Leveraging the Power of Crowds to Enhance Design Thinking


Have you heard the one about the ox, the statistician, and the 800 farmers who walk into a bar? Probably not. But if Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian-era inventor and statistician, had been a comedian, he might’ve used that as a set-up.

In 1906, Galton actually witnessed 800 farmers partake in a good, old-fashioned contest at a county fair in England: guessing the weight of an ox. Like many statisticians, Galton was tickled by the prospect of procuring a large statistical sample of predictions. After the contest, he calculated the mean, mode, and variance. He found that although the experts were pretty good at estimating the weight of the ox, the average guess of the farmer’s collective answers was more accurate. This finding led Galton to the conclusion that there is wisdom in a crowd. And furthermore, when a large and eclectic audience can be gathered, that wisdom can be applied to solve stubborn and complex problems.

Daniel Seewald, Senior Director of Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer, at Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan.

Though Galton wouldn’t live to see the day, a century later his work would serve as the foundation of crowdsourcing. Modern crowdsourcing relies on software platforms that expand your reach, forming crowds of problem solvers who can perform complex and creative tasks at significantly reduced cost. And while crowdsourcing can certainly be used as a stand-alone solution, such as predicting the weight of your farm animal, its greater value is realized when it is used as a complement to design thinking. In particular, crowdsourcing in advance of a design session can be the difference between a mediocre session and a high-impact one. I like to say that the battle to deliver a great human-centered design session is won or lost before the session is ever conducted.

Over the years, I have found that the most effective ways to incorporate crowdsourcing into my design thinking sessions include:

  • Understanding and clarifying the problem
  • Spotting previously undetected insights in advance of the session, and
  • Generating and evaluating novel ideas to be built upon in the session.

Let’s explore each of these ways that you can use crowdsourcing to augment the work of an innovation team before a workshop even begins.

Understanding and Clarifying the Problem

The first step in finding great solutions is determining whether your team has clearly identified the problem that you need to solve. Your problem statement serves as the coordinates to help your problem solvers navigate through their work. To paraphrase an old mariners’ saying, if you set your course incorrectly by one degree, you’ll be miles adrift by the end of your journey. In practice, we often move straight into producing ideas before we validate that we have the right question to answer. That can lead to the production of lots of ideas that fall disappointingly off the mark.

To bring this point to life, several months back, my team was asked to design a session for an international team of marketers who were struggling to get alignment on the specific problem they wanted to solve. The team was eager to jump straight into ideation, but unfortunately they did not have a well-articulated question to guide the start of the journey.  After a few frustrating rounds of trying to scope out the session, it became clear that we were in need of outside perspective to shed light on the problem statement. So we proposed running a crowdsourcing exercise with workshop participants who weren’t part of the core planning group, many of whom were subject matter experts from supporting functions in the organization.

Some members of the team initially feared having too many non-expert opinions but reluctantly acceded. The crowdsourcing campaign included extensive background on the problem and invited each participant to propose a concise problem statement. Subsequently, the crowd was then asked to converge on the best problem statements by using a head-to-head submissions process called a pairwise comparison. With the recommendations of the crowd in hand, the marketing team formed an expert panel and arrived at a choice that was far different from what they had initially conceived. However, the team was delighted to have achieved clarity. Although this process required extra communication, participation, and preparation time, it ultimately yielded a clear and aligned problem statement that energized their team. And what’s more: the workshop participants were now fully bought-in to the process before the session even began.

Spotting Customer Insights

Innovation requires teams to be both disciplined and creative. Creative solutions designed without sufficient thought to strategic alignment are doomed from the start. But traditional solutions that are not rooted in customer insight can miss the mark, too. Crowdsourcing helps navigate the fine line between maintaining a disciplined, strategic focus while also integrating the voice of the customer.

A couple of years ago, a commercial team was attempting to develop new offerings related to treatments for rare disease.  After carefully scoping and defining the challenge, we took aim at incorporating the voice of their customers. Initially, there was hesitancy to engage in crowdsourcing with customers.  After all, the team had felt that they understood their customers well. They had conducted numerous market research studies, and several members of the team regularly interacted with customers.  Nevertheless, after some cajoling, the team agreed to run a crowdsourcing challenge with patients and caregivers to explore their desires for support services related to the rare disease. Many insightful clues were uncovered and several unexpected themes emerged — both of which proved worthy of further exploration by the workshop team. And rather than brainstorming willy-nilly on a broad problem statement, the team instead focused their efforts on several fertile areas that came straight out of the customer’s mouth.

Generating and Prioritizing Starter Ideas

A final area where crowdsourcing can enhance your design work is in the ideation stage.  Most innovative ideas begin as a starter thought, or an idea fragment.  A starter thought is essential because it serves as the foundation of a more fully-developed idea.  In the beginning, the starter thought lacks detail. It cannot stand on its own, and it may not be obvious how to execute. However, the starter thought serves as the impetus for iteration. And iteration is the mother of innovation.

A good example takes us to the world of public policy.  A policy team approached me about planning a design workshop for a group of senior leaders who were struggling with a complex policy issue.  The leadership team had been around the block a dozen times with this same issue and kept coming back to the same stale solutions.  Initially, they were seeking to add a few fresh faces to the workshop.  But as a complement to that request, we recommended a crowdsourcing challenge that invited hundreds of internal colleagues to participate.  The ideation round lasted one week — yet it produced over 100 starter thoughts.  And after a second round of judging, we handed over a subset of the most intriguing starter thoughts to the team.  These five starter thoughts served as the foundation for the live, in-person workshop.  The team then proceeded to further iterate on each of these five starter thoughts. Although the starter thoughts were far from perfect, they provided the right “nudge” to move the leaders out of their traditional patterns of thinking and led to several exciting, more fully-developed solutions in the live workshop.

Innovation blossoms when we break down the familiar patterns that we faithfully rely on. But as individuals, we can be very reluctant to let go of what we trust and believe. The ability to convene a large, heterogeneous group of problem solvers can help to leap past conventional wisdom and vastly accelerate the blooming of insight and innovation. Crowdsourcing, when used in a thoughtful, integrative way, can improve the planning of your human-centered design sessions and deliver much better outcomes.

Daniel Seewald is a Contributing Columnist and Senior Director of Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer