The vexed problem of collective intelligent output in team dynamics

by TheEditor

Categories: Investigative, Management

Have you ever wondered how large or small groups of intelligent people on occasions end up making suboptimal or even stupid decisions? If you have, then this post may interest you. Importantly I said ‘on occasions’. That means that I am NOT saying that all or a majority of groups of intelligent people make stupid decisions.

Scope and limitations

I will drill into factors that affect groups where their collective intelligent output seems less than their average. I think this is important for those with managerial responsibilities who find reason to question the outputs of their teams. In the NHS people with managerial responsibilities are not only managers. They could be frontline clinicians. For this article the words group and team are used interchangeably – though it is recognised that there may be a fine distinction between the two concepts.

As this is not an academic paper or PhD thesis, I will not reference every opinion expressed to some paper written out there. Some of the following are based on my experiences over 33 years, for which there will be no references in the public domain.

One potential mechanism

The idea of ‘lesser expected performance’ may be explained from the statistical principle of “regression toward the mean.” It describes how extreme values in a data set tend to be closer to the average on subsequent measurements. However, the specific scenario where the average intelligence of a group of highly intelligent people is less than the mean of the group – warrants further investigation.

  1. Understanding Regression Toward the Mean: This principle, first identified by Sir Francis Galton, explains that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and, conversely, if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first. This concept is often observed in various fields, including psychology and medicine.
  2. Intelligence in Groups:
    • Group Intelligence vs Individual Intelligence: Research in group dynamics and collective intelligence (e.g., studies by Anita Woolley and Thomas W. Malone) has found that the intelligence of a group working together on a task is not merely the average of the individual IQs of its members. Instead, it is influenced by factors like social sensitivity, equality in conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.
    • Mean Intelligence in Highly Intelligent Groups: In a group of highly intelligent individuals, the mean intelligence level is an average of their individual intelligence levels. It is unlikely that the group’s collective intelligence would be lower than this mean, unless factors like poor group dynamics, ineffective communication, or other non-cognitive factors negatively impact their collective problem-solving ability.
  3. Implications in Psychiatry and Team Dynamics: Understanding how individual abilities translate into group performance can be essential, especially in fields like psychiatry where team-based approaches are often employed. The dynamics of group intelligence highlight the importance of considering factors beyond individual competencies, such as interpersonal skills and group cohesion.
  4. Current Research and Evidence:  The idea that a group of highly intelligent individuals would have a collective intelligence lower than the mean of their individual IQs is not a standard finding in psychological research, but rather an intersection of various factors influencing group dynamics and collective problem-solving.

In summary, while the regression toward the mean is a well-established statistical phenomenon, its application to the average output of a group of highly intelligent individuals being less than the mean intelligence of the group members is not straightforward and would depend on a range of factors including group dynamics, communication, and the nature of the tasks being undertaken. This topic sits at the intersection of psychology, statistics, and organisational behaviour, warranting a nuanced understanding of how individual attributes translate into group performance.

Group or team size

This is an important area to consider. Too large teams or teams composed of other teams increases complexity in decision-making from the viewpoint of co-ordination, communication, organisation and maintaining focus. What’s too large may depend on the nature of the task. Too small a group size may introduce factors such as group think, too narrow a focus and a lack of creativity.

  1. Too Large Teams:
    • Coordination Challenges: Larger teams often struggle with coordination complexities. As the number of team members increases, so does the complexity of managing tasks, roles, and responsibilities.
    • Communication Barriers: In large teams, maintaining effective communication can be challenging. Important information can get lost, misunderstood, or diluted as it passes through more individuals.
    • Organisational Complexity: Organising and aligning a large team’s efforts toward a common goal can be difficult. There’s a higher likelihood of sub-groups forming, which might pursue divergent objectives.
    • Focus Maintenance: Keeping a large group focused and on track can be challenging, especially when there are differing opinions and perspectives. Decision-making can become protracted due to the need to consider and integrate a wide range of viewpoints.
  2. Too Small Teams:
    • Groupthink Risk: Smaller teams are more susceptible to groupthink, where the desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. Members might not challenge each other’s ideas enough, leading to a lack of critical evaluation.
    • Narrowed Focus: With fewer members, there’s a risk of developing a too-narrow focus, potentially overlooking broader perspectives or alternative solutions.
    • Lack of Creativity: A small team, especially one that lacks diversity, might find it challenging to generate creative solutions. The limited range of skills and experiences can hinder innovation.
  3. Dependence on Nature of Tasks:
    • The ideal team size often depends on the nature of the task. For complex, multifaceted tasks, larger teams might be necessary to bring in the required range of skills and expertise. However, for tasks that require rapid decision-making or high levels of cohesion, smaller teams might be more effective.

In practice, the key is to find a balance. Teams should be large enough to bring diverse perspectives and skills but small enough to maintain effective communication, cohesion, and agility. One approach is to have a core team that handles the majority of decision-making, supplemented by larger, more diverse groups for brainstorming and gathering a wide range of inputs. This hybrid structure can help mitigate the drawbacks of both large and small team sizes.

