Monday, September 20, 2010

The Candle Problem

I have a riddle for you!

On a table, there’s a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks. But here’s the problem: no one knows how to fix the candle to the wall without the wax dripping onto the table below.

Representatives of the candle, match, and tack industries have poured millions of dollars into studies in order to crack the case. A $20 million effort attempted to jam tacks through the candle to attach it to the wall. A $30 million study looked into the possibility of melting the wax on one side of the candle to make it stick to the wall. Neither idea worked.

Desperate to find a solution, the Big 3 decided on a novel approach—they issued a public challenge and promised a large sum of cash to whoever could end their candle dilemma once and for all.

An out-of-the-box thinker came to the rescue. “Why not, you know, take the tacks out of the box, and use that?”


But is that how it works in real life? Dan Pink, a career analyst and former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, contends problem-solving is slightly more complicated than that.

In his TED speech entitled ‘The Surprising Science of Motivation,’ Pink references a study that shows how individuals that are promised a reward for solving the candle problem actually perform WORSE than their un-rewarded competitors. On the surface, the finding doesn’t really make sense—isn’t money the ultimate motivator in our market-driven society?

(By the way, if you’re not familiar with TED, it’s an incredible series of talks that allow some of the brightest minds in the world to widely share their ideas. Check it out at

There are two reasons why the candle bonuses failed. First, rewards are excellent at narrowing our focus to solve a very specific problem, but they’re not nearly as useful in helping spur broad, creative thinking. Second, a reward must be tied to some intrinsic motivation to be truly effective—unfortunately, most of the study participants didn’t feel any personal desire to keep the table wax-free, they just wanted the cash.

At Prize4Life, we’re not just throwing money at a problem. Our prizes are highly focused on specific outcomes. Find a biomarker to track the progression of the disease and/or add a promising candidate (with a powerful effect on an ALS mouse model) to the drug development pipeline, and you’ll be rewarded. We’ve taken a broad goal—curing ALS—and narrowed the focus to these key challenges that prizes can help meet. By solving these smaller problems, we are opening the floodgates, and industry will pour resources into the search for a cure.

In addition, the people competing for our prizes have a powerful intrinsic motivation. Whether they know someone with ALS or not, helping to find a cure for this horrific disease means becoming part of something important—giving a normal life to thousands upon thousands of people.

The moral of this story: money can’t solve everything. But if used right, it sure can make a difference.

For another inspiring and fascinating discussion on how and why problems should be shared with a more extensive audience of potential ‘solvers,’ watch Ted Andersen, curator of the TED conferences, in his talk entitled ‘Crowd Accelerated Innovation.’

1 comment:

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