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Crowd-Solving 101: Sourcing a "Good" Problem

Updated: Jan 26

When a humanitarian organization begins a new crowd-solving initiative to eliminate selected long-standing unsolved problems, there is plenty of excitement. The natural first response of organization staff is to propose their hardest problems. Existential problems. Problems where a solution could revolutionize their humanitarian work. A recent brainstorming session generated proposals like “climate change and its effects on livelihoods” and “inflation causing loss of value of savings in Syria”. While it would be amazing to find solutions to these intractable issues, crowd-solving is not the right tool for the job.


Crowd-solving works best when it can provide new perspectives that lead to creative invention or when solvers can ‘re-purpose’ existing solutions from other domains and apply them to the humanitarian sector. The InnoCentive/Wazoku type of crowd-solving is best suited to problems that can be tackled by an individual or small team working no more than a couple of days to a week or two on creating their proposal. Purposefully soliciting problems whose likely solutions would fit into this “sweet spot” dramatically increases the likelihood of attracting enough solvers to generate multiple attractive proposed solutions.


InnoCentive/Wazoku has a process acronym to help a humanitarian organization filter problem candidates. They call it “LASSO”. A “good” problem is:

  • <L>imited Scope – A solution can be generated by one person or a small team in less than a few weeks.

  • <A>ctionable – A solution, if found, can be implemented by your organization on a timely basis.

  • <S>pecific – The problem statement must be clear with key constraints like cost and materials explicitly stated.

  • <S>upported – The problem selected must be important to your organization and have an obvious connection to the humanitarian objectives of the organization.

  • <O>wned – An expert in the current problem should ‘own’ the problem statement and a senior official of the organization should ‘own’ a plan for implementation if an attractive solution is found.

Beyond these general crowd-solving principles, I think a humanitarian organization should search for problems that are:

  • High-impact. A solution, if found, should be something that could impact at least tens or hundreds of thousands of people. This type of problem is most likely to attract many diverse solvers and generate scores of quality proposals.

  • Universal. A solution, if found, should not be specifically for the seeking organization. Instead, it should be something that can be shared across the humanitarian space and applied by other humanitarian organizations.

Where to find these problems?


In my work with a number of humanitarian organizations, the ‘best’ problems have come from people closest to the field work of the organization. The headquarters team, which is responsible for the management of the crowd-solving engagement has a general idea of problems and issues but their knowledge is often not granular enough to identify ‘good’ problems. Even the regional managers often are lacking the granular knowledge necessary to propose the ‘best’ problems. Instead, the ‘best’ problems have come from people that work day-to-day in the field executing humanitarian work.


It seems to take a couple iterations for a humanitarian organization to discover this ‘truth’ for themselves. Each one I have worked with first tries to source problems from HQ and regional managers and leaders. Only when this does not produce enough ‘good’ problems will they expand the pool of people who get trained in crowd-solving. Once the field leaders understand the power of crowd-solving and see its potential, the ideas start to flow and the humanitarian organization finds a number of ‘good’ problem candidates.


Conclusion (aka “Pep Talk”)


If you are a leader of a crowd-solving project for a humanitarian organization and have not yet found ‘good’ problems, do not despair! There are many of them in your organization. You simply need to find them.


I guarantee that it is worth the effort to find ‘good’ problems. Moving through the whole crowd-solving process with a mediocre problem will end up achieving nothing. In the worst case, your problem will attract few solvers and those solvers will submit weak proposals. In this case, you will likely decide that none of the proposals merit the award prize and your challenge will end with a whimper.


Even if your challenge awards a prize because one or more of the solutions was noteworthy, this may not satisfy you or your team. In my view, your ultimate objective should be to select a winner that your organization decides to progress to field testing or controlled implementation. I suggest you proceed with diligence and discipline until you find the best ‘good’ problems possible!

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