What Makes a Good Challenge?

what makes a good challenge

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Top-down or bottom-up? This is the question that always gets asked when a business is looking for the best way to engage a workforce to drive innovation within an organization. In this blog, I will be focusing on a top-down approach, specifically, on how to create good challenges or campaigns to drive engagement through a top-down transformation approach.

Generally speaking, a team responsible for innovation or organizational change will use a challenge or a campaign to put out a call to action to the rest of the business to gain feedback or ideas from the wider workforce. This technique is a great way of getting buy-in from the wider business while leveraging the power of crowdsourcing ideas to move the business forward.

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Through our work here at edison365, we often get asked ‘what makes a good challenge?’. So, I wanted to share some insights about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to challenges.

From our experience, there are three ingredients that lead to a successful challenge:

  •   Give the challenge structure
  •   Provide a clear vision
  •   Have fun

Let’s take a look at each of these items and explain what makes them so important to a successful challenge.

The Importance of a Good Challenge Structure

It may sound simple but think of a challenge as a question you are asking your organization. The more open-ended that question, the more diverse and open-ended the responses. The more structured and constrained, the more specific the responses.

What we have learned from our experience is that regardless of whether the challenge has a broad or narrow field of view, the challenge needs to be:

  •  Well-structured with clear objectives and parameters
  •  Centered, with a clear purpose and set of outcomes that are expected
  •  Transparent, with timescales with the key being sharing some clear timelines and next steps

The structure of a challenge may sound like something quite simple, but it is amazing how many times organizations get this wrong. We have seen many times a challenge statement is put out to an organization and no matter how important or well-worded the challenge is, it gets little engagement and fails to have the desired impact.

You need to have a clear structure and challenge strategy in order to grab the attention of an organization and keep that engagement. From our experience, the following elements are an absolute must if this is to be achieved:

  • Clear and engaging challenge title– this is the shop window and the first thing the people within your challenge respondents will see when they view the challenge. Make it eye-catching, clear, and memorable to draw in respondents. The catchier and more interesting the title, the more likely respondents will also tell their colleagues, so really think about the message your title provides to those that view it.
  • Use themes to add detail – this is a quick and easy way to link your challenge to a number of different business issues. Adding themes to your challenge tells your audience, more specifically, what it is you are trying to solve. The themes don’t need to tell the audience the whole story, but they are there to add a layer of granularity and provide further insight into the challenge purpose. For example, a challenge could be around new office chairs with some key themes around this challenge being health and wellbeing, employee experience and business efficiency. The title sets the tone, and the themes quickly add a splash of color.
  • Provide a clear and concise description – the description brings home the message of the challenge by providing the respondents with the detail and backstory of the challenge. When writing the description, you need to hit key messages and information, such as; Why have you set the challenge, what are you trying to solve and how do you want people to respond. All of these things need considering. Be sure not to provide too much information as you want to keep people engaged. As we all know attention spans are becoming shorter so don’t lose your audience with a lengthy, detailed description. Save detail for any attachments or appendices.
  • Be clear with timescales – always be clear to your respondents when you will be closing the challenge, when the next steps will take place and when they will find out what is happening next. This is the best way to provide structure and a framework to your challenge. It’s also a great way to let the respondents know that you will be listening and you will be responding to them. By providing timescales and deadlines you are holding yourself accountable and this visible accountability will allow respondents to feel as though it is a two-way relationship and sharing their ideas isn’t a waste of time.
  • Be clear with responsibilities – make it clear to your respondents who has set the challenge and who will be reviewing the challenge. By doing this you are adding another element of accountability whilst allowing the respondents the opportunity to put a face to the challenge and understand, in a more human form, what the expectations are. It also provides the organization the opportunity to showcase some ‘visible leadership’. It is often touted that the more visible and accessible leaders are, the better the employee engagement and performance of an organization. Setting challenges and being seen as a sponsor of employee-led, organizational improvement is a great way to reinforce the positive impact of a leader’s influence on an organization.
  • Secure senior sponsorship – the power of securing the sponsorship and backing from senior leadership of your challenge cannot be underestimated. Organizations are hierarchical in their very nature and there is a clear chain of command. Even in the most progressive organizations there are people in charge and responsible for the success of the business and the wellbeing of employees. To have a senior leader either set a challenge or sponsor a challenge provides the sense that the whole organization is involved, and everyone has permission to share ideas. We have seen so many times the reluctance of employees to get involved in initiatives until they are given permission to do so – get that buy-in early.
  • State outcomes – when setting the challenge, you need to think about what the outcomes will be. This needs to relate to desired business outcomes but, more importantly, you need to set out the outcomes for those that have submitted responses to the challenge. From the outset you need to tell your respondents that getting involved in the challenge will be a positive experience. Be clear what getting involved means and what can be achieved – whether that be rewards and recognition or some other means that will benefit them. Stating your outcomes is like stating your intentions – it gets the respondents to trust the process and trust the challenge, leading to them more likely getting involved.
  • Don’t be afraid of attachments – people absorb information in different ways. Some like sound bites. Some like images. Some like reports. To cover all bases, don’t be afraid to support your challenge with different mediums of information or lengthy reports. If the content is there, then people will consume it in their own preferred way. Don’t assume that an organization only wants their information in one format… use attachments with pride.

