Michael Albarelli, PhD – one of InnoCentive’s Challenge Experts – provides his insight on some not-so-obvious commonalities among successful InnoCentive Solvers.

I started out to write this post about the typical winning Solver. It was going to be about “Who are the typical Solvers winning awards and why are they successful?” It did not take me long to realize there is no “typical” winning Solver. Our award winners range from heads of large research organizations with plenty of support to single consultants who work alone.  Experience ranges from retirees with 30+ years of industrial experience to undergraduates who have only worked on one project. They have been in academics, industry, government, not-for-profit organizations, etc.  Winners can range from Nobel laureates to guys in tin-foil hats (I have no evidence of the last statement, but I like the mental image!)

That was not really helpful, so I said, “What traits does the typical winning Solver have?” Well, they are very bright (obviously!), they tend to be thinkers, tinkerers and often quite analytical. They love to solve problems be it in Chemistry and Engineering or Crossword and Sudoku puzzles. They want to solve “real” problems and make an impact in the world. They want to help. They like to flex their “intellectual muscles” and even show off a bit. All interesting facts, but not really valuable to you, the Solvers. If you are reading this, you probably have most or all of these traits and I really have not told you anything new.

In my opinion, there are three things that differentiate the winning Solvers from all other Solvers.

  1. Winning Solvers do not work on just any Challenge. They tend to be picky and try to find a “pitch they can hit”. They screen the Challenges and only work on ones they have a good idea of how to solve. One very successful Solver told me if he does not come up with an idea in 10 – 15 minutes, he probably is not going to spend much time on it. Of course, there are some problems that take a little more time to think about. Even with those, if he does not come up with something in a day or two of just thinking about it, he moves on to the next one. This strategy seems to work – our most prolific Solvers have solving rates up to 50%!  They win half of the Challenges they submit to. Remember though, they do not submit to everything. If you find yourself submitting to 10 – 20 Challenges at a time, you are probably spreading yourself too thin and doing only a mediocre job on a lot of problems. It is better to be a little more focused, I think.
  2. Winning Solvers are detailed in their explanations. Winning Solvers explain things in detail. They tell the Seeker everything they need to know. They do not assume “this is obvious”. If it was, the Seeker would have already solved the problem. They not only say how to solve the Challenge, but where to get the materials, what parts to use, etc. Remember, the Seeker must be convinced the solution will work since in most cases, they have not tried it before. If there is any doubt, they will tend to move on to the next submission. Winning Solvers are specific in their recommendations. They do not offer seven suggestions and say you pick the best one. They may offer a few variations, but they state which answer is the best in their opinion. This builds the confidence in your answer that the Seeker needs to see. If you find yourself saying “Read this paper, the answer is in there somewhere” or “Go to this website, one of those parts will work”, then you probably are not going to win an award. You need to explain where the answer is in the paper.
  3. Winning Solvers make a “Connection”. Winning Solvers make some type of connection between what they know (or have found) and the Challenge at hand. They may relate it to a similar problem they solved or have seen solved previously. They may connect one industry with a completely different one.  One example involves a Solver who connected knowledge of the cement industry (not his day job) to solving a problem with frozen oil (you may have heard of this one). Another winner related a toxicology problem with X-ray crystallography. The Seeker told us they never in a million years would have made that connection. The Seekers are sometimes too close to the problem and the Solvers, on the outside looking in, can make those connections. I would say this is the most important aspect of the winning solutions. So if you find yourself just gathering information and shoveling it over the fence, then you probably have not made that “connection” needed to be an award winner. Look for that connection!

All this being said, There are exceptions to everything. I have seen a winning solution that was two paragraphs long and really only one word was important. This is not very detailed, but it is also very rare. I think if you try to use the three aspects of winning Solvers above, you may improve your overall chances of being successful.