We are often told to avoid following the crowd. In the words of Henrik Ibsen, “The majority is never right,” but sometimes a crowd can provide insights an individual cannot.
Francis Galton, a brilliant scientist in the early 1900s, demonstrated this point perfectly. He came across a contest at a country fair where fairgoers were invited to guess the weight of an ox after it was butchered. The individual whose guess was the closest would be the winner. Over 800 people participated.
Galton asked to have access to the responses, and found that while individual responses varied substantially, the average of the responses was remarkably close to the actual weight of the ox. In this instance, the majority was right! This ability of a group to come to a better decision than one reached alone is called group wisdom or collective intelligence.
Many of us may think we are avoiding following the crowd in life, but the truth is most of us look to group wisdom to guide many of our actions. We read book reviews on Amazon.com or Goodreads.com to source out reading material. Most of us have consulted TripAdvisor to select a hotel or read restaurants reviews to help search for a place to eat while on holidays. We assume that amongst the reviewing voices there will be some naysayers, and a few evaluations that will be overly glowing, but we have confidence that the voice of the majority is representative of reality. This is collective intelligence at work in our everyday experience.
But how does collective intelligence apply to organizations? How can organizations harness its power to create peak performing teams?
Here are two tips to keep in mind to make the most of collective intelligence and create a strong team:
1. Provide Time
First, high functioning team members need time to gain a level of comfort with each other. Blending personal work styles and building trust between team members need time to solidify.
Teams with longevity tend to have increased performance. Diane Coutu in the Harvard Business Review stated, “The problem almost always is not that a team gets stale but, rather, that it doesn’t have the chance to settle in.” She goes on to show that research confirms that prolonged group experience is directly tied to productivity. Successful teams need experience working with each other, and this takes time.
2. Support Dissent
Peak performing teams do not allow the ease of working together to lead to complacency. Every team needs a disruptive voice. As a team settles in and gains a working rhythm, it is helpful to have a dissenter on the team. The dissenter may be a new voice, a role specifically assigned, or someone in the group who naturally plays the “devil’s advocate.” Dissenters help the group avoid the dangers of becoming compliant. They also push the boundaries of what the team is capable of doing by helping us consider other viewpoints.
In order to reap the benefits of collective intelligence, we need to give conscious thought to how we develop our teams. Our role as leaders is to provide time for the team to gel and to ensure that there is a voice who asks the hard questions and challenges the team. Then we can begin to trust that, much like a crowd can be more accurate in guessing the weight of an ox, so too can a team’s collective intelligence produce better results over time than an individual’s efforts.