Collaborating With an Invisible Team: Lessons from Online Ideation

As of this afternoon, we have 79 conflicting opinions about the best way for citizen science to support environmental research. It’s entirely our fault—we asked.

As an AAAS fellow with EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), I’ve spent the past few months immersed in the best of federal creativity. The ORD Innovation Team looks for new and better ways to solve environmental problems—and looks across the agency for ideas about how to do so. That means their brainstorming sessions don’t just involve a few people sitting around a table. Online ideation sessions help the team gather, and develop, the best suggestions. They also come with their own set of challenges.

Most online ideation platforms let you do three basic things:

  • Collect new ideas in response to a question or problem. Every person who logs onto the system can add their thoughts, and every idea appears as its own blog-like post.
  • Discuss and build on posted ideas. People critique, support, or add to what’s already been posted—these appear as comments on the original posts.
  • Vote on ideas. Suggestions with more interest get pushed toward the top of the list, allowing more people to see and comment on them. This also makes it easy to pick out, at the end of the session, the ideas that have garnered the most excitement.

The Innovation Team keeps these sessions open on the EPA intranet for about a week. Most people participate towards the beginning and end of the session, so longer sessions don’t tend to get much more input. And the short time frame keeps excitement high and participation fast-paced.

Some of the Innovation Team’s ideation sessions have asked participants to highlight creative work that’s already been done, and help identify lessons from those projects for future work. Others, like the current session, ask people to suggest directions for specific projects. In this case, the goal was to find out which EPA research questions might benefit from volunteers doing data collection and analysis. Citizen science is an area ripe for exploration—provided we know where it will do the most good and save the most resources.

I’ve learned a few things by watching these sessions:

  • If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. Federal workers are a busy bunch, and get frequent updates on a lot of important (and important-seeming) projects. Ongoing outreach is necessary, not only to remind people to check in, but to make sure they know what practical results will come out of their time investment.
  • Stay focused—but not too focused. Too broad a topic won’t interest many people, and the conversation that does result will be all over the place. Too narrow, and few people will feel like they have anything to contribute. Starting with a short, clear statement of the problem is vital.
  • Stay positive. Ideas can be fragile things, and people are less likely to contribute if they think they’ll just get shot down. The improv concept of “yes, and…” is a good one—try to keep the discussion centered around constructive suggestions.

Online ideation can be a useful way to gather creative suggestions from a big organization, and to start conversations between people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to collaborate. And the all important question in government: What are the results?  They’ve been good in the past, and the current session promises to be effective as well. Among those 79 ideas, there are some real gems.

About the Author

Ruthanna Gordon is a cognitive psychologist focused on the intersections between culture, innovation, and sustainability. She is currently a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow with EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Find her on Twitter at @green_minds.

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