Harnessing the power of crowds

A crowdsourcing rallying cry

Epi Ludvik Nekaj

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Photograph by Daisuke Takakura

— History shows that crowdsourcing is not new. Today, a proliferation of open innovation platforms encourages skilled experts throughout the world to compete for cash and status by offering solutions to an array of challenges, whether as individuals or as collaborative teams. Yet, people are skeptical that this process leads to better innovation.

Now that billions of us are linked to each other through the personal technology of social media, and as a serial entrepreneur dedicated to the cause of pushing back the boundaries of harnessing the power of crowds, I have been surprised to see that some of my contemporaries see crowdsourcing as bad for business. I have built a Crowdsourcing Week network, where modern versions of crowdsourcing are on the verge of becoming much more mainstream, but realize that there is still a huge job to be done to convince crowdsourcing skeptics. 

History shows that crowdsourcing is not a new practice. Britain wanted its navy and merchant fleets to travel and trade safely throughout its global territories, and in the 1700s, ran the open-innovation Longitude Challenge that resulted in accurate navigation. In the 1800s, Napoleon needed to feed his armies while they were on the move and launched a prize challenge that led to canned food. In the 2010s, NASA received a prize-winning solution for a foldaway radiation shield challenge after reaching out to origami experts.

At a professional level, a proliferation of open innovation platforms encourages skilled experts throughout the world to compete for cash and status by offering solutions to an array of challenges, whether as individuals or as collaborative teams. They also enable the involvement of “citizen scientists,” who, despite a lack of recognized status or credentials, may offer original ideas from a novel perspective. 

Open innovation challenges generate suggestions and solutions more cost-effectively than relying solely on traditional R&D teams, or tendering expensive contracts to a limited number of established suppliers.

Where people are unencumbered by an established reputation in any particular area they can be braver and take more risks. They also might apply different mindsets and skill sets than an organization might look for in a full-time employee.  

What is new is the high number of people and the speed at which they can be contacted. The fact that this could be construed as a negative factor merely identifies that plenty of commentators have no idea how to set qualified aims, and then how to plan, launch, and manage an open innovation challenge to achieve them. Like an iceberg, many people see only what is visible above the water line and remain oblivious to the rest of the structure. So, how can we best use crowdsourcing? At a recent Crowdsourcing Week conference in San Francisco, Aurelie Wen, the CEO of the open innovation platform Agorize North America, presented to delegates on “nine ways to ruin an open innovation challenge project.” Her pitch deck highlights how to knock nine key parts on an open innovation challenge out of the park. Here are some of the key takeaways for how to use crowdsourcing in your favor:

Define a problem and not a solution. If you define a solution, then you are not going to get the best innovation – you are going to get iterations of the same idea. Of course, you need to define some parameters for the end goal (e.g., no bigger than X, able to be powered by Y, fits in Z, etc.) so the results will be usable and applicable to your situation. But, other than that, leave it up to the participants to determine a solution. You’ll be surprised by what you get!

Make it worthwhile for teams. What are you offering people as an incentive? Is the prize attractive? Or is one even necessary — how about offering an investment in a company, or a job with your company, or testing in your labs? Or, for an internal challenge, unique opportunities, such as dinner with a CEO at their home, sounds one up on mentioning a winner’s name in a company newsletter. It is not always about the prize money — it is about the other opportunities the winner gets for being associated with you and your competition. Maybe you’ll offer something that money can’t buy.

Don’t ask for too much. All too often, people see prize competitions as the Holy Grail — they think they can just ask for everything and the kitchen sink and give only a few weeks to complete it. Think about what you really need and do not ask for more than that. Then give a realistically appropriate amount of time (but not too much time) for the teams to complete the task. Remember, it is the participants’ time and money that are at risk, so if you are asking for too much in too little time, they are not going to compete for your prize competition. I’ve seen too many prize challenges fail because only a handful of participants competed, and that’s one of the reasons against crowdsourcing  as a path to innovation.

WHO WROTE THIS?

Epi Ludvik Nekaj
Epi Ludvik Nekaj

Founder & CEO, Crowdsorucing Week