Unlocking the wisdom of crowds at your agency or on your marketing team
You may have heard about the wisdom of crowds, but how can you unlock this asset in your digital marketing work? Contributor Rex Briggs shares processes to use and pitfalls to avoid.
Generally speaking, our culture values the opinions of experts. Just tune into any of the leading news channels, and you will quickly see what I mean. At no point in time have we had more people, with more divergent opinions, who have ready access to one of our modern-day soapboxes. But time after time, these experts miss the mark, and their predictions are far from the reality of what actually happens.
Why are experts not that smart? Because experts tend to be and think alike, and thus do not reflect a maximum diversity of opinions; they tend to be internally inconsistent and poor at calibrating their position. In short, they are overconfident.
In a group, they tend to decide by authority (“groupthink”), which makes dissent within the group improbable — conformity and bias rather than challenge is the result. Finally, as is often quoted by members of my team, past performance is never a predictor of future success.
What is the wisdom of crowds?
In his 2005 book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki argues that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”
Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea: Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant — better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.
In his work, he suggests that if four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s “collective wisdom” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, even if members of the crowd don’t know all the facts or individually choose to act irrationally.
“Wise crowds” need:
- Diversity of opinion.
- Independence of members from one another.
- A good method for aggregating opinions.
The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people’s errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are “smarter” than if a single expert had been in charge.
‘Collective wisdom’ is put to good use to tackle three kinds of problems
- Cognition problems: Such problems arise when we can only guess the answer — for example, how many jelly beans there are in a jar or how the future will unfold. How do we get the guess right?
- Coordination problems: How do we coordinate behavior with each other, say, across teams in our agency, with our clients or with other agencies?
- Cooperation problems: How do we get cooperation among those with a strong self-interest, like those who naturally feel the need to prove that the marketing channel they manage or the company they represent is an important part of a client’s success and who may be less inclined to advocate for the ideas of others to work together?
Unlocking the wisdom of crowds
Many of these problems are those in which, in order to solve them, a person has to think not only about what he believes to be the right answer, but also about what other people think the right answer is. This particular challenge can be difficult to navigate, especially for agencies where there is an inevitable sense that we have to get it right. We naturally, and understandably, tend to anchor on our recommendations or perspectives and advocate for them as being the most accurate or beneficial.
But when different strategies are devised, the diversity tends to yield a far better result. I was struck by the lengths to which one of our clients goes to elicit this diversity of opinion. The CEO, who is leading a well-known consumer brand, when asked his opinion about what should be done, most likely will reply, “I’m not sure, what do you think?” Please don’t take this as indecisiveness. When it’s time to act, this leader moves with confidence, knowing that he and his team have explored many options and have collectively come up with what will most likely be the “right” decision for the company.
Perils to avoid when seeking to harness this wisdom
A challenge, however, remains. In order to take full advantage of the wisdom of crowds, a team must have access to reliable, independent, third-party data that can be used to assess the performance of the decision taken. Ad tech expert and Acceleration Labs principal Max Mead recently wrote about this in his article titled, “Get Politics Out of Your Marketing.” He talks at length about the importance of building a team culture driven by data and insights and not by politics. Access to this data is key to building trust amongst teams and successfully eliciting the ideas needed to get the benefits of the collective wisdom.
Agencies, and the clients with whom they work, also have to fight against convention. These ideas are convenient as we try to navigate a complex and ever-changing marketplace. They’re the shortcuts that help us get through the day. In this context, the “devil’s advocate” or “outsider’s perspective” can be very helpful. Please do not take this as a blanket exhortation to do the unconventional. The conventional may be the right decision. However, the unconventional perspective can be very helpful as we seek the collaborative wisdom of the team.
Another peril to unlocking this wisdom is the tendency for small groups of people or teams to succumb to groupthink. In this case, rather than exploring alternative solutions, members of the team may seek and assimilate information that confirms their underlying bias or opinion. Members of the team may seek to influence others’ opinion, thereby eliminating the diversity of approaches. Or, candidly, the team may defer to the most opinionated person — who may simply be the one talking the loudest or the most.
A key to overcoming these challenges is the team leaders’ or agency members’ ability to create an environment in which the diverse opinions can be gathered without the influence of other team members. One will want to gather all the options to have a healthy conversation about the right direction.
Please don’t take this to mean that I believe all ideas are good ideas. However, you want to save the conversation and debate about the merits of ideas for later in the process. While it may seem inefficient, research has shown that this process helps teams come to conclusions faster and make better decisions than if they had relied on their “smartest member.”
Ingredients for successfully employing the wisdom of crowds
Here, in more detail, are some ingredients you’ll want to make sure you have in order to unlock the wisdom of crowds:
- A clear understanding of the problem: Team members need to have an awareness of the problem you’re trying to solve. However, in presenting the challenge, you’ll want to avoid suggesting potential solutions you’re already pursuing or those that may not have worked.
- Group member independence: Ideas and guesses need to be developed independently of each other. Each person has to share their thoughts without the knowledge of other people’s perspectives. One client uses sticky notes distributed at the start of a meeting to gather these ideas.
- A diversity of opinion: It’s very important to have a diversity of opinions in the room. Try to invite those who might see themselves as “experts,” but include those who may just have familiarity or a passing interest in the challenge. You want to have a heterogeneous group of people who have access to different perspectives on how to solve the problem.
- Don’t share too much information: The people providing input or ideas should be able to draw from their own personal knowledge about how to solve the problem.
- Aggregating the ideas: You’ll need a way of collecting and categorizing the ideas to both discuss and then ultimately vote on which the group thinks has the highest probability of success.