Is Crowd-Sourcing for Ideas Really the Best Answer?

by Michael Allen

CrowdsourcingCrowd-sourcing has become the predominant model used to support corporate innovation for a number of years now. By crowdsourcing I mean presenting employees with challenges / questions and asking for ideas.

It’s prefaced on the assumption that there is benefit in asking people to engage in strategic and operational issues by giving them the opportunity to offer their ideas and help qualify (normally through rating or voting) and commenting on other people’s ideas. I have no doubt that there is a benefit and a very real benefit here.

The problem is that these benefits can easily compete with the other key benefit that organisations go looking for which is to innovate – to find game-changing and disruptive ideas.

If that’s the primary benefit you are looking for, here are the reasons why crowdsourcing ideas might not be the best approach;

1. The concept that the bigger the crowd, the more likely you are to find the ‘gold nugget’ takes a big leap of faith and it’s not a concept that I am comfortable with. In a limited crowd like an organisation, there are two groups, the un-engaged and the already or easily-engaged. You can find out who they are by inviting them to join in. You don’t need to go to the trouble of engaging them in any other way. Getting ideas and participation from the un-engaged is a big ask and can be a big distraction.

2. “Often really innovative ideas often look awfully like really dumb ideas” is my favourite quote from Jocelyn Goldfein in her brilliant article The Innovation Dead-end (click here for the full article). Not only are they the hardest to describe and socialise (because we don’t generally like looking dumb) but they are also the hardest to spot. The article points out that Venture Capitol firms are in the business of looking for, funding and selling the most radical ideas and they get it wrong more often than they get it right – a failure rate that corporations couldn’t sustain.

3. There’s a cost in searching through the ideas from the crowd both in terms of manpower but also the cost of potentially dis-engaging people if their idea wasn’t considered.

4. The last reason and possibly the most important reason is that innovation is rarely a ‘lack of ideas problem’ – it’s an execution problem. Click here for the whole argument in this article in the Harvard Business Review.

If it’s not crowd-sourcing ideas then what’s the answer then?

As always, there’s more than one answer;

1. I’ve blogged about this before and it’s called Intrapreneurship (you can read the whole blog by clicking here), but in short you invite people to join-in and set the minimum barrier as having an idea then put your time and resources into supporting these people.

2. Leave the staff engagement benefits behind and look outside your organisation for ideas. This is called Open Innovation. It might include customers but it might also be to outsource the ideation and development to a specialist organisation. Although the latter costs more because you are paying for resources and ideas, you are able to describe the kind of ideas you are looking for, which isn’t a possibility with open innovation – back to the leap of faith that somewhere in the crowd you’ll find a nugget of gold.

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