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Challenges can be purchased a la carte, or in bundles. InnoCentive posts the challenge, answers questions from solvers, transfers prize money to winners, and messages all who are registered on the site about each new challenge.

MindSumo is a platform where corporations crowdsource their problems to young professionals, recent grads., PhDs, grad. students, and undergrads. The result is creative, outside the box thinking. Quarterly and yearly subscriptions are available. Some MindSumo solvers have landed internships and jobs, in addition to cash prizes.

OpenIdeo depends strongly on public participation to drive innovation. Each challenge starts with an “inspirations” phase that encourages the sharing of stories, case studies, and examples of the issue that needs solution. The challenge then progresses to refinement and evaluation by challenge sponsors. The result of this highly collaborative effort is strong community-based thinking, engagement and real-life applicable solutions.

Based in Ottawa, PubliVate focuses on crowdsourcing and innovation management. Their Idea Tournament tool could be used to run a challenge. PubliVate provides not just a platform, but also will work with organizations on a plan for what to do with the ideas that are generated.

Screendoor, built by former Presidential Innovation Fellows, can be used to conduct challenge and prize competitions. It allows you to accept and review submissions, and receive and respond to questions from participants. One innovative feature that sets Screendoor apart is the ability to build customized challenge submission forms.

Skild is a platform that works closely with its clients to develop personalized ideation software to fit sponsors’ needs. Skild has run many ideation challenges over the past 10 years, with clients including AT&T, GE, Canada Health Infoway, and General Motors. The AT&T and GE challenges’ winning student team leaders were hired and fast tracked into leadership programs as a result of their work. In the GMAC challenge, students were asked for ideas and the Top 20 were turned into curriculum for which GMAC awarded $7.5+ million to universities around the world to pilot the curriculum.

Spigit is an enterprise innovation management solution, where customers and employees can help businesses solve problems. For example, Walmart challenged 25,000 of their employees to come up with ideas to make their stores more energy efficient. This 7 day challenge resulted in a winning idea that is saving the company $1.8 million a year. Spigit sets up challenges from inception to challenge launch in 6 to 8 weeks. Spigit prides itself on careful evaluation of ideas, based on financial viability and other factors.

UserVoice (ToS)
UserVoice allows you to create a feedback forum, which could function as an ideation where a prize is given for the best idea. Current and past clients include many corporations, city governments, the White House, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Department of Energy, HHS, and Social Security.

If you are a vendor in the ideation space and would like to be included in this list, contact Karen Trebon at