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

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

11 replies
  1. Bret Cahill
    Bret Cahill says:

    First, let’s be like the French for awhile and use more precise language.

    A lot of isolated individuals working on various challenges are not “crowds.” Crowds have their own “macro” dynamic which is completely different from a lot of micros. A better if more awkward term to describe what you are now doing would be “hundreds of isolated individuals sourcing.”

    This is good — as Bishop Richard Cumberland pointed out “every idea is the product of a single mind” –but a “team sourcing” option might be fun too.

    It would be productive if there some way for several individuals with different backgrounds to somehow form a team just long enough to agree to solve a challenge, split the money and then go back to being isolated individuals.

    Two heads are often 10 times better than one.

    Bret Cahill

  2. Dwayne Spradlin
    Dwayne Spradlin says:


    Words should be used with precision. I appreciate the response and your comments. We use two terms: Crowdsourcing (which we defin as independent of teaming. Point is we don’t know where the solution is coming from) and Mass Collaboration (which we define as teaming on small or large scales. Point is to tap teams and collective intelligence). InnoCentive is focused on both areas, the second being more recent for us.

    This article a few months ago actually mentions some of the work I reference above: http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/apr2009/id2009048_360417.htm.

    Interestingly enough, nearly 10% of our “Solvers” are actually organizations and groups already, including academic teams, Contract Research Orgainzations (CROs), and others. Several InnoCentive Challenges have in fact been solved by teams. To your point about “team sourcing”, we are beta testing right now our new Team Project Rooms (TPRs). TPRs will allow multiple Solvers to band together on challenges and through a shared workspace, collaborate and tender a solution as a joint submission.

    In addition, InnoCentive’s @Work product (http://www.innocentive.com/at_work.php) allows organizations to tap community dynamics within groups of solvers (employees, retirees, partners, etc.) using social networking techniques. Soon, these capabilities will become available for InnoCentive’s public challanges as well.

    Hope this is helpful.


  3. Charles Thurston
    Charles Thurston says:

    My first reaction was very similar to that of Bret Cahill. You are primarily targeting individuals through these challenges and not teams or crowds.

    What if three workable solutions to one of your challenges were submitted, and each challenge contained one third of the perfect solution? Would the individual who posited the challenge have the insight to combine the three submerged concepts (an unknown), and if so, how would you divide the reward or indeed breach the submitters’ inherent patent or copyright?

    As Bret indicated, the ‘perfect incentive’ would be to create a medium in which various solvers could contribute to a final solution, and share the reward proportionally. Any basic understanding of human nature however, probably renders such a concept as Utopian or beyond.

    Forget polymers, if someone could solve the ultimate challenge of the human ego mixed with Gordon Gecko’s greed, and you could find a workable way to create ‘the idealised crowd’ that you have postulated, then the world’s problems would have every right to be nervous.

  4. Don Parks
    Don Parks says:

    How do we get beyond the “School Board” mentality that says we must spend millions of dollars for physical “school” building when all a student really needs is the internet, a road map to information, and a desire to follow the map?

    We are getting to the point where anyone can become an “Instant Expert” in anything.

  5. Dann Flesher
    Dann Flesher says:

    There are many elements to problem solution that need to be worked into your formula. One is certainly that “a problem well defined is 90% solved”. You recognize this in your analysis/breakdown of problem components. That also lends itself well to the Koepner-Traego problem break down and resolution approach, where a classroom with a vocal interactive group is of significant benefit.

    Another element is that individuals often solve problems because they compare it with another parallel but unconnected problem from their individual and perhaps unique experience. My first Patent was such a case. In the lab, I was repeatedly poking my thumb on “sharpened brads” which were being used as electrical contact on an instrument I developed to test softener treated “fabric absorbency”.

    As I sucked on my bleeding thumb for the tenth time, I recalled a similar pattern of injuries years before when I pinned fabric (reveals my age) diapers on my older children. I had solved that earlier problem by running the safety pin through my hair to apply a thin oil coating before using. As I nursed my thumb and considered that parallel I realized that I only stuck my thumb with the brad/contact when I was attaching non-softened (i.e.: non-oil-treated) fabrics to the instrument. Voila!

    Two hours later I had gathered a set of fabric strips, treated and untreated, and a finishing nail. That was my proof-of-principle demonstration kit, which later developed into an instrument with a bank of 24 sewing needles. When pressed through a fabric, the resistance to penetration of those needles was an inverse (97+%) correlation with ‘fabric softness’ as measured by a panel of 600 housewives.

    That matching of parallel micro-experiences can be called ‘genius’, but it is simply ‘observation’. The value of crowd-sourcing is that we are now able to tap into a vast pool of such human experiences in a way never before possible.

    Koepner-Traego also systematizes the use of brainstorming. It works well because someone is there (the facilitator) to be sure that no one laughs at me. That assures that all ideas, from any source and however lame they may seem, get an honest evaluation.

    Innocentive’s crowd-sourcing provides that same element of mental-emotional protection by using anonymity: I don’t know the Seeker, and they don’t know me, the (hopeful) Solver. The other Solvers don’t know I am even playing unless I tell them. Therefore I can say anything that I please and I never hear any laughter. That lets ‘silly’ little experiences (like pinning on a diaper) into serious competition with more intellectual solutions.

    My current Business is centered on another Patent. That Patent was the result of another ‘silly accident’, one which caused a plumber friend of mine to lose $30,000. Sometimes the ‘silly’ things produce great solutions… if we let them.

  6. Dwayne Spradlin
    Dwayne Spradlin says:

    Great comments!

