Before engaging in open platforms for inputs for solutions for social problems, the most important step to take is to define the problem you want to tackle. This cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, more often than not, the allure of launching a crowdsourcing challenge may take precedence over these necessary first steps. 

Dwayne Spradlin wrote a great article about this issue on the Harvard Business Review entitled, "Are You Solving the Right Problems?" He argues that many companies don't spend enough time trying to define the problems that affect them. As a consequence, they "miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies." 

The centrality of problem definition is also found in development practice. Many organizations engage in situation analyses as a basis for programming. However, most of this work relies on quantitative data review, which can be not only outdated but often fraught with data skepticism. These exercises can be time-consuming and most development practioners are too busy with project and financial management that, ironically, few have time to sit down and reflect about the problems they want to solve. 

In response, Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woodlock have argued about the need to use a Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach in development. PDIA is pure common sense. Yet it's rare (alas).  Andrews, in his awesome new book, "The Limits of Institutional Reforms in Development," suggests a simple exercise to put problem identification in the center of development work: ask 'why' five times... And that's what we did to tackle the issue of birth registration in Nicaragua. 

I sat with colleagues from UNICEF's Child Protection section who oversee the theme of birth registration and began with the most basic question: "why aren't kids registered?" For each answer they gave, I asked 'why' until they exhausted their answers. Later on, using a project management software to plug in all inputs, we could literally see the repetition of certain answers. In this case, the 'lack of importance that many parents attached to the issue of birth registration.' In other words, demand for this service was low.

This was a breakthrough moment, as the office had mostly invested on supply-side interventions instead of focusing on trying to increase demand for birth registration services.  Because it was a new area, we thought this could be an opportunity to launch a crowdsourcing challenge to brainstorm novel ideas to solve the problem. 

We used InnoCentive, an international online crowdsourcing platform, to explore ideas on how to create incentives for parents to want to register their children despite opportunity costs (e.g., time, absence from work, household responsibilities, distance). We were also open to suggestions on how changes to birth registration services could be used as incentives themselves. In other words, how these serviced could be 'reinvented' in a way that makes them attractive. 

We ended up selecting two winning solutions out of over 30 entries received. The first involved using photos as incentives to parents registering their children. The other sought to delegate birth registration functions to priests and midwives. Both ideas were appealing because they were low-cost, viable and relevant for the Nicaragua's context. To test these ideas and get immediate feedback on their applicability, we decided to prototype them instead of engaging in pilots.

Overall, the path to pioneer crowdsourcing in our regular practices wasn't easy. It requires a lot of humility to recognize that no organization has the solution for all the problems under its mandate. In many way, the concept of 'smart mobs' challenges the concept of 'expertise' that we're all so used to. You also need a lot of courage to recognize that we’re all going through an interesting transition period where many existing solutions are becoming obsolete. We also need to recognize that solutions can come from different sources and the internet has made this interaction much easier.

But this is not a question of where the solution is coming from. I think it’s more about questioning the very problem that we want to fix in the first place. That’s why we also need to think about new alternatives as part of the solution. To get there, we need to go beyond our four walls and reach out to other sectors. Innovation usually comes from integrating opposing ideas.

For more information, please check out this interview at InnoCentive.

"If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions" - A. Einstein