Effective Crowds in a Covid-19 world

Given the current advice from many governments around the globe in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, one could be forgiven for thinking that assembling any crowd of people right now is a bad idea.  Whilst the world is rightly taking precautions to limit the spread of Covid-19, it would be remiss not to point out that large groups of people with diverse but complementary skills and experience, working towards a common purpose or goal, remains one of the most effective means of addressing a challenging situation.

Innovation thrives when the right crowds of people can be brought together to solve a difficult problem.  Anyone who has worked in the innovation space and experienced its challenges, nuances & pitfalls will tell you that you can never have too many ideas in your quest for identifying the next ground-breaking product or service, or the best solution to a significant issue or threat.  Maximising the number of ideas that enter the ‘innovation funnel’ will significantly increase the likelihood of finding that one ‘gem’ of an idea that can deliver the meaningful outcome that’s being sought.

Luckily, we live in an age where the crowd’s size (and ultimately the size of its innovation funnel) can be maximised, not only by a physical crowd of people, but also by a ‘virtual crowd’ – in the office, on the move – or better still in the current situation – at home, using 24/7 connected devices.

In this series of blogs, we look at virtual crowds in the innovation space, and how optimising their design to match your organisation’s structure is likely to have a significant impact on the success of your innovation programme.

Defining your Crowds

What makes an effective crowd, and how can crowds be effectively managed?

If your organisation has already accepted that innovation must not be the preserve of the senior management team, then the first part of the battle has already been won.  Democratising the sourcing of ideas from all employees (and from other stakeholders, if appropriate) will make it more likely that the organisation can successfully drive continuous improvement and uncover genuine breakthroughs.  Your organisation has put its ‘line-in-the-sand’ and stated to all employees, regardless of their role and level of seniority, that their idea deserves equal attention and opportunity and will be evaluated in a consistent manner.

What’s in a Crowd?

A common difficulty of a (virtual) crowd-based approach to innovation involves the definition of the crowd itself.  What is a crowd in the first place?

When you are assembling a crowd of people to do anything, there needs to be a purpose, or a mission behind why they’re being brought together.  That purpose must be clearly communicated to all members, so that they are left in absolutely no doubt as to why the Crowd has been formed & what the organisation expects of it.  For idea contributors, demonstrating in a clear and unambiguous manner how their submissions will be evaluated and taken forward (or not) is key to building-in fairness and driving engagement.

That crowd’s purpose can (and should) be described in clear, engaging text (with supporting videos and imagery if possible), but what is critical is that it can also be presented in a codified form.  The human brain helps us make sense of the world when we can see clearly how objects and information are categorised; this is just as true for ideas that we submit to solve the innovation challenges and initiatives launched by our company.  When we understand and compartmentalise the attributes, or measures, that our organisation has communicated as its own critical success measures or objectives, we are more likely to contribute an idea of our own that directly addresses one (or more) of those critical organisational success measures.

The audience (i.e. the members) of the crowd itself is a key consideration.  In its simplest model, the audience can be the full organisation – normally all employees who have some type of connected device or connection capability.  For a small organisation (say, less than 50 employees) this ‘all-employee’ approach will often be all that is required.  In small organisations with perhaps a limited set of commercial offerings and associated challenges, it can be quite normal to expect that everyone might be; a) interested in all or most of the innovation challenges that the organisation has published; and b) able to contribute ideas that help solve those challenges in a meaningful way.

Designing for Scale-Up

As the organisation size moves up the scale however, from 100, to 250, 500, 1000, 5000 employees and above, silos of expertise inevitably begin to appear.  Such silos might be separated by product or service-line, department or geography.

Irrespective of the reason behind the silo, the organisation has assembled large groups of people, often in the physical world, who are expert in delivering that specific product, service, or business process, and possibly delivering in a particular manner that best suits that specific geographical territory.  Each group is almost certainly working towards its own common goal – with its own strategic objectives and KPIs that must (surely, or what’s the point!) feed into the organisation’s top line KPIs.

Considering this, an organisation needs to pay careful attention to the design of its crowds to ensure that effective governance of the innovation programme can be put in place.  This should be done in a manner that doesn’t stifle innovation, but in fact fosters continuous improvement and makes breakthrough change more likely to occur.  Organisational-design within the innovation programme therefore starts to take a front-seat when considering how to get the best out your most important asset – your entire talent pool of employees.

Coming Next

In follow-up blogs in this series, we’ll be taking a look at the intricacies of taking an organisational-design approach to the modelling of ‘Innovation crowds’, from transient (single-use) and single-tier (all-employee) crowds, through to multi-tier (business-unit mapped) and cross-functional crowds, looking at the pros and cons of each approach, and exploring how a blended model is likely to deliver a best-of-all-worlds solution.