The Wisdom of Crowds: Rethinking consensus


I am a HUGE believer in building consensus, but The Wisdom of Crowds is starting to make be rethink the approach a bit.  I just finished reading, ok listening to the audio version on my bike ride into work,  James Surowiecki’s latest book.  

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and NationsHis point is that groups of people make good decisions on matters of general knowledge when all of the following conditions are meet:

1. There is a diversity of opinion
2. People are not overtly influenced by others in the group
3. Some “fair” aggregation system is at work

Surowiecki argues that these elements allow you to tap into the collect smarts of the group while canceling out their errors.. Doing things like spending tons of time consensus building often has the result of creating less diversity in opinion and thereby misses out on the collective wisdom on the group.   While I don’t think this applies universally, it is some thing that is making me stop and think more before doing the 100 items consensus building check list.

Rather than consensus, Surowiecki suggests using a mechanism such as Prediction Markets to make decisions.  Markets like the Hollywood Stock Exchange.   I’d love to participate in a market around predicting the raise of a given programming language (Java, C#, Ruby, Python,??) or programing methodology (Object Orientation, Rails, Linq, ??) or say the ship date of Orcas…  It would be really interesting to see what the “wisdom on the crowd” is here.

Comments (4)

  1. Jeff Certain says:

    Brad,

    Haven’t read the book. However, there’s a couple items that come to mind. You mention an argument that people make "good decisions based on matters of general knowledge" — which means that the "crowd" you’re dealing with needs some knowledge of the issue at hand. For example, a survey of 1000 average people on the street about Java, Ruby, etc is going to be absolutely useless — most of them will think you’re talking about coffeee, gemstones, etc.

    An additional point — people are motivated by self-interest, so this concept is only applicable to items that have no direct bearing on the individuals being polled. If you ask a room full of .NET developers what technologies they’ll be using in the future, most of them will demonstrate wishful thinking and answer some form of .NET….

    "A committee is the only know form of life with a hundred bellies and no brain." R.A. Heinlein

  2. My own experience is that the popularity of a development tool is more related to publicity and marketing than the innovations or advantages of the tool. We don’t like to think this, but development tools have become similar to consumer products  over the past 20 years.

  3. Jeff: in addition to being motivated by what they already know, developers are motivated by what they wish to work on in the future, even if contrary to the interests of their employer — the latest "cool" thing. Publicity and marketing help define what is "cool", as well as the need to add technology keywords to a resume.

    I don’t think we should assume technology trends are driven by innovation or real needs, especially in the case of Microsoft planned obsolescence.

  4. Ben says:

    http://inklingmarkets.com/

     I play around with this site, http://inklingmarkets.com/ , but I havn’t come up with a way to do a fun tech/programming language market.