Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Readers Respond: Should the Wisdom of Crowds Influence Our Thinking About Leadership?

11/22/2004

The wisdom of crowds could also apply to teamwork. Teams bring to the table knowledge and skills in different functional areas. In my experience, the combination of people in a team has not generally resulted in wisdom.

Charu
Assistant Manager
PFC, India


Different situations require different leadership: sometimes single-minded dogmatism and other times much more collegiate or crowd-based leadership. The good leaders learn where to set the dial along this continuum according to the situation. One correspondent has mentioned "swarm theory." Perhaps another analogy from the world of animals is bird formations, e.g., migrating geese, where the geese take turns to be at the head of the V shape—honking from the front, I recall someone calling it!

Leadership is tiring. Let others take charge from time to time but, critically, retain your accountability and integrity, i.e., no carping as in "It wasn't on my watch" in the event that things go awry.

Throughout this debate, perhaps what is really needed is a new measure of calibration of successful leadership outcomes other than return on equity. Leadership, wherever it occurs, be it in business, education, health, social services, even government, is about creating climates that allow people to achieve their potential, be fulfilled, safe, supported, creative, truthful, fair, stimulated … and, oh, be happy: Why not?

David Physick
Partner Associate
Glowinkowski International


I have read the book and I can only confirm that page after page I felt more comfortable with the theory. From my experience as a Shell manager and now entrepreneur, "listening" to the crowds is crucial for capturing their wisdom (in the form of alarm bells or solutions). But the listening has to be an effective and authentic interaction with the crowd.

Joanne Celens
Director


I have read Mr. Surowiecki's book, and I have to say his theory makes too much sense to be considered a "utopian dream." If you think about his chapter on the stock market, where he argues that bubbles form precisely because people behave like "a herd" and crowds of investors stop being "diverse, independent and decentralized," it makes sense! Short funds, which tend to be bearish when markets are bullish, only represent about $20 billion of assets (but this figure might have grown over the past few months as hedge funds became more popular)—which is a drop in the ocean in a stock market worth $14 trillion. I am on board with Mr. Surowiecki and, as a future leader, I hope to use his ideas in my career.

Florence Boupda
MBA candidate, class of 2005
Harvard Business School


Not allowing crowds to influence our thinking about leadership likens this attitude to that of a dictatorship. To optimize the input of coworkers one must reward their involvement intrinsically. Considering that behavior is by nature intangible and multi-dimensional, it's best to involve people from different backgrounds, ages, and cultures in the decision-making process.

Roy Bhikharie
Managing Director
Papaya Media Counseling


I am convinced that large groups have better ideas and solutions than individuals because of their diverse experience. And group discussions trigger other people to share their experiences. However, getting those ideas and solutions to surface, particularly in group discussions, takes a very effective leader. In discussions, sometimes the more aggressive people in the group suppress the best ideas. Jack Welch comes to mind as someone who effectively lobbied to bring out the new ideas and solutions. He cut through the "not-invented-here" syndrome. Not many managers do that today.

My experience is to allow for some one-on-one discussions, but in group discussions to call on the "quiet types" while trying to keep the "loud mouths" quiet.

Joe Violette
Project Manager (retired)
Bechtel Corporation


Leadership is an art. One cannot lead by imposing their preferences on the crowd. That would be akin to dictatorship. A true leader is one who is able to mingle with the masses, learn their viewpoints, assimilate their ideas with his or her own, and come up with a plan of action to lead people to success.

Pallavi Marathe
Patni Computer Systems


I believe effective leaders articulate a vision (although my vision for our pharmacy is drawn from the larger paradigm of the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists). But they also lead with the assent of the led (i.e., participatively). So, yes, larger groups of informed, motivated people make better decisions.

Bob Likins
Director of Pharmacy
Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital


Applying "the wisdom of crowds" is a relevant concept. Think of an individual's experience and expertise as a powerful computer that receives countless pieces of information and forms a judgment from them. Linking these "computers" together in an efficient way that communicates a collective knowledge allows for a more powerful decision-making process.

