Are you looking to build effective teams in your business -- to solve problems, resolve conflicts and create new products or services? Creating strong teams is crucial to small business growth. Recent research by researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College produced some insights that may help.
The study, Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups,set out to study “collective intelligence” among groups of people who cooperate well. Just as individuals have a measurable intelligence level, the researchers wanted to see if small groups demonstrated similar levels of collective intelligence that could be measured and that remained fairly constant.
The researchers put 699 people in groups of two to five. The groups worked together on tasks that ranged from visual puzzles to negotiations, brainstorming, games, and complex rule-based assignments. The results? Groups with the right kind of “internal dynamics” consistently did well on a wide range of assignments.
What are those internal dynamics, and how can you recreate them in your business? Here are three ideas.
1. Add more women. Groups whose members had higher levels of "social sensitivity" had higher levels of collective intelligence. Social sensitivity means the ability to comprehend others’ emotions and respond appropriately. While it’s not limited to women, of course, the researchers found that groups with more women demonstrated more social sensitivity.
2. Take turns. “In groups where one person dominated, the group was less collectively intelligent than in groups where the conversational turns were more evenly distributed," explained Anita Williams Woolley, the paper's lead author and an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. Cooperation is crucial -- and groups with more social sensitivity were more cooperative.
3. Realize the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Neither the average nor the maximum intelligence of individual group members significantly predicted the performance of their groups overall. In other words, “having a bunch of smart people in a group doesn’t necessarily make the group smart,” said Thomas W. Malone, study co-author and Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
I think many of these concepts ring true to any businessperson. We’ve all been in meetings or group situations where one person dominates the conversation, where people fight to show off their knowledge rather than to enhance the team’s results, or where no one seems to listen to what the others are really saying. Those kinds of teams aren’t likely to get good results and, over time, participating in them becomes demoralizing for the team members who aren’t being heard.
One of the fascinating angles to me -- as to the researchers -- was the value of including women on a team. The researchers note they didn’t set out to study how gender affects teams, but plan to study it further. I think it would be interesting to see how diversity in general affects teams. It seems likely that bringing together employees of diverse ages, races, and life experiences -- as well as employees from different job functions or departments within your business -- would help a team generate new insights, be more creative, and be more understanding.
Does the concept of collective intelligence mean a group can’t improve its outcomes? Far from it: “We think it’s possible to improve the intelligence of a group by changing the members of a group, teaching them better ways of interacting or giving them better electronic collaboration tools,” said Malone. Like a scientist, you need to experiment with your business’s teams until you get the mix right.
You can read the full study in Science.