While party hosts (or their hired caterers) hustle to prepare celebratory meals, one entity working behind the scenes gets very little recognition – bees.

As pollinators, bees are responsible for every third bite of food we eat. Given their importance, a sharp decline in the global bee population could be cause for alarm. But how do scientists track bee populations? And what does this topic have to do with innovation?

Task Unification and the Citizen Scientist

Scientist Gretchen LeBuhn has created a way to crowdsource data from citizen scientists in order to help count and track bees via The Great Sunflower Project website. To make her project work, LeBuhn called on an innovation pattern used for thousands of years: a tool called “task unification.”

This tool, which is one of five innovation methods outlined previously on Journey and in my book Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results, forces an already existing component in a process or product to work harder to solve a problem. The Great Sunflower Project, by calling on people who are already out in nature (walking, gardening, playing, hiking or so on), reaps the benefit of volunteer labor. These citizen scientists take on the added responsibility of observing insects and reporting their findings online to help further pollinator research. Simply put, the tool relies on “crowdsourcing.” 

Task unification, like the other four innovation techniques, allows you to routinely and systematically be creative by constraining your options for solving a problem. With task unification, you simply force an existing feature or component to work harder by giving it additional responsibilities. There’s no need to brainstorm wild solutions to problems when the answer may already be present. For The Great Sunflower Project, the scientists didn’t develop high-tech bee counters to be installed in hundreds of thousands of sites at great expense. They simply asked people to help.

How Task Unification Can Benefit You

You can benefit by using task unification to solve challenges in three different ways: you can outsource, like The Great Sunflower Project did by employing citizen scientists; you can make the most of internal resources; or you can ask a part of your product or process to take on the role of an external element of the process.

Task unification is a versatile tool. You can use it across a wide variety of scenarios to generate fresh ideas for innovation. It’s especially useful when you’re constrained from bringing in external resources or acquiring new capabilities. The task unification technique forces you to consider non-obvious components to solve problems. Simply put, you do your best with what is already available.

Yes, task unification can generate new product ideas. It can also help you create or improve processes and services—or even help you count the bees that feed the world.

In case you’re wondering, The Great Sunflower Project, which has been going since 2008, is now the biggest source of bee pollination data in North America. With thousands of participating members, the site identifies where pollinator service is above or below average, helps visitors with bee friendly gardening, and offers other resources about helping bees. For more information go to www.greatsunflower.com.  


Drew Boyd

Drew Boyd is a 30-year industry veteran. He spent 17 years at Johnson & Johnson in marketing, mergers and acquisitions, and international development. Today, he trains, consults and speaks widely in the fields of innovation, persuasion and social media. He is the executive director of the Master of Science in Marketing Program and assistant professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. Drew’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Industry Week, Psychology Today and Strategy+Business. Visit his blog, Inside the Box Innovation.

Drew is part of The Opener, an exclusive, invite-only contributor network that will bring the best food, culture, and innovation writing to the pages of Coca-Cola Journey