Managing for organizingNewsOrganizing for innovation

Idea Contests

The Food and Drug Administration is offering $500,000 for the best breakthrough idea it receives for detecting Salmonella on fresh produce with coaching for the five finalists, according to The Washington Post. Are idea contests tapping into the wisdom of crowds, as intended, or will the result be more groupthink?

The Wisdom of crowds

James Surowiecki FDA_salmonella Idea Contestexplains in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, how large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant. Crowds are better at solving problems, coming to wise decisions and predicting the future. Why? Because the crowd gets it right on average.

If 1000 people predict the weight of a cow, about 500 guesses will be too low and about 500 too high, but together, the average of the 1000 predictions will be spot on. That is the wisdom of crowds in short, and that is what the FDA hopes to tap into with their Salmonella competition.

There is, however, an important caveat, which marketers understand all too well. Crowds can be manipulated. That is, crowds can be made to believe something is right or wrong, skewing the odds. Such manipulations turn crowds into powerful fools, with plenty of sad examples in history.

Avoiding groupthink

Crowds_wise or foolish“Groupthink” is the term that describes the phenomenon of how people stop thinking for themselves and start behaving and voting along with a group. Groupthink stems from our need to be liked and our desire to belong. It is much easier and pleasant to be part of something larger than to be the non-participating loner.

What has this all to do with idea contests?

Designing your idea contest

When setting up an idea contest, you need to tap into the wisdom, and not the sameness, of the crowd. Otherwise your idea contest is doomed to fail. What can you do to ensure that brilliant ideas rise to surface?

According to recent research by Malhotra and Majchrzak, idea contests provide more valuable ideas when they:

  1. Foster different crowd roles to encourage diverse contributions
  2. Provide instructions for knowledge integration
  3. Offer dual incentives, both for coming up with the best idea and for integrating ideas
  4. Offer explicit instructions for sharing different types of knowledge

Design for success

In sum, tapping into the wisdom and knowledge of the crowd like the FDA is doing can be a powerful tool, but it requires putting thought and care into the design of the contest. To get the most out of your idea contest, you may consider bringing in an organizations like Betterific, who are experts in this area.

Interested in learning more about how to boost the creative output of your organization? Or wondering whether an idea competition is something that would work for your organization’s innovation challenges? Please contact us via e-mail at info “at” organizing4innovation “dot” com or visit our website for more information:




FDA Salmonella competition, deadline Nov 9:

 Washington Post article: A life-saving idea = $500,000 from the FDA

James Surowiecki (2004) The Wisdom of Crowds

Malhotra and Majchrzak (2014) Crowds in Innovation Challenges,   California Management Review