Boost ‘Group Intelligence’ for better decisions!

How to increase group intelligence for better decision-making – or why not to rely on a group of geniuses!  New research breaks the ground to understand collaborative intelligence – but how to apply it to the workplace?

Better alone than in a team?

Think about this:  What teams make the best decisions?
We all experienced it at some point:  Even a group of the best and brightest people often ends up with poor decisions that do not do its individual member’s intelligence justice.

What goes wrong?  How does a group of smart individuals, even geniuses, end up with poor decisions when they stick their heads together?  What are they missing?  Moreover, how can we avoid those obstacles to come to better decisions as a group?

Measuring intelligence

Intelligence of individuals has been well studied for over a 100 years:  A solid framework exists to measure the intelligence quotient (IQ).  Individuals undergo a series of mental challenges under the premise that someone performing well in one task tends to perform well in most others too.  Overall, the IQ is regarded as “a reliable predictor of a wide range of important life outcomes over a long span of time, including grades in school, success in many occupations, and even life expectancy,” as researchers put it.

Modern IQ tests consider an IQ close to 100 as average.

IQ distribution
IQ distribution

Does ‘Group Intelligence’ exist?

When we look at what it takes to make more intelligent decisions as a group than as individuals, the first question this raises is whether something like a measurable ‘group intelligence’ actually exists.  If so, is it measurable and –perhaps‑ higher than the intelligence of its members?

Only recently, scientists took a deeper look at the intelligence of groups and made surprising findings.  The joint team included MIT’s Tom Malone, whom we met previous in a post (“Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds”) as well as others from well-known academic institutions comprising the MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College.

The researchers approached group intelligence following a similar systematic approach as the intelligence metrics for individuals.  However, they linked group intelligence to performance as an endpoint, which makes their finding even more valuable for the workplace!

Group Intelligence - more than a myth!
Group Intelligence is real!

Outsmarting genius as a group

First, the researchers established that group intelligence in performance indeed exists and is measurable.  They also found that the group’s intelligence does not add up to the sum of the intelligence of its individual members.  In fact, the collective intelligence, or ‘c-factor’, shows only a weak correlation “with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members” – this is remarkable finding!  It means is that you cannot boost a group’s intelligence by composing or spiking the group with genius-level individuals!

Obviously, factors apply other than high individual IQ to increase the intelligence of the group.

The results from two studies consistently and overwhelmingly demonstrate that group intelligence outsmart individual intelligence – by far!

Group Intelligence-study results (original graphics)
Group Intelligence – study results

Here are more details on the science for those how want to dig deeper: Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.

Limited by a high IQ?

Individual intelligence only has a practical value to a certain point.  There is an important difference between what an IQ test measures as general intelligence and what Robert J. Sternberg calls ‘practical intelligence’ in his book Successful Intelligence: How Practical and Creative Intelligence Determine Success in Life.  The presence of one does not automatically imply the presence of the other.

What it comes down to is that a high general intelligence is merely a measurable value in the lab but it does not also translate into a more successful life!  An individual IQ above 135 or so can lead to quite the opposite (for reference, ‘genius’ starts at 140 on Terman’s classification).  The higher IQ becomes rather a hindrance than an advantage in real life: a very high IQ tends to clutter and confuse a genius’ mind with more irrelevant options, which make it harder for them to see the most applicable one and come to a decision.

In contrast, practical intelligence relates more to social savvy or ‘street smarts’ – a cunning and practical understanding that proves advantageous in the real world more than a high general IQ!

Here is the magic sauce!

