Managing creative processes is more than motivating users to contribute. It means providing a suitable work environment that supports creative thinking. For this purpose, crowdsourcers need to define goals and set up tools. In order to do that, they need to understand how the crowd is developing ideas, how community members think and create.

Theoretical work on the issue of creative thinking especially goes back to scholars like Helmholtz, Poincaré and Wallas who have dealt among others with the art of thinking. Their ways of structuring thought processes provide some basis for research, but their vagueness also gives reason for criticism.

Wallas (1926) formulated on the basis of Helmholtz and Poincaré four major process stages:

  • preparation
  • incubation
  • illumination
  • verification

Meanwhile, other process stages have been added, such as problem identification (cf. e.g. Lubart 2000-2001). Of course, that sequential model is to be understood as simplified depiction of a naturally iterative process, where creators might go certain steps several times until they come up with a solution.

In online idea generation we can find those basic stages as well, which could be seen from seven interviews conducted with idea creators working on the platforms IdeaConnection and/or Innocentive in a seminar at university already some time ago (the following quotations are taken from the transcripts).*

Naturally, the problem is given by the idea seeker – nevertheless, the users in the crowd have to ‘identify’ with the task, deciding whether their skills meet the challenge. Furthermore, they need to get the problem right, understand it properly and in the given cases even need to be able to re-formulate it.

“So we will take a challenge apart, discuss it for a week or so and then regenerate it in own words with specific stipulation. So it is not just a reiteration but also a condensation. We break the idea down to its base [elements]” (Tony, IdeaConnection)

Subsequently the users prepare and first of all gather information in the internet, using data bases for e.g. patents and search engines in order to look up e.g. scientific articles.

“[…] the advent of internet has allowed an individual to do a lot more than they could before. […]now you can get abstracts for a lot of these things and then go off to your local university and look up for the full paper.” (John, Innocentive u. IdeaConnection).

They might address experts beyond their online network (e.g. from industries) or formulate questions to address the idea seeker. This might cause iterations during the entire process.

“I mean, they want to go and create ideas right away. I want to pull them back and say ‘Let’s think about this challenge. What do you need to know? How can you look at it differently? What do you need to doubt that will help?’ And then we generate a list of questions for an interview with the seeker.” (Lisa as facilitator on IdeaConnection).

The idea itself can of course already appear to the user when reading the task, but still it needs to be adapted to the seekers’ criteria. However, it seems that the creation of ideas is a mixture of effort and chance. Evidence for the existence of incubation stages could be found in the conducted interviews. In these stages creators are putting the problem aside while doing something absolutely different, but are still dealing with the task unconsciously.

“[…] The way I work on a problem is: I need time where it looks like I’m not working on the problem but actually it’s sitting in the back of my mind.” (Lisa, IdeaConnection)

“Often I wake in the night with the solution or it comes to me when I am doing something very mundane, something repetitive like walking or chopping vegetables, something that is not using very much brain power, I suppose.” (Pat, IdeaConnection)

“I have all the hobbies and interests that can take my mind off of my day job and then allow me to refocus […]” (David, Innocentive)

The evaluation of an idea is geared primarily to the idea seeker’s criteria. Not only the idea but its presentation must be convincing, since the users are aware of competing with others.

“[…] what I’m doing is not just evaluating the problem itself but also evaluating how well we write the problem, the right solution.” (Lisa, IdeaConnection)

“You have to put your best ideas on the table at all risk and all cost. Because it’s likely that someone else is right there with the idea that you advance.” (Kurt, IdeaConnection)

The results show that online creation processes can be structured with help of the identified stages. Besides, they also emphasize the iterative nature of the creation process: Especially feedback for verification does not only play a role in the end of the process, but can be found much earlier, e.g. when specifying the task. One plausible reason (besides e.g. a moderating component guiding more or less the process) might be that users on the given platforms work on issues in a competitive environment. They want to win and know that in the end their idea needs to be original but as well realizable and above all must meet the idea seekers’ specific requirements that usually contain economic criteria like budget or brand fit. Thus, the creation process is not free from restrictions but embedded in a frame of rules and regulations.

In general, the interviews showed that besides rules and regulations as well personal and other environmental conditions set by providers (e.g. team work techniques), idea seekers (task constraints) and the crowd (social influence) have an impact on the problem solving process. Research will show how that wide range of factors influences idea creation. In this respect a deeper insight into aspects of social psychology including phenomena of social influence, like e.g. social facilitation or social loafing is needed in order to illustrate the creation processes on both an individual and a social level.

Eventually, the description of the process of online idea generation is still vague. We might understand how creative people in the crowd prepare, specify their tasks, verify and finish their ideas but still there is the open question about what happens in the core stage of incubation.

Like already Guilford (1950, p. 451) concluded in this matter:

“The belief that the process of incubation is carried on in a region of the mind called the unconscious is of no help. It merely chases the problem out of sight and thereby the chaser feels excused from the necessity of continuing the chase further. It is not incubation itself that we find of great interest. It is the nature of the processes that occur during the latent period of incubation, as well as before it and after it.”

There is much more research needed on creation processes in the field of online idea generation. We need to know especially what role incubation and illumination play in online idea generation. In that respect there is an important question to be asked (as well on a practical level): Is there actually a possibility to manage creative processes, when the core of idea creation is isolated in incubation beyond the community?

References & Readings:

  • Helmholtz, H. v. (1896): Vorträge und Reden. Zweiter Band. 4. Aufl. Braunschweig: Druck und Verlag von Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn.
  • Lubart, T. I. (2000-2001). Models of the Creative Process: Past , Present and Future. Creativity Research Journal, 13(3 u. 4), 295–308.
  • Poincaré, Henri (1910): Mathematical Creation. The Monist. Vol. XX. Jul (3).321-335.
  • Poincaré, Henri (1913): The Foundations of Science. New York u. Garrison: The Science Press.
  • Wallas, Graham (1926) The art of thought. Frome/London: Butler & Tanner LTD.

*Solf, A. & Schultheiss, D. (2014, March). Creative Processes in Crowdsourcing: A qualitative analysis of problem-solving processes on online crowdsourcing platforms. 16th General Online Research (GOR 14), Cologne.




Anja Solf

Anja Solf

Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am Fachgebiet Medien- und Kommunikationsmanagement an der Technischen Universität Ilmenau.

Ihre kreative Ader lebt Anja nicht nur privat, sondern auch im Job aus: In Lehre und Forschung beschäftigt sie sich mit kreativen Prozessen in der Online-Ideengenerierung. Themen wie Crowdsourcing, Kundenintegration und User Innovation gehören zu ihren Schwerpunkten. Ansätze der Kreativitätsforschung in Kombination mit Theorien und Methoden der Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie helfen ihr, diese Konzepte zu entwirren und werfen im Gegenzug eine Menge Fragen auf: So z.B. warum Ideenwettbewerbe Erfolg versprechen, wenn sie Kreativität hemmen?
Anja Solf