Crowdsourcing for Thoughtleaders

We have all experienced the “big city, little town” effect. My phrase for the inner circles that develop where certain experts in any given issue become identified and therefore the go-to people for anything and everything related to that issue (even areas that are tangential at best to their actual expertise). They end up overcommitted while other voices never get the opportunity to participate. As someone who has been on both ends of this effect at various points in my career, I marvel at the way a relatively small group of people or companies can have an outsized influence on issues. They have become thought leaders. In the traditional world, thought leaders get sought out for speaking engagements, committee assignments, appointed positions in the community. They are featured in articles and honored at awards ceremonies. Companies spend whole retreats deciding how to become thought leaders in various market sectors. We all want to be thought leaders when we grow up. Now we can.

While thought leader is certainly high on my list of favorite buzzwords rapidly awaiting cliché status, I am even more enamored of the idea of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a wannabe thought leader’s dream, an actual thought leader’s chance to break new ground, and anyone else with a passion for an issue to get their two cents in. Crowdsourcing is the process of posing a question or problem openly and allowing responses from anyone and everyone. The best answer wins. In the digitally connected world, this is a nearly effortless process on the part of the “sourcer.” It’s almost stupid not to crowdsource, even if you also pursue more traditional ways of procuring work or developing a product.

This may sound roughly equivalent to what we as architects call the design competition. But crowdsourcing extends beyond the typical call for entries. As a much more loosely defined problem with much less rigid response format, it’s really all about the idea. More about collaboration than competition, respondents can see and comment on each other’s answers, building and evolving the idea. Also, because of the much more open platform, the generator of the request can also gauge what types of responses are most relevant to the audience they are trying to reach with the desired end product. This approach encourages blue sky thinking and true innovation and is beginning to influence the way that companies approach problems.

A great example of this is Kaiser Permanente’s interesting hybrid of the design competition based on the idea of crowdsourcing. While not interactive like typical crowdsourcing, it still employs a much more accessible platform and broader scope of awareness to encourage more response. Anyone can enter their Small Hospital, Big Idea challenge and they stress a much more comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach than just design: “We are appealing to the world's most talented minds to help design a revolutionary small hospital that can overcome the unique challenges of a small market (e.g., scarce resources and a shrinking pool of skilled clinical staff) and deliver exceptional, effective, and convenient care to our members. The hospital should have a near-zero impact on the environment.” Wow. That’s a lot to put out there, but with a crowdsourced approach, they just might get it.

Crowdsourcing allows a greater and much more diverse pool of thought leaders to emerge and eliminates the myopic approach of overburdening a few with the tasks of the many. It ushers in fresh thinking and challenges expectations. It open sources our access to expertise to form strategic partnerships. This is one buzzword that might just change the design industry. How will you use it to become a thought leader?