We are often told to avoid following the crowd. In words often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, “The minority is sometimes right; the majority is always wrong.” But sometimes a crowd can provide insights that an individual cannot. Francis Galton, a brilliant researcher in the early 1900s, demonstrated this point perfectly. He came across a contest at a country fair in which fairgoers were invited to guess the weight of an ox after it was butchered. The person whose guess was the most accurate would be the winner. Over eight hundred people participated.
Galton found that, though individual responses varied substantially, the average of the responses was remarkably close to the actual weight of the ox. In this instance, the group was correct! This ability to reach a better decision as a group than as individuals is known as “group wisdom” or “collective intelligence.”
Many of us like to think we avoid following the crowd in our lives, but the truth is that most of us look to group wisdom to guide many of our actions. We read book reviews on Amazon or Goodreads to decide what to read next, and most of us have consulted TripAdvisor or read restaurant reviews to help us decide where to stay or eat on our holidays. We assume that there will be some naysayers among the reviewers, and that a few evaluations will be excessively glowing, but we have confidence that the voice of the majority is representative of reality. This is collective intelligence at work in our everyday lives.
In order for organizations to harness the power of collective intelligence, team members first need time to become comfortable with each other. As one of our survey participants reported, longevity tends to increase team performance: “We have long-term employees and deal with very little turnover. This can inherently make it easier to communicate effectively with others, as we have come to understand how to adapt our style to meet the other’s needs.”
In an article titled “Why Teams Don’t Work,” Diane Coutu explains, “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 describe research that confirms that prolonged group experience is directly tied to productivity. One study she cites reveals that 73 percent of airline errors or incidents occur when crews are flying together for the first time. Teams need experience working together to be successful, and this cannot be gained without sufficient time.
Just as a crowd can more accurately guess the weight of an ox, so too can a team’s collective intelligence produce better results over time than an individual’s efforts. However, in order to develop peak-performing teams and reap the benefits of collective intelligence, we as leaders need to give conscious thought to how we develop our teams.
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