In 1906 Francis Galton carried out an impromptu experiment at a country fair near Plymouth. There was a “Guess the weight of the ox” competition, in which 800 people tried their luck. It was a tricky one to get right, because you had to guess the weight of the ox after it had been slaughtered and dressed.
Being a statistician and at 85 no less curious than ever, Galton borrowed the tickets after the competition winner had been announced, and did some analysis. He worked out the mean of the group’s guesses, thus identifying the collective wisdom of the Plymouth crowd.
He anticipated that their answer would be way off the mark; mix a few very smart people with a large group of probably quite technically ignorant people and you might expect to get a pretty dumb answer. The crowd guessed 1,197 pounds. The answer was 1,198 pounds.
I’ve just started reading James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds”. Published in 2004, so I’m only 11 years off the pace. Sounds about right. The book has grabbed my attention. I assume it is going to go on an give me more and more compelling examples of why the collective wisdom of a large group of disparate people who are not able to confer is always going to be as good as if not better than any one expert. The TV show “Who wants to be a millionaire?” is another good one: when asked, the audience gets the right answer 91% of the time (as opposed to 65% when you phone your supposedly expert friend.)
The book may have been written a few years ago, but crowd theory is still very much alive and kicking. The MD of one of my clients, a very successful top end bespoke cabinet maker, espouses Wisdom of Crowds so passionately it has pretty much become a company value.
All well and good, BUT……something about this doesn’t quite resonate for me. It doesn’t feel right. I want to check it out, and this week I am going to invite you to help validate this important theory.
I use an exercise when running team building courses to see how well a group communicates. I analyse how many contributions people make, and when we debrief we look at who did all the talking, who said nothing etc. Normally the talkers influence everyone else to agree with them, and as a result the whole team “dies”.
The exercise is called “Arctic Adventure”, and it involves the group agreeing the ranking in importance of various items of equipment they have with them when their plane crashes in the Arctic Circle.
I am going to give you the brief below and invite you to write down your ranking, starting with the most important item. Assume the group has decided to stay and wait to be rescued rather than walk to try and seek help. (Apparently that is the correct decision, according to experts in this field).
Then can you invite as many others to do the exercise as you can, and collate their rankings. Remember, for this to work, they must not confer.
You can then work out what the collective ranking is – the wisdom of your crowd, by adding up the position (score) of each item from all the responses. The items with the lowest aggregate score have the highest priority, in your crowd’s opinion.
Here is the brief:
It is approximately 2.30 p.m., 5th October, and you have just crash-landed in a floatplane on the east shore of Laura lake in the sub-arctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border. The pilot was killed in the crash, but the rest of you are uninjured. Each of you are wet up to the waist and have perspired heavily. Shortly after the crash, the plane drifted into deep water and sank with the pilot’s body pinned inside.
The pilot was unable to contact anyone before the crash. However, ground sightings indicated that you are 30 miles south of your intended course and approximately 22 miles east of Schefferville, your original destination, and the nearest known habitation. (The mining camp on Hollinger Lake was abandoned years ago when a fire destroyed the buildings.) Schefferville (population 5000) is an iron ore mining town approximately 300 air miles north of the St. Lawrence, 450 miles east of the JamesBay/Hudson Bay area, 800 miles south of the Arctic circle and 300 miles west of the Atlantic coast. It is reachable only by air or rail, all roads ending a few miles from town.
Your party was expected to return from north-western Labrador to Schefferville no later than 19th October and filed a Flight Notification Form with the Department of Transportation via Schefferville radio to that effect.
The immediate area is covered with small evergreen trees (one and a half to four inches in diameter). Scattered in the area are a number of hills having rocky and barren tops. Tundra (Arctic swamps) make up the valleys between the hills and consist only of small scrubs. Approximately 25% of the region is covered by long narrow lakes which run north-west to south-east. Innumerable streams and rivers flow into and connect the lakes.
Temperatures during October vary between 25º and 36º Fahrenheit, although it will occasionally go as high as 50º and as low as 0º. Heavy clouds cover the sky three quarters of the time, with only one day in ten being fairly clear. Five to seven inches of snow are on the ground. However, the actual depth varies enormously because the wind sweeps the exposed areas clear and builds drifts 3’ to 5’ deep in other areas. The wind speed averages 13-15 miles per hour and is mostly out of the west-north-west.
You are all dressed in insulated underwear, socks, heavy wool shirts, trousers, knit gloves, sheepskin jackets, knitted wool caps and heavy leather hunting boots. Collectively your personal possessions include $153 in bills and 2 half dollars, 4 quarters, 2 dimes, 1 nickel and 3 new pennies. 1 pocket knife (2 blades and an awl which resembles an ice pick) one stub pencil and an air map.
You must now rank these items from 1 to 15, where 1 is most important.
A Magnetic Compass
A Gallon Can of Maple Syrup
A Sleeping Bag Per Person (Arctic Type)
A Bottle of Water Purification Tablets
A 20’ x 20’ (6 x 6m) of Heavy Duty Canvas
13 Wood Matches in a Metal Screwtop,
250’ of Braided Nylon Rope, 50lb test
An Operating 4 Battery Flashlight
3 Pairs of Snowshoes
A fifth Bacardi Rum
Safety Razor Shaving Kit with Mirror
A Wind-Up Alarm Clock
A Hand Axe
One Aircraft Inner Tube for a 14” Wheel
A Book Entitled “Northern Star Navigation”
There is fun to be had running this as a team exercise anyway. Give people 10 minutes to read the brief and prepare their ranking, then 30 minutes to agree it as a team. Have an observer give feedback on team behaviours etc.
I would love to hear from you how well your “crowd” did, and whether they got close to the expert ranking provided below by survival experts. If the deviation between your positions and the official ones is more than 30, apparently you die, by the way!
Please let me know what happens. Is your it experience that collective individual wisdom is better than shared wisdom? If so, is it time for a rethink on how you go about making those big decisions?
Good luck! If you are interested enough I can let you have the reasoning behind the Official list.
Here are the Official rankings:
A Magnetic Compass 13
A Gallon Can of Maple Syrup 5
A Sleeping Bag Per Person (Arctic Type) 4
A Bottle of Water Purification Tablets 15
A 20’ x 20’ (6 x 6m) of Heavy Duty Canvas 3
13 Wood Matches in a Metal Screwtop Waterproof Container 1
250’ of Braided Nylon Rope, 50lb test 6
An Operating 4 Battery Flashlight 10
3 Pairs of Snowshoes 7
A fifth Bacardi Rum 11
Safety Razor Shaving Kit with Mirror 9
A Wind-Up Alarm Clock 12
A Hand Axe 2
One Aircraft Inner Tube for a 14” Wheel (punctured) 8
A Book Entitled “Northern Star Navigation” 14