Engaging the Wisdom of the Crowd

Think of the French Revolution—or the media portrayals of Tea Party rallies—and you will see the traditional view of the crowd. Historically, we have used pejorative words like mob or rabble to describe crowds. They carry the image of danger, hysteria, an assembly around the lowest common denominator, irrational violence. They are, above all, to be avoided. That is all changing, and with good reason: crowds make us smarter.

The technological breakthroughs of the past 20 years—particularly the Internet and open sourcing—have opened our eyes to the idea that large crowds can carry wisdom. Inspired by this observation, organizations are deliberately assembling crowds, whether physical or virtual, and capturing the insights that arise from them. So Toyota brings together vast user networks for input on its products; Procter & Gamble connects with more engineers online than it does within its corporate walls.

Pioneers in Organizational Development—like Barbara Bunker, Billy Alban, and Kathie Dannemiller—have long touted the wisdom, both evident and apparent, in large gatherings of people connected to a cause. But one massive shift has drawn popular attention to crowdsourcing: the overwhelming complexity of today’s problems. Simply put, the challenges that organizations face today are so intricate, with so many unknowns and unknowables, that they need as many people as possible to look at them and bring their perspective.

We refer to this dynamic as the Four Corners Breakthrough. When the world operated in steady state, as it did until about 30 years ago, a single perspective on the marketplace—like viewing an accident in an intersection from one corner—was sufficient. Today’s complex problems, however, require a bigger picture of the world: a sharing of information and viewpoints across departments, across shifts, across functions, across sites to get a 360-degree view. This enables organizations to reduce the unknowns, clarify their view of the unknowables, and better position themselves to solve problems.

So it is with crowds today. They are becoming places to tackle complex, multifaceted problems, with each person bringing her or his perspective to the collective. What we may be seeing, in fact, is that the larger the crowd, the greater the chance of its arriving at a breakthrough insight into the entire situation. Yes, the crowd needs to learn how to work together, but that learning does not need to take a lot of time.

We have been privileged to witness these dynamics at work. Following in the footsteps of Bunker, Alban, Dannemiller, and others, we at Kaleel Jamison have convened up to 2,000 people at a time in visioning and problem-solving sessions. It is a pleasure to see them succeed in ways no other method could achieve.

At this point, many organizations have not optimized their skills in managing large-group dynamics. But that will change. As more and more crowds solve more and more problems, the word will spread that crowds can work—and can even be brilliant.