Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Group Wisdom

Once again Kathy over at Creating Passionate Users has said something that I really agree with. In her post One of us is smarter than all of us she talks about a conference presentation by James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds.

Kathy refers to portions of Surowiecki's talk and book, writing:

The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group....

"Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms--like market prices, or intelligent voting systems--to aggregate and produce collective judgements that represent now what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think."...

"Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible." [Bold and italics are Kathy's]

Now, I haven't read the book and I didn't hear the presentation, so I can't comment on whether or not she reports Surowiecki's points accurately (although I assume she did). But what she says is exactly what I believe to be the wisdom of the group. We shouldn't try to come up with some sort of answer that makes us all happy but rather we listen to everyone's ideas and take the best of them and construct something new and better. This requires that each person feel free to express his or her opinions and, even before that, that each person have an opinion.

This also requires that people learn not to be attached to their ideas. If I have a wonderful idea, great. But once I share it with the group, it has to become nothing more or less than an idea the group has. My idea, like everyone else's, can be changed, adapted, modified, added to, subtracted from, or ignored -- as the group decides.

There is a fine line between what I describe and trying to reach decision by compromise, I know. But it is a definite line, and you know when you have crossed it. It has to do with independence and the way in which people approach this diversity of ideas. Are new ideas listened to or rejeected out of hand? Are people reluctant to express their ideas? Do some people's ideas always get ignored while others' ideas are always accepted or is there at least a sense that this is what happens?

In the circles I travel in, we talk about the clash of opinions and ideas, as opposed to the clash of personalities. It is hard to achieve, to keep our personalities and our egos out if it to the point that we truly look at the ideas and opinion of others. But when it happens, the results are amazing!

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