What Business Leaders Can Learn From the Military’s Approach to Contests

In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense that was instrumental in the development of the internet, sponsored the DARPA Grand Challenge. What was the DARPA Grand Challenge? A competition for designing an autonomous car. The prize was $1 million.

The Military Approach to Innovation

Interestingly enough, the DARPA Grand Challenge was open to everyone. As a recent Slate podcast notes, teams from major research universities like Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford competed, but so did groups who essentially nominated themselves, like an interviewed group of co-workers who enjoyed brainstorming possibilities around the office cafeteria tables.


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As Slate points out, self-driving cars seemed very futuristic 14 years ago, and indeed some of the entries were described as “dune buggies with sensors.” Some inventors were akin to the garage tinkers who ultimately made significant strides in digital innovation.

But the fact is, the interest fueled by the competition led to some workable ideas fueling the autonomous car, which, while not fully with us yet, is clearly in the workable prototype stage and likely coming soon to roadways near us. It’s just a matter of the appropriate technology, business strategy, and testing before it hits the technology headlines.

The DARPA Challenge was successful enough to be continued for several years, moving on to issues such as robotics.

Competitions can thus be almost a form of crowdfunding, but for ideas rather than money. While not every submitted idea or team has the ultimate answer, contests and challenges provide an impetus to innovation, as people are spurred by prizes, competition, and collaboration of teams. They are a significant way to get innovation to areas where innovation is needed.

Current challenges focus on antimicrobial resistance and climate change.

UK Example: Solve Problems Through Innovation

There’s little doubt that contests spur innovation on all fronts, in fact. The grandfather of competitions to solve problems through innovation is unquestionably the United Kingdom’s Longitude Prize. In the eighteenth century, Britain has the leading naval power. But it had a tremendous problem in ships’ crews being able to tell fully where they were. Sailors had latitude, but no way to tell how far they had sailed on a voyage. As a result, loss of cargo, ships, and lives was enormous. As Slate’s commentators note, a captain could figure that he was two days’ out from land, when the actual voyage was just a few hours.

As a result, the country opened the Longitude Prize, a 20 million pound prize open to the public. Although early expectations were that the Royal Astronomer could figure out the issue, it ultimately fell to a relatively uneducated man who painstakingly worked out the clock system that eventually became the chronometer. It was one of the inventions that allowed Sir James Cook, for example, to map the South Seas in relative safety.

But the chronometer wasn’t the only prize. Astronomers seeking the prize discovered, for example, how to measure the speed of light along the way.

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But the Longitude Prize is not just a thing of the past. It’s been reborn, this time to meet the challenges of today. The first one, for example, is centered around antimicrobial resistance.

Other contemporary competitions are focusing on space flight and climate change. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, for example, was one of the boosters of the X Prize several years ago, which went toward the launch of a rocket. Other, more recent X Prizes are focusing on sequestering and capturing carbon, to help with carbon emissions that drive global warming.

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