August 11, 2007
Individualists Make the Wisest Crowds

sunflower200x150.jpgThe blurb below, promoting James Surowiecki's talk at Tim O'Reilly's 2005 Emerging Technology Conference, makes a great point. The basic message?
A crowd is wisest when each member retains a strong individual point of view.

"In the past few years, we've seen a powerful and justifiable groundswell of interest in and adoption of bottom-up and collaborative approaches to problem-solving and decision-making. It's now clear that under the right circumstances, these approaches can be remarkably effective, and can yield solutions that are consistently better than those produced by even the smartest expert. Groups, instead of falling to their lowest common denominator, can often rise to the level of their best member and beyond.

"The paradox, though, is that groups are typically smartest when the people in them act as much like individuals as possible--when they rely primarily on their own private information, when their opinions are independent, and when their judgments are not determined by their peers."

Paradoxical, yes, but in your gut you know it's right. The essence of collaboration is not necessarily "teamwork" in the classic, competitive sense. Rather it depends on every person being passionately and enthusiastically productive, however they happen to "get into it." In a company context, it's a team leader's job to be on the lookout for what each individual needs to stay in their productive passion.

Google coddles its creative teams with every conceivable convenience, but it also draws the line at "techno-arrogance." A "smarter than them" attitude is simply not collaborative or encouraged. Engineers who think they're smarter than the folks using their stuff are deadly to a user-centric company like Google.

People can be brilliant individuals and have great ideas without any "smarter than you" pretense being laid on top. Better to be a love cat, as Tim Sanders puts it in his book "Love is the Killer App."

It's up to individuals and their mentors, leaders and coaches to make sure each crowdster brings all their "flavor" when he or she shows up. It also helps when each person gets away from "smarter than you" pretenses by finding some brilliance in a few fellow crowdsters - something that's "smarter than me" - and champions it. Mix equal amounts of brilliance, assertiveness and humility together and you'll have a pretty wise crowd.

Audio: Surowiecki speaks at SXSW Interactive Conference, 2006

Posted by Tim Moore at August 11, 2007 01:56 PM

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