Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Wisdom of Crowds

I'm trying to be a voracious reader. More realistically, I'm a persistent reader. I stick with it, page by page, until I finish.

This dogged determination has paid off with the completion of "The Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki. The concept he brought to life had considerable real-world applications and he examined some very important implications. I wish I could capture what Surowiecki so expertly describes and download it into the brains of my colleagues. In short, it has the potential to revolutionize the way we work.

TWoC does an excellent job of describing the reasons and manner in which a group of people can make consistently better judgements than individuals, even so-called experts in the field. Please think about that for a second. For most challenges, with the right conditions and framework, a collection of average minds is always more trustworthy than the one mind that is a focused expert on a particular issue. The crowd won't always be right, but they will be more often than the individual. When we're all looking at a loose set of variables and don't know what's next, statistically you should go with the crowd's wisdom, not the guy that looks confident.

The implications of this are enormous. We get caught up in status, appearances, experience or some other social signal and defer judgement to the individual we're confident will make the best choice. We're wrong. We're placing confidence in the wrong source. Surowiecki acknowledges in his afterword that, even after writing the book, he still felt anxious entrusting a crowd to make the right call. The conventional wisdom that's been burned into us has a powerful pull.

This illogical, gut feeling that makes us hesitate instead of openly inviting diverse opinion on matters of significance is a clue as to why we're stagnating. If you agree with the book, it still takes a "mind over emotion" persistence to put it into practice. That's hard work, and I'm not talking hours at your desk, I'm talking introspection.

My posts lately all seem to fall into a common pattern:
  • name an issue
  • ask if it's a problem
  • if yes, summon the courage to change behaviour.

Are you deferring significant issues to an indivdual? Do they have the information to make good decisions? Do you have greater access to diverse perspective? Are you part of the crowd that could do better? Are you the individual that's convinced you know best? What happens if you engage some diverse perspective?

I don't know about you, but I get a little nervous when I ask these questions.

No comments: