The Juicy Secret to Solving Big Problems



What if there was a smarter and faster way to solve big problems What if it took advantage of what we know about the human brain?

This smarter, faster, brain-based way is crowdsourcing, and it’s about more than raising money on Kickstarter. It’s about asking for help from like-minded experts and amateurs, in order to solve big problems. It’s also about force multiplying the power of the human brain by doing what neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes as “linking the activities, perceptions, and cognitions of a large number of brains to a joint activity for the collective good.”

Crowdsourcing is a powerful weapon in our problem-solving arsenal, and it’s one that can accelerate learning and spread ideas. Here are some examples:

Find a treatment for brain cancer? After artist and engineer Salvatore Iaconesi received his diagnosis, he felt alone. He was also uncertain about which treatment to pursue. In a desperate attempt to connect with others in his situation and to get advice on treatment options, he placed all of his medical records online. Iaconesi was shocked to receive 500,000 responses from people around the world. By crowdsourcing his diagnosis, he not only got help selecting a treatment option, he also got more connected. Today Iaconesi’s cancer is in remission.

Track down ten large, red weather balloons? The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wanted to learn how we might solve large-scale security and defense problems. They placed ten large, red weather balloons in undisclosed locations across the U.S., offered a $40,000 prize, and opened up the search to people around the world. Experts assumed the winning person or team would rely on satellite imagery or some kind of red-balloon algorithm. The winning team – a group of researchers from MIT – did something far different. They combined a creative incentive plan with what turned out to be a 4,665-person social network approach. Together they solved the problem in under nine hours. DARPA crowdsourced a solution, and so did the MIT researchers.

Digitize the world’s books as quickly as possible? That’s Google’s goal. The problem is that computers can misread imperfectly scanned materials. That’s where we come in. To prevent bots from gaining access to secure online information, we’re often asked to retype distorted words. When we do this, we’re helping Google digitize books through its Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (aka reCAPTCHAs) system. Google is digitizing books by crowdsourcing the problem of computers misreading scanned text.

Why crowdsource? It

  • Saves time
  • Saves money
  • Invites diverse perspectives
  • Increases connection
  • Invites expertise
  • Increases feedback

When does it work best?

  • When we can’t solve the problem alone
  • When solutions can benefit others
  • When we need diverse perspectives to see the problem in a new way

The next time you’ve got a big problem to solve, think beyond same old tactics, like forming a small group or setting aside hours to work on it yourself. Instead, share it with a crowd. You may be surprised by the quality and speed of the responses you get. Add this strategy to your toolkit and let me know how it goes!