A Wise Woman from Wisconsin Showed Me The Way to Think Smarter

The many are smarter than the few. That is why top leaders tap the COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE of large, diverse groups for smarter strategic thinking.

Many leaders today are concerned about the shortfalls in traditional strategic thinking. Consider these startling statistics:

  • 52% of leaders are not confident in their company’s strategy
  • 67% of leaders say capabilities don’t fully support their strategy
  • Over 80% of organizations fail to execute their strategies effectively

One thing is certain about current approaches to strategic thinking. There is room for improvement.

Why Strategic Thinking Is a Leadership Challenge

“The volume and complexity of what we have to deal with have exceeded our ability to remember what to do.”~ Atul Gawande

According to the IDC Digital Universe Study, the information haystack will grow to 44 ZETTABYTES by 2020.

Just ONE Zettabyte (ZB) is equivalent to the storage capacity of 34.4 billion smartphones. Multiply that by 44 and you have the equivalent of over 1.5 trillion smartphones.

Given the massive amount of information now bombarding leaders, the results of a study of CEOs by one of the world’s great academic institutions, Dartmouth, are not surprising. It found that many CEOs had made some disastrous strategic decisions. Why?

One reason is their information processing capacity. Even the smartest CEOs have cognitive limitations. A famous study by psychologist George Miller found that most individuals can process only about 126 bits of information per second. Think about it. That’s not very much. Just having a conversation takes about 40 bits of information per second (1/3 of our processing capacity.)

Other studies have shown that when the amount of information input exceeds our personal processing capacity, the quality of our critical thinking is substantially reduced.

Collective Intelligence of Crowds

The information haystack will not stop growing. What can leaders do? The solution is Collective Intelligence.

Strategic thinking in the New Normal requires a greater repertoire of knowledge and perspectives, one that is as broad and deep and nuanced as the complex challenges we face. That is why tapping the Collective Intelligence of a diverse group to gain the deeper insights and smarter solutions is essential.

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki explains why the power of Collective Intelligence is not widely recognized.

We often think of crowds as stupid, feckless, and dominated by the lowest common denominator. But take a look around.

The crowd at a racing track does an uncannily good job of forecasting the outcome, better in fact than just about any single bettor can do. Horses that go off at 3-to-1 odds win a quarter of the time, horses that go off at 6-to-1 win a seventh of the time, and so on.

Consider what happens on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Contestants have the option to call an expert or poll the audience to help them get the right answer. How often is the audience right compared to the expert?

On average, the audience is right 91% of the time and the expert is right only 65% of the time.  Why does the audience do so much better?

Many heads are better than one. In fact, there is over a century of documented accounts confirming the power of Collective Intelligence.

Collective Intelligence Examples

In 1906, a British researcher visited a livestock fair and stumbled upon an intriguing contest. An ox was on display, and the villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight. Nearly 800 people participated and the results were astonishing. The average of the 800 guesses was 1,197 pounds. That was only one 1 pound less than actual weight. In short, the average was 99.9% correct.

In the 1920s, a series of social psychology studies at Columbia University found the Collective Intelligence effect was due to statistics: a large sample of imperfect estimates tends to cancel out extreme errors and converge on the truth.

In the aftermath of World War II, the military funded Project RAND to create a more accurate approach to forecasting than traditional methods. The result was The Delphi Method, a Collective Intelligence process using a diverse group of experts.

Since the 1950s, the Delphi method has been widely used in the private sector because it consistently increases the accuracy of forecasting. For example, the Delphi Method has predicted the sales of new products with an average accuracy of 96%–97%, compared with quantitative methods at 85%–90%, and traditional forecast methods at 80%.

How does the Delphi Method for Collective Intelligence work? The process is iterative.

  • A diverse group of experts answers questions anonymously.
  • A neutral facilitator processes the responses, filtering out irrelevant content and organizing the ideas by themes.
  • The participants receive a summary report and then comment anonymously with additional ideas and questions.
  • The process then repeats, often with multiple iterations of thinking.
  • At any time, participants are free to revise their earlier assumptions and statements.

It is interesting to note that in face-to-face group meetings people tend to stick to their previously stated opinions regardless of any new information they receive. However, during the Delphi sessions, they are far more flexible and open-minded about new information.

The Delphi Method is one of many ways to tap Collective Intelligence. Another popular approach is the Prediction Market, which is a technology that synthesizes the inspired hunches and informed guesses of a vast audience.

Collective Intelligence Defined

Collective Intelligence is the process of LISTENING to and SYNTHESIZING a broad spectrum of ideas, views, and opinions to address a complex challenge.

Over the years, we’ve witnessed countless examples of extraordinary results when large, diverse groups THINK TOGETHER. These groups deliver deeper insights and smarter solutions than individuals or an elite few. Because of their combined knowledge, experience, and thinking capacity, they are far better at:

  • predicting the future
  • solving complex problems
  • fostering innovation
  • making strategic decisions

Collective Intelligence for Forethought 

The benefits of Collective Intelligence are especially clear when you are fostering Forethought: 

  • You lower the possibility of being blindsided by something unexpected.
  • By anticipating problems early, you won’t waste time later with after-the-fact damage control.
  • By recognizing opportunities early, you can seize them quickly and reap the most rewards.

Perhaps the most important benefit of Forethought is the opportunity to be first to the future. Think about the brand value of that.

Who was the first person to walk on the moon? Neil Armstrong made that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Who was the second person? Most people don’t remember.

In the New Normal, Forethought is more critical than ever, but it is easier said than done. When you’re being bombarded by so much about what’s going on, it’s sometimes hard to know where you should be going.

In fact, it’s next to impossible for one individual or even small group to have a complete perspective and see the Big PictureThat is why expanding the circle of participation is so essential. Who should be in that circle?

In our firm’s consulting work, we’ve found that the people who live with the issues day-to-day are usually best-equipped to uncover the smartest solutions. That’s why we always leverage the Collective Intelligence of the ‘crowd’ within our client’s organization.

Collective Intelligence: A Full Engagement Approach

Rather than a small group of people doing the planning with little or no input from those who will be responsible for execution, we use a Full Engagement approach. A broad cross-section of the people who will be responsible for execution participates directly.

This Full Engagement approach has multiple benefits:

  • Individual buy-in occurs naturally when key stakeholders are engaged in the planning. “Selling” the plan becomes unnecessary.
  • Overall commitment increases because people recognize that the whole organization must succeed, not just their particular part.
  • Execution effectiveness increases because a larger number of people understand the strategic intent and have a sense of ownership.

In the graphic below, our Full Engagement approach to strategic planning is compared to the more traditional approach.

A Google Golden Rule

At Google, we adhere to the view that the many are smarter than the few, and therefore solicit a broad base of views before reaching any decision.” ~ Eric Schmidt

When Google’s former chairman, Eric Schmidt, says that “the many are smarter than the few” he’s confirming Google’s belief that it is important to Think Together. This is Cardinal Rule #1 for GEO Leadership™.

THINK TOGETHER: Three Questions to Consider

  • Do you tap the right minds at the right times for smarter strategic thinking?
  • Does your organization Think Together frequently about your top challenges?
  • Do you have the best tools and processes to enable efficient, far-reaching Forethought?


More ‘Think Together’ Knowledge Bytes:

How Prediction Markets Ensure Better Forecasting

Foster Frequent Forethought for Smart Strategic Thinking

Use Design Thinking For Innovation and Creative Problem Solving


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