    On a few of the ideas mentioned:

    Worth noting, Bret/Charles, that in our Team Project Rooms (TPRs) in beta testing, the Team Leader establishes the reward sharing mechanism up front (Equal Share, Leader determined, etc.) and it becomes part of the teaming agreement. This is to take the reward mechanics out of the equation so the collaborators can focus on the problem solving and information sharing.

    With respect to solving the really big problems in the world and opening up collaboration:

    We have had to create different tools for commercial and not for profit challenges because, in effect, the models have different real world constraints.

    For example, a consumer products company may not want to expose ideas and submissions for exceedingly rational reasons. Depending on their goals, they are investing the dollars and want to have unfettered and/or exclusive rights to practice whichever solutions they acquire.

    Our approach can change for Not for Profits, where more of an “open” collaborative discourse and an “Open Source” style IP treatment is often desired. So there are many considerations, for example: Does the NFP Seeker demand certain IP Rights (which they may want to exercise to ensure appropriate usage and/or to create funding vehicle (licensing) for subsequent research/implementation)? Will Solvers take issue with essentially putting their submission/ideas in public domain (particularly if significant time and/or capital investment needed to develop solutions)? Is there confidential information? And would an “open” approach encourage violation of non disclosure covenants (clearly top of mind for commercial Seekers as well)? As you can imagine, this aspect of the spacing is developing quickly.

    Dann: I love your comment about crowd-sourcing providing an element of mental-emotional protection by using anonymity. We are all human beings and these systems really try to inspire, permission, and enable us to work on problems we normally wouldn’t. Part of the calculus is indeed creating a safe environment for innovators. Excellent insight!

    I am loving this discussion thread. Keep it coming!

  7. TL Clayton
    TL Clayton says:

    A friend of mine suggested that I join Innocentive.com and even provided an ISP address. He knew me as an inventive kind of person, who knew a smattering about a lot, and who thought outside the box. I suspect that he thought of it as something I could do as I have had a stroke and confined to a wheelchair and this house. But, that is something we do not talk about.

    Ever since I saw a TV quiz program which allowed you three external sources, the studio crowd being one of them, I was convinced that the crowd knows a lot.

    Concerning crowd-sourcing or individuals: I lean more to the separated individual as a part of a small local support group drawing on individual memory. The lone person is likely to be thought of as “weird” by those around him.

    I find that most of your challenges are very specific. The answers are likely to be inherent in the question. The answer is likely to be specific. Somewhere in this world a person may exist who has the specific answer. Your job is to find that person–be a seive that filters though a vast number of people.

    Your method of using e-mails and the WWW is just such a seive because the techno person you seek is quite like to use a computer as a tool at home and work and has e-mail.

    The more is known about the question, the more specific is the answer. The answer is an “unknown” hole in a “sea” of knowns. Think of it as a “background vs foreground” question. The greater the difference between the two, the easier it is to “see” either one. The goal we seek is an unknown hole in that background. What fills up that hole?

    The goal is too find that person who knows what fits in that hole.

    Shift your perspective to the 1890’s and Thomas Alva Edison and the electric light bulb. The idea is simple. Carrying it out is another thing. What will work as a filament? Would the crowd know that?

    For your information, the incandescent light bulb didn’t hit it big until a neophyte engineer at GE suceeded in extruding tungston and then winding it into a tight spiral. All the old heads “knew” it couldn’t be done. Tungston was too brittle, couldn’t be extruded, and this was a problem all the old heads had tried to do. That was the standard problem for every neophyte engineer. (The new hire catches all the “shit” jobs, you know.) Would the crowd solve this problem?

    Some things cannot be put into words. Some times one has see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the problem. Words trivialize things. Words lack the experience of being there.


  8. Leon Benjamin
    Leon Benjamin says:

    Dwyane – I think Innocentive is to be congratulated for this work because;

    “A company’s future depends less on the nature of its issues, and more about its capacity to invent social structures able to solve them” Jean Francois Noubel

    Enjoyed the GE story which reminds me of another quote;

    “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.” Albert Szent-Györgyi Nobel Laureate (1893-1986)

    On a slightly tangential note, years ago an executive coach told me he worked with a CEO of a Scandinavian biotech company who’s mission statement went something like this;

    “We will discover a cure for diabetes and then go out of business”. Winning by sharing?

  9. dave davison
    dave davison says:

    Dwayne: Defining the Challenge is truly at the heart of the InnoCentive process and, in my experience, can greatly benefit from the inclusion of a master graphic facilitator in the design team.

    Because the diverse talent necessary to evolve an excellent challenge may be distributed geographically, the ability to convene the challenge design team virtually via the web and to include a master graphic facilitator ( a super whiteboarder) to support the Challenge design team offers an innovative way to address the Challenge Design process..The visualization of the Challenge Design process offers not only a real-time method for recording the thoughts of the design team, but also a post-facto archive for analyzing the Challenge design process and consistently improving it.

    I applaud your creation of TPRs to accelerate and enhance collaborative solution development. Here, too, integrating the support of a master visualizer could be as valuable to the solver teams as it is to Challenge designers.

    The other comments to this post reinforce the value of the Team concept for both Seekers and Solvers which, I believe, profoundly differentiates the InnoCentive process from “crowd sourcing” and the dependence on individual Solvers scattered across the web. Properly supported, teams composed of diverse talents will often do a better job than isolated individuals, however innovative they may be.

    I like your long form blogging method – and your active response to commentary I can see the benefit to InnoCentive and its clients that this continuing conversation provides.

  10. Numbers Scovell
    Numbers Scovell says:

    Hello I enjoyed your article. I feel that it is crucial when talking about diabetes to at least mention natural remedies that have been shown to be efficient in controlling high blood glucose. Numerous natural herbs can be including in a diabetics treatment that can help maintain a healthy glucose level.


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