Three Ways to Make Your Team Smarter

Margaret Heffernan

Here is an article written by Margaret Heffernan for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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Why can you puts lots of smart people into a team – and they come up with lousy ideas? And why is it that our star performers do not necessarily create star teams? Is it even possible to improve the collective intelligence of a team? That’s a question that a team of academics set for themselves.

Being a team themselves, of course they believed in collective intelligence but the harder question was: can it be measured? Is there a group equivalent of IQ? Can the collective intelligence of the group as a whole go above and beyond the abilities of the individual group members?  And, if it can, what factors contribute to making a team smarter?

In two studies with 699 people, teams were set tasks which involved solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources. The same tasks were given to individuals and then to teams. The collective intelligence of the group (which they called “c”) far out-performed the average intelligence of individual participants. That makes sense; it’s why we do team work in the first place. But what the researchers most wanted to know was: what predicted “c”? What was it that might give any particular group greater collective intelligence?

Their findings are intriguing, provocative and profound.  Collective intelligence is not strongly correlated with the average or the maximum individual intelligence of group members. Packing your teams with one, or a few, super smart people may not help you. Furthermore, group cohesion, motivation and satisfaction also did not determine group performance. What did make a difference were:

1. Social sensitivity of group members: Teams in which members understood each other’s mood did better than teams that lacked that sensitivity.

2. Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking: The groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those where participants more equally shared the floor.

3. The proportion of women in the group: The researchers thought that this finding might be connected to the other two, since women tended to do better on sensitivity tests and be good at taking turns.

These findings are important to everyone who isn’t a hermit. They have powerful implication for the skills we seek when hiring and for the tools we use for collaboration. It means that the colleague who does all the talking isn’t just annoying – he may, quite literally, be lowering the tone of the conversation. More importantly, the researchers argue it may be easier to raise the collective intelligence -”c”- of a group than the IQ of an individual because how smart a group is depends on its membership.

But most important of all, it reinforces everything everyone has ever said about the case for greater gender diversity at all levels of an organization: namely, diversity makes companies smarter. And this work wasn’t published in a magazine for managers, HR professionals or women. It appeared in SCIENCE magazine.

In other words, it isn’t wishful thinking. It’s peer reviewed, analyzed and tested as stringently as possible. It’s based on real experiments and hard data.  There isn’t a manager in the world who doesn’t need to read it.

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Margaret Heffernan worked for 13 years as a producer for BBC Radio and Television before running her first company. She has since been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom, including InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and iCAST Corporation. She has been named one of the Internet’s Top 100 by Silicon Valley Reporter and one of the Top 100 Media Executives by The Hollywood Reporter. Her books include The Naked Truth, How She Does It, and the forthcoming Willful Blindness.  She has appeared on NPR, CNN, CNBC, and the BBC, and writes for Real Business,The Huffington Post, and Fast Company.

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