The questions we ask

In my previous post, I argued that the proper definition of a problem is the most important part of any innovation initiative, in particular, crowdsourcing campaign. Inspired by the Pareto Principle, I call it the 80:20 rule of crowdsourcing: 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 capabilities.

The process of problem definition isn’t easy, but it can be learned. Unfortunately, many organizations, especially those new to crowdsourcing, simply don’t understand the importance of this process. They mistakenly believe that they can ask the crowd almost anything, in any form, and then it will be up to the crowd to figure out what needs to be done.

This is the wrong approach, and although it may sound self-serving, having around someone with experience in running crowdsourcing campaigns would be helpful.

This reminds me of a project I once had with a client, a pharmaceutical company. My client wanted to design a high throughput screening (HTS) assay to study a specific type of cellular transformation, a process by which normal cells become precancerous.

To those unfamiliar with HTS assays, I will say that pharmaceutical companies routinely use them for drug discovery because HTS assays allow to screen literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds for biologic activity. Although HTS assays employ robotics and sophisticated software, at their core they are still a “regular” assay: you start with a normal cell, you add a test compound, and you watch for something that indicates that the transformation you’re interested in has taken place.

My counterpart at the client site, the head of the assay development group, confidently listed the most important parameters the future assay was expected to have: volume (the number of samples analyzed per hour or day), the ratio of so-called false positives and false negatives (two key parameters defining the assay’s accuracy), and the cost (as cheap as possible. But of course.).

While listening to her and taking notes, I began to sense that something very important was still missing. Finally, I found an opportunity to interrupt: “All right, everything is clear. But what about the endpoint? What is your endpoint?” (In most assays, the endpoint is the thing that the assay physically measures.)

For a split second, my client lost her confidence. She paused and then said, carefully choosing her words: “Well, we do not have an endpoint. We thought that finding it would be part of the whole solution.”

It was now my turn to carefully choose what I was about to say. “Well, perhaps, we’re asking too much. What if we start by looking for a suitable endpoint and then, after we have found it, we’ll run a follow-up campaign to design an HTS assay based on this endpoint?”

She broadly smiled in response: “Look, if we had a good endpoint, we wouldn’t need you: my in-house assay developers will design an HTS version of the assay in a matter of weeks.”

That ended our discussion. Shortly, the two of us put together a problem statement asking for a molecule whose change in quantity or structure within cells would signal that the cellular transformation in question had taken place.

We posted the statement online, and in about a week or two, I got a submission from a solver living in one of the small Eastern European countries. The submission described a protein (I had never heard of it before) that was overproduced by the cells that had experienced the transformation my client was interested in. This overproduction could be easily detected by measuring the intensity of fluorescence, a slam dunk for any assay developer.

Frugally written, only a half-page in length, the submission had a couple of paragraphs of text, a picture, and a reference. But it was nevertheless something I could share with my client.

Her response followed almost immediately: “I love it! We’re buying this solution.”

And that was it. I completed the paperwork transferring all intellectual property rights to the solution to my client. I never heard from her again: apparently, her in-house assay developers were indeed as good as she described them.

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About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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