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The Wisdom of the Crowd

The Wisdom of the Crowd
The Wisdom of the Crowd
The Wisdom of the Crowd

Why do many countries have a legal system that favours a jury over a judge to determine guilt or innocence? The answer is that humans have many times discovered the wisdom of the crowd.

In its modern form, crowdsourcing ideas has become fashionable. But written evidence for this big idea goes back a long way. In his ‘Politics’ Aristotle classifies constitutions.

So why are the many wiser than individual experts? 

It turns out that they aren’t always. But they can be. The better question is when are the many wiser than individual experts?

Why Tap into the Wisdom of the Crowd?

The simple answer is because experts are fallible. Philip Tetlock’s research showed that experts over-estimate the quality of their forecasts. They can’t see effects outside their narrow expertise. And they fail to anticipate radical variances from their chain of reasoning.

Non-experts can see more widely and have less false confidence. But they aren’t expert. So their views may be plain wrong.

That’s why you need to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. You can access lots of experts and non-experts. This will wash away the wilder views. But it will also allow the group to examine non-expert chains of reasoning.

The key is in how you aggregate the views of the crowd, to access its wisdom.

What is the Wisdom of the Crowd?

The term refers to a simple observation. When we take lots of opinions together, we often arrive at a wise solution.

This happens when the problem is well-suited to the process. It also needs a group that has no fixed agenda, nor need to ‘agree’ by members fitting in. Then, groups make better decisions and find better solutions than most of the members. Surprisingly often, the group outperforms even its best member.

There are three types of problem that bring out the wisdom of the crowd:

  1. Cognitive – where there are definitive solutions for the group to find
  2. Co-ordination – sharing work among the group
  3. Collaborative – working together for common benefit

Definition of the Wisdom of the Crowd

So, we can define the wisdom of the crowd as:

An opinion of a group of individuals that is assembled in a way that makes it more robust than the opinions of any one individual.

Averaging

The best way to poll and collate the views of many people is often through an averaging process. This was formally noted by Sir Francis Galton, a nineteenth century statistician. He observed ‘guess the weight of the bull’ competitions at county shows. Guesses varied widely. But, the averages were usually astonishingly close to the real answer.

There is a lot of technical discussion to be had about what sort of average to calculate. I have used a mean average in a ‘guess the number of jelly beans’ exercise at a large conference. Like Galton, I got an answer within 1 per cent. The best result often comes from a median. That’s the measure Galton used.

How to Optimise the Wisdom of the Crowd

In his book, ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ (US|UK), James Surowiecki looks at how to optimise the process. He sets out the conditions for harnessing the wisdom of the crowd effectively.

Surowiecki finds three primary criteria for a group to be smart:

  1. Independence – each group member must think independently
  2. Diversity – different perspectives are important
  3. De-centralisation – no control over data gathering but effective collation of diverse data

In addition, there are some process points that are important. Let’s look at each in turn.

Independence

The more that people try to influence one another, the less wisdom the group will show. People must feel no pressure to agree, conform, or fit in. This makes independence vital, to:

  • Allow each person to bring their own information and approach to analysing it
  • Reduce peer pressure to conform. The risk here is ‘Group Think’.
  • Prevent mistakes propagating

Diversity

For years, nations have been implementing laws to promote diversity. But the simple fact is this… societies and organisations flourish best when they are at their most diverse.

Diversity does not only add different perspectives to the group. It also makes it easier for individuals to say what they really think. But this is only true when the process ensures we all give equal respect to each colleague.

Perhaps this is  surprising. But if you add new people who know less, but have different skills, you will improve the group’s performance. The presence of a minority point of view will make a group’s decisions more nuanced. Its decision making process becomes more rigorous, and its decisions therefore more robust.

De-centralisation

Information needs to be shared among everyone. Nobody can have a monopoly of facts. And that includes how the information is presented. As soon as we share processed information, we suppress alternative interpretations.

The US Army reportedly bans PowerPoint decks. The summary chooses what information to include. And therefore, also what to exclude. How you present the information layers new interpretations.

So you need to find a way to collate raw information. But to do so, without overloading everyone with the need to filter vast amounts of it.

Process

Here are some valuable tips for facilitating a group to access the wisdom of the crowd:

  • Have a clear agenda
  • Ensure all conversation is respectful of everyone
  • Make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak
  • Don’t let opinion formers, decision-makers, or experts speak first. They can contaminate the debate
  • Actively discuss alternatives, opposite points of view, and disaster-level what-ifs

Any Questions?

How does Crowdsourcing relate to the the Wisdom of the Crowd?

Crowdsourcing is an approach to splitting work among a number of participants . Each works independently and remotely on a task or problem. The internet has made this far easier.

But examples on Wikipedia go back to the age of enlightenment. And there are probably earlier cases to be found.

Crowdsourcing is one way to harness the wisdom of the crowd.  Using technology to make it simpler is an obvious strategy. I suspect we will see ever more of it.

Aren’t individuals pretty stupid?

You’re thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, I guess. That’s the observation that non-experts tend to over-estimate their knowledge and expertise. And that’s true. The wisdom of the crowd can only emerge when individuals’ ideas are properly collated. We don’t take account of their estimates of the value of their opinions.

What is Your experience of the Wisdom of the Crowd?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more… 

One of my top book recommendations is James Surowiecki’s book: ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ (US|UK). It is great for for any professional, leader or organisational manager. It’s well-written and easy to read (Surowiecki is a journalist). But it’s also well-researched and full of delicious insight.

For experienced  managers and business people, there is a lot that will move your thinking on. If you’re nearer the start of your career, it will influence your thinking profoundly.  It did mine.

Our own Pocketbook, the Collaborative Working Pocketbook references this topic and is out at the end of November, 2017, by Doug Miller.

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