Is Crowdsourcing Ideas a Bad Idea?

From HBR

It seems like the crowd has an answer to all sorts of innovation problems – they can come up with ideas for new toys and generate solutions to pressing scientific challenges. In theory, the crowd holds tremendous potential: A large, diverse group of people, consisting of experts and others from all over the world, should have fresh perspectives to bring about breakthrough insights on a given problem.

In practice, however, most crowdsourcing initiatives end up with an overwhelming amount of useless ideas. 

The blog post by Cass Business School's Oguz Acar goes on to say that the suggestion box is more of a circular file than a font of innovation. Sifting through ideas is time consuming and difficult, producing innovation with a very low ROI. 

What's the reason? Motivation. According to Acar, individuals in the crowd are motivated by desire -- their own: to problem solve, to learn, to make a positive impact, to be part of a community or win stuff for participating. Different motivations have different effects on idea quality. The result? Organizations blow off the crowdsourced ideas and instead "focus on ideas that are already familiar to them."

So much for crowdsourcing ideas.

But does it matter? Too many crowdsourced ideas isn't a problem, and selfish motivations shouldn't get in the way of a good idea. The needle is in the haystack. Evaluating ideas without a disciplined rational process is the problem. 

How can you crowdsource your customers or stakeholders and make sense of all the ideas you receive? Here's what I do:

  • Put your bias aside. A bad idea that works isn't bad (the reverse is true, too). If you are doing product development or finding the right marketing plan or evaluating sessions for a conference, you are likely not your customer. Let your customers decide what's good and what's not.
  • Find idea patterns. Often, a crowdsourced idea comes in variations. You can reduce the number of ideas by grouping similar ideas. For example, "stainless steel bolts" and "bolts that don't rust" might be the same idea, not two different ideas that should be evaluated separately. 
  • Separate questions. Sometimes ideas can't be compared because they address different questions. For example, ideas for a mobile campus app might include a "campus map" and "show a map of buildings." These address two different questions. One is, "should I have a map of campus on my mobile app?" If the answer is yes, the second is "what should a map of campus show?" If the answer is no, you can throw out all the ideas for a campus map, thereby reducing the number of ideas you have to evaluate.
  • Test your ideas to find the best ones. I made pairLab to prioritize ideas to help me find what works and what doesn't work. In fact, it crowdsources ideas in the process and feeds them back into the survey. With pairLab, I get the best of both worlds: a way to crowdsource ideas and a way to test them.

Crowdsourced ideas solved.

So, is crowdsourcing a bad idea? Not if you know how to handle it.

Posted by Christian
on August 15, 2020