“Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”
– James Surowiecki
A little more than two years ago, I decided to take the plunge into the world of computer science. I’ve always thought that I had an affinity for computers and technology – computer science was going to be a breeze. It wasn’t. Not only was it hard, it became more and more apparent that I wasn’t as good as the exceptionally talented people around me. This was a hard reality for me to accept – I felt like I was never going to catch up with the experts in the Computer Science major.
Some time ago, I was able to obtain an internship. It was during my internship where I realized that normal people like me were building a product that is loved and used by people around the world. Sure, there were a few geniuses here and there, but that accounted for a small percentage of the team. I felt like I was able to contribute to the team. I felt like was making a difference, because the team was made up of people who, like me, weren't experts.
In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, James Surowiecki told a story about the British scientist Francis Galton. Galton came upon a weight-judging competition one day, where an ox was selected and people were to place wages on what the weight of the ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed. After the competition, Galton collected all the guesses and ran a series of statistical tests and calculated the mean of the guesses – 1,197 pounds. The correct answer was 1,198 pounds. The crowd was not necessarily composed of intelligent people, but collectively, the group was surprisingly intelligent.
To me, this means that even if we do not fall under the elite category of being “special”, amateurs like us are capable of making significant contributions to whatever it is we care about. I didn't have to be a genius. Instead, I needed to learn how to work with my team to create something great.
“The traditional view … is that creativity is about special people. … Special people, special places, think up special ideas, then you have a pipeline that takes the ideas down to the waiting consumers, who are passive. … this view … is increasingly wrong.”
– Charles Leadbeater
In fact, the best teams are a diverse combination of experts and amateurs because different people have different experiences and can contribute in different, but equally significant ways. Sudowiecki remarked that “the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Instead of asking its members to “modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with”, an intelligent group aggregates ideas and come up with one that represents what every member of the group thinks.
Mountain bikes, for instance, were built by a group of enthusiasts in Northern California. They were frustrated with the expertly-built racing bikes of the time, so they decided to combined the frames of the bigger bikes with the gears of racing bikes and created the mountain bike. Thirty years later, mountain bike sales and mountain bike equipment would account for 65% of bike sales in America.
In his TED talk, Charles Leadbeater asserts that “This is a category entirely created by consumers that would not have been created by the mainstream bike market because they couldn't see the need, the opportunity; they didn't have the incentive to innovate.” These bike enthusiasts came up with something that represented what they all thought of as ideal.
Taking a step back, this idea of breaking out from the traditions imposed upon us by the elite isn’t new, nor is the idea of working together towards a better ideal – we’ve been doing that in every revolution since the Age of Enlightenment. In fact, the very act of contributing to this blog is the embodiment of the amateur movement. None of us are experts, yet we are all working together to create a cohesive project about one of the five themes of critical communications that interests us. We take our ideas and combine them with the expertise TED speakers and thought leaders. We are not passively relying on experts, but we're actively putting our ideas out there, with the help of experts. We may not be able to get everything exactly right, but we will get pretty darn close. Close enough that we'll win the prize for guessing the weight of the ox.