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Crowdstorming: Three Patterns for Crowdsourcing Brainstorming

Crowdstorming: Three Patterns for Crowdsourcing Brainstorming

Editor's Note: The following guest post comes exclusively to from Shaun Abrahamson, who is co-author, along with Peter Ryder and Bastian Unterberg, of the new book "crowd storm: The Future of Innovation, Ideas and Problem Solving."

For some time, brainstorming has been a dependable process for ideas. And over the last decade, my co-authors and I have been able to conduct much larger scale brainstorms with online crowds. Over the last three years, I’ve researched different crowdstorming projects and identified 3 main patterns. The simplest are focused on gathering ideas (and finding the people and teams behind them). But the more complex patterns go further, involving the crowd in processes to select ideas but also to build upon and improve ideas.

Pattern 1: Search - the humble starting point

The strength of the Search Pattern lies in its simplicity. The primary objective is to find participants and therefore the best strategies focus on generating awareness about the issue at hand.

It is at the core of how successful venture investors find the next big idea and it's how new designers are discovered via contests like the Dyson Awards. And it's also how DARPA found Stanley, the first robot car, in a race that is very similar to the first search for the best automobile in the US in 1895 by the Chicago Times-Herald.

The Search Pattern is great if you have a simple way to find a winner, like a race, but if you need to judge a winning idea, the process quickly gets bogged down and we waste time looking at 90 percent of the ideas that we expect will not be very good. Having small groups review thousands of ideas can be complex and time consuming, which is why a second pattern emerged that we like to call the collaboration pattern.

Pattern 2: Collaboration - addressing the limitations of search 

At their simplest, Collaboration Patterns add a new role. They ask a crowd to vote or rate ideas and they use these votes to rank ideas. We’ve seen this work for more than a decade for products on and the creation of new celebrities on American Idol and its at the core of how Threadless picks great designs and how LEGO is discovering new product ideas via Cuusoo.

Voting has its challenges as various public voting processes have shown in the past. But even if we don’t use voting to pick the winner, the voting and rating process enables us to overcome the tyranny of ideas. If we can remove 90 percent of ideas from serious consideration, we can make life bearable for our expert reviewers again because we’ve reduced our expert workload by a factor of 10.

Voting is just one type of feedback. In fact, many other signals can be harvested to filter and rank ideas and more complex, qualitative feedback can be collected, leading us to the most complex, Integrated pattern.

Pattern 3: Integrated - putting idea sourcing at the core of the organization

Integrated Patterns are by far the most complex. They bind the crowd and the organization together tightly through lots of interactions, primarily focused on getting more feedback about ideas, not just to help with their selection, but to help make them better too.

The most difficult part of this pattern is assigning value to feedback contributions. After all, offering feedback is valuable and therefore it is very often rewarded. But here is the challenge: Say we have 100 ideas, it would not be unusual to have 1,000 comments. So we need some ways to collect signals about the value of feedback.

Quirky pays out shares of revenue to participants in its design process. In case you were wondering about the value of feedback, it's worth noting that almost half of the revenues shared are related to activities that help make ideas better - from idea critiques to participation in research. Quirky calls this influence. Other firms using the Integrated pattern have similar measurement and reward concepts for feedback: jovoto awards Karma, Giffgaff has payback points, and OpenIDEO uses a design quotient.

Which pattern is best?

Search Patterns have yielded results for more than a century. And they are simplest to set up and manage. The Collaboration and Integrated patterns require more investment (in time and money) primarily in platforms, additional rewards and community management. Is this additional effort worth it? We only have a few years of data to evaluate results, but as the ideas move into the market, they are succeeding - jovoto clients like Victorinox are seeing dramatic sales improvements which which they attribute to the jovoto process and Quirky products are succeeding in multiple verticles and Giffgaff continues to win over mobile subscribers, in part because of its constant, crowdstorm-driven innovation.

- Shaun Abrahamson has spent more than a decade as an early stage investor and advisor partnering with leading startups and global organizations to identify, create and launch new businesses enabled by newly possible relationships with customers and experts. His new book, Crowdstorm, explores how organizations can work with large crowds to find the best ideas.

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