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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Tip 12 from Best Practices are Stupid…

Imagine you are the former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Your state is struggling with myriad issues ranging from a perpetual and growing deficit to a decaying education system to an infrastructure that can’t handle the ever-increasing population.

What do you do?

Like any good innovator, you turn to crowdsourcing, just as Governor Schwarzenegger did. He created a site designed to allow anyone to post their suggestions and comments, and vote on the best ideas.  Thousands of people participated. Which idea received the greatest support?

Did it involve reducing government spending? Did it help improve traffic and other infrastructure issues? Did it tackle educational issues? No. The winning idea was…

Legalize and tax marijuana.

Although the crowds felt that this might be the best way to solve many of the state’s woes, it didn’t solve any of the problems that the government wanted to handle.

In August 2009, a New York Times story detailed a similar effort by President Barack Obama to elicit ideas from the American public.

“The White House made its first major entree into government by the people last month when it set up an online forum to ask ordinary people for their ideas on how to carry out the president’s open-government pledge. It got an earful — on legalizing marijuana, revealing UFO secrets and verifying Mr. Obama’s birth certificate to prove he was really born in the United States and thus eligible to be president.”

Asking people for their opinions and allowing them to vote is not always the best way to run your innovation efforts.

What can we learn from all of this?

First and foremost, as stated in a previous tip, it is critical to clearly define the challenge. Both of these platforms were built around broad and ambiguous questions.

Crowdsourcing is not intended to be a democratic tool designed to gather the whims and wishes of individuals. It is intended to source solutions, not opinions.

Some might refer to what we are seeing on these sites as mobsourcing.   This occurs when a few people lead the pack and provide most of the input, while the rest of the crowd hops on the bandwagon without adding anything meaningful to the discussion.

This explains why voting is not usually the most effective way of sorting through ideas, suggestions, or solutions. Have you ever tried using a democratic voting mechanism as a means of whittling down a long list of submissions?  If so, how effective was it? I suspect that it probably didn’t work out as nicely as you had hoped.

Although we often hear about the “wisdom of crowds,” in reality, personal prejudices tend to bias the process. When crowdsourcing focuses on “how something should be done” (solutions) rather than “what should be done” (voting), we are able to more effectively tap into the true intelligence of the masses.

[this is a highly condensed version of the original chapter]

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