The Wisdom of Crowds: Assessing Populist Business Strategies

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

The answer is there, you just need to know where to find it. What can businesses do to stay connected to the wisdom of crowds?

It all started with a book.

When James Surowiecki argued that crowds know things, have an innate wisdom that individuals don’t, no one could have predicted the force this axiom would take on. But just like the “poll the audience” option on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," it turns out that crowds are pretty smart. Unfortunately, it is generally impractical to invite the entire crowd into the office of your startup.

So, what can businesses do to stay connected to the wisdom of crowds and the modern ethos? While it’s important to stay true to your purpose and strategy, it’s also vital that entrepreneurs never lose track of the zeitgeist. Try these tips to keep that spirit flowing.

Think Creative Instead Of Corporate

As a businessperson, you probably spend a lot of time socializing—or networking—with other people who spend a lot of time wearing suits, or at the very least, donning their best business casual. This may be your normal, but for many people, the stiffness that is sometimes termed corporatism looks just like your suit. This isn’t a mandate for you to change your clothes, but it is one to change your thinking.

The next time an idea crosses your desk, consider where it came from. Would someone who spends their time outside a traditional office think of this, or is this strategy straight out of an MBA program? There’s nothing wrong with those ideas, but they will hold you back, or at least leave you blending in with your competitors. It’s time to start listening for new voices and new ways of thinking.

Try moving that next networking event from the hip place on the corner to the sports bar in the next neighborhood—and maybe don’t invite your usual companions. Instead, people watch and keep an ear to the ground for what the bar patrons are talking about. You never know what breakthrough you’ll have watching that baseball game over a beer with the blue collar crew.

Consider Crowdsourcing

It’s amazing the things you can accomplish through crowdsourcing these days. People fund medical procedures, trips and a hundred other things through social media and crowdfunding campaigns. Libraries get documents transcribed by making them available to folks with some free time on their hands. If you can come up with a project, someone with an internet connection and an obscure passion will help you make it happen.

As it turns out, the same thing is true when it comes to crowdsourcing various professional projects. The crowd—and not even a crowd of experts—will help you get it done, either for fun, pay, credit or some combination thereof. As Christina Desmarais explains, crowdsourcing is totally revolutionizing how projects get done, especially large scale undertakings. It’s easy, efficient and increasingly facilitated by new technology.

Cloud computing, in particular, has made crowdsourcing a project possible. The folks who sign on to help can access the same set-up on their home computer as an in-office employee, allowing them to tap into file systems, programs and other necessary tools. It can all live in the cloud.

There are two other significant benefits to crowdsourcing, although they generally don’t occur together. One approach to crowdsourcing a project is to set up a competition framework. This works best for companies seeking a solution to a particular problem. Those with the best solution or prototype are given a monetary award, and their intellectual work then belongs to the company. This is a “cream rises to the top” version of crowdsourcing.

The other strength of crowdsourcing is that the computing and production power of the masses means the end of never-ending projects. Projects should no longer take a year to complete. Instead, business can set up a framework that allows so many people to work on the project at once that the sheer labor of the thing becomes minimal. A year turns into a few weeks with this model.

Sometimes You Need An Expert

While it’s true in these labor-heavy situations that the crowd becomes a new source of employees rather than a real hive mind, sometimes what you really need is a hive mind, a unified core that can think and move as one, with great knowledge and precision. This is when it’s time to call in the professionals.

Even though the professionals can keep you looking and sounding like everyone else, an expert mind still knows things an inexperienced mind doesn’t. And a crowd of expert minds knows things a crowd of inexperienced minds can’t.

Luckily, some of the same tools that allow you to assemble a random crowd also allow you to convene the experts without much extra effort. New computing technologies offer the possibility of holding a conference with the best minds around completely digitally.

A wealth of ideas can gather without any physical bodies. And minds rich with experience can strike inspiration in each other.

It’s still the wisdom of crowds. It just takes some expertise to know what crowd you need help from.

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