Surprisingly, the strongest correlation of group intelligence is with three factors:

  1. The average social sensitivity of the group members, i.e. “reading the mind in the eyes” of another person.  There is something to be said for bringing together emotionally intelligent people.
  2. Equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking meaning an equal share of time to speak.  Our society and businesses seem to favor smooth-talkers and attracted to extrovert and outspoken individuals that seem to signal competence, decisiveness, and determination.
    Group intelligence, however, does not increase when there is a strong vocal leader, who dominates the discussion to push everyone in his or her direction.  Be careful not to leave out the brilliance of individuals who may get steamrolled by the loud and dominating: introverts, in particular, are at a disadvantage.  They are easily stuck in an extrovert world.
    Given that the introvert/extrovert ratio in the USA is roughly 50/50 (according to the 1998 National Representative Sample), failing to include introverts effectively is a costly mistake, as it excludes their knowledge and valuable input to the decision making process ‑ and lowers the collective intelligence of the group.  Introverts, for example, favor structured communication that plays to their strengths by allowing them to research and prepare; they need more time to express their refined response.
  3. The proportion of females in the group composition; the more women the better.  This appears to account largely to a higher social sensibility that women have over their male group members in general.  However, all three factors have to come together, so building female-only teams does not do the charm either.

Woman raise group intelligence

In a nutshell

When we bring it all together, what surprises me most is how little of this solid research has penetrated the workplace.  Where employees and management teams make decisions, the survival of organizations is at stake and relies on leveraging the collective intelligence of the group effectively.

A myriad of practical applications for these findings come to mind.  Here are just two examples:

  • Women still struggle to achieve gender equality in many organizations ‑ the amount of women in management positions is a widely used metrics that refers to the female proportion of the workforce.  The common approach is to achieve this by ‘swinging the stick’ to establish and enforce quotas and leave it at that – Mission accomplished?!
    Wouldn’t it be more compelling to offer the ‘sweet carrot’ of increasing group intelligence in leadership teams for better business results that includes leveraging the natural advantage of females?

Again, the female quota alone does not boost the group intelligence.  We also need social sensitivity and equal shares of talking time.  Thus, a flanking business application would go beyond how we compose teams based on gender.  It considers social sensitivity measures and some structure to how we conduct group discussions or meetings to maximize the collective intelligence by including and engaging all participants. A challenge also for how we recruit, train, and evaluate our workforce.

Food for thought.

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Collective Intelligence: The Genomics of Crowds

Group intelligence beats individual brilliance – and businesses are willing to pay for the crowd’s wisdom in the social sphere.  The MIT’s ‘genetic’ model allows combining social ‘genes’ to harness the collective intelligence of crowd wisdom successfully and sustainably, for example in scientific research or business/employee resource groups.

We use collective intelligence every day

Whenever we face a big decision, we turn to our friends, our family, or our confidants. We seek information, guidance, advice, confirmation, or an alternative perspective.  No matter if we make a life decision (partnership, job, picking a school, etc.), a purchasing decision (house, car, mobile phone) or a less monumental decisions (which movie to watch, which restaurant to go to), we make our decision more confidently and feeling better informed after reaching out to our personal network.

What we do is tapping into the collective intelligence, knowledge, or wisdom of a crowd that we know and trust: we are ‘crowd sourcing’ on a small scale.  We do this because we instinctively know that the focused collective intelligence is higher than the intelligence of individuals.

What is collective intelligence or the ‘wisdom of the crowd’?

Wikipedia, the iconic product of global collaboration and collective knowledge, brings it to the point:

“The wisdom of the crowd is the process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals rather than a single expert to answer a question.  A large group’s aggregated answers to questions involving quantity estimation, general world knowledge, and spatial reasoning has generally been found to be as good as, and often better than, the answer given by any of the individuals within the group.  An intuitive and often-cited explanation for this phenomenon is that there is idiosyncratic noise associated with each individual judgment, and taking the average over a large number of responses will go some way toward canceling the effect of this noise.”

Scaling up to a ‘crowd

When we read a movie review and rating on Netflix or customer ratings of a product on Amazon, for example, we tap into a larger and anonymous crowd.  On the other end, Netflix and Amazon know how they get people like you and I to deliver them free content (reviews, ratings) that runs their business.

