Facilitating a Crowdsource

I wrote this post back when crowd sourcing was a buzzword a number of years ago.  It was intended to be a bit tongue-in-cheek and as I am refreshing my website chose to leave it. There is some seriousness underneath it all.

Crowd sourcing is an increasingly trendy concept that is popping up in the world of group dynamics, network development and strategic planning. Elevated to prominence by books with titles like “Here Comes Everybody” and the “Wisdom of Crowds” (both available on Amazon for a penny each).  The concept is that if you get enough people engaged and contributing ideas, unstructured, then “breakthrough thinking” can occur.  Couple the “crowd concept” with social media technology that enables the “viral” spread of the idea and the distributed connection of larger groups, and the result is that even corporate marketing departments like Pepsi see the value in the crowd.

So it is no longer uncommon to hear at least one voice in a strategic planning process, suggest that the group “crowd source” a strategy. In this post, I’d like to tackle the question of what does it take to facilitate a crowd?

Let me back up to the streets. Over the last several months I have worked with several clients where the facilitation processes have had a large group component.   For example, I just completed an intense three-month project where I helped a leadership team facilitate the process for a group of 26 professionals from across the state tasked with creating a comprehensive and forward-thinking Health Improvement Plan for the Oregon Health Authority. I also have had two strategic planning clients where assessment work included gathering diverse opinions from a range of program partners, board and staff members, and community volunteers. In one of these projects, I aggregated open-ended survey comments from over 100 people. For me, convening groups, creating authentic community engagement, and navigating agreement has been standard operating practices for as I have long been engaged in community development and coalition-building work. So along with other colleagues who came up on the streets of collaboration, I simply smile at the wonderful new-found term of “crowd sourcing.”

On the streets of community development and coalition-building, the strategy has always been “outsourced” to the community and is not a construct new to crowd sourcing. So while crowd sourcing may be the new lingo, the principles of facilitating crowds remain the same. In my experience, some of the more critical principles of facilitating “crowds” include:

1.  Stay Open Early On: As anyone experienced facilitator knows, the messy space of open ideas can be uncomfortable. Indeed, in a recent facilitation process, one frustrated board member interrupted at one point and said, “Can you assure me that when we leave at the end of the day that we will come out of the clouds and stop flitting around?” While being in that open space can be difficult, one of the strengths of crowd sourcing is the very broad opening that it promotes the generation of ideas. In this process, a facilitator needs to be comfortable in the open space and not rush towards narrowing too quickly. Let expansion happen.

2. Recognize When a Crowd is a Crowd: A second principle of facilitating a crowd is to recognize when a crowd is all you have. When the expectation is that large, bold new ideas will emerge out of the collective input of the crowd and those expectations are not met, a facilitator needs to be a mirror to the process and acknowledge the limitations of the convening.

The Pepsi Refresh marketing campaign (see this Wikipedia article), thinly veiled as corporate giving, is a great relevant example. When the Pepsi Refresh project started, the concept was that by engaging people in voting for, defending and promoting great ideas, the nonprofit world would reap the benefit of innovation and upstart new ideas would come out of the “wise crowds.” Several months later, one just needs to peruse the list of funded projects to see that they range from the mildly innovative to the immediate & tactical (such as building a kindergarten playground and starting an animal food bank). Worthy projects? Absolutely. The cutting edge of social innovation to large-scale social needs? Not so much.

Pepsi Refresh has become an exercise, not in “crowd sourcing” but “crowd re-sourcing.” That is to say that those agencies best at mobilizing the time and energy of networks of people to vote (again and again) likely can succeed. In facilitation, a crowd is just a crowd when it is orchestrated engagement meant to influence an outcome. When a facilitator recognizes that s/he is facing a crowd, then s/he is able to adapt the facilitation process to ensure the inclusion and equity in voice, not only of the crowd but the voice of the crowd outliers.

3. Recognize Differential Knowledge: In every large group process I have facilitated, one of the core tasks of facilitation is to draw attention to differential knowledge. I have used this image as an illustration of the concept. Imagine a group of 5th-grade boys back from a field trip when a box falls off of a truck speeding by. The boys bring the box back to the classroom and see that it is labeled “chocolate candy, keep out of direct sunlight.” If these boys were left to their own “crowd sourced” strategy related to that box of chocolates, what do you think the outcome would be? Indeed, there would likely be a super-majority agreement if not outright consensus on the course of action to open the box and devour the contents. Now enter a teacher who brings differential knowledge about ethics, the purpose of the contact information label on the box, and even the consequences of consuming pounds of chocolate. Do you think the crowd sourced outcome would be different? While the point is oversimplified, the concept should not be lost. In every crowd, there is a differential knowledge that needs to be given weight. All ideas are not equal.

4. Seek Community Not Consensus: A final principle is to recognize that the goal of a large group is to find shared understanding and not necessarily consensus. Facilitation for a large group is about engagement that involves creating equity, voice and understanding. If you achieve these three things then often times consensus matters less. On a level playing field where all participants are gi a en voice, community will emerge and, in the context of community, the collective will trump the crowd. When a group is meaningfully engaged through an empowering facilitation process then more authentic outcomes result. I have written elsewhere about the concept of community engagement because such a process is fundamental to the authentic community-building.

Taken together, these four principles outline a framework that can assist in facilitating a crowd. Now I recognize that for some, bringing a facilitation process to the concept of crowd sourcing defies some the popular literature on the subject.  It is a flaw of the crowd source construct that creates an artificial either/or dynamic.  It is either “crowd” or “crowd control” with no in between. In the minds of those extolling the virtues of the self-organizing crowd, they believe that crowd control is a bad thing. I contend that a true crowd source process is aligned with (and a cousin of) community organizing, which requires a layer of intelligent design and group process. As with good basic community organizing, a skilled facilitator recognizes the power in the crowd and unleashes the potential of the crowd through a carefully constructed facilitation process.


Photo Credit: Brandon Bolender

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.