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Crowdsourcing Innovation for Improved Team Performance

One of the most consequential insights from the study of organizational culture happens to have an almost irresistible grounding in basic common sense. When confronting the challenges of today’s businesses, inviting a diverse group of employees to tackle the problems yields more creative results than restricting the conversation to a small strategy or leadership team.

This recognition—that in order to uncover new business ideas and innovations, organizations must foster a listening culture and a meritocracy of best thinking—is fueling interest in organizational crowdsourcing, a discipline focused on employee connection, collaboration and ideation. Leaders at companies such as Roche, Bank of the West, Merck, Facebook and IBM, along with countless Silicon Valley companies for which the “hackathon” is a major cultural event, have embraced employee crowdsourcing as a way to unlock organizational knowledge and promote empathy through technology.

The benefits of internal crowdsourcing are clear. First, it ensures that a company’s understanding of key change drivers and potential strategic priorities is grounded in the organization’s everyday reality and not abstract hypotheses developed by a team of strategists. Second, employees inherently believe in and want to own the implementation of ideas that they generate through crowdsourcing. These are ideas borne of the culture for the culture and are less likely to run aground on the rocks of employee indifference.

What was the norm, concentrating decision-making ownership in a hierarchical structure, is giving way to a new philosophy that reflects broader societal change. With rapid shifts in technology causing the disruption and reinvention of business models, people at every level of an organization fear becoming victims of change. Inviting the broader employee population into a conversation about the future embraces a corresponding technology-fueled culture of participation and sharing, empowering them to shape and influence policy and strategy, thereby boosting confidence and optimism.

Empathy Builds High-Performance Culture

Empathy, the ability to understand the concerns of key internal and external audiences, is also vital to the success of any effort to build a high-performance culture. Organizations and brands with superior emotional quotient (EQ) are inherently more trustworthy and empathic. They create meaningful connections by listening better and giving people a voice. They frame their communications and craft experiences in a way that makes their customers and employees feel understood and invested in the future of the company.

How can all this be achieved through internal crowdsourcing? There is no out-of-the-box solution. Each campaign has to naturally raise areas of focus for further inquiries, develop a framework and set of questions to guide participation and ignite conversations and then analyze and communicate results in a way that helps bring solutions to life. There are some key principles that will maximize the success of any crowdsourcing effort.

Obtaining insightful and actionable answers boils down to asking the questions at just the right ‘altitude.’

Paths to Successful Workplace Crowdsourcing

Obtaining insightful and actionable answers boils down to asking the questions at just the right “altitude.” If the questions are too high-level, too broad and open-ended, the usefulness of the feedback will suffer. If you ask people, “How can we make our workplace better?” you’ll likely hear responses like “juice bars” and “massage therapists.” If the questions are too narrow, for example, “What kind of lighting do we need in our conference rooms?” you limit the opportunity of people to flex their creativity. However, if people are asked, “How can we create spaces that allow us to generate ideas more effectively?” the answers are likely to spark a conversation. Conversation will flow to breaking down physical barriers in office design, building social hubs and investing in live events that allow employees from disparate geographies to meet in person and solve problems together.

On the technology side, crowdsourcing platforms such as Jive and User Voice, among others, make it easy to bring large numbers of employees together to gather, build on and prioritize new ideas and innovation efforts, from process simplification and product development to the transformation of customer experiences. Respondents can vote on other people’s suggestions and add comments.

By facilitating targeted conversations across times zones, geographies and corporate functions, crowdsourcing makes a new way of listening possible: Harnessing an organization’s collective wisdom to achieve action by a united and inspired employee population. I’ve been amazed at the thoughtfulness, precision and energy unleashed by crowdsourcing efforts. People genuinely want to contribute to their company’s success, if you open the doors and let them.

Taking a page from the Silicon Valley hackathon, organizational crowdsourcing campaigns are structured as events of limited duration focused on a specific challenge or business problem. Although there used to be trepidation about the hackathon model with companies being concerned that the process would be too hard to control, now there’s a recognition that part of the beauty of it lies in not controlling people when the creativity is flowing.

That said, in organizational crowdsourcing campaigns, people need guardrails and guidance, which is why framing the objectives and parameters and getting the questions right is so important. How the campaign is positioned internally can vary considerably from company to company and among divisions or teams. The design of a campaign targeting scientists in a pharmaceutical company will look and feel different than one targeting employees in a call center.

While their storylines may differ, all campaigns hold the promise of renewing company pride by creating an energizing narrative that invites participation. Here are a few keys to success:

  • Pitch questions at the right altitude. In developing a framework and set of inquiries, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the current process and teamwork challenges across an organization. Brainstorming in strategy workshops with senior leaders is a first step toward identifying gaps and opportunities that can inspire a productive theme for the event.
  • Get leadership support for the campaign. Team leaders must be committed to the role they’ll play when your crowdsourcing challenge opens: facilitating meetings with employees to share best practices for participation and encouraging productive discussions and ideation during the event. Designing and deploying communications online and off and adding urgency by making the crowdsourcing challenge a discrete event are also essential for generating employee interest and excitement.
  • Engage participants and listen in. A company-wide launch event is a great way to elevate the campaign and prepare employees. Use it to show off your online innovation portal, highlight key information and provide tips and tools for ideation. Generating daily reports for leaders will also help them encourage higher participation and provide guidance throughout the event.
  • Analyze, categorize and share results. Conduct working sessions with the core project team to review and discuss results, with the aim of developing a high-level action plan. Share the data with employees along with implementation plans for solutions.

Many leaders are concerned about the lack of control that goes with a broad crowdsourcing conversation, but there are a number of factors that should calm these concerns. You can trust in the wisdom of the crowd to correct and report unruly colleagues. People are intrinsically motivated to do their best to help their company succeed and take seriously the trust you’re placing in them. Ensuring that employees submit ideas using their real names can also help, as anonymity removes accountability and shelters disruptive contributors.

At the very top, leaders have to understand the needs of their employees and, guided by sociometric and crowdsourcing data, learn to adjust their policies, processes and behaviors. The organizations that commit to crowdsourcing and quickly executing employees’ ideas will be more innovative and collaborative than their peers.

Jeremy Morgan

Partner at Lippincott

Jeremy Morgan is a partner in organizational engagement, based in Lippincott’s San Francisco office. He brings to Lippincott’s clients expertise in leadership team facilitation, strategic planning, content development, and creative execution.

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