The Crowdstorm Effect: 21st Century Innovation

by Peter Ryder and Shaun Abrahamson

21st-century-skillsIn Part 1 of this series we looked at why organizations are considering new ways of working with crowds. In Part 2, we want to examine the organizational structures that organizations are using, along with the processes they are putting in place, to work with external talent to help them innovate.

21st Century Innovation Requires New Ways of Organizing Talent

At the heart of successful crowdstorming projects are the people who participate. The kinds of participation we consider fall into two patterns defined by what we ask people to do. In the Search pattern, as the name implies, our main objective is to find ideas. We want to search for and incent the right people who have great ideas (based on the right domain knowledge) to join our challenge.

In the Collaborative pattern, we don’t just want ideas. We want people to help improve the idea through feedback and evaluation. In the Search pattern we often ask questions where the responses can be easily tested else we must rely on experts to evaluate lots of ideas fairly efficiently. In the Collaborative pattern, we structure our challenge to not only get the most innovative ideas but to engage an audience to give us insights and help us filter what they think are the best ideas.

Regardless of the pattern, there is a set of tasks needed to run a successful crowdstorm:

• Plan: Determine the right question to ask the crowd and define the incentives to motivate the crowd,
• Organize: Build a coalition (if needed to help with incentives, outreach, media, etc.), recruit the crowd and determine the technology needed to enable the crowdstorm,
• Execute: Encourage good behavior, understand contributions and select the best ideas.

Let’s look at a few of these to see how organizations are successfully delivering crowdstorms.

Asking 10-20 people on a project to do something is one thing: you have the luxury to bat the question around, get buy-in, and make sure all understand. Asking the same of 1,000 people whom you don’t know is something else again. Clarity of outcome is key: are you looking for a napkin sketch or a prototype? The right level of detail matters: too much and you prescribe the solution and limit innovation; too little and you end up with squishy results or responses that simply miss the mark. Providing a lens into your business — how the innovation will impact your value proposition, your channel to market, your partners, your customers, your bottom line — helps participants determine what to consider and how to bound their responses. And, all of these assume you provide clear evaluation criteria.

But you also want to inspire interest from, and ignite the imagination of, participants. Framing a question to inspire creative problem solving often requires that you develop a storyline that helps participants imagine the journey from point A (the status quo) to point B (the resolution). When we ask a virtual community to help us, we want to shape the question in a way that helps them find the narrative thread that leads from the improbable to the inevitable solution.

Xprize’s life sciences challenge to innovate diagnostic technologies using wireless sensors provides a good example. The winner was required to deliver a solution that most reliably diagnosed a set of 15 diseases while providing the best customer experience; the submissions needed to be working prototypes that could be tested, so the task was complex. But, Xprize created a narrative simply by naming the challenge “Tricorder”. For any Star Trek fan, the word Tricorder immediately conjures an image of the medical device of the future: it provides a vision for participants to aspire to; it paints an end state for the imagination.

A well-framed call to action is important for activating participation, but we need more. We need to consider why people are going to join our challenge. Crowds always have alternatives to do something else – so why would they join in? If storytelling is the hallmark for how we ask questions of the crowd, then chemistry is our marker for establishing incentives.

There is a periodic table of motivation; engaging participation involves mixing the following incentives together:

● Good – Sustainability, Health, Education, Society,
● Attention – Awards, Media, Contacts,
● Money – Prize, Contract, Partnership, Financing,
● Experience – Social, Learning, Entertainment.

We use the GAME acronym to remind us that while financial incentives are important, open innovation is about much more. Particularly when we are organizing projects using the Collaborative pattern.

The right mix of incentives is clearly tied to what we ask participants to do. But, crowdstorming is still only as good as the crowd that shows up. In the final part of our series, we will look at how we recruit crowds and dig a little deeper into the value they can provide beyond ideas.

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Peter Ryderpete-ryder is co-author of Crowdstorm: The Future of Innovation, Ideas and Problem Solving (Wiley). He has had a successful career with Deloitte, CSC, and Accenture helping organizations use technology to transform their operations. Today he works as an investor and advisor.


shaunabrahamson-150x150Shaun Abrahamson is co-author of Crowdstorm: The Future of Innovation, Ideas and Problem Solving (Wiley). Shaun was an early stage investor and advisor with MIT Computer Aided Design Lab and the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. Today he is Co-founder & Managing Partner at Urban.Us and an Advisor to Future of Urban Development & Services Initiative, World Economic Forum/

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  1. Great article guys. Bought the book a few weeks ago and it was a truly insightful read. Thanks so much and wonderful book.

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