Nearly everywhere we look, we can find competitions in our lives. We play sports from an early age. We compete for the attention of the attractive women or men nearby. We challenge our friends to weigh-loss competitions. The list goes on and on. Competitions are part of our careers, communities, societies, and nature itself. In our post Redefining Competition in Education, we defined competition as, “a process by which the most efficient means to a goal is identified and achieved through comparison with other methodologies.” Competition in its naked, un-biased definition does not have any emotional connotation attributed to it. To truly understand competitions, we must separate it from its emotional baggage. Participating in a competition does not necessarily equal being “competitive.”

When conducting a competition it can take on any number of positive and negative associations. On the negative side we often attribute aggression, poor-sportsmanship, cheating, win-at-all-costs, and other similar associations to competition. On the positive, we have self-motivation, inspiration, community engagement, grit, determination, good-sportsmanship, teamwork, mental toughness, and many others. Along with this wide array of possible attributes, there is also a breadth of structures and competition designs. No competition is the same as another. How we highlight and nurture the positive versus negative aspects of competition determines the overall impact they have on the participants and on the communities involved. To truly understand competitions, we must be able to understand the full breadth of their impacts. In this post we discuss our principle tool for analyzing and evaluating competitions – Net Collaborative Impact.


flirting students


Throughout our personal lives, careers, and community activities, we often engage in competitions without any specified rules or boundary conditions. These kinds of competitions are so built into the fabric of our lives that often we don’t even think about them as competitions. They exist in the back of our minds and simply seem part of our every-day routines. We call these “Innate Competitions.” They are the ones we take on without even knowing it, where explicitly defined rules or boundary conditions have not been set.

One of the most prevalent examples of Innate Competition happens to almost everyone in college and throughout or lives. We spend countless hours at cafes, bars, clubs, and parties, in an attempt to convince a suitable partner that we’re a quality specimen they want to spend some more personal time with. In order to be successful, we fix up our hair, select the right outfits, plot out witty remarks, and pump ourselves up to be at our most charming. We spend all of this effort and mental capacity not just to impress the opposite sex. We spend the effort because we know that there are other people vying for the attention of that same cute girl or guy at the bar. This competition for the attention of potential partners, lovers, husbands, and wives has been well documented in the literature, and studied for years. The preening, puffing out your proverbial chest, talking yourself up, and many other actions are part of an innate competition that we all undertake. There are no defined rules. There is no leader board; no list of competitors. This is the very nature of what we call “Innate Competition.” We’ve defined three primary characteristics of innate competition:

  1. The goals are not definite.
  2. The rules are not structured.
  3. The participants are not concrete.

Just as with finding a potential partner, Innate Competition exist in our education system. Students constantly compare themselves with one another. They compete in countless ways, many of which are determined by the students themselves. In many of these unstructured situations, the goals of the competitions become detrimental to the students and hamper their education and future opportunities.

It is part of human nature to compare ourselves to one another and compete for limited resources. Unfortunately, these comparisons can activate more negative attributes of competition when they are not consciously designed. Rather than focusing on positive attributes, Innate Competition in education often leads to comparisons of who can be the coolest, the strongest, or even the dumbest. When students are left to follow their own innate competitions, they more often than not have negative effects on the students, their peers, and society as a whole.

Parents often fare no better than students when left to basic Innate Competitions. Without conscious thought put to how we compete, parents end up comparing their kids to one another and attempt to one-up each other in boasting about their accomplishments. We do this with just about everything our kids are involved in: sports, artistic abilities, talents, and grades.

Whether we chose to believe it or not, academics is the most important competition of our student’s lives. Our kids are competing for their very future, their ability to get a good job, have a good career, and live a high quality of live. Its natural to want to compare our students and compete for the best resources and opportunities. Rather than lying to ourselves and trying to ignore the underlying Innate Competition pervasive throughout our lives, what we should be doing, especially in the academic setting, is defining the rules and boundary conditions of our competitions so they work for us rather than against us.

Through decades of social psychology research, we know how to harness the power of competition. By designing competitions with specific rules, incentives, boundary conditions, and evaluation criteria we can minimize their negative associations and maximize the positive. Rather than struggling through Innate Competitions, we can excel with “Designed Competition.”




Unfortunately, designing the best competitions is hard, especially in education. There is no single “right” model of creating a Designed Competition. There are innumerable ways to structure the nuts and bolts of competitions to accentuate its positive learning benefits. Designed competitions come in all shapes and sizes, and as with innate competition, humans living in modern society will more likely than not, participate in some level of Designed Competition in their lifetime. Athletics are probably the most commonly recognizable form of Designed Competition that most of us have been a part of at one time or another.

