Smart groups

Something which has fascinated me for a long time is the effectiveness of groups. In our highly networked world, the obvious answer is that networks are hugely potent things, unleashing the potential of the collective mind. But groups aren’t always smart - judging by the sorts of conversations which can be overheard down the pub on a Friday evening.

So at what point do groups get smart, and when are they just plain dumb? It’s hard to put exact numbers to it, but I find that groups of 3 people are generally super smart. When brainstorming, it’s often useful to have more people, and I find that 5 is the the sweet spot. Beyond that, I can’t really say much in favour of larger groups, until you reach internet scale. People familiar with Twitter will know the power of crowd sourcing, where large numbers of people can offer solutions to a problem.

Things like this are important when founding a start-up. A lot can be achieved with three people, even if their management abilities aren’t particularly great. But for larger organisations management becomes essential, otherwise the group will be stupid. And stupidity in today’s competitive economy is paramount to death.

An often overlooked fact is that Darwin’s theories concerning survival of the fittest are relevant to groups, more than for individuals. A single human being stood little chance of surviving without the support of a group. The same is true today, except competitiveness is measured in terms of creativity and intelligence, rather than by any sort of physical characteristic.

So how can we make smarter groups? The answer is pretty obvious: squeeze every last bit of brain power from every member of the group. Most organisations are like engines only firing on one cylinder. Consider your average meeting: people sit around listening to one person blathering on. This is not the way to be productive. If you need ideas, then don’t head straight for the flip chart and get people to contribute ideas one by one. Give everyone a pad of post-its and get them to plaster the wall with ideas. Make everyone work hard. And then tap in to the power of the collective mind, where people can offer suggestions and decide which ideas are good or not.

This same principle can be applied to almost any business task. Parallel thinking is the key, otherwise manpower is wasted.

Another thing to consider is how people adapt in groups. This can be good, but it can also be very bad. You don’t want 30 engineers all thinking the same thing. So that’s why Google are so smart: open up the innovation process, and invite in new ideas, and actually give your employees the time and support to turn those ideas into real value for the business.