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Unleashing the Crowd

New research shows how to rethink crowdsourcing for innovation… and the fundamental way organizations work

February 04, 2020
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Your company has a strategic problem or business opportunity that could benefit from new input. In search for an innovative solution, you might turn to a few trusted colleagues to provide input. But that gives you only a limited number of inputs.

However, like many companies, you might be skeptical that crowds can provide good innovative ideas, especially to open-ended problem. You might have decided that crowds are only useful for public relations stunts, brand communities, or positive Yelp reviews, giving up on the notion that crowds can provide innovative solutions to open-ended strategic problems.

But you would be wrong, according to new research out of USC Marshall.

Ann Majchrzak, USC Associates Chair in Business Administration and professor of digital innovation. and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Arvind Malhotra, who spent the past five years researching the issue before publishing Unleashing the Crowd: Collaborative Solutions to Wicked Business and Social Problems. (Springer 2020) We want to convince managers that they can be doing crowdsourcing for innovation differently, and getting more value from it.”

“The traditional approach of simply asking the crowd for ideas doesn’t work because simply asking for ideas doesn’t get you better ideas,” said Majchrzak. “The way crowdsourcing for innovation is done today, it undercuts the ability of a lot of people to make a difference.”

Unleashing the Crowd describes experimental evidence and detailed case studies showing that the traditional approach generates less innovative ideas than an approach that better utilizes the crowd. Instead of just asking for ideas, this new approach asks people to share knowledge, personal experiences, and creative associations they have that are related to the problem. This allows the crowd to benefit from the knowledge in the crowd.  Moreover, it allows anyone to participate even if they don’t have an idea, adding to the diversity of inputs—as long as they have access to the internet. 


Unleashing the Crowd is not a how-to book; it is more of a why-to book, offering a set of practices and the data and empirical support behind them.

“This means that a janitor, a young person, the unemployed, the marginalized, the activist, the silent majority all get a voice in the problem-solving,” said Majchrzak. “And their voice may simply be sharing an analogy or a connection to something they are more familiar with.

These diverse voices help trigger new ideas that are more complete, more innovative, and more implementable, she said.

“It just makes sense that, with the more varied knowledge that the crowd shares, the better the ideas generated by the crowd,” she said.

Unleashing the Crowd is not a how-to book; it is more of a why-to book, offering a set of practices and the data and empirical support behind them. “We provide the empirical evidence, a description of the technology platform to make this happen, and a description of how the crowd gets from sharing knowledge to generating innovative ideas,” said Majchrzak.

Crowd Solutions: Not Simply Better Advertisements or Algorithms 

In the 25 experimental innovation challenges the researchers conducted and five cases studies, crowds faced questions as difficult, open-ended, and systemic as “How do we remove the pests in New Zealand?” and “What new services should we consider to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation of health care clients?”

These crowds were able to develop new business models for companies in the throes of technology change, including new market niches, new forms of health care insurance for marginalized communities, social change and literacy

The researchers dug into each of the innovation challenges conducted to understand how and why the crowds were able to generate such innovative ideas.  To their surprise, they found that everything the crowds were doing was unexpected:

  • The Innovation Challenges were short, allowing posting from 3-10 days
  • Each crowd member posted anonymously and only once; at the most twice; these were not your normal conversations,
  • Crowds participated even though they received minimal financial incentives,
  • The technology platforms they used are only slight changes from those available
  • Crowd members never knew each other and weren’t interested in getting to know each other; they were there to help with problem-solving only

In one case, a team was having difficulty coming up with an overarching theme for the features of their software product. They set up a challenge open to all of the company’s employees. Somebody offered an analogy: Having watched her son play hockey, she noticed that the puck goes through all sorts of obstacles to reach the goal. Couldn’t this network-based software product be seen in the same way? The message is going to ping off one barrier and then another and then finally achieve the goal: the message gets to the receiver. The team rallied around that.