So, let’s take this to a level where it really gets interesting for you!  How can you get a crowd to do your work?  How do you build a framework in which strangers work on your business problems and deliver quality result for free.

Crowd
Crowd Wisdom

Genetics of Collective Intelligence

MIT professor Tom Malone dissects the mechanics of collective intelligence in his groundbreaking article (MIT Sloan Review, April 2010).  The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence researched to understand this matter better and identified a number of building blocks or ‘genes’ than need to come together to engage and tap into the ‘wisdom of crowds’ successfully and sustainably.

Since these ‘genomic combinations’ are not random at all, we can also combine genes to build a collective intelligence system.  Depending on what it is that you want to achieve, the genes can be combined to a model that suits your specific purpose.  This is ‘social genomics’ made easy, and you don’t need a biology major!  🙂

Interestingly, this social genomics can be used independently for social projects you have in mind but also in relation to Employee or Business Resource Groups (ERG/ERG).  – The common link lays in the organizational design that is similar to the generic BRG/ERG business model discussed previously.  Thus, collective intelligence systems need to address the same questions as a business model:

  • Strategy or the goal: what needs to be accomplished?
  • Staffing or the people: who does the work?  Are specific individuals doing the work or is there collaboration within a more or less anonymous crowd?
  • Structure and Processes or how to organize and conduct the work?  How is the product created, and how are decisions made?
  • Rewards or why do they do it?  What are the incentives, what is the measure for success?

Motivation is Key

It is crucial to get the motivation right, i.e. why people engage and continue to come back to contribute more to the cause or project.  It comes down to finding the basic drivers for human motivation.  This explains why people invest much of their time and resources to crowd sourcing.

The famous $1million Netflix Prize was a 5-year open competition for the best collaborative filtering algorithm to predict user ratings for films, based on previous ratings.  The winner had to improve Netflix’s algorithm by 10%.  The million-dollar reward in 2006 gives a flavor of just how valuable the crowd’s wisdom is for a company!  In contrast to common belief, money is not always the driver.  If it was, how do you explain the popular virtual ‘farming’ on Facebook, for example, where players pay hard cash for virtual goods?

In the more clandestine intelligence community, recruiting individual operatives plays to four motivational drivers: Money, Ideology, Conscience, and Ego (easy to remember as ‘MICE’).
The drivers for attracting collective intelligence are a bit different, as Tom Malone found out.  Nonetheless, there are parallels: He calls the key motivators Money, Love, and Glory.

Real-World Examples

Everyone knows Wikipedia, arguably the best-known social collaboration and crowd-sourcing project thriving from an intellectual competition over Love and Glory, no monetary incentives involved for the authors.

How powerful Glory and Honor are we see also in areas away from the mainstream where you may not expect to find crowd-sourcing and gamification: in scientific research.  The following two impactful examples reflect successful implementations for large crowds collaborating and competing to solve scientific problems:

  • Seth Cooper’s AIDS research challenge  on the “FoldIt” online platform challenged players to find the best way of folding a specific protein.  We will not dive into the science behind it and its medical significance; here are the details for those who are interested to dig deeper: MedCrunch Interview with Seth Cooper at TEDMED 2012.  For our purpose, we establish that a relevant scientific problem in AIDS research, which remained unsolved within the scientific community for a decade, took the crowd 10 days to solve!
    You may find it surprising that there was has no monetary incentive involved whatsoever – yet FoldIt attracted over 60,000 players(!) from around the world.  The winner of the AIDS-related challenge was later recognized and honored at the 2012 TEDMED.  It was not a Nobel-prize laureate from an Ivy-League institution but a laboratory assistant from Britain – who, well, enjoys folding proteins and collaborating on the puzzle with think-alike from other countries.  This is the power of Love and Glory!
  • Another example is the ongoing “Predicting a Biological Response” on Kaggle.com, a geeky online platform for people who like developing descriptive models.  My friend and colleague David Thompson of Boehringer Ingelheim (a major yet privately held bio-pharmaceutical company) designed this scientific competition to compete for the best bio-response model for a given data set of scientific relevance.
    The challenge offers a $10,000 prize for the winning model and lesser amounts for the models coming in second and third.  The monetary award together with a time limit of three months helps to speed up the process and keep up the competitive pressure.  Last time I checked, 467 teams competed and have already submitted 4,300 entries with another month to go.  The quality of the model is summarized in a single number (‘log loss’), so competitors can compare their results directly and immediately, the same quantifier determines the winner.
    Note that the Kaggle participation is not driven by the monetary incentive primarily; otherwise, the number of participants should correspond directly with the amount of money offered for a particular challenge, which is not the case.  Thus, participants are in it more for the challenge and fun than for the cash.  (If you are a participant and disagree, please correct me if I am wrong!!)
    On the other hand, don’t underestimate the business value of the gamification of science either: another ongoing competition in Kaggle offers a serious $3million reward!

