Monday, November 01, 2004

Appreciative Inquiry as access to "The Wisdom of Crowds"

In an HBS Working Knowledge article, Jim Heskett muses that if we believe in the wisdom of crowds (The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suroweicki) does this affect our views of leadership? He writes:

"Are large groups of reasonably informed and motivated people able to make better decisions than a small group of experts? James Surowiecki, in his recent book, The Wisdom of Crowds, reports on a diverse body of work that suggests that they are. If the researchers whose work he chronicles are right, it could have profound implications for the role of leadership in organizations. And it should provide some comfort to all who, like Americans this month, vote to elect their leaders.

In addition to being reasonably informed and motivated, the “crowds” in Surowiecki’s title, to be most effective, have to have three characteristics: diversity of points of view, independence from each other’s opinions, and decentralization (with access to and the ability to draw on “local knowledge”). And they have to have some kind of mechanism for aggregating “private judgments into a collective decision.” In a variety of situations researchers have found that the median view of members of a crowd is more accurate than all but a handful of individuals, and that no individual is able consistently to make decisions superior to those of the crowd. Large groups of people have been found to be better than a few experts at everything from estimating the true magnitude of things (as in guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar) to diagnosing causes of problems (as in determining that the O-ring seals were the primary cause of the Challenger disaster) to predicting outcomes (through, for example, market-mediated trading systems, so-called “decision markets,” for predicting the outcomes of things such as presidential elections and even potential success
in war)."

If diverse, large groups have better answers than small groups of "experts" then leadership must focus on how to access that knowledge and capability. The Appreciative Inquiry processes are one such way. The appreciative interview can be used for exponetially fanning out across the group giving diverse access with an " interview two friends" format.The AI Summit approach with large group processes are natural venues and rely on crowd wisdom for creative solutions and action. We need however, better ways to collect, synthesize and collaboratively apply the "wisdom of the crowd" to the results.

A new style of group dialogue software is emerging from companies with in depth understanding of the power of the inquiry to make change. Icohere's OvationNet ( and Intrashift's Vantaj software ( provide opportunities for strutured conversations and information synthesis. Check them out.


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