Why Challenges are Vital to Problem Solving in the 21st Century

Posted by Dwayne Spradlin on Nov 18, 2009 1:02:05 PM

dwayne_spradlin_blogCrowdsourcing continues to be the buzz word in the press and InnoCentive continues to be at the forefront in this new and exciting space, particularly in the areas of problem solving and innovation.  And while we've always recognized the power of this medium to be world changing, the precise role of the "Challenge" and its proper construction has been a subject of considerable discussion.

On this topic, I’ve come to what I believe is a deep insight:

Well constructed "Challenges" are an astonishingly powerful and uniquely effective tool for focusing the energies of people everywhere on the multitude of important problems in the world .

Let me explain how I came to that recognition.

The realization begins a few years ago with Professor Karim Lakhani from Harvard Business School and his study of InnoCentive titled “The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving”.  Karim’s research resulted in two brilliant insights: 1) the diversity of InnoCentive's distributed network is in fact its inherent strength for problem solving; and 2) Solvers participate for the following reasons:  to solve problems that matter, to be part of a community (and to be recognized within the community when they are successful), and for the prize itself.  This last point also speaks to my fundamental  belief that humans by their very nature need to problem solve, to break new ground, to climb Mount Everest.

Subsequent works from Karim and others have consistently confirmed the critical importance of the problem definition in InnoCentive’s Challenge based model and its success.  The problems must invite very diverse participation (you want entrepreneurs, mechanics, and chemists working on engineering problems, not just engineers) while focusing the Solver on the specific task at hand with as much context as possible (how do you explain an engineering problem to non engineers?).  As you can imagine, getting this right is incredibly important to sustaining high solution rates.

In 2008, I met Paul Carlile, a professor from Boston University with an unusual background in social and computer science and a gift for seeing the world through a systems lens.  Paul introduced me to the concept of Boundary Objects which sociologists use to describe powerful compartments of information which are both well defined and which translate naturally across communities and cultures.  We immediately realized that InnoCentive Challenges are Boundary Objects in every sense of the term.  Challenges articulate the need, describe the problem, specify success criteria, and establish the inducements.  This last point is critically important because the inducement telegraphs a (non zero) value to the world.  The best Challenges are universal and understood universally.

Now it is important to note that we believe it is the precision and care we take to define the Challenges that elevate them to the status of true Boundary Objects.  Our hallmark in this process is the understanding of how to manage the process to truly engage a highly distributed network and focus them to drive successful outcomes.  Well defined Challenges must ask the right questions (we strive for “pre inventive form” for you academics!).  We apply a meticulous attention to detail around understanding and articulating problems in concise ways.  Identifying the supporting information to give every Solver what they need to compete or team successfully.  Good Challenge design anticipates the audience and the conditions for effective engagement: Is the need for ideas, business plans, scientific or technological advancement?  Do I want the world to give me the idea or do I want them to demonstrate something physical?  Challenges must anticipate the cultural and legal realities of the world (e.g., is intellectual property an issue?).  What is the inducement to the network?  For a simple idea, a small reward may be sufficient, while a technological innovation may require a team to spend months of time and capital to develop a winning solution, requiring a substantial prize.  All of these things must be assembled into a Challenge before it is exposed to the world of problem solvers.

We have learned at InnoCentive that for the really big problems, it is essential to take a highly disciplined approach and to systematically refine the problems into more focused questions and ultimately to well defined Challenges .  For example, the big problem is not the need for a new drug for a neglected disease, it is the elimination and/or minimization of the human suffering caused by the disease.  The right questions might include: How do we limit transmission?  How can we cost effectively produce treatments that comprehend market based economics to ensure a sustainable model?  How do we distribute treatments in the developing world?  Even these questions require further decomposition until we get to well formulated challenges (E.g., Can we get 5X more vaccine into the hands of those that need it in the context of real world economic, cultural, and political constraints in Sub-Saharan Africa?).  The point is that focusing the energy of a human population on these crucial issues has always been possible, but requires process and tools to do so effectively.   Disciplined construction of the "Challenges" focus that human energy to drive results in ways never before possible.

The latest realization for me was attending the MIT Distributed Leadership Forum last week.  Put together by Professor Deborah Ancona (author of X Teams) of MIT, the Forum explored a number of important questions:  How do we empower leaders everywhere in organizations?  What are the implications of new organizational structures as we see destruction of the old established paradigms?  What tools can enable distributed leadership and work?  Presentations ran the gamut, from Alph Bingham, InnoCentive’s Founder, making vivid the need for organizations to think differently, to organizers of the Obama campaign team describing how they engaged millions in the campaign to win the oval office (a well defined challenge!), to Jim Parker, ex CEO of Southwest Airlines, describing how shared mission, passion, and empowerment built a world class airline and a truly winning culture.  Remember President Kennedy in the 60’s challenging a country to put a man on the moon in ten years?  I listened to example after example of exceedingly well defined goals and innovative empowerment structures enabling stunning outcomes inside and outside of traditional organizational paradigms.  One message was clear, empowering and enabling new forms of work and leadership may be crucial to solving many of the challenges facing our society today and while those forms are quickly evolving, the tools for organizing and distributing the effort are  just beginning to be understood.

So with thanks to many brilliant people along the way, it all came together for me.  There is an Art and Science to "Challenges" which allow them to effectively harness the wealth of human creatively and inventiveness.  This Art and Science is not only key to understanding InnoCentive's success, it is crucial to enabling the kinds of distributed world changing problem solving we need to see in this century.

Whether it is the quest to eliminate suffering from a neglected disease, or accelerating research for sustainable energy sources, or putting a man on the moon, it is clear that Challenges have a powerful role to play in changing the world.  This is the promise of Crowdsourcing and the "Challenge" is the precision instrument that enables its full potential.

I invite your feedback and thoughts.  In fact, consider it a Challenge!

Dwayne Spradlin
CEO, InnoCentive

Topics: Innovation Insights, Challenges

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