The Wisdom of Crowds Prevents People’s Passions


The wisdom of crowds helps us avoid stupid decisions. Unfortunately, it also prevents innovative, passionate, fantastic decisions. Collective Intelligence is collective insipidness. We need to keep the inputs of individuals in the mix.

Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence is the notion that a group of individuals will be smarter than a single individual. The old adage, two heads are better than one, is extended to mean several heads. Kathy Sierra goes on a bit of a rant about how this (narrowly applicable) idea has been twisted into the idea that mobs are better at designing stuff than individuals.

Design By Committee

Since we’re breaking out the old saws, we should acknowledge that people also have known for a long time that design by committee is a bad idea.

Eliciting and managing requirements requires communication, and prioritization. Both of these involve collaboration. When we collaborate, we risk introducing the negative effects of collective insipidity [If I were collaborating on this article with a group of other people, they wouldn’t let me use the “word” insipidity].

Brainstorming involves collaboration in the requirements gathering phase of a project.

Prioritization also involves collaboration. We can prioritize the ideas from a brainstorming session, or we can prioritize requirements, or the sequence of use case delivery. Basically any process that involves filtering or sorting is a prioritization exercise.
Kathy concludes her passionate article with a great quote:

No matter what, I believe that in our quest to exploit the “We” in Web, we must not sacrifice the “I” in Internet.

So how do we avoid the dillutive effects of the crowd’s concensus?

Dictators Dodge Dillution

One way is to follow apple’s model – have a dictator. As long as the person calling the shots has good instincts, she’ll make good decisions. If she doesn’t, we’re toast. With this approach, we get both the downside (possible bad decisions) and the upside (possible great decisions).Another approach is to allow passion to stand out, when interpreting the inputs of the masses.

Weighted Prioritization

We wrote an article last September with tips to maximize the benefits of brainstorming.

The idea starts with having people vote on the ideas that were generated in a brainstorming session. This alone is a mathematical embodiment of the commonness of crowds. We end up with the lowest common denominator.

We then added the notion of “voting again with a 5X impact” on those items people feel passionate about. This allows the strongly held notions to compete with the universally not-unappealing ones. Read the article for more details.

Bypass Brainstorming

The guys at OK/Cancel are super effective at creating great content. They do it by using idea seeding instead of brainstorming.

In a nutshell, the two of them collaborate with an iterative process that involves creating ideas independently, transferring “ownership” of those ideas to each other, and then improving upon them. Really a novel concept – check it out.


Crowds can be leveraged to prevent mistakes. They can’t be leveraged to create greatness. Crowds serve to filter out the extremes on both ends. There is value in avoiding the mistakes, but the cost of avoiding greatness is too high. Whenever we bring in the crowds, we have to keep the individuals in the loop too.

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