The bottom line

Social collaboration, crowd-sourcing, and collective intelligence all rely and depend on humans collaborating to make things happen.  What holds true in the real world seems to hold true also in the virtual world: the magic formula is all in the genes…

How to create innovation culture with diversity!

Strategic innovation hands-on: Who hasn’t heard of successful organizations that pride their innovation culture?  But the real question is what successful innovators do differently to sharpen their innovative edge over and over again – and how your organization can get there!

The MIT – an institution of success

As an example, let’s look at one of the most innovative institutions in the world: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) located in Cambridge, Boston. Since success can be defined many ways and comparing academia with industry can be iffy.  Given the MIT’s extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit, however, here is a metrics that business can easily relate to: the MIT’s living alumni formed over 25,000 companies that employ 3.3 million people with revenues close to 2 trillion dollars.  This resembles the 11th highest GDP in the world – compared to countries, the MIT ranks among France and Italy! – Not a bad track record for a single institution that fames 50 Nobel laureates!  For comparison, France has 57 and Italy 20 Nobel laureates.

So much for a success metrics on a social, economic and personnel scale…  There is no doubt the MIT is successful in many ways and quite different from the other 2,500 or so graduate schools in the U.S.

MIT
MIT

What does the MIT do differently?

What can we extract, learn and apply to our own organization to become more successful?  What is it exactly that makes the MIT different and so successful?

The MIT is not a traditional university that seeks knowledge for knowledge sake.  ‑ Believe it or not, this has been the mindset of many scholars and scientists since centuries and still is being lived today and taught to be carried forward.  This engrained mindset became a way of thinking and approaching challenges for graduates – in the commercial workplace!  Now, the workplace is different from academia as it typically must generate profit to sustain.  (Let’s not consider the recent bail-outs an incentive to build business models around.)

The downside of this traditional ‘curiosity-only’ based approach is that one can easily fall in love with working towards perfection, diverting on interesting tangents or ending up with a product of academic beauty but falling short of commercial potential – ingenious, but useless.  It’s like making the proverbial ever better mousetrap that hardly anyone will ever buy… (Well, in all honesty, I have seen some really cool new mousetraps just recently, but that’s a different story that I am happy to share upon request… anyway, you get the point)

Innovation is novelty plus application

That’s where the MIT is different:  it backs up new ideas for tangible application with solid science. This approach is consistent with the MIT’s internal definition of innovation that also meets the commercial needs of companies outside this alma mater and comes down to this: Innovation is novelty plus its application.

A good idea alone is not enough – no matter how ingenious it is.  It must be applied help solving a real-world problem effectively.  Where the success metrics of traditional universities counts published articles, hence the classic ‘publish or perish’, the MIT focuses on practical and hands-on application as in ‘demo or die’!  It brings together ivory tower and workbench in a most symbiotic and practical way.  Less talking, more doing – and commercial success tends to follow naturally.

Do it like the MIT?

