Keys to Crowdsourcing  Innovation Initiatives

In our previous article, we have provided examples on how different companies have leveraged crowdsourcing in solving various challenges. The concept has become increasingly important in recent years and hundreds of companies have sprouted up all over the world offering crowdsourcing services.

There are substantial benefits to crowd sourcing: a lot of new ideas are generated in a way that is cheaper, better and faster which can make it easier to get to breakthroughs. There are disadvantages, though, to crowdsourcing: a lot of ideas generated are irrelevant, not developed to a sufficient level of detail or difficult to prioritize.

IXL Center has been crowdsourcing for a long time, has made a lot of mistakes and has learned a lot of lessons which we will share with you in this article.

What we have learned is that crowdsourcing can be a very effective way to generate breakthrough innovations, but it has to be done in a particular way to guarantee great results. We propose the following seven steps as critical components of successful innovation crowdsourcing:


1. You need a great challenge

A big challenge forces people to step up to the plate and give their best. They feel like they are part of something big, which inspires them to give their all. They do everything they can to impress leadership. In the Hult Global Case Challenge (HGCC), the students give their best because they know they can potentially change the world. This is enforced by the fact that they all have to present their ideas in person to C-level executives–and in the Case Challenge, finalists present to former US President Clinton himself. If you want the best people to give their best efforts, which will lead to the best results, you need to give people a great challenge that is worth their while.

2. You need a well-defined question

You need a well-defined question because that focuses people’s efforts and leads to results that are actionable and tangible. In the HGCC, there’s a difference between asking someone how to solve the world’s water problem and asking them “How can sustainably provide access to clean water to 100 million people in the next five years?” The image we like to use is that of an airplane–you want people to come up with the next generation airplane that can carry more passengers and be more fuel efficient, but at the same time, these airplanes must be able to land on the airstrips you’ve built, otherwise, it’s useless. A well-defined question generates actionable answers.

3. You need to make it a competition

You need to make it a competition for people to give their best. Students will go the extra mile to get to the top of the class or to get better grades. Employees will go the extra mile to be seen as future leaders in their company. The HGCC contestants will go the extra mile, dreaming of the possibility to presenting their ideas to President Clinton and have their ideas implemented. Most of the time, the difference between good results and extraordinary results is simply going the extra mile–and a competition catalyzes that behavior.

4. You need to use teams to get diversity and speed

As Steven Johnson points out in his book “Where good ideas come from”, innovation is not the product of a lone genius. It happens when people share their hunches with other people and the collision of hunches ends up producing breakthrough innovations. Always use teams to create an environment for ideas to be shared and improved upon. It is important to note that the composition of teams matters: you don’t want a crew team, where everyone is the same height and weight, and rows in the exact same rhythm. You want a rugby team, a diverse team with some people who are tall and others who are short, some people who are big and some who are small, a team that appears to be messy and disagree a lot–but that in the end produces more interesting and polished results. IXL Center uses multi-cultural, cross-functional teams in all of our innovation initiatives whether it is the Hult Innovation Olympics, the Hult Prize or any other workshop or program. Finally, teams give you speed. You don’t have to process individual opinion only the team’s consolidated ideas. This means that as a crowdsourcing organization you can cut down your processing time by 75% to 90% by using teams.

5. You need to provide an innovation process

The best ideas often come from looking at things from a fresh perspective. Involving people who are new to the industry or new to the problem will generate fresh ideas and points of view. However, without a methodology to channel their contributions, it will be a frustrating experience for everyone–frustrating for the newcomers because they feel lost and don’t really know how to add value, and frustrating to the old-timers because they feel like they waste a lot of time taking in irrelevant input from the newcomers. An innovation process guides people’s contributions toward a good result. Providing an innovation process to participants makes a big difference in the final outcome. Every student, mentor and client knows where they currently are in the five steps of the Hult Innovation Olympics program – what inputs are needed, what steps to take and what the output should look like.

6. You need to provide coaches and mentors

Coaches and mentors provide something that teams in a crowdsourcing environment often lack: good judgment. Coaches know when an idea has been developed to a sufficient level of detail, when a team has gone too far down a particular path, or not far enough. Coaches bring experience to the table which is essential to optimizing results making it worthy of consideration by senior audiences. In the Hult Innovation Olympics, mentors are management consultants, who ensure that the students are on the right track, ask the right questions, and gain and express the right insights their clients need.

7. You need to have a threshold for what a good answer is

Ideas must be complete in order to be useful and comparable. It is difficult to compare an idea to build an iPad app and an idea around spending money on Google AdWords to increase brand awareness. There isn’t enough information to get a sense of the business impact those ideas can have. It is like comparing apples to oranges. Yet, most innovation crowdsourcing platforms today do exactly that: people’s suggestions are collected, voted on and prioritized for implementation similar to a popularity contest. IXL Center defines the business concept as the minimum threshold for a good answer. A business concept has elements describing the market, delivery channel, offering, production requirements and a business model. For example, the iPad app idea fragment is combined to build a concept when you say: “We can target product managers by offering them a crowdsourcing iPad app to get new product feature ideas, delivered through the iTunes store, differentiated by our existing user base, and sold as a monthly subscription.” As concepts have the same elements, it is now easier to compare concepts using objective tools that determine the concept’s business impact and likelihood to succeed in relation to other concepts. Establish a minimum threshold for a good answer to be able to meaningfully compare the ideas generated from crowdsourcing.


In conclusion, innovation can benefit significantly from crowdsourcing, but it has to be done within certain structures and frameworks in order to guarantee success. First, you must go beyond the topic, providing an important and specific challenge with a well-defined question and important people expecting results. Second, you must go beyond the mob, and use teams that compete against each other with the help of an innovation process. Third, you must go beyond the fragment, providing coaches and mentors, and setting a standard for acceptable answers, ensuring that answers are developed enough to be useful and comparable. Following these guidelines, innovation crowdsourcing can lead to breakthrough results every time.