“To answer the most vexing innovation and research questions, crowds are becoming the partner of choice.” – leading innovation academics, Prof. Kevin Boudreau and Prof. Karim Lakhani

Crowdsourcing can be defined as putting a question or task to a large group for their input. The group can either be paid or unpaid for their ideas. They are typically found through the Internet. Great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. Therefore, it’s logical that companies are using as a way to come up with innovative ideas.

There’s nothing new in this. The Brits used crowdsourcing to solve the longitude problem. This had stumped even the most brilliant minds of the 18th century.

Twenty-first-century enterprises are cashing in on crowdsourcing’s benefits too. Think Lego, Starbucks, NASA, Netflix. You get the drift.

Partnering with the Crowd

But not all organizations succeed in pulling the crowd. Remember Kaggle, InnoCentive, TopCoder, Quirkly? They all engaged in crowdsourced solutions. And they all started out with a bang. Today, they have either shrunk, been bought out or folded.

85% of the top global brands were crowdsourcing in the ten years leading up to 2016.

Yet, it seems more and more, companies and public sectors are ditching traditional innovation processes. They are opting instead to tap into the potential of the masses. According to eYeka , 85% of the top global brands were crowdsourcing in the ten years leading up to 2016.

Finding ideas in the crowd is still the go-to solution right now. It’s seen as creating new experiences and cracking big problems. For that reason, it ain’t going away. But mob innovation can come with problems. These include the lack of confidentiality and lack of communication with a mass of participants. There is also the potential for IP contamination. And, above all, the problem of how to manage the hordes of ideas.

Innovation from the Outside-In

Let’s set aside the big hitters we all know in our sleep. Rather, what are some atypical examples of successful crowdsourcing innovation? Furthermore, what type of problems were they trying to solve? Here are a few out of the ordinary champions.

Planting a Forest From the Sky

The problem: an urgent, global challenge needing a radical solution. In 2017 the GHR Foundation asked for ideas to this broad issue. Its BridgeBuilder Challenge generated 650 ideas from 185 participating countries.\n\nOne of the winning ideas involved Myanmar. It had lost over 1 million hectares of forest mangroves. Human efforts to restore the fragile coast were painstakingly slow. How to speed things up, fast? The answer came from above: Custom-made drones that could plant 100,000 trees in a single day. The drone project is the brainchild of a startup. It’s successfully planted 750 hectares of trees. A further 1 million trees are in the pipeline.

Keeping a Lid on Plastic Waste

Circular Design Challenge produced 619 ideas overall. And the answer to this particular problem: a new food packet made from seaweed

The problem: how to create small wrappers without causing plastic waste? This was one of the questions Ellen MacArthur Foundation asked the crowd in 2017. Its $1 million Circular Design Challenge produced 619 ideas overall. And the answer to this particular problem: a new food packet made from seaweed. A healthy wrapper if eaten; ecological if thrown away. The idea came from a startup in Indonesia. Plastic pollution in Indonesia’s ocean is second only to China. Bingo.

Interestingly, companies like PepsiCo, Nestle, Veolia, and Marks & Spencer helped shape and judge the challenge. Because of this, participants crafted solutions rooted in business realities.

Planning a City’s Future

The problem: how to plan for a city’s future? This was the question asked by the Melbourne city council through its community collaboration project Future Melbourne 2026. It invited anyone and everyone to give ideas for its strategic plan for the next decade. Online and face-to-face engagement over a period of two months generated 970 ideas. A citizen jury then rewrote the Future Melbourne plan based on the ideas. The jury presented the plan to the city in August 2016.

Recycling That Old Gym Boot

The problem: how to create a waste-free future by using Nike Grind materials? Nike has asked the crowd for ideas on everyday products using material from used footwear and manufacturing scrap. Its Circular Innovation Challenge has generated many bold ideas. But the jury’s still out on this one. Final submissions are being reviewed so the top ideas will be announced soon.

Open to Suggestions: The Secret to Successful Crowdsourcing

So what’s behind successful crowdsourced innovation?

A study of the crowdsourcing efforts of over 20,000 organizations was published in 2017 in the Harvard Business Review. The study concluded that the actions organizations take explain whether they succeed or fail in crowdsourcing:

  • Organizations need to put crowd suggestions into effect – this validates and motivates the crowd. It also shows the types of suggestions the organization likes.

  • Organizations need to let the crowd know about their own internal suggestions – this shows the types of ideas the organizations are interested in. Further, it fosters trust.

  • Organizations should also avoid campaigns that did not produce many ideas the first time around.

  • Newbies are more likely to respond to an organization’s call for ideas than the usual suspects – they don’t yet know whether the organization will listen to their ideas. Careful, though! It’s important that the organization shows newcomers that it cares.

Final Thoughts

With crowdsourcing comes the issue of management. Organizations have to manage a large scale of participants with a truckload of ideas. This can end up being a big time waster for management. While not resulting in ideas.

First of all: someone within the organization needs to take ownership of the process. Second and even more: use a platform such as our innovation app to bring together the right crowd and manage these resources.