A few years ago, the author Ken Blanchard coined the oft-quoted phrase: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” With this idea, Blanchard urges us to appreciate that people are most successful when they combine their various talents and their differing perspectives in coming together to accomplish a mission or a goal.
I have seen this phenomenon first-hand over the past two decades in the various Collective Intelligence Workshops that I have facilitated. The participants in these workshops are typically a microcosm of the organization, with the sessions including a diverse group of 40 - 50 participants from all levels and functions. With remarkable consistency, these highly facilitated sessions result in extraordinary solutions that the participants generally agree are beyond what any single individual could devise.
While every one of us can probably think of an example where we experienced the power of a smart group to accomplish something great together, each of us has also probably had the experience of being part of a team that failed because it fell victim to groupthink. The former U. S. congresswoman and author Gabrielle Giffords reminds us that there are also times when “None of us is as dumb as all of us.”
How is it that sometimes, when we come together in groups, we are extraordinarily brilliant and, at other times, we are incredibly dumb? James Surowiecki, in his seminal book, The Wisdom of Crowds, provides important insights into the dynamics that define the differences between smart and dumb groups.
Consistent with Blanchard’s observation, Surowiecki notes that, under certain conditions, groups are exceptionally intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest individuals in them. He also cites numerous examples where large groups are better at decision making, solving problems, enabling innovation, and even predicting the future.
Perhaps what is most interesting - and counterintuitive - is that there is often no need for any one individual to be particularly smart for the group to achieve ingenious results. When the right conditions are in place, aggregating the imperfect judgments of each individual often yields an extraordinary level of collective intelligence.
One of the most important findings of Surowiecki’s study is that collective wisdom is not an automatic property of groups. That’s why Giffords’ admonition against groupthink is wise counsel. According to Surowiecki, whether a group is extraordinarily intelligent often depends upon whether or not four conditions are present. If even one of these four conditions are missing, the opportunity for collective intelligence is lost and the danger of groupthink - or worse yet, a mob - is very real.
These four conditions are:
Diversity of opinion: Having different perspectives - even eccentric notions -broadens the available information, provides the capacity for evolving ideas, makes it easier for individuals to be candid, and protects against the negative dynamics of shortsighted groupthink.
Independent thinking: Each individual is free to express his or her own opinions without editing and without any pressure to conform to the beliefs of others in the group. Surowiecki makes the point that “paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”
Local knowledge: To truly access collective intelligence, the group must be able to draw upon specialized and localized knowledge because the closer a person is to the problem or situation, the more likely he or she is to have a meaningful contribution.
Aggregation mechanisms: A widely diverse group of individuals can only produce genuinely intelligent results if there are processes or algorithms for integrating the content of everyone’s observations and opinions.
Once again, without all four conditions, accessing collective intelligence is not possible. That is why, for example, when leaders bring together different perspectives into a lively discussion, they are not necessarily tapping into the collective wisdom of the group. Although they may have access to multiple perspectives and have input from people with extensive local knowledge, chances are organizational politics or other forms of peer pressure is interfering with true independent thinking, and, when the leader is processing the consolidation of the information, there is clearly no aggregation mechanism.
In contrast, Google’s search engine has all four attributes. The billions of users assure diversity of opinion as well as sufficient local knowledge, people are free to exercise individual choice of the pages to view, and sophisticated algorithms serve as highly effective aggregation mechanisms.
Of the four conditions, perhaps the most important is the use of aggregation mechanisms. This is why so much of social media is dysfunctional. Popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter may have the first three attributes, but their algorithms are not designed as aggregation mechanisms. And so, while we have diversity of opinion, some semblance of independent thinking, and a great deal of local knowledge, without a way to aggregate the different contributions, we have a cacophony of chaos that divides us into myopic tribes and reinforces a highly polarized climate in which compromise and, even more so, consensus become impossible. This is the dark side of our hyper-connected world.
The Senseless Mob
These four conditions define the difference between the senseless mob and the wise crowd. There is little diversity of opinion or independent thinking in a mob. Mobs are an extreme expression of groupthink and intolerance. Any voice that differs from the mob’s narrative is silenced, and any voice that persists when silenced risks retaliation and expulsion from the group. The only local knowledge that counts is information that reinforces the limited narrative of the mob, and aggregation mechanisms are considered unnecessary when the horde is convinced that they know best and that anyone who thinks differently is obviously ignorant.
Whether the mob’s behavior is emergent from the gathering of like-minded people or coerced by domineering leaders, mobs are inherently narcissistic. They are self-centered, believing that their wants and needs come first and are all that matter. Mobs are self-righteous, believing that they are better or morally superior to others. They are incapable of seeing different points of view and are often condescending to those who think differently. Because mobs are indifferent to the needs of others and unable to understand alternative ways of seeing things, they are incapable of intelligent compromise or innovative collaboration. This is why when mobs don’t get their way, they often devolve to violence, the ultimate manifestation of narcissism.
The Wise Crowd
The antidote to the senseless mob is the wise crowd. However, applying the four conditions that enable collective wisdom is not as easy as we may think because it requires a special and rare form of leadership. The leaders of wise crowds do not invest in particular narratives or outcomes; they invest in facilitating the collective intelligence of the group.
These leaders may have personal preferences and convictions, but, in their roles as facilitators, they put these aside in becoming stewards of the four conditions. They welcome all points of view, without any prejudice. They create safe environments where all voices are honored and all perspectives are heard, without any fear of retaliation. Often this sense of safety is accomplished through the anonymous expression of ideas. They make sure that people who have first-hand knowledge of different sides of stubborn issues are included in the group’s deliberations. And, finally, they design some form of aggregation mechanism that fairly collates the collective wisdom that emerges when all voices are fully heard. Often this wisdom is an optimally intelligent solution that no single individual could ever achieve, and more importantly, a solution that the vast majority of the diverse group find genuinely acceptable.
Unfortunately, far too many of us have more experience in witnessing senseless mobs than the wisdom of crowds. And this experience seems to be becoming more pervasive as social media algorithms are increasingly designed to divide us into tribes. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There has never been a better time to collate the wisdom of the crowd than today with the recent advances in the capabilities of digital technology. What is holding us back is our leaders, especially the leaders of the social media companies who, by their algorithms and their actions, are enabling the worst rather than the best in us.
We need the power brokers of social media to transform how they lead by investing in the wisdom of the crowd and designing their algorithms to incorporate Surowiecki’s four conditions. If they do so, they will make an important social contribution by helping us to leverage the incredible power of collective intelligence to solve the increasingly complex problems of our times. Maybe then Blanchard’s axiom will be far more prevalent than Gifford’s admonition.