Why Collective Wisdom Is an Oxymoron

What do you get when a group of professors set out to find the key to collective intelligence – why some groups seem to be smarter than others – something that’s all the rage these days? A result befitting the quality of those in the group. In this case, a load of pseudo-intellectual nonsense and remarkably flawed conclusions.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for some academics. Take the late great management consultant and scholar Warren Bennis, for example. Back in 1997 Bennis wrote a brilliant book that explains how some teams do groundbreaking work that change the world while the vast majority flounder.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s talk about the aforementioned team of professors.

It’s clear from their New York Times article that a life of academia has exposed these researchers to far too many bureaucratic committees, nonprofit boards, and time-wasting meetings. They seem to have little practical knowledge of how talented leaders and their teams actually do great work in the real world.

So it’s not the least bit surprising that they devised a concept called “collective intelligence” and set about determining what makes some teams smarter than others by developing short tasks for random groups, observing how they performed, and tallying the results.

Their conclusion? Intelligent teams that work smarter than others are a function of three factors: the percentage of women in the group, their social sensitivity or ability to read each other’s emotions, and taking equal turns talking.

This is presumably true whether the group consists of engineers developing code for an app, an executive management team brainstorming business strategy, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff deciding how to retaliate after a terrorist attack.

Perhaps that makes sense in the sterile, insular halls of academia, but in the real business world, you might want to try a different approach.

Rather than burden you with further academic triteness and snarky commentary from yours truly, let’s now discuss the seminal work on great groups called “Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration” by the father of modern leadership and one of the greatest business thinkers of our time, Mr. Bennis.

Instead of a bunch of silly experiments with random subjects, Bennis’ work is actually based on hands-on experience and interviews with hundreds of great leaders and their teams over a period of decades.

The book chronicles a diverse set of groups including the Disney team that created the first full-length animated film, Lockheed’s Skunk Works group that built the first U.S. jet fighter in six months, Xerox PARC’s development of the first personal computer, the Manhattan Project, and Apple’s first Macintosh design team which Steve Jobs famously told were there to “make a dent in the universe,” which of course they did.

Bennis determined that what enabled some groups to rise to greatness was “a mutually respectful marriage between an able leader and an assemblage of extraordinary people. Groups become great only when everyone in them, leaders and members alike, is free to do his or her absolute best.”

The book explains how to create, organize and manage groups of talented individuals in ways that enable them to accomplish great things as a team, while at the same time achieving enormous personal growth and satisfaction from the experience.

Among the takeaways are, “every great group has a strong leader,” “great groups and great leaders create each other,” “the leaders of great groups love talent and know where to find it,” and my personal favorite, “great groups think they are on a mission from God, always have an enemy, and see themselves as winning underdogs.”

I recall a New York Times Book Review that said, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here, the book’s revelations seem obvious, especially after you’ve read them. Funny, I hear that a lot after CEOs and their leadership teams have great epiphanies. They often say, “It seems so obvious, why didn’t we come up with this sooner?”

The answer always comes down to how these already talented individuals are led and organized. It certainly has nothing to do with gender distribution, emotional sensitivity, or taking turns talking.

When I read Bennis’ book, I was floored by how closely it mapped to my own experience, especially a great group I had known: the engineers at Cyrix that developed the world’s first microprocessor that rivaled Intel’s vaunted Pentium chip on a fraction of the budget. And its lessons have figured prominently in my career ever since.

Bennis says, “In today’s Darwinian economy, only organizations that find ways to tap the creativity of their members are likely to survive.” Indeed. Contrary to academic research, there is no evidence of collective intelligence. Just extraordinary leaders organizing talented individuals so they’re free to do their best work … together.