Challenge elevates our aspirations and focuses our attention in a way that makes impossible goals achievable. Challenge has the power to move an organization, a system or a nation. Indeed, it has the power to change the world.

Large prizes have inspired inventors and adventurers to take on difficult challenges, including a British prize to find a way to determine the longitude of a ship at sea (1714), a French prize to find a way to preserve food (1795), and a prize offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first non-stop flight between New York City and Paris (1919). All of these challenges led to breakthroughs.

The Longitude Prize

In the 1700s, latitude could be calculated in the northern hemisphere by measuring the position of the North Star relative to the horizon. The position of the sun could be used south of the equator, with seasonal adjustments. There was no comparable way to determine longitude, so ships had to resort to fixing their location by estimating their speed and direction. This was subject to cumulative errors that made it impossible to know exactly where a ship was or how much time remained in its journey.

Soon after taking the throne in 1598, Phillip III of Spain offered a pension, life annuity and cash prize to solve the longitude problem. In the following century, the Dutch, French and British also announced their own rewards. A British Act of Parliament in 1714 created a prize of £20,000 (equivalent to millions of dollars today) to determine longitude within a single degree. [David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, 1998]

Many of the world’s greatest scientific and mathematical minds responded to the challenge, but it was a carpenter and self-taught clockmaker who ultimately solved the problem. John Harrison proposed a marine chronometer that could accurately keep time, so the difference in local time between two points on the Earth’s surface, and therefore the difference in longitude, could be calculated

Harrison spent six years building a working model of the timepiece that was first tested at sea in 1736. He spent many more years perfecting it, making refinements until he was seventy-seven years old. Harrison received incremental payments of £23,065 for his work, but never received the official award. The Board of Longitude never awarded the prize; however, he was recognized in an Act of Parliament in June 1773 as having solved the longitude problem.

The marine chronometer continued to be improved by others. It was soon universally adopted, increasing safety at sea, and opening up global exploration and trade.

We Choose to Go to the Moon

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 40,000 people at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, about the decision to land a man on the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

It was a galvanizing moment.

John F. Kennedy speaking at Rice University
in Houston, Texas. September 12, 1962. Source: NASA.

This was to be the largest government-directed peacetime engineering project in U.S. history.

“It will be done by the end of this decade,” Kennedy said. And on July 20, 1969 – seven years after his speech in Houston – Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon’s surface.

Buzz Aldrin standing near the Lunar Lander.
July 20, 1969. Sound: NASA.

The challenges that had to be overcome to put a man on the moon were daunting. The Apollo program required breakthroughs in materials, technologies and systems, and new ways of managing complexity.

The X PRIZE and Singularity University

Taking inspiration from the Orteig Prize, American visionary and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis established the X PRIZE Foundation in 1995, hoping to kick-start a commercial space industry. In 1996, the Foundation offered a $10-million prize to develop a privately-financed three-passenger vehicle that could fly 100 kilometers into space twice in two weeks. This was subsequently called the Ansari X PRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight. Twenty-six teams from seven countries invested more than $100 million in pursuing the challenge, and the prize was won by the SpaceShipOne spacecraft on October 4, 2004.

The X PRIZE Foundation subsequently launched successful challenges in many other domains.

“Besides being a way to raise the profile of key issues and rapidly address logjams,” Diamandis says, reflecting on the X PRIZE experience in his book Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, “another key attribute of incentive prizes is their ability to cast a wide net. Everyone from novices to professionals, from sole proprietors to massive corporations, gets involved. Experts in one field jump to another, bringing with them an influx of nontraditional ideas.”

A greater appetite for risk drives innovation, Diamandis says, and “competitions inspire hundreds of different technical approaches, which means they don’t just give birth to a single-point solution but rather to an entire industry.”

Drawing on the same challenge model of aspirational change, Peter Diamandis founded Singularity University with Ray Kurzweil in Silicon Valley in 2008. The university’s Global Solutions Program trains students from around the world to learn first-hand about exponentially advancing technologies and propose projects that can positively affect the lives of at least one billion people in the next 10 years.

Google X

Pursuing challenges can also drive organizations to new heights.

Google X (now an Alphabet division known as X) is the Internet giant’s top-secret innovation lab. It works on big problems, with attainable and radical solutions, creating breakthrough technologies that will change the world. Engineers are working on space elevators, robots, autonomous drones, and self-driving cars. Its head, Astro Teller, has the title ‘Captain of Moonshots.’ The goal is not to create 10 percent change, but 10 times improvements – an order of magnitude increase in expected returns.

Quoted in Peter Diamandis’s book BOLD: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, Teller says, “if you choose to make something 10 percent better, you are almost by definition signing up for the status quo… But if you sign up for moonshot thinking, if you sign up to make something 10x better, there is no chance of doing that with existing assumptions. You’re going to have to throw out the rule book. You’re going to have to perspective-shift and supplant all that smartness and resources with bravery and creativity.”

Open Innovation

First conceived by the American pharmaceutical company Eli Lily, in 1998, the Innocentive website harnessed the power of the internet to find solutions to business challenges. Challenges were posted online, and the site matched ‘seekers’ with ‘solvers.’ As was the case with challenges of old, solvers competed for cash prizes. The project quickly produced breakthrough results and was spun off as an independent company.

Innocentive provides access to a long tail of problem solving capability that far exceeds the number of experts employed by any seeker firm and others in its industry. Innocentive harnesses a much broader community of potential problem solvers that now includes 355,000 people from nearly 200 countries. Two-thirds of them hold a Ph.D.

Long tail curve. Zone A – experts employed by a firm;
Zone B – experts working elsewhere; Zone C – others who may be able to solve the problem.
Source: Alpheus Bingham and Dwayne Spradlin, The Open Innovation Marketplace:
Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise
, 2011.

Innocentive solvers have been able to find solutions in months or days to problems seekers had been unable to resolve in decades or years. These solutions have often come from unexpected places.

Based on this experience, Innocentive founders Alpheus Bingham and Dwayne Spradlin describe challenges in their book The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise as “an astonishingly powerful and uniquely effective tool for focusing the energies of multitudes of creative, inventive, talented audiences on the important problems facing organizations, nations and the planet on which we live.”

The authors describe their vision for a Challenge Driven Enterprise, “where the most difficult problems can be solved, effort is aligned with strategic goals, all talent inside and outside of the organization is brought to bear to deliver on the mission, and sustained performance improvement is possible.”

The ability of organizations to focus their attention and take on challenges fearlessly, will determine how successful they are in the twenty-first century. As Peter Diamandis says, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”


Feature image: Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint on the Moon. July 20, 1969. Source: NASA.