Innovation Tournaments and Competitions: A Short Guide

Innovation tournaments and competitions are collaborative, competitive events designed to foster creativity, identify novel solutions, and drive growth through new ideas. They bring together participants from diverse backgrounds to solve complex problems. This guide will explore the concept of innovation tournaments or competitions, their features and benefits, different ways of conducting them, case studies, and additional resources. We’ve utilized mini innovation tournaments and idea pitch competitions many times in our design thinking training and innovation workshops – both virtually and in-person. They can have a positive effect on the engagement of the participants in the program and also on the quality of the concepts produced and pitched!

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction to Innovation Tournaments and Competitions
  2. Features and Benefits
  3. Different Versions and Methods
  4. Case Studies and Examples
  5. Additional Resources and Tools
  6. Conclusion

1. Introduction to Innovation Tournaments and Competitions

Innovation tournaments are organized events where individuals or teams compete to solve specific challenges, create new products, or improve existing ones. They often leverage the collective intelligence of participants and can be applied to various fields, including technology, healthcare, finance, and more.

What are they?

Innovation tournaments involve posing a problem or challenge and inviting participants to present solutions. Participants may include employees, students, professionals, or any other interested parties. The solutions are judged, and winners are often awarded prizes or recognition.


The tournaments can lead to breakthrough solutions, foster collaboration, enhance creativity, and connect experts across various disciplines.

2. Features and Benefits


  • Diverse Participation: Encourages people from different backgrounds and expertise.
  • Defined Challenges: Clear, well-defined problems or goals.
  • Judging and Prizes: Incentives to motivate participants.
  • Collaborative Environment: Facilitates teamwork and cross-disciplinary thinking.


  • Cost-Effective Innovation: Often cheaper than in-house R&D.
  • Increased Creativity: Broad perspectives lead to unique solutions.
  • Community Engagement: Builds a network of innovative thinkers.
  • Talent Identification: Helps in identifying and attracting skilled individuals.

3. Different Versions and Methods

Open vs. Closed Tournaments

  • Open Tournaments: Open to the public, fostering wider participation.
  • Closed Tournaments: Restricted to a specific group, such as employees or students.

Online vs. In-person

  • Online Tournaments: Utilizes online platforms; allows global participation.
  • In-person Tournaments: Conducted at a physical location; encourages face-to-face collaboration.

Hackathons, Ideathons, and More

Various specialized versions cater to different industries, like Hackathons in the tech world or Ideathons for brainstorming sessions.

4. Case Studies and Examples

NASA’s Centennial Challenges

NASA has hosted public competitions to solve space-related problems. Their success in encouraging out-of-the-box solutions showcases the effectiveness of open innovation tournaments. Learn more about the NASA program here.

General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge

GE’s Ecomagination Challenge engaged the public in creating solutions for smarter energy use, awarding significant prizes and investing in the most promising ideas. Here’s a journal article about GE’s program.

5. Additional Resources and Tools

  • Books and Publications:
    • Innovation Tournaments: Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities” by Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich. (Also see their handbook published in 2023: The Innovation Tournament Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Exceptional Solutions to Any Challenge.)Innovation Tournament Book
      Here’s the Amazon description of the latest handbook on innovation tournaments:

      What new products or services should you launch next year? How can you improve the productivity of a paint line? What should you name your new venture? How can you decrease patient waiting times? How can you improve the customer experience?

      Pretty much any creative problem-solving task can be framed as seeking a new match between solution and need, from operational process improvements to creating strategies to foster organic growth. Innovation tournaments aim to find a match that is not just good, but exceptional.

      Leveraging more than two decades of experience organizing innovation tournaments in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, from Buenos Aires to Kuwait City, Shanghai to Moscow, and with many Fortune 500 companies, two renowned researchers, entrepreneurs, and the foremost experts on innovation tournaments offer a template that you can use to generate winning ideas that will drive great outcomes―whatever your challenges, whatever your business.

      In The Innovation Tournament Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Exceptional Solutions to Any Challenge, Wharton professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich offer an engaging, often humorous, and always actionable guide to help you learn:

      –How to frame and articulate your specific innovation challenge
      –How to decide on the right format, structure, and strategic direction for your own innovation tournament
      –How to maximize the quality of the opportunities that will compete
      –How to select the very best ideas
      –How to develop those ideas into real-world opportunities
      –How to use tournaments to foster a culture of innovation

      Fast-reading and filled with real-world successes, The Innovation Tournament Handbook is a comprehensive roadmap to finding a new match between a solution and a need that is not merely good, but exceptional.

  • Online Platforms:
    • Kaggle, Topcoder, and other platforms to host or participate in innovation tournaments.
  • Consulting Services:
    • Many firms specialize in organizing innovation tournaments tailored to specific organizational needs.

Innovation Tournaments and Competitions – Conclusion

Innovation tournaments represent a powerful tool in the quest for new ideas, solutions, and growth. Through various methods and versions, they provide an exciting way to engage with problems creatively. By examining case studies and utilizing additional resources, businesses and institutions can leverage the competitive spirit and collaborative nature of these innovation competitions or tournaments to drive real-world progress.

Contact us if you are planning an innovation program and looking for help with an innovation competition or tournament format. This can be as small as something that lasts just a couple of hours or over the course of months.