Steve Hunder
Founder & CTO
StrategyLogic


The Wisdom of Crowds shatters the narrow view that the right leader can consistently make the right decisions. The right decisions involve the best information, information offered by your employees, customers, vendors, and investors.

Jack Hughes
Senior Consultant
Rogen Internationa


At first take, the example of guesstimating jelly beans (increasing the sample size) and identifying the cause of the Challenger disaster (groups of specialist experts) seem poles apart. At the surface, both cases look like one-shot, highly task-oriented examples in "controlled environments." Nevertheless, the underlying message is that the level of information available to each individual or independent group allows them to converge toward an effective solution.

The examples also point toward a means of getting people, as groups and individuals, to aim for a common goal. Leading, and ensuring everyone is on the same page, requires getting buy-in from individuals and groups. "Too many cooks spoil the broth" becomes reality when there is no motivation or buy-in.

Mohit Garg
IT Analyst
TATA Consultancy Services


The relevance of personal leadership does not diminish. Decision-seeking and decision making can be a distributed effort. However, excellence in execution demands personal leadership and accountability—which are rarely abundant. Imperial leadership is not a feasible mechanism for building an organization that sustains excellence and innovation. Nor can crowds build an organization! The tradeoff lies in making leaders more capable listeners, talent-oriented coaches, and pragmatic execution warriors.

Deepak Alse
System Design Engineer-VNGN
Wipro Technologies


Many ancient cultures can relate to these ideas on the decision-making process. If it changes the paradigm of leadership away from a great individual who is all-knowing and all-powerful, then it will do a service in helping us understand the true nature of leadership in organizations.

It also proves the idea that leadership requires the involvement of people in understanding, interpreting, and shaping their reality rather than dictating that reality. This shift in thinking is supported by many other strands of theories such as learning organizations and emotional intelligence. The sooner it becomes a dominant paradigm the more we will become capable of building sustainably successful organizations.

Ian Cook
Senior Consultant
SAGE


I have read and taught from The Wisdom of Crowds. My students—and I—believe that a group of knowledgeable "veterans" of a particular organization, in conjunction with others from the external world, i.e., the world outside the corporation, can make more well-informed judgments than a crowd—whether independent of the organization or within it. It is the blending of the external and internal that provides the best array of choices.

John Baxter
CEO
Compass Associates, Inc.


I found this book informative, but I think Dr. Heskett should remind readers that Surowiecki also pointed out that crowds make very bad decisions when the three criteria are NOT present. Therefore, when depending on groups for good decisions, it is essential to ensure that the information can be aggregated and utilized in a format consistent with the author's framework. The alternative is groupthink and the potential for some very bad outcomes.

Michael Bressler (HBS MBA '04)
Analyst
Alson Capital LLC



The experience I have had in my company is a good case in point. I work for a start-up product company in the wireless space. When operations began and we were smaller in size, almost everyone contributed to the ideation process. For example, engineers would do competitor and market analysis. This resulted in several product features that became the backbone of our business strategy.

However, since the company has grown in size, we have compartmentalized, and requirements and product feature generation belongs to a smaller group (product marketing and management) who report directly to one of the founders. This has led to the complete death of innovation in the company and new ideas have not come forth in over a year. Ironically, we were once considered to be the thought leaders in our space and now we are merely playing catch-up with other companies.

Anonymous


The structure and institutions of corporate leadership are holdovers from the command and control style of leadership of the industrial revolution. You cannot merely overlay the concepts from The Wisdom of Crowds on this structure. You have to fundamentally change the structure and institutions of corporate control to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds. The leader's task is to create this change.

Anonymous


The Wisdom of the Crowds was quite interesting. I'm a big believer that a decision-making body must ensure a culture where disparate views are not only considered but expected. That allows the decision maker to benefit from the diversity of views voiced across the company. At the end of the day the decision maker should be held responsible and accountable for the quality of the deliverables, but at the very least know that in the process they have gained as many angles of the situation as possible. (That's different from decision making by committee.)

