Plumia Talks

Steve Rader: How NASA crowdsources solutions to its problems

Steve Radar shares the four G’s of innovation
Steve Rader: How NASA crowdsources solutions to its problems
In: Plumia Talks

In 2011, Steve Rader’s team at NASA was researching astronaut health – and they needed to find a cheaper way to get their work done.

Rader went out into various industries to see how other folks handled these types of issues. He found the answer lay in crowdsourcing ideas and solutions from a wide variety of people.

Fast forward to 2022 and NASA has successfully completed over 600 open innovation projects. In a Plumia Talks live interview, Rader, now the Program Manager of NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, shared the four G’s of successful open innovation.

The four G’s of open innovation

Rader said there are four reasons why people join crowdsourced innovation platforms, known as “the four G’s”.

Gold: This is the incentive prize. Rader notes that the “gold” doesn’t always have to be cash. For instance, NASA once offered tours of their facilities as a prize for an innovation challenge.

Guts: Rader says there are some people who love taking on hard challenges and flexing their skills in “non-threatening” ways. Where you might get fired for making mistakes at work, if you fail an innovation challenge, nothing bad happens—and you get feedback to help you improve.

Glory: Many people use innovation challenges to build personal credibility. Rader said it’s common for some people to use winning innovation challenges as part of their portfolio to secure work.

Good: A lot of people seek out challenges that have a social-good element to it, allowing them to put  their skills to good use.

The process of open innovation

Rader detailed the process he used at NASA and that he recommends to anyone considering open innovation.

First, break down a large problem into single-variable challenges. According to Rader, crowds are most suited to binary challenges rather than complex issues. Then identify what you want done with the IP after the fact: own it outright? Open source? Or a perpetual license where the creator owns the IP but you can use it? Finally, craft your incentive, which is a balance of IP ownership level (the more you own, the more you pay) and what the crowd wants from you.

After you’ve defined the problem, bring in the real owners –  anyone who has to be involved with implementing a solution. This might be multiple teams such as IT, legal, and product teams. With these owners, identify the criteria you need (and parameters you have) that defines success. These will be shared out with the crowd later on.

Rader gives the example of a potato chip company that had a problem: how to get oil off their chips without breaking them. The company designed a challenge described as removing liquid from a thin wafer without damaging it, since that made it more applicable to all types of people rather than just food scientists studying chips.

The winning solution came from a musician who proposed a sound-based vibration that would move the liquid without touching the chip – they learned this from seeing how rosin moved on a violin as the sound from playing created a small wind-like force.

Had the chip company been closed to non-food industry ideas, they may never have spotted this winning solution. Rader says you can build your own community or go to pre-made ones like IdeaScale, BrightIdea, and Spigit by Planview.

And lastly, it’s important to give constructive feedback. You won’t accept all proposals. However, you should strive to give constructive feedback across the board.

Rader says that when giving feedback, point out gaps that will help the innovator learn why their idea wasn’t selected and how they might improve it for the future.People understand not everyone can win, but knowing why they weren’t selected keeps them engaged and growing for next time.

Why open innovation is necessary now

Crowdsourcing, Rader says, emerged as the key tool to help with innovation because it brings multiple perspectives together. It also allows for quick failure and for “bad” ideas to flow naturally. While this may sound bad at the outset, it’s actually critical because the most innovative idea is almost never the first one that comes to light. It’s only through feedback, iteration, and gaining multiple perspectives that true innovation happens.

“Innovation is often three ideas in,” Rader says. “In other words, three failed ideas that you have to listen to, before [you] actually figure out that one that will work. And if you're not willing to listen to any ideas that won't work, you're never going to get to the one that actually will work.”

Watch entire interview here.

Written by
Stefan Palios
Stefan works with entrepreneurs, enterprises, and governments to tell their story, educate their community, and build movements. He is author of the business book The 50 Laws of Freelancing.
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