What do you need to win a war?
A few things. First, you need an army equipped with superior weapons and instilled with high spirits. Second, you need a vibrant economy capable of sustaining the hardship of continued military operations. Third, you need strong public support of the country’s political and military leadership.
Did I forget anything? Oh, one more thing: you need an enemy. And not just any enemy, a bogeyman created to justify the war, but the enemy, a thorn in your side that needs to be removed ASAP.
Finding the true enemy is usually (but not always) easier in the case of military operations. But we Americans love to launch wars against everything we consider a threat to our society. That’s where defining the enemy becomes tricky.
Take President Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty. By failing to identify the root causes of poverty, the federal government has since been shelling the elusive enemy with 92(!) federal programs. According to a 2016 study, the federal government spent $668 billion on antipoverty programs, with state governments another $284 billion. The result? The poverty rate in the U.S. has been steady over the past 50 years, fluctuating between 10 and 15%.
Or take the War on Drugs launched by President Nixon in 1971. Since its inception, the initiative has received over $1 trillion in funding, but by focusing on fighting drug traffickers instead of treating drug addicts, the War on Drugs has miserably failed to eradicate illegal drug use.
The only arguably bright spot in our fight against social maladies has been President Nixon’s War on Cancer. By identifying molecular targets responsible for malignant growth and then designing drugs specifically attacking these targets, scientists have been able to dramatically decrease the death rate for many types of cancers. The total cancer death rate in the United States fell 25% from its peak in 1991. (An analogy with using special forces instead of regular troops immediately springs to mind.)
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Now, I’m not a great fan of using military terminology for non-military topics (or the baseball terminology for non-sports conversations, for that matter). Yet, it’s tempting to compare a crowdsourcing campaign to a military operation.
To begin with, you need a large and competent crowd (your “army”), properly motivated, to solve a problem. But even more importantly, you must define this problem (your “enemy”) so that the crowd can attack it in the most effective way. Failing to do so will make your enemy elusive and your campaign unfocused and, inevitably, unsuccessful.
I call it the “80:20 rule”: in my experience, some 80% of unsuccessful crowdsourcing campaigns failed because the problem presented to the crowd was not properly defined; only 20% did so because of a poor match between the problem and the crowd’s competence.
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Clients always come to me knowing what they want. Unfortunately, very often they don’t do enough preliminary work to understand what they need.
I remember a client who wanted to crowdsource a new design of a paint pump because it often clogged when dispersing paint. We investigated the problem a bit further and found that the cause of clogging was not the pump. Rather, the clogging occurred because the viscosity of the paint would sharply increase with a slight drop of the surrounding temperature (usually when using the pump outside in cold weather). The client fixed the clogging problem without running a crowdsourcing campaign by simply changing the composition of the paint.
I remember another client who wanted to crowdsource an additive that would prevent a food product they were manufacturing from losing sweetness upon processing. It took a lot of effort to persuade the client to leave the door open for solutions that would include modifications of the food preparation process itself. (“No, we can’t change the process; it’s too expensive!”). To my client’s great surprise, someone came up with a solution proposing a minor, inexpensive change in the preparation process that led to the same desired result: the preservation of sweetness.
It’s tempting to say that what clients want is a symptom of a disease whereas what clients really need is the cause of it. You can’t successfully cure the disease (solve the problem) unless you identify its real cause (define the problem).
But enough terminological exercises! Let me finish with formulating my first rule of crowdsourcing: know what you want, understand what you need.