Athletic competitions have been researched by many groups and clear benefits have been shown not only to the health and physical well-being of the participants, but also to social and emotional well-being, and to the communities in which they are played. Many of these benefits wouldn’t be realized if the activity were performed outside of the structure of a Designed Competition. By creating the Designed Competition of sports, players become heroes to their communities, they are pushed to perform at their peak, and they gain valuable social capital, among many other benefits. As a competition, communities are also willing to put huge amounts of support behind the players and teams. If we simply had a group of athletes go out on a field and throw a football around instead of having them compete every Sunday night to see who comes out on top, do you still think all of this would happen?

Designed Competitions can be found in throughout all areas of society. We’ve seen awards and prizes proliferate into nearly every industry. In 1996, the X PRIZE Foundation popularized the modern grand challenge by announcing a $10 million dollar prize for the first privately funded manned spaceflight. However, this was far from the first Grand Challenge. In 1912, the Orteig Prize, awarded Charles Lindbergh $25,000 for the first non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight. Before that, during the Napoleonic Wars the French government offered a 12,000 franc award for any inventor that could develop a cheap and effective way of preserving large quantities of food. In 1714, the British announced the Longitude Act, offering a cash reward for the first person able to accurately determine their longitude on the open ocean. 

Its safe to say that, along with creating a $500 billion dollar industry of professional sports, Designed Competitions have been used to great effect as technology inducement programs. We also see successful Designed Competitions in computer science, cooking, singing, music, reality TV, and yes, even in education.

Although much is still to be learned, research on best-practices in competition design has already demonstrated competition structures and mechanisms that increase benefits to the participants and communities involved. Through careful, well-thought out design of competitions, we can create a net positive impact on all involved. It is this effort that needs to be embraced in our education systems. Lets not leave our students to the failures of Innate Competition, lets inspire them through Designed Competitions!


kids arm wrestling


When considering the bare bones of competition structures, a Zero-Sum game is the most basic of them all. In short, Zero-Sum Competitions can be described as being a situation where the benefits derived by Player One are equal to the negative impacts imposed on Player Two. In actuality, few competitions are completely Zero-Sum Games. The complexities involved with most real-life competitions make it so that even when a competition is a winner-take-all award, the side-effects and impacts resulting from the competition on its participants and community create separate benefits or detriments beyond that of the award itself. With just a little conscious design, Zero-Sum competitions can be turned into positive Net Collaborative Impact events.




The processes of competitions provide numerous opportunities to realize a whole host of different benefits not only for participants, but also for the whole communities that are involved. When designing competitions with best-practices in mind, maximizing the benefits to all involved is the ultimate goal. We identify this as the “Net Collaborative Impact” of a competition. It is our ultimate guide to how beneficial or detrimental a competition is. When the sum of the benefits is greater than the sum of the detriments to those involved, it has a Positive Net Collaborative Impact. If the sum of the benefits is less than the total detriments, the competition has a Negative Net Collaborative Impact.

To properly determine a competitions full Net Collaborative Impact, we must consider two overarching categories of possible impacts:

  1. Personal Impacts on the Participants – how much skill, knowledge, resources, or tools can be gained by the participants in a competition. These benefits are not limited to just the winner. It is typically shown that the competitors who do not win learn as much if not more than the winners in the competition. When structured following best-practices, competitions can create large benefits to all participants.
  2. Community Impacts – how much can be gained by the community or society involved with a competition. These benefits can come in the form of increasing good will, community bonding, shared values, visibility and publicity, or resources attracted to the community due to the competition. 


In previous posts we mentioned how society is already using competitions in many areas of our lives including sports, job recruiting, finding mates, and reality TV, among others. If we evaluate each of these types of competitions, we can see that nearly all of them have some level of net-positive benefit. They have been explicitly designed to do so, and the competition landscape itself is constantly evolving. If a competition isn’t producing a positive Net Collaborative Impact, another one that does is usually ready to come along and replace it.

As we learn more about the fundamental mechanisms behind competitions, we are better able to design them in ways that increase Net Collaborative Impact. Although there is much more to understand, we have already become masters of creating positive Net Collaborative Impact competitions. This doesn’t mean that every competition we create has a net positive impact, and it certainly doesn’t mean that every competition we design maximizes its impact. There are many different types of benefits that can be achieved through competitions and even more ways to design a competition to bring about those benefits.

Competition design is complex and unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to maximize every competition’s Net Collaborative Impact. However, there are best-practices that can be used to ensure we do the best that we can with the knowledge we have, and we’ve gotten very good at using them in our competition designs. The fact that we have this knowledge, and know how to create positive Net Collaborative Impact, makes it such a shame that as a community we have yet to overcome our fear of competitions in our educational systems. We should be using competitions at every opportunity to help students learn complex content, develop socially and emotionally, and gain the critical real-world skills needed to succeed in today’s fast-paced, high-tech economy. At ICS we strive to see that every student has the opportunity to participate in challenge-based-learning, and we hope you will join with us on this journey. Its just begun.