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The Group Is Not Smarter Than the Sum of Its Individuals?

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 8/25/2011

Are the guys on Big Bang Theory as a group collectively more intelligent than the characters on Friends? One would make the assumption that a group made up of geniuses would have a higher level of intelligence than a group of average folks. Recent research, however, tells us that this may be wrong.

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    Of Course It Is, Isn't It?

    When is group intelligence boosted? It seems like common sense. Any time you have a group of people together, that group's collective intelligence—or "general intelligence" as Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, and Malone (2010) call it—should correspond to the average intelligence of the people within that group. But does it?

    For example, you'd expect a group with an average IQ of 110 to function at a lower level than a group with an average IQ of 172. At least, I would. It would seem to me that a group of highly intelligent people would be more effective at problem solving than a group of moderately intelligent people. Woolley, et al, challenged this assumption with the findings in their research. They found that in actuality, with three exceptions, that general intelligence does not correspond with the average intelligence of group members.

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    Exception One: Groups That Are More Socially Sensitive

    The last time you worked in a group, was it a pleasant or unpleasant experience? What makes groups function well is the degree to which it is successful depends highly on the group's ability to work well together—and the level of willingness of the members of the group to work with one another and adapt to one another's needs.

    Group diversity lends itself better to this sort of cooperation than does group homogeneity. Why? Group members with diverse backgrounds will need to make accommodations for one another. Diversity in this case can mean different backgrounds or even just different work experiences. When combining a group of people who have different levels of experience and different methods for doing things, the success rate for the group will increase. This exception definitely seems like common sense, and can explain why some groups that appear to have more highly educated members in them also tend to have members from a variety of backgrounds and who have a variety of experiences that enrich the project.

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    Exception Two: Groups That Take Turns When It Comes to Idea-Sharing

    Collaboration makes good ideas turn into great ideas. Groups that allow for a lot of idea-sharing and do so in an open, accepting manner tend to fare better than groups that do not. Collaboration allows for a greater diversity of ideas to be communicated, which helps groups to better attack problems that may arise during a project.

    It's easy to see, then, why groups that embrace collaboration would have a larger general intelligence than the groups that do not freely share ideas and information. In groups with shared ideas, those ideas get turned around like stones in a gem tumbler and refined. In groups where freedom of idea-sharing is not embraced and one person shares ideas, those ideas do not get refined, questioned or added to. In this way, such groups lose out when it comes to solving problems effectively.

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    Exception Three: Women Are on the Team

    The third exception to the rule is when women were on the team, the general intelligence was lifted. This was an important finding for groups, although some people found this to be controversial. But if you think about it, any time you get diverse ways of thinking about the best ways to solve problems in a group, the group's abilities to solve problems and work together to find a solution will be boosted.

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    What You Need to Do to Have Smart Teams

    While it's nice to have intelligent, competent people on the teams you put together, it's also important to keep these things in mind. Keep your teams diverse, include women and create a safe place for team members to share ideas freely with one another. Because the team is not impacted by the average intelligence of the members—after all, the researchers found there to be no correspondence there—worry more about cultivating positive team environments and fostering team building activities.

    By taking time to invest in your team and keeping an eye on what works best for whom, you can better guide your team through problems. Invest in training related to communication, collaboration, respect, brainstorming and other facilitative abilities.

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    The Worst Thing You Can Do

    The worst thing you can do if you're trying to improve the general intelligence of your team is throw a group of people together and expect them to magically do well. Likewise, don't haphazardly throw together a group of really intelligent men who are filled with pride and who do everything the same way as one another. In such a group, especially if the project needs some innovative problem solving skills, it is unlikely that you will receive the results you are trying to achieve. Instead, you are likely to find that the team struggles with solving the problem, because the team will be used to doing things the same way they've always done things! This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you'll want the team that is filled with experts on a certain project problem.

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    So, what do you think? Are group general intelligence measures accurate? Do you think that the three components pointed out by the authors of the study are good reasons to believe that the group intelligence would go up? Are there policies and training units you could implement in your company that would help boost the group intelligence?

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