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, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

I’ve been pondering the relationship between entrepreneurs/young companies and the ideas presented in James Surowiecki’s, The Wisdom of Crowds, and Malcolm Gladwell’s, Blink. Without further synthesis, I’d argue there isn’t one.

Sir Francis Bacon said that “the mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things.” It is on this hastily imbibed treasure that Surowiecki and Gladwell have built their arguments. Both argue that people know more than we think they do. This hasty imbibing is “smarter and more sophisticated and certainly more influential than we generally give it credit for (Gladwell).”

Surowiecki argues that a crowd of hasty imbibers is likely to produce judgments “virtually indistinguishable from the inputs of an [expert] with years of experience.” But he also recognizes a paradox – “rapid cognition often works best when there are well-defined rules or structures to guide the people using it.”

Trouble is the world of entrepreneurism isn’t often one of structure and well-defined rules. Entrepreneurs operate on the fringe of the unknown. The prime ingredient in the recipe for chaos is a dash of unknown. Well, this gets us to the point I made in the first paragraph. We need to know more about those “well-defined rules or structures” before we can predict the value of these ideas for entrepreneurs and young companies.

A set of well-defined rules needs to answers questions like: How do we know to trust the answer? How far can we leverage the answers of rapid cognition or crowds? How do we ask the questions we want to ask crowds? Surowiecki recognizes the problem of needing “to know a lot just to understand the question you’re trying to answer. In [some] cases, relying on a group of laypeople may be futile.” How do we know when we’ve got one of those questions?

What we need is a taxonomy of questions: the set conducive to thin-slicing, the set suitable for crowds, and the set requiring expertise. Reading “Can you make my logo bigger?” by McKee Wallwork Henderson there seems to be some indication of where the lines might lie. Number 11 in their list of 13 rules for effective advertising reads:

“Have the courage to overrule the research. Research said that the Sony Walkman wouldn’t work. Research said that New Coke would. Nike and Volkswagen don’t pre-test their ads. General Motors does. Enough said.”

Maybe Nike and Volkswagen can skip pre-testing because blinking is sufficient. Perhaps Sony ignored research on the Walkman because the crowd said they were right. Maybe Coke missed with New Coke because they didn’t know what question to ask the crowd.

Along with a taxonomy of questions, perhaps we also need a criteria for determining if we understand the question we are trying to answer. The criteria might include: clarity of timeline (i.e. short-term vs long-term), clarity and focus of deliverables (i.e. portable music player vs replacement for stereo), magnitude of risk is answer is wrong (i.e. one ad = minimal vs. new line of vehicle = staggering), the pool of needed knowledge is narrow (i.e. new recruit’s resume is in hand and decision is hire or not vs. set of photographs is in hand and decision is to reclaim exhausted oil derrick).

Commentary

Did you by any chaqnce catch Thomas Homer-Dixon’s review of Gladwell’s Blink ! in The Globe and mail abouttwo weeks ago …very interesting, imo and one of only two that I know of that was less than full-blown enthusiastic. I respect THD’s thinking a lot.

I have a copy on my desktop, should you be interested. If you are, let me know (jon AT wirearchy.com) and I’ll email it to you.

I did read it. Right after you posted about it on your site.

I have a short history with THD. He and I traded arguments on global warming once.

While I was interested in his opposition, it seems to suffer from the same glaring errors that Blink does. For one, his anecdotes betray him and undermine his story. Second, while he talks of a broad range of ignored research, he draws on it as selectively as Gladwell.

I like THD but I think he tends to be a bell-ringer and harbinger of doom. It undermines his credibility sometimes.

I’m on his mailing list. If you aren’t and want in, send me a note [jeremy(dot)heigh(at)gmail(dot)com].