Many hands make light work

Written by Sarah Lewis on 1 May 2013 in Features

Sarah Lewis explains how you can crowdsource organisational change using Appreciative Inquiry

Organisations face many challenges in our current triple-dip-recession, inter-connected times. Not least is that of adapting quickly to changes in the environment: technical, financial and industry-specific. The old models of change based on a top-down, linear, directive process are proving too slow, cumbersome and expensive. The conventional model of diagnose, plan, implement cannot keep up with changes on the ground and the plan is quickly out of date.

Organisations are looking for something that not only addresses these challenges but that also helps maintain motivation and morale during difficult times. Particularly, they are interested in ways of reducing resistance to change and increasing organisational buy-in.

In 2008, Barack Obama's election team realised the old model of creating an election war chest was out of date: a few people donating lots of money to the fighting fund was unlikely to deliver the billions of dollars needed to run for president. Instead, they used new technology to switch the model to one in which a lot of people donated small amounts of money, in some cases literally a few dollars. In effect, Obama crowdsourced the finance for his election campaign, creating a powerful example of the ability of new technology to produce a great aggregate result out of lots of small, voluntary actions.

This tactic was astonishingly successful, with the spin-off benefit that a lot of people had an active stake in his success. Crowdsourcing became the 'mot de jour', but this process is not as new as it seems: Sir James Murray used a similar approach to creating the Oxford English Dictionary back in 1897. An open call was made to the community for contributions by volunteers to index all words in the English language and example quotations of their usages. They received more than six million submissions over a period of 70 years1.

So while crowdsourcing is a new and sexy phrase, in essence it refers to the age-old process of enlisting volunteers to complete tasks that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for one person to do alone. It builds on the willingness of people to contribute to the creation of something greater than themselves; to achieve things beyond their own unique ability. In this way it can be seen as a particular form of organising.


Wikipedia defines it thus: "Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. This process can occur both online and offline. The difference between crowdsourcing and ordinary outsourcing is that a task or problem is outsourced to an undefined public rather than a specific body, such as paid employees." But it also says: "Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model." 2

Considering this definition, it seems to me that the distinction may be the voluntary nature of the participation rather than necessarily the paid/unpaid divide. Maybe people who are connected by being on the same payroll can also act as independent, individual members of a community. Which leads us to the question can crowdsourcing be said to occur when people are not compelled to do the tasks by a job contract but, instead, volunteer to be part of an organisational project that goes beyond their usual role, increasing the ability of the organisation to achieve more than it could alone?

If the answer is yes, Appreciative Inquiry might legitimately be regarded as a form of in-house crowdsourcing, as long as the volunteer principle is adhered too.

The wisdom of crowds

The ability of crowds to solve problems, sometimes better than individuals, has also caught the public imagination in recent years, supported by the convincing research on the phenomenon of "the wisdom of crowds" brought together by James Surowiecki3.

In his book, he notes that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them" , which might lead us to the conclusion that, even if you allow that the smartest people rise to the top in an organisation (a debatable premise in itself!), that still doesn't mean that they are smarter than the organisation as a whole at solving problems.

We call this aspect of organisational life 'distributed intelligence'. One of the many strengths of AI and similar whole-system approaches is that they are able to get access to this intelligence.

Reviewing the research and the philosophical debates about this observable and repeatable group phenomena, Surowiecki says: "If you put together a big and diverse enough group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest, that group's decisions will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual, no matter how smart or well-informed he is." He suggests that this approach is good for three kinds of challenges: cognition (assessing information to make judgments and predictions), co-ordination (co-ordinating behaviour among many people) and co-operation (getting self-interested people to work together for some common good). Many organisational change problems and challenges are of this nature.

Surowiecki does also note that the process isn't infallible and that groups work best under certain conditions, for example some rules that maintain order and coherence, sufficient but not overwhelming communication, an optimal size for the challenge, and so on. These are all factors that AI as a process brings to proceedings to heighten the ability of the group to be wise.

So can we usefully view AI as an organisational process that can bring the benefits of the phenomenal power of crowd-wisdom and crowdsourcing productivity to organisations facing change?

Appreciative Inquiry

AI is an approach to organisational development first put forward by Dr David Cooperrider and colleagues in the 1980s and 1990s4. It offers a clear model for change supported by some key principles of practice. It is a strengths-based, positive, psychological whole-system approach to organisational change.

