We all probably read or saw some of the potential downsides of relying too heavily on the so-called wisdom of the crowds during the recent bombings in Boston, (and the intense few days immediately following). While the combination of smartphones, the web, and social media certainly did seem to help in spreading news and information, keeping people safe during the manhunt for the suspects, and even in helping to identify them in the first place, there were also some unfortunate negatives. Bad information, no matter its source, was spread far and wide, innocent or uninvolved people were put under suspicion, and for many, the sheer cacophony of updates, videos, tweets and the like created so much noise that the true signal was often incredibly difficult to find.
Frankly, at times it seemed like no one, especially the established experts, really knew anything, but everyone had something to say, me included.
If they want to truly disorient the suspect just pipe in the CNN feed. That ought to confuse the crap out of him. #bostonbomber— Steve Boese (@SteveBoese) April 20, 2013
This is just how things work now, any important news or events, particularly ones that play out live on TV and on Twitter are going to generate a massive volumes of good information - along with almost equal parts of confusion, error, and utter nonsense. Perhaps the best advice on dealing with all this is to just tune out for a while and not get caught up trying to play amateur detective or journalist ourselves.
The real reason I was thinking about this wasn't the Boston bombings and the aftermath though, (but they do make for pretty good illustration I think), it was from reading a piece recently authored by Philip Palaleev, a consultant to financial services companies, titled 'How I advise advisors to run an advisory business from my pulpit'. Get past the really odd title, and you get this - some of the best advice I've seen about the problems of asking for too much advice:
I once read about an experiment where the researches had the tonsils of 1,000 healthy kids in New York examined by doctors. In about 50% of the cases, the doctors recommended removing of the tonsils. The researchers then took the “healthy” kids to another set of doctors. Again, 50% of the kids received the tonsillitis diagnosis, even though they had already been declared healthy by another doctor (notice the rate is not even dropping). Researchers then took the remaining 250 healthy kids and took them to a third set of doctors. Lo and behold — again 50% of them received the tonsillitis recommendation.
You can see where this is going — go to enough doctors and you will eventually get your tonsils removed. Same is true with consultants — talk to enough consultants and you will eventually get your strategy revised, your compensation plans “fine-tuned” and your processes “optimized.”
If you spend enough time asking for opinions, ideas, and advice you'll eventually get so much of it you may forget what you were after in the first place, and even what you believe to be right or true or at least likely.
There is no shortage of people ready and willing to tell us what we should do. The thick is, I think, to know when to stop asking, stop listening, and just do what we think is right.
More advice is not always or necessarily better. But it is more noise, that we know for certain.