So, how can your organization become more like the MIT and making its innovation potential actionable in a reliable, robust and repeatable process?

Besides seeking knowledge for tangible application, the power of the MIT lays in its ability to bring together experts from many disciplines for cross-pollination.  They work together and they learn from and with another by looking at problems from many different angles.  Not surprisingly, the break-through solutions developed by these teams found on hands-on experimentation: demo or die!  This often proves more creative and powerful than traditional and less diverse teams or organizations that tend to focus on incremental improvements.  – Let’s take a closer look:

Does diversity matter?

First of all, what is ‘Diversity’?  Diversity in organizations is often understood bluntly or interpreted narrowly as the goal to meet a certain quota of easily observable attributes like color or gender leading towards a more mixed and ‘colorful’ workforce.  Voila! – Mission accomplished?  Not really!

Imagine this more theoretical but possible case, where different looking staffers grew up together and shared similar experiences for a longer period like, let’s say, in an orphanage, a boarding school or an academy.  The optical impression of this diverse workforce then is an illusion as they are anything but diverse except for their physical appearance.
(I am not elaborating on the likelihood of this example or the need for a customer-facing organization to reflect their customers and partners in the marketplace, since I want to make a different point here.)

Why diversity matters

What counts within an organization for innovation to go beyond incremental improvement is the diversity of thought, expertise and experience for a simple reason: Locking up your subject matter experts in a room to have them come up with innovative ideas over and over is not a recipe for success.

Sitting inside a box of conformity, homogeneity and consensus does not make good ingredients for breakthrough ideas and innovation – that is why we need to enable experts, in particular, to think ‘outside-the-box’ by mixing up teams by inducing meaningful diversity.

Innovation happens at the crossroads

Since break-through ideas tend to emerge at the crossroads of disciplines and experiences, closed and less diverse groups of experts simply cannot come up with them easily – if at all!

In fact, working with non-experts or experts from very different disciplines or lines of work not only opens up your experts’ network but also forces them into a different thought processes for this fresh and different perspective we are all looking for.  Many managers initially regard this as sand in their well-oiled machine that only delays or complicates getting the work done – and therefore avoid mixing in heterogeneous expertise.  Nonetheless, experts thinking out of their box of expertise emerges from combining different disciplines – related or completely unrelated fields of research and application.

Outsiders or even laymen ask questions that experts would not dare to ask their peers so not to appear incompetent, inefficient, insulting or insane!  Research even shows that experts tend to trust other experts too much whom they worked with closely over extended periods:  They don’t question each other’s judgment and assumptions anymore – which may just be what is needed to innovate!

Why experts don’t research enough

Experts do not research enough. – Does this sound counter-intuitive to you?
Interestingly, scientific data suggests that experts research less within and on the fringes of their own field of expertise.  A high level of expertise can therefore become a liability and lead to blind-spots for experts. – Why is that?  Established experts in their field tend to focus rather on what they already know, assume knowing what there is to know about the subject matter and stop questioning their own knowledge.  This leads to a pattern seeking to reinforce the own knowledge, thinking and point of view rather than challenging it!

What experts should do instead is exploring more what they don’t now, seeking out challenges of ideas, experiences and findings by experts of other disciplines.  This cross-pollination is more likely to lead to the next breakthrough.

By the way, on the other end of the expert spectrum, the naïve laymen researches too little too, because they don’t understand the basics and don’t know what to look for or what is important.  It is the ‘amateurs’ with a general understanding of the subject that research most, since they feel they need to get a deeper and broader scoop while knowing what to look for and what could be relevant.

Establish a ‘meritocracy’

A key ingredient of the MIT is championing a meritocracy, i.e. honor and progression of talented and able individuals based on their achievements rather than their status, tenure or other privileges in the organization.  This levels the playing field and motivates by focusing everyone on the only thing that really counts: performance.