The AI summit process draws the whole system that is connected to the challenge, opportunity or change together, to work through the 5D process. This covers:

  • defining the inspiring topics for inquiry
  • discovering the strengths and resources the organisation brings to the challenge
  • creating attractive images of the future to pull people forward
  • identifying what needs to be done now to encourage the unfolding of the best possible future
  • agreeing on actions.

The process is participative, discursive, positive, generative and voluntary. At its best, it answers the challenges outlined at the beginning of this article: it is fast, sustainable, creates motivation, improves morale and bypasses issues of resistance and buy-in. Everyone plays a part in the creation of the way forward and all voices are a respected part of the process. In this way it can be seen as a crowd-based problem solving and production managing process.

AI is a remarkably robust process built on a great understanding of human psychology and group dynamics. However, attention to various aspects of its facilitation can help increase its potential to deliver great results. A key aspect of this is the necessity of respecting the volunteer principle throughout the process.  It is the voluntary nature of participation that allows the group to act more as a collection of individuals with common cause than as paid employees in a hierarchical structure, although, of course, this continues to also be the case.

The power of AI is based on the power of the volunteer model in the following ways:

  • voluntary attendance Ideally attendance at an AI event is voluntary. A small planning group identifies the system that the challenge or topic involves, so the appropriate people are invited to attend the AI event. This means that the topic and invitation have to be sufficiently compelling that people prioritise being there of their own volition. It also means that the nature of the event needs to be experienced as attractive, so that people want to be part of it. When people make an active choice to invest their time, they are keen to get a good return on that: they want to build on it and create good outcomes. By contrast, when they are compelled to be there against their will or better judgment, it can be a recipe for frustration and even sabotage of the process
  • voluntary participation The voluntarism principle needs to extend to participation in any and every particular activity or discussion that is planned for the day. We never know what may be going on in people's lives to make some topic of discussion unbearable. While a structure is offered for the day, people need to be allowed to make choices within that. They may have to, during the day, prioritise their own need for some quiet time, or to make a timely phone call. It is my experience that, when people are treated as adults constantly juggling competing priorities, trying to make good moment-to-moment decisions in complex contexts, they manage it very well, and with minimum disruption to the process
  • voluntary contribution Calling on collective intelligence is a key feature of large group processes. However, people are free to choose whether and what to contribute. So, the event needs to create an atmosphere in which people feel safe and trusting and, therefore, desire to share information and dreams and to build connection and intimacy. Building this atmosphere takes time and attention during all stages, including planning, preparation and invitations. Maintaining the volunteer principle helps with this. The event needs to be facilitated so that all voices are recognised as valuable members of the community. At the same time, people may have some specialist knowledge and this is also part of the collective intelligence of the group
  • voluntary further action Towards the end of an AI summit there is a shift from the focus on the process of the day to forming plans for the future. This frequently involves the creation of project or work groups to progress plans and to co-ordinate activity. Membership of these groups needs to be voluntary. Different people will be motivated to contribute to different things. Hopefully a lot of people will be willing to contribute a little to enable a lot to change in the aggregate. As Fry and Bushe note while discussing when AI works well, "few arrive wanting more work: few leave without having volunteered for co-operative action"5. The desire to contribute to changing things for the future needs to stem from the motivation and community built during the day. Forcing everyone to sign up to a post-event group activity, regardless of their energy, time or passion for the topic or project, just creates drag and sometimes derails the whole process.

In these ways, AI can be seen as a form of in-house crowdsourcing in the face of the challenges of organisational change or adaptation. The ideal outcome of an AI event is that everyone is so motivated and inspired by the process, discussions and aspirations that they make small changes in their own day-to-day behaviour that aggregate to a bigger shift, and even transformation, within the organisation as a whole.

In addition, they may volunteer to be part of specific groups working on specific projects. By definition, these personal shifts in behaviour and the group project activity are above and beyond their job description: it is voluntary, discretionary behaviour. In this way, the voluntary basis of the AI approach qualifies it to be seen as a form of crowdsourcing even though it is activity undertaken by paid members of an organisation.

As a process, AI offers the organisation a tried and tested way to get access to its collective wisdom and intelligence.

If you are interested in, or a convert to, the power of crowdsourcing to get big things to happen with a small amount of effort from many people, AI might be a way of bringing it into your organisation.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Sarah Lewis M.Sc.C.Psychol runs a business psychology Appreciating Change, and is author of Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management (KoganPage). She can be contacted at

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