It's no secret that people in business are turning to the crowd to solve their toughest challenges. Well-known sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow people to raise money for new projects. Design platforms like Crowdspring and 99designs give people the tools needed to crowdsource graphic design ideas and feedback.
At the Hult Prize — a start-up accelerator that challenges Millennials to develop innovative social enterprises to solve our world's most pressing issues (and rewards the top team with $1,000,000 in start-up capital) — we've learned that the crowd can also offer an unorthodox solution in developing innovative and disruptive ideas, particularly ones focused on tackling complex, large-scale social issues.
But to effectively harness the power of the crowd, you have to engage it carefully. Over the past four years, we've developed a well-defined set of principles that guide our annual "challenge," (lauded by Bill Clinton in TIME magazine as one of the top five initiatives changing the world for the better) that produces original and actionable ideas to solve social issues.
Companies like Netflix, General Electric, and Proctor & Gamble have also started "challenging the crowd" and employing many of these principles to tackle their own business roadblocks. If you're looking to spark disruptive and powerful ideas that benefit your company, follow these guidelines to launch an engaging competition:
1. Define the boundaries. Open-ended challenges are rarely successful; participants aren't engaged, ideas often aren't actionable, and you'll waste time combing through too many responses to find the few good ideas. Instead, clearly define the types of solutions that you are seeking, and the success metrics. For our latest challenge — solving the global food crisis — we set the boundaries to urban areas, which ensured that solutions were targeted to places where they could have the greatest impact. Similarly, GE's recent Hospital Quest challenge focused participants on addressing operational issues, and intentionally excluded other pressing topics such as medical outcomes and patient comfort.
2. Identify a specific and bold stretch target. Frame the challenge in a quantifiable way. Making the target a stretch will inspire your participants to think big and ensure that solutions have a significant impact. When Netflix launched its Netflix Prize, it set an aggressive target, demanding that the winning solution present a 10% improvement over Netflix's current ability to predict whether a viewer would enjoy a recommended movie. These sorts of targets may seem unattainable at first, but we have found that every time we set the bar high several teams manage to reach or exceed it.
3. Insist on low barriers to entry. The point in the early phases of the competition is to encourage as many ideas from as many different people as possible. Proctor & Gamble, on the P&G Connect + Develop site, requires only a name, email, and physical address to submit an idea. If your application includes an endless list of questions, you should start over. And if your janitor catches wind of a business challenge you plan to present to your team and expresses interest, why not let him contribute? You may find he delivers the most innovative, disruptive idea.
4. Encourage teams and networks. The social problems the Hult Prize tackles are often large in scale, and highly complex. A lone individual rarely has the expertise to harness ideas from adjacent disciplines, design a solution, and build a robust implementation plan. Diverse teams, on the other hand, generate solutions that no single individual could develop. The winning Netflix team, for instance, was comprised of a combination of earlier teams that came together and shared their expertise and partial solutions to reach the stretch target. Similarly, one of the winning teams of the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander X Prize at Armadillo Aerospace began as a venture between a game programmer and local rocketry enthusiasts in Texas.
In addition to encouraging team entries, you can go a step further and create networks of mentors, coaches, judges and enablers. These networks will help to refine, pressure test, and roll-out the great ideas generated through your initiative, encouraging not just breakthrough innovation, but long-term success.
5. Provide a toolkit. Once interested parties become participants in your challenge, provide tools to set them up for success. If you are working on a social problem, you can use IDEO's human-centered design toolkit. If you have a private-sector challenge, consider posting it on an existing innovation platform. As an organizer, you don't have to spend time recreating the wheel — use one of the many existing platforms and borrow materials from those willing to share.
Whether you're launching the next big social initiative or simply looking for creative ideas to help meet your business objectives, use these principles to get the most from the crowd. Have you tried tapping the crowd to find disruptive ideas for your business? If so, what principles would you add to this list?