It has been said that innovation is the lifeblood of a business. A company can leverage new products, services, or ideas in order to reach new customers, increase market reach, and grow profits. Appreciating the impact innovation can have on an organization is easy; establishing a culture that values and encourages innovation is often the challenge. Even significant investments in R&D and market research cannot guarantee that innovations will succeed… or if they will even come to fruition. Given the formidable obstacles to innovation, businesses are increasingly willing to use non-traditional methods to develop new ideas.
One approach to innovation that has gained notoriety is crowdsourcing, enlisting a community of customers or other interested persons to hatch ideas that could result in new products. Crowdsourcing has even been used to develop advertising campaigns such as the Doritos commercials that appeared during this year’s Super Bowl. The use of crowdsourcing reminds me of a quote by Woodrow Wilson who said, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.” Why not tap into the insight, inspiration, and expertise of other people to develop new ideas?
A recent crowdsourcing project intended to identify innovation opportunities was conducted by Starbucks. Its Betacup Challenge sought ideas to reduce the environmental impact of Starbucks’ iconic to-go cups. Entries vied for a piece of the $20,000 prize money Starbucks offered. The result was 430 ideas submitted online that generated more than 5,000 ratings and 13,000 comments from website visitors. While many ideas dealt with design changes for disposable cups, the grand prize winner had an idea that did not involve disposable cups at all. The winning idea focused on a rewards-based program for customers with reusable cups.
Crowdsourcing product innovation may not be a replacement for product managers, R&D departments, and market research, but it certainly brings a fresh perspective to the ideation process. Growth in any organization can be stymied by myopic thinking that comes from personnel being too close to issues and too familiar with “what can’t be done.” Starbucks did the right thing by pitching this innovation question to a broad community. Will the ideas generated in the Betacup Challenge ever be implemented? That answer is yet to be determined. More importantly, the quantity (and probably quality) of ideas from which Starbucks can pursue innovations are greater because it acknowledged it does not have all of the answers when it comes to reducing the company’s environmental impact.