Collective Intelligence in Small Teams

No matter how smart you are, you can’t fix the problems of the world by yourself. Teamwork is the order of the day, and a new study by MIT suggests that the skills of effective teams might be more universal than previously thought. Researchers put small teams of two to five people through a battery different assignments, while monitoring how they interacted.

“We did not know if groups would show a general cognitive ability across tasks,” said Thomas W. Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, one of the authors of the paper. “But we found that there is a general effectiveness, a group collective intelligence, which predicts a group’s performance in a lot of situations.”

That effectiveness, the researchers believe, stems from how well the group works together. Groups whose members had higher levels of “social sensitivity” — the willingness of the group to let all its members take turns and apply their skills to a given challenge — were more collectively intelligent. “Social sensitivity has to do with how well group members perceive each other’s emotions,” said Malone. “In groups where one person dominated, the group was less intelligent than in groups where the conversational turns were more evenly distributed.”

The average intelligence of the individuals in the group had no effect on their performance. And interestingly, teams with more women were more effective than male dominated teams.

What’s the take away? Now that scientists have the tools to study how groups work in detail, we can make smarter, more effective teams. The skills of social sensitivity, listening and taking turns, could be taught. Depending on how much technology a group was willing to accept, the methods of the MIT researchers could tell groups when they’re being “collectively stupid” and cutting members out of the loop.

Small teams are particularly important for Prevail because teams can bring many different skills and perspectives to the table, and can adapt to the specifics of a new problem. While it takes years to master a body of knowledge, teams that can effectively integrate new members who are already experts can respond rapidly to emerging threats. Knowing how small groups work, and how they can be made to work better, is one way to Prevail.

Leave a Reply