“That person offered an analogy and that triggered for software experts a way to think about the product in a new way. So that’s what we mean by creativity triggers,” Majchrzak said. “When you offer analogies and metaphors and paradoxes, and different ways of thinking about the problem, then that stimulates others to do the same. And that’s what the crowd is great for.”

Implications for the Way Organizations Work

When the researchers looked to see who had posted that hockey analogy, it was a secretary. As Majchrzak explained, anonymity works best for innovation because people might evaluate an idea differently depending on its source. A point as simple as that has huge implications for how organizations can work more effectively, she said.

Majchrzak’s earlier research focused on virtual collaboration, proving that a virtual meeting is preferable to an in-person one when innovation is the goal. “What I demonstrated years ago is that when you want innovation, it’s actually better not to sit down together, it’s better to be virtual because then you’re not limited by the social cues, not limited by who’s available. If everybody is pseudo-anonymous and virtual, you can be more innovative.”

And, to the researchers’ surprise, social support — from those who cheer on ideas — is counterproductive to innovation. “That’s a huge shift from the current thinking because almost all websites and social media have some way of rank-ordering individuals,” Majchrzak said. “What we find is that’s not helpful, and in fact it harms if you want innovation.”

Other implications of Majchrzak and Malhotra’s research include the need to rethink the role of managers.

“Managers should become experts at not problem definition but problem inclusion,” Majchrzak said. “We need to help managers become better at including others in understanding and defining vision and problems and doing a lot of what I call problem-solution matching. Instead of being so hierarchical and rule-based and focused on roles and job titles, we need to be more focused on knowledge and not assuming that knowledge is unique to a role but is unique to a problem or solution.”

The secretary may not know anything about software, but she does know about hockey, and there was no way of knowing in advance that hockey was relevant to this problem, Majchrzak pointed out.

“So there is no way of knowing what’s the right job title in this more ambiguous world where we want a lot of innovation happening. We need to realize the value of focusing on knowledge and recognizing the serendipity and unpredictability of when that knowledge is relevant.”

Removing the "MindCuffs"

To construct their theory, Majchrzak and Malhotra analyzed five case studies and set up 25 innovation challenges with companies facing sticky problems. The challenges were run with either the traditional or the collective production models. The crowds were open, online, pseudo-anonymous and temporary (7 to 10 days).

They discovered five practices that explain how crowds produce innovative and useful ideas:

  • Passing small bits of knowledge like batons.

Idea-sharing approach: Individuals come to the crowd with fully developed ideas.

Collective production of innovative ideas: Individuals typically leave 1 or 2 short posts without expecting to start a conversation or get feedback on those posts. Others are free to pick up the knowledge and run with it, or not.

  • Sharing a variety of types of knowledge.

Idea-sharing approach: Only fully developed solutions are considered.

Collective production of innovative ideas: Anyone can share knowledge. Variety is more important than the content or the number of ideas generated. Types could include: facts about the problem, examples of how the problem may have been solved in other contexts, paradoxical objectives to consider in solving the problem and ideas for solving the problem.

  • Expanding on others’ creative associations.

Idea-sharing approach: None of the other participants know what anyone else’s ideas are.

Collective production of innovative ideas: The ideas are developed by combining the variety of knowledge in the crowd posts. Participants use the creative associations shared by others as jumping off points, to come up with other associations they might have. Individuals then post these associations, which serve to inspire others to post associations, which starts a positive feedback loop providing more fodder for creative discovery.

  • Redefining the problem or needs to spark creative associations.

Idea-sharing approach: The manager defines the problem.

Collective production of innovative ideas: The crowd can reformulate needs by offering personalized and concrete examples of the need in a different context. This creates an analogy for others to build upon and generate new needs that bring more value-based ideas to the table.

  • Letting everyone choose their own role in the process.

Idea-sharing approach: There is only one role: idea generator.

Collective production of innovative ideas: Not everyone has to submit a well-thought out idea or solution. Some may offer need reframing, creative associations or basic facts. Others may generate new solutions by using the knowledge provided by others. Different roles allow for a wide variety of individuals to participate.

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