Posted: June 20th, 2021

The Wisdom of Crowds

The Smartest People May Not be as Smart as a Crowd, but Who can Find a Smart Crowd? In The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki contends that the “smartest people” are often not as smart as a group of individuals formed under the right circumstances (XIII). Surowiecki backs up his claim by giving numerous real life examples of crowds that meet the criteria of having diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization and aggregation, and have proven to be smarter than almost any one individual in the group.
Surowiecki has proven that he has a strong case for his theory of smart crowds but the exclusivity of this group of people has me wondering just how easy it is to identify or form such a group for practical purposes if no expert is available to mitigate a situation. I feel that such ability would take practice and an increase in awareness to master, but still, I do believe it can be done by almost anyone.
Without addressing the specific argument of the reasonable ease of any one person being able to form a smart crowd, Surowiecki does provide a persuasive example in favor of my theory when he tells the story of the missing submarine Scorpion in May 1968. With no experts immediately available, naval officer John Craven assembled a group of men with a wide range of knowledge and asked them to submit their best guess on questions about the submarine’s disappearance from a variety of scenarios he concocted (XX).

The result of his survey was a calculation of the answers that led to a location found to be only 220 yards away from where the submarine was found five months after it disappeared (XXI). Craven did this on the fly and without the help of any of the “smartest people” and found a better solution than any one expert ever did. Although an expert like Surowiecki finds it easy to identify examples of a wise crowd, I had to ask myself if I could do the same.
I found myself thinking back to when I had been placed on a committee at work whose goal it was to come up with a good solution on how to integrate personnel from different departments on a volunteer basis only. On this committee were two representatives from each respective department (filling the diversity of opinion and decentralization requirements) and one Supervisor sent to guide the group.
As a group, we developed several possible solutions to this issue and were sent back to our departments to deliberate on our own as to what we thought was the right course of action so that we could come to a decision at our next meeting. By the next meeting it was found that the majority of us had independently decided that by allowing employees the most freedom, by way of being able to travel to any department they liked, we would get the most participation through volunteerism.
We were soon overrided by the supervisor and told the most beneficial way to go about it was to narrow the option down to only allow travel to one department where it was believed those who did volunteer would potentially learn the most; this is the option that was adopted. Over the next few months, employees were allowed the opportunity to travel to the specified department, and few took advantage of it. It was soon after decided, by a group of supervisors, that in order to get better participation employees should be allowed to travel to which ever department they liked and by allowing this freedom they did receive more participation.
What this proved to me, was that our small group of independently thinking people were able to identify a solution that the employees saw as a correct one and that the smart person in the group, counting on his expertise, forced our hand in a less desirable direction. Despite the smart person taking over our group, I can say with confidence that I was indeed part of a wise crowd. Since I consider myself an amateur at developing or identifying a wise crowd, and Surowiecki an expert, I next sought a source I deemed to be novice to see what imput they could they could offer on my theory.
My sister Abby and her husband Carlos are owners of a boutique custom cake and cupcake shop called Nadia Cakes, and last year they decided to expand their business from California to another state; in July they drove across the country in search of the perfect place to open their new shop. They stopped in several states, casually talked with local communities and surveyed surrounding areas before coming to the tentative solution that Minnesota was in need of a custom cake and cupcake shop and would be a great place to call home.
In an effort to make as informed a decision as possible, they decided to do market research in the form a survey in the community they had identified as a promising location. They chose two different shopping centers they were considering for their store and surveyed 100 shoppers in each. The shoppers were asked multiple questions during the survey including where they usually buy cakes, and if a boutique cake and cupcake shop were to open in the area how likely they would be to purchase cakes there.
Through this diverse, independent crowd who drew on their local knowledge, they were able to aggregate the information they collected and learned which shopping center would be best for their business and that the community was highly in favor of a shop like theirs opening in the area. The information my sister and her husband collected led them to move to Minnesota where they have had an overwhelming response from the community even though it will be several months more until the shop opens.
In just the two months they have been there they have been featured live on CBS, Fox and NBC morning shows and their following on their Facebook Advertising page for Minnesota has risen to 2,000. And if that isn’t enough proof that the crowd was right, the fact that they can hardly keep on top of all of the future cake and cupcake orders pouring in via Facebook and email is. Although I still struggle to identify a wise crowd on my own, I am happy that I was able to identify these few examples from an expert, novice and beginner, and am confident that others can as well.
My experience with the wise crowd at work was a strong example to me of how anyone can be involved in one and good evidence that the smartest person isn’t always right. My sister is simply a small business owner with good work ethic and without even knowing it, created her own wise crowd with great results and no need for an expert. Surowiecki is surely correct that the smartest people aren’t always right and his method to finding a solution without them is certainly valid in my book. Works Cited Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Random House, 2005. Print

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