Tap the Wisdom of the Whole Group in Rapid Cycles With “Wise Crowds”

How to develop helping behaviors with large groups and generate more idea flow.

Christiaan Verwijs
Dec 14, 2020 · 6 min read

Liberating Structures are a collection of interaction patterns that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group — from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this series of posts, we show how Liberating Structures can be used with Scrum.

It sounds appealing to tap into the “wisdom of the crowds”, right? But what happens when you ask a crowd for help without any further structure? If your experience is anything like ours, you’ll find that people are quick to jump to conclusions and offer well-intended tips, books, and suggestions without actually understanding the challenge at hand.

The purpose of Wise Crowds

Wise Crowds” exists to tap into the wisdom of large groups. It creates a space where people can both get help on a persistent challenge and work with others to develop and practice helping behaviors that help overcome other challenges.

“Over time, we learned how ‘Wise Crowds’ is not just about the actual problem being solved, but also about developing the behavioral repertoire to do this with a large group.”

We initially understood “Wise Crowds” merely as a variation “Troika Consulting”, only with more consultants. But that is a very incomplete picture, especially when you use it with large groups. Over time, we learned how “Wise Crowds” is not just about the actual problem being solved, but also about developing the behavioral repertoire to do this with a large group. In how it is structured, “Wise Crowds” purposefully helps groups listen and understand first, and then invites them to consider suggestions. Furthermore, “Wise Crowds” helps groups critique suggestions and refine them.

Aside from one client getting help, “Wise Crowds” is also about being exposed to new ideas and suggestions

We also discovered how “Wise Crowds” is about idea flow. In his book Social Physics, psychologist and computer scientist Alex Pentland explores how social learning benefits from a continuous flow of ideas, and (specifically) ideas from outside a group of “usual suspects”. In his research, he found that groups that are frequently exposed to ideas from outsiders tend to make better decisions. By bringing together a large group and asking them for suggestions, “Wise Crowds” has the potential to increase idea flow. Even when the challenge that is being addressed is not your own, you may still hear ideas that are helpful to you or trigger other ideas. The more diverse the group is, the more pronounced this effect will be.

This structure was created by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless, inspired by the practice of Quaker Clearness Committees.

Steps to facilitate Wise Crowds with Large Groups

In its smallest form, you can do “Wise Crowds” with a group as small as four people. In this case, the steps are identical to “Troika Consulting”, only with a few more consultants. Below, we offer the steps for “Wise Crowds” with larger groups:

  • Prepare by setting up the space so that there is a circle of chairs in the middle. One of the chairs is for the client, the others are for the “primary consulting team”. Place small groups of chairs around the inner circle for the “satellite groups”.
  • (2 min) Ask who would like to be the client, and get help on a challenge. Ask for 3–5 volunteers who would like to become the primary consultants. Invite them to take the seats in the middle while everyone else forms small groups of 3–4 people and takes position around the inner circle.
  • (5 min) The client shares the challenge, provides context, and makes a request for help. Everyone else listens with full attention. In virtual sessions, we often ask the satellite groups to turn off their webcams and mute their microphones so that only the client and the primary consultants are visible.
  • (10 min) The primary consulting team asks clarifying questions to the client in a way that allows everyone to hear the questions and the answers (e.g. with a microphone).
  • (1 min) The client (literally) turns his or her back to the primary consultants by turning their chair around. Although some clients “remedy” the social awkwardness of this step by turning only slightly away, or simply closing their eyes, even the smallest facial expression from the client will influence the ideas that are generated by consultants. So make sure that clients fully turn their back to the consultants.
  • (7 min) The primary consultants consider the challenge and share ideas, ask each other additional questions, and offer suggestions they have for the client. They do so with each other, not with the client. The client does not respond in any way, shape, or form and takes notes instead.
  • (10 min) Having overheard the recommendations from the primary consultants, the satellite groups talk among themselves to critique the ideas from the primary consulting group and generate their own recommendations for the client. Meanwhile, the client turns back to the primary consulting team to discuss what was useful.
  • (10 min) If you have only a handful of satellite groups, or sufficient time, ask each group to share one critique and one recommendation they haven’t heard before. Or to pass if they have already been mentioned. If you have a large number of groups, you can collect the recommendations on index cards or a shared workspace (e.g. Mural).
  • (5 min) The client provides feedback to the consultants, emphasizing what was useful and what he or she takes from the process.
  • Repeat “Wise Crowds” with other clients. Or do another round for the same client to go deeper.
An example of how we did a virtual “Wise Crowds”. The client (in the picture) received help from a group of 5 primary consultants and 15 satellite groups (55 consultants).

Examples of Wise Crowds

  • We frequently use “Wise Crowds” within our community of Scrum Masters (The Liberators Network) as a way to give and get help and to get ideas from relative “outsiders”.
  • We’ve used “Wise Crowds” as part of in-house workshops where groups explore a certain challenge. In this case, one client volunteers to “own” the challenge and then gets help from people across teams and departments.
  • “Wise Crowds” can be used as part of multi-team Retrospectives to overcome shared challenges. You can also use it periodically with your internal community of Scrum practitioners to support and learn from each other.

Combinations With Other Liberating Structures

Each Liberating Structures has a specific purpose. With its purpose on tapping into the wisdom of a group, “Wise Crowds” can be preceded or followed-up by the following structures:

  • Debrief the conversation in Wise Crowds with a quick “What, So What, Now What”. You can also do an “Impromptu Networking”;
  • Generate potential challenges with “25/10 Crowd Sourcing”.
  • Beforehand, perform a TRIZ to identify what groups can do to guarantee the worst possible outcome of “Wise Crowds”. This tunes their attention towards helping behavior.
  • If the challenge is shared by more people in the group, follow-up by organizing an “Option Space” or “Shift & Share” to dig deeper into some of the suggestions.

Closing

At first glance, “Wise Crowds” may seem to be about giving help to one client. And although that certainly is a part of it, “Wise Crowds” does much more. It helps groups build the behavioral repertoire to listen, understand, critique, and expand on ideas. It also increases the flow of ideas by exposing people to new ideas and perspectives they may not have considered themselves.

“Afterward, people often comment on how ‘Wise Crowds’ made them feel good. […] That alone should be reason enough to give this a try.”

Afterward, people often comment on how “Wise Crowds” made them feel good. On a human level, it's inspiring to help someone in need and to work with others to make that possible. That alone should be reason enough to give this a try with your team, organization, or community.

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular. And join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures.

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