Beware the Wisdom of Crowds

I couldn’t help but thinking more about this installment of Zippy after seeing it in the Boston Globe on Sunday.  Much has been said lately about the wisdom of crowds and most of it has been positive.  Many companies have begun to look to their customers and business partners for input regarding existing products and services.  Some organizations have taken the next step and solicited ideas for new offerings from external constituents.

Crowdsourcing is a welcome form of collaboration whose positive effects outweigh the potential shortcomings, but Bill Griffith is right to question our rush to embrace the wisdom of crowds in his cartoon strip.  We need to take the limitations of this type of collaboration into account when making business decisions based on information gathered from the crowd.

Like it or not, ignorance plays a role in shaping the feedback generated by the crowd.  Individuals (and the collective, by extension) are often not aware of what is possible.  They can’t imagine an innovative solution because they are unable to think beyond what they currently know and understand.

I’ve encountered this bias many times in my work as a consultant.  When helping clients develop new ways to collaborate, I used to ask them questions like “How would you like to collaborate with X?”, or “What would that look like?”, or “How would that work?  More often than not, my efforts to have the client describe what they wanted were rewarded with silence and/or blank looks!

I eventually learned to show clients a potential answer to the question that I’m asking and have them build off of that.  Putting a use case scenario, an interface mock-up, or a process diagram in front of the customer always elicits a response that I can use to begin to understand what they really want.  This is true if I’m working one-on-one with a client or if I’m conducting a workshop with a group.

Next time you turn to the crowd for ideas, be sure to seed some information with which they can innovate.  Don’t ask them to start with a blank sheet if you want great results.

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