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"Group intelligence" shouldn't be an oxymoron

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothing can beat teamwork.”
— Edward Abbey, “The Monkey Wrench Gang”

Abbey was an anarchist, so you might expect his assertion. But I recently spoke with an executive who served on several nonprofit boards, as I have. We agreed that a group of otherwise successful people with good business skills becomes very foolish in the wrong setting. Why is that?

Another executive once told me his definition of a committee: “A dark alley that great ideas go down to get strangled!” I bet some of you have been on a committee like that. Why was it dysfunctional when it was likely full of good people?

An article in the October 2010 edition of Science details an experiment showing that group intelligence, in fact, does exceed individual intelligence and has no correlation with the intelligence level of the individuals! (I’m sure that members’ severe cognitive impairment would have an impact.)

Why, then, do we have anecdotal stories of dumb groups?

I worked with a CEO who said intelligence was the most important thing he looked for when hiring. It turns out that he’s roughly right, but it’s more about emotional intelligence than IQ. The above-mentioned study of intelligence in groups illustrates this.

I’ve worked with senior management teams that get “dumb” when they get together. Here are my top four reasons:

1 They don’t know how to have healthy conflict. You can’t make good decisions unless all issues are on the table. Healthy conflict should be optimized, not minimized! Political agendas need to be set aside or debated openly. Transparency is important.
2 A controlling, domineering leader guides the group. These folks end up surrounded by “yes, boss” people, because good folks won’t work for them.
3 The leader doesn’t know how to facilitate effective conversations. Examples of this are allowing everyone to participate, shutting down loudmouths, staying focused on the objectives and identifying faulty thinking.
4 The objectives (or goals or agendas — use your language) aren’t clear. What exactly are we trying to discuss? What decision are we attempting to make? What’s the purpose of the meeting? Most leaders would be well-served by taking more time to identify clear objectives before having meetings and discussions.

When your senior team gets together, does the collective intelligence soar as it ought to, or does it plummet? A group of intelligent people can be as dumb as a rock if the group dynamics are wrong.


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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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