Provide a Clear Vision

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Simply put, the vision for the challenge is the whole reason why the challenge is being set up in the first place. You need to be clear to your organization and challenge respondents why the challenge has been set and this can’t just be linked to margin. To make the challenge a success, you need to inspire and motivate the organization to provoke an action.

Providing a vision relating to a challenge may seem a little over the top, so I’ll explain in a little more detail what I mean. By setting a challenge you are provoking a human reaction to a complex question. From our experience, you need to bring emotion into the challenge and provide the illusion that by responding to the challenge, your respondents are providing a service to something bigger than themselves. What we have learnt is that humans are ‘meaning monsters’ and are, by nature, driven by finding their place and purpose in every situation. Humans are driven by emotions, so to really motivate the people within your organization to get involved in your challenge, bring a vision and a purpose into the challenge to provoke that human reaction.

To do this you first need to figure out the cause the challenge is responding to. We have seen 2 threads that generally work for this and those are both global and strategic challenges.

The first example, global challenges, are the easiest for your audience to understand. The vast majority of people understand the major issues facing the World and will be able to respond to challenges affecting this. As an example, we have seen a large number of engaging challenges around climate change and greener ways of working. These challenges, although responding to a global need, allow an organization to show that there is a bigger world out there and that everyone can play their part in solving Global challenges.

The second is the strategic/organizational challenge which, if done in the right way, will have lasting positive effects for an organization. Like the global challenge, setting a challenge that links to a company’s strategy is a great way to get respondent buy-in to a higher purpose that directly effects the performance of an organization. Generally, business strategies are full of details, facts and figures and are, as seen by some, tedious. For this reason, employees don’t tend to engage with them. Due to the lack of engagement, employees then feel left behind and ill-informed, so the strategy doesn’t resonate with them. This in turn leads to upper management (who control the strategy and are responsible for delivery) to communicate less with the organization. Organizations then end up with a stand-off between employees that don’t listen and don’t feel engaged and upper management that don’t see the point in sharing because no engagement happens.

For this reason, centering challenges around business strategy is ideal for the success of a business and the success of a challenge. You get the buy-in from your people because they are being asked to input and engage directly with a strategy and you have a strategy that is bringing the people along the journey.

In short, the purpose of the challenge needs to be bigger than the sum of its parts. The challenge needs to have a vision and needs to inspire. If this can be achieved then your people will see that involving themselves will mean they are part of something with purpose and meaning and, as a result, engagement with the challenge will increase.

Have Fun


The final recommendation for setting a challenge is one not necessarily associated with business transformation or strategic change but it is one that takes the success of a challenge to the next level.

Bringing a sense of fun to a challenge may not seem to fit the usual persona of serious business but that’s the point. To gain traction, increase interest, and to make a lasting impression, your people need to see a challenge as something new, exciting, and refreshing – something that they cannot afford not to be involved in. Bringing something different to the challenge will leave a positive, lasting memory with your respondents and (to quote a well-used term) make the whole process ‘sticky’ in the brains of the people within your organization.

There are many things you can do to ‘bring the fun’- good and effective communications, fresh and different branding, and appropriate rewards and recognition:

  • Communications – when asked about successful innovation projects and transformation, I always say there are 3 things you need to get right- communications, communications, and communications. You need to communicate the project progress, communicate the difficulties you have been experiencing and communicate the successes. The same goes for making challenges engaging and successful. When you are thinking about launching a challenge, think about your communications plan as a priority.
  1. What is the timing of the communications?
  2. What are the channels you will be communicating?
  3. What is the content you will be communicating? 
  4. What reaction do you want to provoke from your communications?

All of these things need to be thought through as you pull the challenge together. Above all make the communications different from the usual communications your organization puts out there. By doing this you make them more engaging and you ‘make them stick’ and ultimately more memorable. You want to have a positive and lasting impact on your challenge.

  • Branding – for this there is a simple equation… different = memorable. If you are setting the business a challenge, then you need to escape the usual company branding and try something new as this will grab the attention of the organization and increase engagement. Branding doesn’t just mean color scheme either – we’ve had customers that have named their challenges in a way that allows them to have events around the key themes. Doing fancy dress days, themed bake sales, themed roadshows, and workshops – all things that wouldn’t necessarily be ‘business as usual’ and will drive excitement and leave a lasting impact.
  • Rewards -a clever and sympathetic use of rewards is key for a successful challenge. Rewards and recognition are recognized by most organizations as a solid way of drumming up enthusiasm and getting employees engaged in a project. What we have seen, though, is that the rewards don’t have to be costly or complex, a simple, handwritten thank you card is enough to give your people the recognition they deserve – believe it or not, sometimes this means more than a monetary reward. This links back to the communications and branding elements also. To bring the fun to the challenge rewards, brand them around the challenge and communicate them in a way that is distinct to that challenge. This will get employees to understand that involving themselves in that challenge leads to rewards. The importance of rewarding and recognizing your staff cannot be stressed enough. It is the key ingredient that leaves a lasting, positive memory in the minds of those that chose to get involved.

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Creating a Good Challenge: Concluding Thoughts…

The above isn’t exhaustive but it is effective. If you provide your challenge with some structure and direction, embed and ground it in a cause that is bigger than the sum of its parts, and make it fun, different, and engaging, you will have a challenge that is successful.

This journey won’t be easy so keep at it, keep doing the fundamentals and set your challenges up correctly and the successes will start to be realized.

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