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Crowdsource Product Ideas from All Your Employees

It's not just for marketing. Crowdsourcing is an efficient way to take advantage of cognitive diversity.
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Not long ago I received a call from Eric, a VP of New Product Development at a mid-size industrial cleaning company. We first met when I did a workshop for his organization and prepared brain profiles for a group of his employees. Now he was calling about a specific issue that could have a significant impact on his company—for better or worse.

Eric outlined his problem in urgent terms: He needed to improve his company's flood-removal tool, fast, so it could remove more water more quickly. His company's current technology was not cutting it, and there was a market need. Eric had gathered his team together and wracked his own brain for a solution, but no one had come up with anything truly innovative, and he needed the solution yesterday.

I suggested that Eric cast a wider net. If you read my recent article, you know I'm in favor of anything that uses cognitive diversity to get the job done. Using a variety of personality types has been proven to be a more effective way to work. As a leader, Eric was sitting on top of a gold mine: the unique temperaments and abilities of everyone in his company.

I'm sure you are already familiar with crowdsourcing. It's one of those buzz-words we're hearing a lot lately, although the idea is not new. Writer Jeff Howe coined the term in 2006, and defined it as "the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call."

Today we are living in a connected world with unprecedented access to the brilliance of others. There will always be creative geniuses, but now we are less reliant on the rock stars, like Don Draper of "Mad Men." Companies now crowdsource solutions by going directly to the public—for example, Uncommon Goods crowdsources new items for their catalog by inviting artists to submit new creations, and crowdsources reader responses online to determine which items they will sell.

Companies also can take their creative challenges to groups like crowdSPRING (for graphic design) or 99Designs (for logos), to name just two. They enable you to turn over your task to all the talent they have on hand, and you sift through the responses until you find the direction you like best. Generally crowdsourcing saves your company a lot of money, although there are some drawbacks, such as a higher volume of lower quality results, and—in creative challenges like logos—difficulty in proving solutions are original.

I suggested that Eric crowdsource within his own organization. He sent out an email blast to every employee with a personal voice message describing the problem. He followed up with a hard copy memo to every member of the company in every division, giving a two-day deadline for ideas.

This was the first time Eric had treated his company as a truly flat organization, where each employee was equally valued, and this alone generated excitement. Everyone felt involved and respected. Solving the problem would confer some serious bragging rights, but more importantly, what was good for the company was good for everyone.

The night before the deadline, Eric lay awake wondering what would happen. Would his inbox be empty? Would it be piled high? What would he do if all the ideas were terrible?  

Eric received a variety of suggestions from lots of employees, many of whom he ordinarily would not hear from. He immediately eliminated submissions from people who misunderstood the problem, plus some ideas that were just too "out there" (for instance, using satellite technology or hiring Navy SEALS to fix the problem underwater). Eric was beginning to get discouraged until he came to a single sheet of paper from Elise in Accounting. The top half of the paper had a unique idea for re-tooling the company's existing machinery, and the bottom half had a drawing showing how it might be done.

Eric looked up Elise's brain profile. As expected, she was a very analytical and conceptual thinker. Eric wanted to invite Elise to describe her solution to his team, but not if she was a "shy violet" who would lock herself in the bathroom. Fortunately she was also very expressive, assertive, and flexible, and would be a strong advocate for her idea.

When Eric asked Elise if she would present, she quickly responded, "Of course!"

Starting with Elise's concept, Eric's engineers were able to create specialized pumps, and then get them to a client in need rapidly. And the client never knew how close Eric had been to failure.  With this issue, he was able to get a product idea from a source who never would have otherwise been involved.  

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Dec 16, 2011

GEIL BROWNING

Geil Browning, Ph.D., is the Founder and CEO of Emergenetics International. She co-created the Emergenetics Profile, the company’s flagship assessment.




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