Team Insights

Unlocking the wisdom of the crowd: How to make team intelligence work

To get the best out of their teams, managers need to realize that they can (and should) rely on the invaluable collective intelligence of their team members — here’s how science can help. Also, cows.


The next time you see a cow, try to guess how much it weighs. 

It’s a strange exercise, because, statistically speaking, you probably 

  1. have no way of knowing whether you’re right, 
  2. rarely need to answer questions about livestock, and
  3. do not know very much about cows. 

But this is the question that started an impromptu experiment conducted in 1906 by a man named Francis Galton, with results that give us a fascinating glimpse into the nature of collective intelligence. Attending a country fair in Plymouth, Galton watched as 787 villagers were asked to guess the weight of an ox for a cash prize. No-one got it exactly right, but when he calculated the average of all 787 responses, he found something very strange: it was only one pound off the correct answer. 

It turns out this wasn’t an isolated incident. The phenomenon Galton observed has been dubbed ‘the wisdom of crowds,’ and in the century since, we’ve seen many cases of crowds being smarter than their individual members. In fact, it’s been proven that a crowd of laypeople will usually be more reliable than an individual expert: Large groups of people have bested experts in everything from forecasting the outcome of the English Premier League to winning game shows. This odd ability is the foundation of prediction markets — markets based around traders betting on the likelihood of future events — which have proven effective in predicting everything from the spread of infectious diseases to fluctuations in the demand for second-hand car parts. 

Crowds and teams are remarkably similar. That’s good news for managers and organizations

It might not seem like that’s the case at first glance: Where a crowd is a spontaneous and ungovernable organism, a team has traditionally been seen as a carefully-constructed (human) machine engineered for a specific purpose. But the wisdom of the crowd is really just a spontaneous, organic manifestation of the collective intelligence great team leaders know how to leverage. In other words, team intelligence and crowd wisdom are built on the same foundations, and once you understand the building blocks of a good crowd, you can apply those principles to running better teams. 

So, while a team and a crowd aren’t quite the same thing, there’s one crucial factor they have in common: Their collective intelligence can be far greater than that of their individual members (and their leaders).  

 

Are crowds always right? 

Absolutely not. In fact, the most important thing you should know about collective intelligence is why and how it fails. Understanding how the wrong conditions can hamstring the potential of a crowd tells us what we need to do if we’re trying to create the conditions for collective intelligence to thrive. 

 

Why do some crowds fail? 

There’s a long answer to that question, but experts say the wisdom of a crowd comes down to a few important and interrelated factors: diversity, independence, and trust. 

  • Diverse crowds are smarter 

Diversity here means diversity of opinion. If the members of your crowd already agree on everything, they’re more likely to become a biased hive mind and their collective opinion won’t diverge much from the status quo. 

  • Diverse opinions require independent thinking 

If you’re press-ganged into puppeting the people around you, your thoughts stop being your own. Independent thinking inevitably involves some degree of conflict — and that’s a good thing. Smart collectives are not unwaveringly harmonious. In fact, their best decisions come from conflict and contestation. Conflict between independent thinkers should be healthy and intellectually stimulating, not toxic and creatively stifling. For productive conflict, a strong social and psychological infrastructure is essential.

  • Independent thinking requires trust 

People can only express divergent opinions if they trust that the group will treat them with fairness. People need to know that it’s not just acceptable to disagree with other members of the group, but desirable. This requires a sense of psychological safetythe belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for asking questions, speaking up about your ideas, raising your concerns, or admitting your mistakes.

 

Why do some teams fail? 

Teams often fail for the same reasons crowds fail: They lack the psychological and social infrastructure to unlock collective intelligence.   

  • They aren’t as diverse as they'd like to think 

If you have a team rich in diverse opinions but only ever hear the voices of the strongest personalities — the most confident and loudest members of the group — you will never reap the full benefits of team intelligence. Keeping tabs on who’s talking the most and how everyone is feeling and how their different personalities feed into the team dynamic requires superhuman emotional intelligence, a lot of time, and a fair amount of mind-reading. It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect this of managers. Despite our best intentions, we’re all subject to unconscious biases, and none of us (to the best of our knowledge) are telepaths. It’s important to note that social-historical forces and unconscious prejudices are present in all workplaces, and among even the most well-intentioned people. If you want to work in a team that is actually diverse, you have to think about more than just who you’re hiring — you need to consider whether there’s a foundation of mutual trust, respect, and inclusivity within your team.

 

  • They don't like it when you disagree 

Like smart crowds, diverse teams of independent thinkers draw strength from disagreement, which requires a sense of mutual trust. That trust is what we call psychological safety, and it’s something that’s sorely lacking in many teams. Unfortunately, it can be incredibly difficult to create the ideal conditions for psychological safety, and this puts immense pressure on managers who rely solely on intuition and their gut instincts about what their teams need. As James Surowiecki points out in his book on the matter, the wisdom of a crowd also depends on whether there’s a mechanism in place for turning the private judgments of individuals into collective decisions. This is part of what we’re doing with Perflo —  we’ve created a dedicated system that collects and analyzes anonymous team-feedback automatically throughout a team’s lifecycle, enabling leaders to make decisions based on data rather than guesswork.

 

People need to be the priority 

The most exciting idea we can gather from the wisdom of crowds is that successful collective decision-making starts with understanding people and creating the conditions they need to thrive. 

With Perflo, we’re applying that people-first principle to team leadership. We draw on people data (which we’ve written about in more detail here) to keep managers updated on the health of their teams in real-time. By gathering collective, anonymized feedback, Perflo synthesizes insights about psychological safety, trust, inclusion, respect, and alignment within your teams. Where other productivity and collaboration tools focus on processes, methodologies, and operational metrics, our system starts with the people responsible for making our projects and organizations successful. 

To harness the wisdom of the crowd in the workplace, managers need to realize that they can and should rely on the invaluable collective intelligence their teams have to offer. As was the case at the country fair in Plymouth, a team is always more than the sum of its parts. 

In other words: The next time you have to guess how much a cow weighs, remember that you probably won’t get it right on your own. 

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