Paul Gilbert
Co-Founder, EVP Marketing
MedAvante


With respect to organizational behavior, I feel that the "imperial leader" concept of governance is a direct route to leadership shortcomings over the long-term. However, I don't see a better substitute to a decentralized system of governance within organizations, e.g., the traditional "Panchayat" system of social governance in India. Therefore, in my opinion, the "wisdom of crowds" or, more specifically, the "wisdom of diverse, decentralized teams" should strongly influence our thinking in terms of organizational structure. With respect to individual behavior and decision making, I believe that people with deep knowledge in a specific subject domain are far better than a thousand people with mediocre knowledge in the same domain.

Nishant Miglani
Student
University of Waterloo, Canada


I think the book's author may have some premise but it seems almost like Alice in Wonderland. You need an informed, decentralized, autonomous group with a mechanism for aggregating their individual judgments. Great in theory, but where do those groups truly exist?

Harry Tucci
Senior New Business Analyst
Aegon USA


This discussion brings to the mind the biological paradigm of swarm theory. Swarm theory uses the concept of a swarm of bees selecting a new hive. There is no leader in this swarm, it is essentially benevolent, and a few members of the swarm are left behind to search for a new hive location. Rarely is this new location a poor choice. It appears that many operational and computer systems are adopting biological paradigms and processes. This sounds like another thread of that trend.

Anonymous


One of the most valuable lessons from leveraging the "wisdom of the crowd" is the realization that, no matter what level or role an individual plays within an organization, each possesses "the genius within waiting to be illuminated." All we need to do to move toward win-win results is to participate, collaborate, and cooperate together and then, most importantly, trust the result—the "wisdom of the crowd." Perhaps trusting the result will be the greatest challenge for most leaders and the greatest area for learning.

Mary Ann Ulrich
Managing Partner and Co-Founder
Convivium Partners, LLC



Framing the issue as one of centralized versus decentralized management is inaccurate.The issue is whether a single individual, or a small team (generally, senior management), should make decisions in isolation or in a broader social and informational context. The latter case might be envisioned in terms of a "catalytic," "facilitative," or "lightening rod" leader. I am attempting to describe a leader who is accountable for certain critical decisions, but who, in discharging that responsibility, seeks to draw out the collective intelligence and wisdom of the total organizational body. This kind of leadership would be paradoxical: tremendous technical and social competence alloyed with tremendous personal humility. This is offered as a contrast to the kind of leader who views his or her job as one of 1) personally coming up with all the right answers, and 2) unilaterally imposing his or her will on others.

Another key point: I think the use of the term "crowd" is inappropriate, because crowds generally fail the test of independence from each other's decisions. Independence of thought is a sign of psychological differentiation; i.e., of psychological independence. And generally, a crowd is the antithesis of differentiation; in fact, a crowd is just one step removed from a mob. The social context being described as the most effective basis for the emergence of collective wisdom sounds more like a community of genuine individuals—the antithesis of a crowd.

Dean Robb, Ph.D.
President
Robb Consulting, LLC


"Are large groups of reasonably informed and motivated people able to make better decisions than a small group of experts?" The general concept is correct with a critical assumption: "reasonably informed and motivated."

Democracy also works better in a society which has a large pool of well-educated people. The collective decision, despite debates and different opinions, would elect a better leader for the country. On the other hand, voters are easily being corrupted and influenced by deceptive campaign slogans. So the question is not whether this theory is right or not—it has long since been proven to be right. Rather, it's how we determine when and if the people in the organization are well-informed and motivated.

Anonymous


While this emphasizes the need for broad perspectives in decision making, it does not take away from the need for strong leadership. Without leadership there would be no questions to answer and no problems to solve. A larger group will yield a higher quality answer to a question, but the value of that answer is based entirely upon the question asked. What is more important than these answers is the desired direction of the organization and the issues questioned as a result.

D. Prescott Andersen
Student
USC Marshall School of Business


I do believe that a large, well-informed, and motivated group will make good decisions when selecting from alternatives. And groups are usually better at making accurate decisions consistently than individuals who are not well-informed about competing alternatives. I don't believe groups would be as useful in establishing agendas, developing alternatives, or setting priorities—things for which leaders are required—or in situations where reliable information does not exist. And I certainly would not want large groups involved in developing vision, innovation, or strategy, where collective reasoning usually proves to be wrong.

John Dmohowski
Managing Director
Drake Associates