The Wisdom Of The Crowd

We’ve all been there. A group gathers to discuss an idea or to brainstorm. Inevitably, the session drags on as we all try to gather people’s divergent views into a coherent whole. It’s the old expression about a camel being a horse designed by committee. What often emerges from this group-think is a solution that makes everyone equally unhappy but often doesn’t represent the best solution to a question.

If you’ve spent any time here on the screed you know that I think it’s critically important to gather as many facts and opposing points of view as possible when facing any question. What I might not have explained clearly enough, however, is the role I often played when working with my team on questions. I was, as I used to tell them, the benevolent dictator, or as President Bush once said, “I’m the decider.” Every group needs one.

It’s hard for groups of people to make decisions. There is wisdom in crowds but there aren’t always enough informed members in that crowd to make what they predict or present of real value. While in theory the inherent biases in the group will cancel each other out, I find that those of the biggest mouths or most senior people in the room tend to dominate, even if they’re way off base or underinformed.

I used to try to solve this by never gathering a group without telling them in advance what topics were to be discussed and to ask them to research the topics and come prepared with informed opinions. You would be shocked how quickly consensus was reached in many sessions because everyone managed to find out the same facts and the solutions became obvious. While you always want the group to maintain an open mind, each member simultaneously needs to have an informed opinion which they can contribute. That’s when the wisdom of the crowd becomes valuable.

People know when they’re being lead to a “group decision” that’s really just one person imposing their will, usually the boss. That breeds apathy or resentment, especially when they know the boss is wrong. Making a decision as a boss – being the decider – once the group has legitimately surfaced a number of potential solutions is inclusive and empowering. Which direction would you choose?

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