Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Let's get Small... and other BIG Ideas

Consistently low rates of engagement are, by and large, an accepted condition for those providing, buying and using online crowdsourcing technology.  According to Neilsen (Participation of Inequality Theory), 90% of invited users never participate in online communities.  Lithium’s Dr. Michael Wu explains Neilsen’s rule in more precise terms in his post “The Economics of the 90:9:1”.  As an economic buyer and practitioner of crowdsourcing solutions at Quest Diagnostics, and later as a practice manager responsible for customer success across 100+ Spigit client innovation communities, I saw enough data to be comfortable with the overall accuracy of the Neilsen rule.  There are of course many factors and mitigation counter-measures that can influence this ratio, but most require continuous heavy lifting described below.

Is it reasonable to believe that some portion of that absent 90 population should be heard?  Are they not contributing out of apathy or concern that their ideas/comments might be insufficient or bring criticism or ridicule that will impact their standing within the organization?  Have they simply made a calculation that the risk of participating outweighs the potential reward?  

As consumers and producers, are we satisfied when 90% of a targeted audience does not engage in the conversation?  And is the 10% that does show up representative of the population? Do we know why they showed up?  Should we base decisions on that sampling?  Is there a correlation with voter turn-out in elections?
In the interest of answering these questions and in the spirit of author Arthur VanGundy (Getting to Innovation), let’s rally around a single macro-level question:

How might we improve reach and participation in our innovation events by 5X... by 10X?

Some of the beliefs presented in Tuesday's "Innovating with 3i's" talk (Batterii CCO Chad Reynolds), are presented here as the catalyst for the challenge:

1.  Stepping back helps us go forward
Stretching the lifecycle upstream (north of ideation) into a less threatening inspiration capture, curation or insight development space widens the top of the funnel and broadens the potential pool and diversity of participants.  In this way we can effectively lower the barriers to entry into the creativity process.  The cost of the ticket is a simple story or inspirational nugget in a convenient form (snapshot, note, photo, link, movie, tweet, etc.).  And you ought to be able to begin your ride from a smart phone, tablet or laptop.

2.  Collaboration trumps competition
While two basic crowdsourcing models exist (competitive selection of a winning result vs. collaborative development of a number of alternatives), the overuse of “competitive” game mechanics can diminish the very thing we say we value: collaboration and respect for our employees and customers.  We must find ways of engaging people without resorting to Jedi mind tricks that convert every comment or vote into points used to win a game.  Not only is this approach largely unwelcome in specific cultures, but it also negates the value of teamwork.

3.  Ideas are network of particles
The nature of creativity is still a source of great mystery.  We continuously codify and calibrate our learnings through posts and books in an attempt to help ourselves and others on future journeys.  Steven Johnson does a wonderful job describing the story of creativity in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From, The Natural History of Innovation Ideas”.  In it he asserts the principles of serendipity, error, liquid networks, slow hunch, exaptation and adjacent possibilities.  A system that mimics Johnson’s vision, elegantly capturing and depicting the lattice of particles that form ideas and the rich lineage that’s constructed over time between those social objects and their finders or creators.  It would explain the movement and development of memes, and expose in more explicit terms the essential value of experimentation, failure and bad ideas whose shoulders better ideas almost always stand.  Lastly, this framework would enable organizations to more fully leverage and justify their investment in knowledge management, a business practice that entered a dormant stage (in many organizations) almost a decade ago after being maligned as a “solution looking for a problem”.

4.  Getting small is the key to activating the BIG crowd
To incite an online crowd today, resource intensive non-value work-streams and Jedi techniques are used in combination: innovation contest management (contrived game mechanic), communications management (targeted messaging campaign), incentives management (intrinsic and extrinsic rewards), exclusivity (appeal to vanity) and iron fist in velvet glove (leadership trump card).  The big problem with this model is that it simply doesn’t scale down.  It’s expensive and operationally inefficient to plan, launch and sustain.  Given normal (unstimulated) participation rates, we would need a crowd of 500 to produce an active population of 50.  Of course we could hand-pick 50 highly-motivated participants if that’s what we’re after, but these smaller talent pools would start to fatigue after a few events.

Can we build a better model?  Yes... please!  Let’s start by designing experiences that people actually want to be a part of.  Solve the most common value-producing user stories that pivot on collaboration and self-actualization and design others for truly special events.  Develop mechanisms that minimize any friction around ad hoc sharing and teaming.  Present a co-creation canvas that welcomes and bridges diverse thinking, learning and decisioning styles.  Provide role-based tools that help admins and managers pre-form teams of known and desired diversity (or homogeneity).  Likewise, provide the flexibility for ad hoc teams to form and self-direct.  Advanced capabilities might balance diverse perspectives with compatible collaboration styles as a means of generating creative tension.  Perhaps this is closer to alchemy than science today, but it leaves space for learnings that will move us closer to this ideal as community data grows over time.  It should connect small teams into the larger community or network where the benefits of big data can be used to maximize participation and the value of our investment. This scaling to a smaller crowd and engaging the individual, not scaling to thousands, is the real challenge.

5. In-Person amplifies online... 1 + 1 = 11
Facilitated in-person innovation labs (e.g. 1-day, 20-150 attendees) consistently capture close to 100% participation.  Invitees recognize that labs are a high-value opportunity to learn something new in a non-threatening environment.  Imagine Wiley Coyote chasing Roadrunner over the edge of the cliff and arriving safely on the other side of the canyon.  That’s what’s happening here.  Immersion labs inspire and incite experimentation.  They help people forget to look down.  They create an infectious spirit of play and wonderment of what’s next.  They knock down the functional and stature barriers that inhibit sharing (Marshmallows and Spaghetti).  They help us find our flow, and that itch that’s just gotta be scratched. Participants walk away energized and sensitized to the possible.  A co-creation platform should integrate in-person and online modalities in a way that amplifies the business outcome.

6. Spending more time in the problem space allows us to think more deeply and differently – and that makes for better solutions.
The journey to a truly engaged community begins not with the asking of the question and testing the crowd while they compete, rather with creating an environment where new ideas can be built. Question the Question.  For example, a typical crowd-sourcing question may be, "How can we improve customer service?"  The Batterii approach is to start with a cool hunting expedition, seeking examples of great customer service today from any industry.  Build on the elements of these experiences and divide the large crowd into sub teams that have similar or dissimilar beliefs.  Customer service is a function of training or technology or people or product quality etc.  These teams question the question together and approach the solution with fresh perspectives and constructive-disruptive thinking.  People will tell you a story and welcome building and making that story better.

What Next?
The opportunity for a next generation solution is ripe.  Let me know what you think.  Have I gone too far... not far enough?  What am I missing?  Dive in, but don't expect any points ;-)

Author, Joe Messina ( is based in Cincinnati, Ohio and serves as EVP of Strategy for Batterii. The Batterii collaboration platform connects you, your coworkers and customers in a real-time experience to collect inspiration, build and execute big ideas.  What makes Batterii different is their proven success as innovation practitioners and entrepreneurs, leading business change from within world-class organizations (Apple, Allstate, EDS, Gap, IBM, Landor, Lockheed, Nielsen, P&G, Possible Worldwide, Siemens, Siemens, Sun Microsystems, Quest Diagnostics) and architecting innovation strategies and programs working outside-in for Global 2000 clients.

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