Sure, many companies and organizations claim to have a ‘performance culture’ or claim to ‘pay by performance’ as the primary incentive for their employees.  This ‘performance culture’ often looks better on paper than in reality (except for small pockets of jobs like freelancing sales staff, who only receive a margin or commission for a successful transaction, but a low or none fixed salary otherwise).

For staff without commission incentive, how much of the compensation actually does tie to performance directly?  Odds are you can get along just fine in a day job even without exceeding expectations in performance reviews.

It is difficult to compare a company with an academic institution (like the MIT) directly in a meaningful way, since students are typically in for the glory of pushing limits to try out and create things together with other brilliant minds that exceed most people’s wildest dreams.  However, it is fair to say that the MIT’s meritocracy and entrepreneurial framework sets up a winning concept with commercial success and material pay-off to follow rather naturally. – Check out the MIT’s fabulous Entrepreneurship Center (http://entrepreneurship.mit.edu/) to find more on entrepreneurship at the MIT.

The lesson here is not to focus on monetary rewards alone or as the first tool at hand but to become flexible and cater to what is important to inspire your staff to greatness.  Foster an environment of healthy competition, transparency, high ethical standards and consider catering to individual preferences and needs beyond handing out money broadly like watering flowers. While money is indeed most important to one, others may prefer a few days off, handwritten note by  an executive or individual office decoration, for example.

Open Innovation

Another aspect to consider is that research is costly and resources are limited.  Cross-pollination can be a cost effective alternative.

Open innovation, however, works differently and is for genuine out-of-the-box thinkers. It is a powerful approach especially if you don’t have the resources or time to conduct the needed research yourself.  The basic idea is that other people or organizations may already have a viable solution or approach to your problem.  You don’t find and make these connections though if you don’t leave your ivory tower!  Open innovation refers to looking for existing solutions beyond your usual area of expertise and even outside your industry and adapt or configure them to your problem at hand.

Sure, there are also options other than buying or licensing solutions, such as joint ventures, spin-offs or ‘skunkworks’ projects to invent outside the company.  What model fits best depends on the organization, its environment and other constraints.

Classic examples of Open Innovation – and there are many, many more!

  • Car makers looked into making car brakes more effective by preventing wheels from blocking while braking, so the vehicle maintains maneuverable safely to prevent a collision.
    They found an existing solution, anti-locking brakes (ABS), in another industry that faced the same problem earlier and with a higher urgency – the aerospace industry:  Airplanes are heavier than cars, land at high speed with a need to stop fast and controlled before the end of a run-way. This includes safely braking and steering airplane wheels on the ground without blocking tires burning up or incapacitating the plane’s maneuverability.
  • Here is another one:  with increasing concern for air travel safety, airport security organizations were frantically looking for ways to screen passengers for hidden metal objects fast and effectively.  Given time pressure they looked into existing solutions in other industries.
    But who had already developed experience and equipment to scan metallic objects in organic bodies? Where would you start looking?
    Well, they found their solution in the lumber industry which may come surprising.  It makes good sense though when you take a closer look:  the saws for slicing trees in saw mills get damaged when tree trunks contain metal objects like bullets, nails, spikes, etc. So, saw mills needed to detect these objects in the tree trunks before cutting the wood. They introduced stationary metal detectors (magnetometers) that encircle a tree trunk while the trunk is being pushed through the machine and scanned inch by inch. Perhaps you even remember that the very first metal detectors for humans at airports had a round shape?  Well, now you know why!

Bottom line

Innovation and Diversity are a dynamic duo!  Both go hand in hand to wipe out blind-spots created by using the ‘usual suspects’, i.e. relying on the same team of experts over and over again.

In a nutshell, for organizations to thrive, diversity of thought and continuous innovation need an environment to flourish in and become embedded in the organizational culture:

  1. Innovation is novelty and its application.
  2. Bring ‘thought diversity’ into expert teams.
  3. Incentivize by establishing a ‘meritocracy’.
  4. Use open innovation to speed up research.

Links on innovation in the OrgChanger.com blog: