Wisdom of the Crowd in Project Management
By Nader K. Rad
My Personal Experience
All of us, trainers, ask questions from the participants of our courses. The problem is that if you ask it from everyone, a few active people answer all questions, and others remain inactive. If you address the question to individuals, some people might get uncomfortable, as they may believe it’s humiliating to give a wrong answer.
So, to solve this problem, I’ve started using an online system for small quizzes in the class. People answer using their laptops, tablets, or mobile phone, and we see the aggregate result on the screen when everyone answers, then I explain the problem, and we go on to the next question.
It’s a great way, and I suggest it to all fellow trainers.
Individual vs. Aggregate Score
The questions I’ve designed are rather difficult, and I ask them before giving the lecture, to prepare them for learning, rather than evaluating them. That’s why individual scores are usually very low, around 30% to 40%.
The amazing thing I’ve realized using this technique, is that while most people give wrong answers most of the time, the aggregate answer for the class is usually right! Yes, the score for the class is 80% to 90%!
Isn’t that amazing?
It means that, in case of PRINCE2 courses, most participants will fail if we take the exam before the course, while the class as a whole would pass the exam with an excellent score.
That’s what we call Wisdom of the Crowd, which is the opposite of our nightmare, Groupthink.
Note: each question has 4 to 6 answers, with one right choice. I consider the most popular answer as the answer for the class. People don’t discuss the question and answers before submitting their opinion, to avoid anchoring.
What’s Wisdom of the Crowd?
Wisdom if the Crowd happens in certain situations when the aggregate opinion is much better than most, or all individual answers. This is the famous experience:
They asked 800 people to estimate the weight of a cow. While most people were really off, the average was correct with only 1% difference from the real weight.
If done properly, the opinion or estimate of such a crowd is as good as, or even better than, experts.
Why Does It Happen?
It’s usually explained that there’s a noise in each individual opinion that makes it deviate from the right answer. In most cases, there’s no pattern to the noise, and therefore, when you combine the opinions, the noises cancel each other, and what remains is the pure, correct answer.
I, however, usually see it like this: each person is thinking about the problem from a certain perspective. Each person is considering one, or a few of the impacting criteria. When you combine the answers appropriately, all criteria are considered, which turns the idea, opinion, or decision into a well-thought, expert one.
When Does It Happen?
It’s hard to achieve Wisdom of the Crowd. In most cases, the opposite happens: Groupthink; when the aggregate opinion is worse than those of most individuals in the team.
Based on James Surowiecki’s book on the subject, there are four prerequisites for this phenomenon:
- Diversity: the more diverse the individuals are, the better the result will be.
- Independence: don’t let some opinions anchor the others.
- Decentralization: don’t let a central power anchor people.
- Aggregation: use a proper method for combining the estimates or opinions.
How Can We Use It in Project Management?
We, as project managers and sponsors, may face difficult situations in which we can’t come up with a satisfying decision or working idea. It’s best to use Wisdom of the Crowd for such situations: gather all team members, explain the problem to them (without anchoring them to any solution), and ask them to help you by generating ideas or finding the best decision in a facilitated environment.
Make sure you facilitate this workshop properly, otherwise you’ll get Groupthink instead of Wisdom of the Crowd. My favorite technique for this is Delphi.
If you like to exercise first, before using it for serious problems, I suggest having monthly workshops to ask team members find a way of improving the project. You’ll love the result; I promise.
The other exercise is to start observing group decision making methods, and recognize when there’s Groupthink, and when there’s Wisdom of the Crowd. Take this example: two teams are using Planning Poker for estimating the amount of effort for pieces of product. One team averages the results of individuals, and the other team picks the maximum. Which one is taking advantage of Wisdom of the Crowd?