Overcoming the obstacles
to collective intelligence

Partly thanks to the digital revolution, many organizations are shifting from individual decision-making to group deliberation. But do groups really make better decisions than individuals? Current research shows that, no, they often don’t – unless group leaders can counteract groupthink.

The power of collective intelligence is fueling wide-scale innovations in organizational structures and governance, but how is the switch from individual decision-makers to more collaborative decision-making processes really impacting organizations? Coauthors Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie set out to bring developments in behavioral research and behavioral economics to bear on the question of group performance. The key takeaway from their extensive research is that group-decision making is highly problematic. Due to fundamental group behaviors and psychological processes, much of the relevant information and opinions of individual members goes unshared within classic group deliberations. But concrete steps can be taken to counteract the problems inherent to groups. And, with help from digital technologies, collective intelligence (both internally and externally to the organization) can also be harnessed in alternative forms that avoid deliberation – and thus its problems – altogether.

GROUPTHINK CAUSES DELIBERATION TO GO AWRY

Groups often fall victim to behaviors and psychological processes that amplify – rather than correct – certain individual errors and biases.

Groups fall victim to herding and cascade effects

Sunstein and Hastie explain that groups often go wrong because of herding, a fundamental behavior of human groups, and cascades, which happen when people influence each other:
Herding: “It is no exaggeration to say that herding is the fundamental behavior of human groups,” write Sunstein and Hastie. “(…) If a project, business, politician, or cause gets a lot of early support, it can turn out to be the group’s final preference, even if it would fail on its intrinsic merits without that support (…) If the initial speakers in a group favor a particular course of action, the group may well end up favoring that position, even if it would not have done so if the initial speakers had been different.”
Cascades: “There are two kinds of cascades: informational and reputational. In informational cascades, people silence themselves out of respect for the information conveyed by others. In reputational cascades, people…

To read the article in full:

Overcoming the obstacles to collective intelligence

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Based on Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter by Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie (Harvard Business Review Press, December 2014) and an interview with Mithra Sarrafi, MD human resources and internal communications, and director of the Covéa Campus.