Factors not dependent on size

Irrespective of group size, several factors have been identified that enhance collective intelligence in groups. These factors encompass both the composition of the group and the nature of interactions within it:

  1. Diversity of Skills and Perspectives:
    • A diverse group, in terms of skills, experiences, and cognitive styles, can approach problems from multiple angles, leading to more innovative solutions and better problem-solving. Diversity can include educational backgrounds, areas of expertise, and different ways of thinking.
  2. Social Sensitivity:
    • Social sensitivity, or the ability of group members to read emotional states and understand the perspectives of others, is crucial. This includes empathy and the ability to consider and value diverse viewpoints. Groups with high social sensitivity tend to have better communication and more effective collaboration.
  3. Equality in Participation:
    • Groups where conversation and decision-making are dominated by a few individuals tend to have lower collective intelligence. In contrast, groups where all members participate equally and have a voice show higher collective intelligence. This ensures that a variety of ideas and perspectives are heard and considered.
  4. Effective Communication:
    • Clear and open communication is fundamental for the efficient functioning of a group. This includes not only verbal communication but also non-verbal cues and active listening skills.
  5. Strong Leadership and Clear Goals:
    • Effective leadership that fosters a positive group environment and clear, focused objectives can guide a group’s efforts. Leaders who facilitate rather than dominate tend to enhance collective intelligence by ensuring that the group’s energies are directed efficiently.
  6. Cohesion and Trust:
    • Trust among group members and a sense of cohesion or unity within the group can lead to a more collaborative and supportive environment. This includes psychological safety, where members feel safe to express ideas and take risks without fear of negative consequences.
  7. Conflict Resolution Skills:
    • The ability to handle disagreements and conflicts constructively is important. Groups that can navigate conflicts while maintaining respect and understanding tend to be more effective in their collective problem-solving efforts.
  8. Adaptability and Learning Orientation:
    • Groups that are adaptable and open to learning from experiences, including failures, tend to improve their collective intelligence over time. This includes a willingness to change strategies or approaches based on new information or feedback.
  9. Balanced Group Composition:
    • While diversity is important, it is also essential to have a balance in terms of roles and personalities so that the group functions harmoniously. This might involve a mix of creative thinkers, detail-oriented individuals, and pragmatic decision-makers.

These factors contribute to the collective intelligence of a group by enhancing how members interact with each other and how they approach and solve problems. It is important to note that these factors are interdependent and often reinforce each other, contributing to the overall effectiveness and intelligence of the group.

Factors external to teams

The impact of the current climate of the NHS, with its challenges of underfunding, staff shortages, and recruitment issues, on collective intelligence can be tabulated as follows:

Category NHS Internal Factors (Impact on Collective Intelligence) NHS External Factors (Impact on Collective Intelligence)
Diversity and Composition Overburdened existing staff leading to stress and affecting team dynamics. Staff shortages and recruitment challenges leading to a lack of diversity in skills and experience.
Communication and Interaction High-pressure environments straining communication, leading to misunderstandings. Insufficient resources for effective communication tools due to underfunding.
Leadership and Goals Struggle to maintain clear goals and effective management strategies amid external pressures. Influence of broader policy and funding environment on leadership decisions, potentially causing goal misalignment.
Cohesion and Trust Reduced team cohesion due to high turnover and the need to integrate new members frequently. Stressful work environment impacting trust and cohesion among staff.
Resources and Tools Limited resource availability affecting the ability to provide care and make decisions effectively. Underfunding hindering the availability of necessary resources and tools.
Environment and Workspace Overcrowding and inadequate facilities due to resource constraints stressing the work environment. Financial constraints affecting the quality of the physical work environment.
Stakeholder Dynamics Balancing the demands of various stakeholders with limited resources leading to internal conflicts. Public and political pressures creating additional challenges.
Adaptability and Learning High turnover impeding the development of a learning culture and collective improvement. Rapid changes in healthcare landscape requiring adaptation, hindered by funding and policy constraints.
External Influences Struggle to keep up with external changes due to internal challenges, impacting decision-making. Changes in healthcare needs, policy, and technology requiring adaptation, limited by current challenges.

This table provides a structured view of how internal and external factors in the current NHS climate affect the collective intelligence of its teams. It highlights the complex interplay between the internal dynamics of NHS teams and the broader external environment in which they operate. Addressing these factors is key to improving team effectiveness and the overall quality of healthcare delivery in the NHS.

Summary of relevance to the NHS

In the context of the NHS, navigating the challenges of team size in decision-making involves striking a balance between the breadth of expertise and maintaining efficient coordination and communication. Large teams in the NHS, particularly in multidisciplinary settings, bring diverse skills and perspectives crucial for comprehensive patient care. However, the complexity of coordinating and organising such teams can lead to inefficiencies in decision-making processes. Communication barriers are more likely in larger teams, potentially leading to misaligned efforts or delayed responses.

Conversely, smaller teams, while benefiting from closer communication and quicker decision-making, face the risk of groupthink, where the desire for consensus may override critical thinking and lead to suboptimal patient care strategies. The limited diversity in smaller teams can narrow the focus and reduce the creativity essential for innovative healthcare solutions.

The nature of tasks in the NHS, ranging from direct patient care to administrative and policy-making functions, dictates the ideal team size. For intricate, multifaceted healthcare tasks, larger teams are necessary to ensure a comprehensive approach, bringing in varied medical expertise and perspectives. In contrast, tasks requiring rapid, decisive action or high cohesion, such as emergency response or critical care decisions, may benefit from smaller, more agile teams.

For the NHS, an effective strategy might involve a core decision-making team that manages day-to-day operations and critical decisions, supplemented by larger, interdisciplinary groups for broader strategic planning and complex problem-solving. This structure aims to leverage the advantages of both large and small teams, ensuring diverse input and expertise while maintaining clarity of communication and decision-making efficiency. The focus should be on fostering effective communication channels, promoting a culture of open dialogue and critical evaluation, and ensuring that team structures are flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of healthcare delivery.


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