Does size matter? Building your innovation community

by Cecilia Thirlway, on 11 May 2017 4 min read

building your innovation community - Solverboard blog


Please note: in February 2018 Solverboard for Business became Solverboard Work, and Solverboard Open became Solverboard World. Find out more about these changes here.

A question our customers often ask is ‘how many Solvers do I need on my Solverboard team to make it successful?’ The short and infuriating answer, of course, is ‘it depends’. We'd rather be slightly more helpful than that on this blog, so we've outlined some of the factors our consultants consider when arriving at a fuller answer for our customers.

  1. What kind of community is it?

The Solverboard suite of tools can be used to build a wide range of different communities – with customers, fans, employees, partners or suppliers, or all of them at once. Inevitably, this will have an impact on the size of community you aim to create – an employee community will necessarily be limited by the size of organisation, while a customer community might be significantly larger.  Bear in mind that in every community, there will be people who want to engage fully in the innovation process, while others will not be nearly as active – as Frank Piller says: “not all customers are highly motivated co-creators”¹.

Frank Piller was discussing the co-creation site Threadless, where members create designs for t-shirts and vote on each other’s creations. The most popular ones are produced for sale to the Threadless community and beyond. The Threadless community numbers around 2.3 million people, and on average around 2,500 people rate each design, of which 90-100 will make a comment. However, many more members view or buy the designs without voting or commenting, while others only ever submit designs, or just browse. You should not expect every member of your community to engage in it in the same way.

  1. How will you attract people to the community?

If you’re building a community within an established organisation, institution or profession, the task of recruiting them to your community will be easier. The number of people you invite will necessarily be limited, but you will almost certainly have a reasonably high sign-up rate. For example, if you are using Solverboard for Business, you will be inviting people to join your team or community directly, so you may want to pick specific individuals, departments or functions.

Recruiting people from a wide range of sectors, backgrounds or locations to join an open community will necessarily involve a more marketing-led approach, and will be likely to have a lower sign-up rate, so you should aim to reach far more people than you need to join. If you’re using Solverboard Open, you have the benefit of our ready-made Solver community already in place, but what you may want to do is attract certain professions, demographics or talents over and above those we already have signed up – and in that case, the more the merrier.

  1. How engaged are they?

To build a successful co-creation community, members must be engaged and motivated to take part, and that means understanding their starting level of engagement. Fans of a sports team are probably already emotionally engaged with the brand and the team, and will therefore be strongly motivated to contribute: our current fan engagement challenge with Team Sky generated significant interest from the team’s fans right from the word go. Building interest from other communities and people took a little longer.

If you are building a community from lower levels of engagement, whether it’s because your organisation does not currently have a culture of innovation, or because you are building something completely new, you should expect it to take some time, and you will need to spread the net wide: Threadless took five years to build its community to its current level.

  1. What motivates your community?

The point of co-creation communities is to create value for everyone, not just the organisation. Understanding what that value looks like for your members is key to building a successful community, and may contribute to deciding how large that community should be. Harvard professor Karim Lakhani² identified three main reasons for people to participate in communities – problems that matter, peer engagement and recognition, and money. To this, we can add a further factor from Abrahamson, Ryder and Unterberg's work on crowdstorming²: connectedness.

A small, tight-knit community built around a particular profession or practice may provide more opportunities for connectedness and peer recognition than a large one, for example. A large open community may need to offer other incentives such as working on problems that matter (such as our Solverboard Social open challenges) or money. Many Threadless contributors are designers motivated by better return rates than they can get on the open market, for example, but also by the direct feedback they get from customers.

Working with customers or suppliers who have a vested interest in your organisation can be a great approach from a motivation point of view: DHL discovered that its customers wanted help in rethinking their supply chains to improve business performance and built its community around that aim, creating value and demonstrating their worth as a business partner as a result.



¹Piller, F., 2011, Open innovation with customers: Co-creation at Threadless, in Sloane, P., 2011. A guide to open innovation and Crowdsourcing: Advice from Leading Experts in the Field. Kogan Page Publishers.

²Abrahamson, S., Ryder, P. and Unterberg, B., 2013. Crowdstorm: the future of innovation, ideas, and problem solving. John Wiley & Sons.


Further reading:

A co-creation primer - Harvard Business Review

Co-creation in government - Stanford Social Innovation Review

How to manage outside innovation - MIT Sloan

Topics:Creative ThinkingSolverboard News