People talk about the wisdom of crowds – but it depends on the crowd! I was in Amsterdam last week for a meeting with colleagues about the role of design thinking in innovation. I returned to the UK via the city’s Schiphol airport.
Keen to eat before the flight, I was disappointed to see long queues at Passport Control. I looked past the crowd of forty-or-so people to see if I could estimate the waiting time. Passport control was fully automated: three gates, each with a passport scanner, a camera and an automatic barrier. Most people were managing with the scanners, but it still looked like I was going to be cooling my heels for a while.
Then I noticed something unexpected. Although there were three gates, there were only two lines. Nobody was waiting for gate two. I wondered if the machine was broken. From a distance it looked okay. It showed the same green lights as the other two machines. But maybe I was missing something.
I walked hesitantly between the two long queues of people. I felt sure I was about to be stopped by somebody for pushing in, but no one said a word. I approached the machine, intently looking for an indication that it was out of service. But no, it seemed fine.
I put my passport in the scanner. A few lights flickered, but the barrier remained closed. “Uh, oh,” I thought, “It will be embarrassing if it turns out I missed a big sign that said this lane is out of service.”
But then the barrier swung open! I went to look for a restaurant, chuckling to myself while the people behind me continued to wait.
Some were probably unaware that lane two was empty. They were on autopilot. Maybe some were jet-lagged.
However, I think a larger number of people saw and considered the empty lane, but talked themselves out of investigating. They decided that because no one else was using the lane, there must be some hidden problem.
Despite the evidence of their own senses, they weren’t about to risk looking foolish to find out if the opportunity was real.
Businesses, of course, do the same. They play safe and copy each other, and they pay the price as their strategies converge.
That’s why so many offerings—cars, supermarkets, cellphones—seem the same, and why competing businesses subject their customers to the same annoying automated messages (“Unexpected item in bagging area,” “Your call is important to us”).
It’s how unimaginative price wars start.
And it’s how big opportunities are missed or taken. Remember when you used to have to carry your heavy suitcase? How many luggage manufacturers thought of putting wheels on suitcases, but didn’t follow through? (Bernard Sadow got a patent on a wheeled suitcase as recently in the history of the world as 1972, and incredible as it seems now, there was a lot of resistance to the idea to start with).
It takes confidence in your own senses—and the willingness to test what they seem to be telling you—when the crowd is doing something else.
“But that’s where the opportunities are,” I reminded myself, as I parked my rolling suitcase in the airport restaurant and grabbed the menu.