What Does the Crowd Know?

by Jeffrey Phillips

What Does the Crowd Know?

In one of my favorite movies, The Blues Brothers, the guys get themselves into a jam. They are supposed to play at Bob’s Country Bunker, and don’t really know what kind of music the audience enjoys.  When they ask the waitress she responds, “Both kinds.  Country and Western”.  Like the folks at Bob’s Country Bunker I happen to enjoy both kinds of innovation, internal “closed” innovation and external “open” innovation.  In fact I wrote a chapter in A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing about the different kinds of open innovation.  Both have their uses and both have their limitations.  Understanding when and where to apply the different kinds of innovation will help you find the most relevant and valuable ideas.  Using these innovation types in the wrong way will frustrate your teams and reinforce the image that innovation isn’t effective.

Crowds, especially large, energized and homogeneous crowds, know a lot about a product or service. They know what they like about the product. They know what they dislike about the product.  They know what substitutes or alternatives exist and the strengths and shortcomings of the substitutes and alternatives.  But, as has been demonstrated time and again, crowds, and individuals have a hard time conceptualizing something completely new and different.  To quote Henry Ford once again, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a better horse”.  No one asked for a car, because it wasn’t within their worldview or perspective.

Crowds, especially large crowds, revert to the mean, and in this case they revert to the mean of their collective understanding.  What this means in general terms is that crowds are good if you are trying to understand short term needs, short term frustrations and incremental solutions.  On the other hand, crowds and crowdsourcing aren’t valuable if you are seeking radical or disruptive ideas, for several reasons:

  1. They can’t imagine a major change or the absence of the product or service
  2. They have a vested interest in the existing product. They prefer slight improvements to radical change
  3. They forecast the future to look a lot like the present and can’t image a reason for significant change
  4. They don’t believe that companies will invest to create something radically new and different

I don’t mean to belittle crowdsourcing, and I know a number of firms that have used the tool reasonably well. After all, it is only a tool, and only one method or approach in a range of tools and methods lumped under the open innovation umbrella.  Appropriately used, it can have good value, especially for identifying acceptable incremental innovations or understanding the challenges and frustrations caused by an existing product.

If you are looking for ideas outside of an incremental solution, or hoping that you’ll get a lot of ideas that are interesting and radical simply because you are asking more people the question, you’ll be disappointed in crowdsourcing unless you invite a lot of people who aren’t your customers or don’t think they need your product.  But then your team will have to deal with the kind of feedback that may be a bit more difficult to hear.

If crowdsourcing is an important tool for innovation, then we need to use it effectively and appropriately.  Two main questions come to mind:

  1. What is it that the crowd knows that I don’t, and how can I use that effectively? 
  2. What kinds of ideas and innovations can they imagine, and what kinds of ideas do I want or need?

If you are seeking radical or game changing ideas, or ideas with deep intellectual property, then this particular open innovation tool may not be right for you.

image credit: wikipedia


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

No comments

  1. Hi Jeffrey, always appreciate a good Blues Brothers opening! I think at the end of your post you make an important distinction between a crowd of consumers and a crowd or community of external specialists & generalists who don’t have biases with a specific product or service.

    Routinely in the TopCoder Community, the competition will be a revisioning of a service, a user experience, a completely new way to solve an issue or a literal innovation – so I think the blanket crowds are good at this, not so much this over simplifies a bit. I say this with exact experience witnessing a competitive community take a brand new idea – born from competition – and bring it through the entire dev life cycle – and complete the journey with a brand new “thing” that even the client had no idea they wanted until they saw it come to life.

    Do you think this distinction is fair? Consumer crowd versus a community with specialized skills?

    Thx for the quality post!

  2. Hi Clinton.
    I weep for this generation, having to grow up without the antics of Jon Belushi and Dan Akroyd. But I digress.

    You raise two interesting and interrelated points. First, the “Crowd” you are talking about is a very unique crowd. They all represent highly proficient coders, and you are asking them questions about an area of expertise they possess. So this isn’t a “typical” crowdsourcing event but a gathering of experts (or at least people with a lot of expertise). Second, it is not a typical crowdsourcing event because you note that it is a “contest”. Open innovation is an umbrella term that encompasses crowdsourcing, proprietary networks, RFP applications like Nine Sigma and Innocentive and contests. The reason I think contests are different from traditional crowdsourcing is that a contest has a specific focus or challenge in mind from the start. Starbucks and Dell use crowdsourcing but they don’t present a specific challenge or issue, whereas contests ask for submitters to solve a very specific issue. For example, the BP Gulf Oil spill forced BP to create a contest to allow people to submit ideas about removing oil from seawater. That framing makes a huge difference in the kind of ideas you receive, the breadth and depth of ideas you receive vis a vis a traditional crowdsourcing activity.

    Done well, a good contest with the right participants may be one of the best uses of “open” innovation where a large body of independent people are involved. Still though, even a contest often rejects disruptive ideas or prefers incremental ideas over disruptive ideas. One other issue with a contest. If the “Crowd” is also evaluating or voting on ideas as well as submitting ideas, there is a natural bias in a contest to vote for your own ideas, rather than rank the best ideas.

    Probably more than you wanted as a response, hopefully helpful.

    • Good Stuff Jeffrey!

      I will grant a competition does bring certain focus. To your first point, yes individuals have hyperspecialized skills in a community like TopCoder – but one fine point to make – sometimes our contests are on things they have no experience in whatsoever, sometimes because it just hasn’t been done or attempted yet. When that is the case, we find near-field expertise to be a BIG factor. They repurpose something they learned along the way and apply it, tweak it to something new – and sometimes, they get an extreme value outcome at the end of the road.

      Thx for the spirited back and forth, have a great weekend too!

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