Generally speaking, business values the opinions of experts. The marketing and advertising community is not immune to this as we witness the latest round of prognostications and expert advice about blockchain, GDPR and the death of Facebook. But time after time, experts miss the mark by a long shot.
There is an inherent challenge in relying on the opinion of experts. Those we label “subject matter experts” tend to think alike, and their views often lack diversity. In a group, they’re prone to be driven to decisions by authority and groupthink, which makes it difficult to find the dissenting opinion or alternative approach. We may believe in and advocate for the approach with which we’re most comfortable or one that has produced positive results in the past.
In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki contends that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”
Surowiecki puts forth a deceptively simple idea: Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few and are consistently better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions and predicting future events.
This collective wisdom resulting from the ideas of diverse groups proves useful for tackling many kinds of problems. In marketing it is powerful for overcoming coordination problems—how do we work together, say across teams in a company, with agencies or even with our customers?—and cooperation problems—how do we get those with a strong self-interest, like those who feel the need to prove the channel they manage is crucial to success and who may not advocate for the ideas of others?
To solve these problems, a person has to think not only about what one believes to be the obvious answer but also about what other people think. We naturally tend to anchor to our own recommendations and advocate for them as the most accurate and authoritative. It may, however, be more helpful to battle against the ego of knowing the right answer and instead seek the idea that will yield the highest performance.
Seeking a diversity of opinions tends to yield a far more accurate result. As a leader, it may prove valuable to adopt habits that prompt others to share their perspectives. For example, when asked one’s opinion, it may be helpful to reply, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” This approach provides more options to consider and greater confidence knowing that many approaches were explored, resulting in the right decision for the company.
To maximize the wisdom of crowds, advertising and marketing teams must then measure the performance of the decision, generally by analyzing independent third-party data. One must build a team culture driven by data and actively work to not be swayed by politics. This data is key to building trust amongst teams and successfully eliciting the ideas needed to obtain the benefits of the collective wisdom. It may help identify, with impartiality, the tactics that are most productive and even those that may be hindering goal achievement.
It is also helpful for those responsible for tackling complex marketing challenges to question the convenience of the conventional wisdom. These ideas may be appealing as we try to navigate the everyday challenges of an ever-changing and complex marketplace. However, the devil’s advocate or outsider’s perspective can prove very valuable. While the conventional approach may end up being the right decision, the alternative perspective can be beneficial as one seeks the collaborative wisdom of the team.
A team leader’s ability to create an environment in which the diverse opinions are gathered without the influence of other team members is the key to success here. One will want to collect all the options to have a healthy conversation about the right direction. Obviously, not all ideas are good ideas. However, one wants to save the discussion and debate about the merits of options for later in the process. While it may seem inefficient, research has shown that this process helps teams come to conclusions faster and make better decisions than if they had relied solely on their smartest member.