Wisdom of Crowds and Email

April 20, 2006 at 3:10 am 5 comments

“…Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems; fostering innovations, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future”  -The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.   

Applying the Wisdom of Crowds to Email

  1. When sending an email to a large group of people asking for feedback on a specific problem try the following:
    Ask for original solutions from everyone, but do not include everyone on the TO: or CC: line, but rather set all email recipients to the BCC: line. 
  2. After receiving all responses, aggregate the solutions
  3. Once the solutions have been aggregated, again send them out to the original group, using the BCC: line instead of the TO: or CC: line asking for feedback.
  4. Based on the next round of responses you will be able to get unbiased feedback and then aggregate again and present to the group. 
  5. Applying the wisdom of crowds, you should find that the most popular answers is the best possible solution.

Wisdom of Crowds Email Scenario (Setup)
I’ve found it is common for a manger to send out emails with a problem, and ask for solutions from a large group of people.  What typically seems to happen is the first handful of responses sent to the group have original responses.  By original, I mean they do not references anyone else point of view, but rather their own opinion.  After the first handful of responses, the answers become less original, and reference early responses more and more (assuming everyone chose to REPLY ALL).  Based on my interpretation of Surowiecki’s book this is the wrong way to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds (email recipients).

The reason why this is the wrong way to take advantage of WofC in terms of soliciting feedback via email is because of what is described as the cascading effect:

“Effectively speaking, a few influential people—either because they happen to go first, or because they have particular skills and fill particular holes in people’s networks—determine the course of the cascade.  In a cascade people’s decisions are not made independently, but are profoundly influenced—in some cases, even determined—by those around them… The fundamental problem with cascades is that people’s choices are made sequentially, instead of all at once.”

Wisdom of Crowds Email Scenario (The Problem)
Let’s go back to the example of a manager sending out an email to the entire team to get ideas on how to solve a problem.  The first response is from the Director of Marketing (DM) who suggestions some ideas, the second response is from the CFO of the company who suggests a couple of other ideas, and even references some points from the DM.  The remaining three people who haven’t responded to the email are lower level employees, but are more suited to provide options to solve this problem. 

By reading the responses from the DM and CFO, the remaining three employees have been tainted.  They will use the responses from the DM and CFO to come-up with their own responses.  While this isn’t necessarily bad, there will be instances where an employee might not want to “rock the boat” so they work within the options provided by upper management.  Another possible scenario is that the DM and CFO came-up with some great ideas, so the three employees decide to run with them, instead of coming up with their own solutions which may have resulted a more favorable outcome.  This is an example of the cascading effect.  The cascading effect has an impact on the ability for the manager to take advantage of the combined wisdom of the team.


Entry filed under: Best Practices, Books, Email.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Web 2.5 : The Always-On-You Web  |  June 2, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Eliminate E-meetings, Collaborate Better…

    In the context of peer-to-peer wikis, a dicussion/chat mechanism could provide a “deferred reveal” feature……

  • 2. Liam @ Web 2.5 Blog  |  June 2, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    I reference this post at

    (Trackback didn’t seem to work.)

  • 3. TJones  |  January 23, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    One disadvantage of this method is that the posters don’t get any credit for their ideas. One reason people respond to these “mass emails” is that they get visibility for providing good ideas. If everyone is bcc’d and summaries are anonymous, then that incentive disappears.

    Do you have any ideas for reintroducing credit without “tainting” the responses.

  • 4. eccobay  |  April 17, 2007 at 6:22 am

    @TJones – I think giving credit where credit is due is important in this type of methodology. Ideally the solution to this problem would be simple, where the person who is aggregating the feedback is honest enough to properly attirbute credit when everything is said and done.

  • 5. Internet Marketing India  |  July 30, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Excellent insight into a matter that one usually spends time thinking about but doesn’t address as often.
    I also agree with giving credit where it’s due, but this is assuming that the person who receives all the feedback is unbiased.

    Internet Marketing India


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