As many of you know, I’m involved with a mass collaboration effort (more on collaboration vs. crowd sourcing here) to rethink the portable / disposable coffee drinking experience. You see, the vast majority of to-go coffee cups aren’t recyclable, and it turns out we really like our coffee. Tens of billions of energy-inefficient cups end up in landfills every year. This post isn’t about the issue, but if you’re interested, please visit (there’s still time to vote, rate, and improve upon on the ideas submitted, which is critical to identifying a solution).

This post is about 3 key lessons I’ve learned regarding the engagement of crowds over the course of this process.

1. Money is … well, money.

Money is a wonderful incentive. We heard from a number of people solely motivated by cash. It broadened the audience beyond the group that would have turned up only for the purpose of environmental altruism. However, when money’s at stake, the group is broader, but less collaborative. Some people would accuse others of stealing their ideas; others would respond within minutes to a new idea posted claiming it was too similar to something they’d submitted. I’ve been a part of a number of efforts like this now and money has always been a core incentive. But tying it to a cause illustrated how it can actually work against collaboration on occasion. Specifically, it undermined the bucket brigade reward system we hoped would occur through our community management.

I’m not saying money always has a negative impact, but understanding its limitations is critical in retrospect. It was great for the first part of the process (number of ideas, effort put into submissions, pass-along), but it was potentially detrimental to the second half (refining unpopular but high potential ideas, collaboration across related ideas, gaming of the system).

2. Employ a boring governing body.

Our friend @faris has regularly made the comment that crowds aren’t inherently wise regardless of book titles that have infiltrated innovations culture, which I couldn’t agree with more. In fact, as someone who has tried to wrangle a crowd on multiple occasions, I’ve always assumed there was a dangerous herd mentality I had to police against. In the case of Betacup, I was determined to not let the crowd’s opinion keep me from reading every single submission as a jury member. However, the crowd actually did an incredible job bubbling up the best / freshest / most effective ideas. Startlingly so, in fact. However, the few times I deviated in opinion from the crowd’s most influential members were on ideas that were, well, boring.

Crowds tend to collectively take a “wow me” approach (explains the current state of news media, no?). That works really well at encouraging new types of thought on an ongoing issue like this one, but it actually does some ideas a disservice. Some simple, boring ideas were actually very effective at solving parts of this complex issue (for example, a collection bin shaped like a tube to reduce the probability that other junk or recyclables would be placed in it). Yet these boring ideas were ignored, generating few views, comments, or ratings. My lesson here was of the importance of bringing in a governing group that has a bias of their own, in the other direction. People who value simplicity and boring effectiveness. That combination can yield powerful results to solve problems.

3. Don’t prescribe formats.

We made a bold choice when deciding what form Betacup submissions should take: any. It was why the highly flexible and open Jovoto platform worked beautifully for the type of problem-solving we needed. The coffee cup issue sounds like a design one on the surface: invent a design that’s recyclable but still fits in a cup holder, is cheap, can handle heat, and feels natural on the lips. But it’s actually quite layered. This problem is as much about human behavior and access to manufacturing and disposal resources as it is about engineering. By opening up the submission format, Betacup became accessible to people of all disciplines. When the problem is as ubiquitous yet unknown as disposable cups, it’s critical we have experts from diverse fields weigh in. Without it, we wouldn’t have had any intersectional innovation, and this problem demands it.

What’s impressive about crowds when they’re given opportunities like this is that individuals don’t introduce themselves as engineers, or designers, or marketers. They just solve a problem. And when you look at what they accomplished, you know different disciplines had to be involved, but the lines are too blurry to see where or how.

As I look back on the submission and collaboration process, I think we got a lot of things right, and certainly some things wrong. The lessons above were the most valuable for me as someone interested in such things. They may apply to a very specific collaboration environment: problem solving & innovation (not necessarily design or creative services), but they’ve changed the way I think about crowds. Now I just hope the 300+ ideas change the way we collectively think about our coffee habits.

thebetacup: 60 Seconds To Save The World from the betacup on Vimeo.


To see, rate and comment on the submissions, visit the contest page. To follow our journey toward a solution, follow @thebetacup.