04/30/2014 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2014

The Power of the Prize

I've been traveling for a few days and came into the office early to catch up on work; however, before I got to the meat of my day, I received an e-mail from one of my supervisors asking me to send him "the best narrative you've written on why the prize is important in accelerating the work of cities." He was referring to the $1 million Talent Dividend Prize competition, which I manage. The prize is a joint initiative between CEOs for Cities and Living Cities, funded by the Kresge Foundation, and awarded to the U.S. city that exhibits the greatest increase in the number of degrees granted per one thousand people in the city from 2009/2010 to 2012/2013.

Intrigued by this request, I thought, "I'm pretty sure I've never written about the prize in quite this way."

After reading through past documents, reports and blogs, I confirmed that I'd never written specifically about why a prize competition was integral to accelerating post-secondary completion in cities. Upon further reflection, I realized the reason for this was because deep down I didn't believe in the power of the prize when I'd first taken the job.

I decided to be honest (always a good policy with your boss!) and tell him that I hadn't actually ever written about this. But, after years of traveling to various cities hard at work on raising the post-secondary attainment levels in their community and region, I could now do so with confidence -- having seen first-hand why the prize was integral to not only accelerating their work but also their ultimate success in building sustainable and meaningful cross-sector collaborations around college success.

This skeptic had been won over by the observations outlined below.

The prize illustrates the power of progress and small wins.

Educational attainment, talent and the skills gap are huge challenges for any community and can be overwhelming. Where to start? Who should do the work? How do we measure success? All potentially paralyzing questions. The prize is a short-term strategy to get people moving, talking, collaborating and planning. With a three-year timeline, communities have been able to set short-term goals such as forming an exploratory committee or taking action on previously generated ideas.

The prize is a catalyst for convening key stakeholders in the community around a critical issue.

The prize has not only encouraged unlikely partnerships, but also forced people to continually think and strategize about who should be at the table (both actual people and/or sectors) in any given community. People are generally excited about being part of prize competitions and are sometimes more likely to give of their limited time and expertise if the commitment is for a definitive amount of time.

The prize gets people's attention.

Challenging issues are difficult to become excited about, rally around, build buy-in, and sustain energy. The prize is a short-term goal and provides enough incentive to develop and sustain excitement. It provides an "in" for those trying to build trust among stakeholders -- as who wouldn't want to be part of something special like a prize competition!

The prize provides incentive and sparks healthy competition.

This seems obvious, but a Forbes article written by Peter H. Diamandis and Jeremy Howard concluded that teams cumulatively spend 10-40 times a prize amount in pursuit of trying to win a competition, often coming from non-traditional sources. Given my experience with the Talent Dividend, healthy competition sparks interest in what other communities are doing and how they are tackling the problem. Internally, being part of the prize competition promotes opportunities to gather for discussion and debate around what works and why.

Finally, the prize sparks creativity and innovative thinking.

With 57 cities competing for the Talent Dividend Prize, the competition has opened up a nationwide "think tank," funneling significant time and energy into thinking about and solving challenges that many cities/regions/states face around post-secondary access, attainment, and workforce need. As the Forbes article suggested, because the risk is low, competitors are free to be creative, innovative, and maybe even a little crazy in their thinking. Many cities participating in the Talent Dividend have taken the approach of "we won't win, so we'll try this..." which sometimes leads to greater ingenuity.

The prize is being calculated this summer and the winner will be announced in Washington DC in late October, but we've been tracking the individual progress of the cities over the past three years, showing steady (if not incremental) progress. Prizes are not overly common as a motivator in higher education, but maybe they should be. Maybe the power of the prize is just what we need to move that proverbial needle just a little. And maybe just a little is a good thing.