How to Tap Collective Intelligence for Smarter Strategic Thinking


The many are smarter than the few. That is why leaders should tap the COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE of large, diverse groups. This approach will deliver deeper insights and smarter solutions.

THINK TOGETHER_How to Tap Collective Intelligence for Smarter Strategic Thinking_LelandRussell.com

Google Golden Rule: The Many Are Smarter Than The Few

In a Newsweek article, “Google–Ten Golden Rules,” Google’s former chairman, Eric Schmidt, explained why Google engages its people when making decisions: “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.”

When Schmidt says the many are smarter than the few he’s confirming Google’s belief in the power of Collective Intelligence.

What is Collective Intelligence?

Collective Intelligence is the result of LISTENING to and SYNTHESIZING a broad spectrum of ideas, views, and opinions to address a complex challenge. It delivers deeper insights and smarter solutions than an individual or an elite few could produce.

Collective Intelligence_Thinking Together to Solve the Puzzles_LelandRussell.comOver the years, we’ve witnessed countless examples of extraordinary results when large, diverse groups Think Together. Because of their combined knowledge, experience, and thinking capacity, these groups are better at predicting the future, solving complex problems, fostering innovation, and making strategic decisions.

Why We Need Collective Intelligence NOW

We are living in a warp-speed world. Complexity is compounding and change is not only rapid but often unpredictable. Decision windows close rapidly and bad decisions have dangerous consequences. So leaders have a bipartite imperative: increase the PACE and QUALITY of decisions.

Collective Intelligence_Info Avalanche_LelandRussell.comThe barrier for leadership decision making is the ever-growing haystack of information. By 2020, it will be 44 ZETTABYTES. 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 this massive information avalanche, it’s not surprising that one of the world’s great academic institutions, Dartmouth, found in its extensive study of CEOs that many of the most intelligent made disastrous decisions. Why?

Even when leaders are very smart, unilateral decisions are problematic because of cognitive limitations. A famous study by psychologist George Miller found that individuals can only process about 126 bits of information per second. That’s not very much. Just having a conversation takes about 40 bits of information per second (1/3 of our total capacity.)

Other studies show that when the amount of input exceeds our personal processing capacity, there is a reduction in the pace and quality of our decisions. So the information avalanche is an unprecedented challenge for decision makers.

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande explained the profound challenge for leaders in the New Normal: “The volume and complexity of what we have to deal with have exceeded our ability to remember what to do.”

What is the solution?

We need to a repertoire of knowledge and insights, one that is as broad and deep and nuanced as the complex problems we face.

Tapping the Collective Intelligence of Large, Diverse Groups

Consider the TV game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Contestants have the option to poll the audience or call an expert to help them get the right answer. How often do you think the audience is 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? It is the power of Collective Intelligence in action.

Who Want to Be A Millionaire_LelandRussell.com

“Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” is not an isolated case. There are numerous examples of how large, diverse groups produce accurate answers.

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.

The Wisdom of Crowds

In his fascinating 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 groups and 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.

Decision markets, like the Iowa Electronic Markets (which forecasts elections) and the Hollywood Stock Exchange (which predicts box office results), consistently outperform industry forecasts.

The Benefits of Collective Intelligence

In GEO Group’s consulting work, we leverage ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ within our client’s organization. Through practical experience, we’ve found that the people who live with the issues day-to-day are best-equipped to find the smartest solutions.

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.

Collective Intelligence_A Full Engagement Approach_LelandRussell.com

Think Together Success Factors

When we Think Together, it’s easier to find the important needles in the ever-growing haystack of information. We can dig deeper into critical issues and generate smarter strategic thinking results.

There are, however, some essential success factors.To avoid the pitfalls of ‘group think’ and maximize Collective Intelligence, ensure that there will be:

    • Diversity of Inputs – Participants with different thinking styles, life experiences, expertise and information sources
    • Psychological Safety – Sufficient trust among the participants that they feel free to express their ideas and share their knowledge
    • Clarity of Approach – Clear, concise focal questions for the group and a roadmap of the process that will be used to answer them
    • Multiple Iterations – A series of responses yielding successively deeper insights and smarter answers to the focal questions

THINK TOGETHER because the many are smarter than the few_LelandRussell.com

You may be thinking, “Collective Intelligence sounds great, but it also sounds time-consuming. We are already suffering from time poverty with everything we have on our plate. How can we find the time for people to Think Together?”

The truth is you can’t if you rely on the traditional face-to-face paradigms. Addressing all of the essential success factors is next to impossible.
Collective Intelligence PARADOX_LelandRussell.comA “paradox” is a statement that appears to be contradictory or impossible but is achievable with new thinking. Consider this paradoxical statement: 

You can INCREASE the frequency and effectiveness of tapping Collective Intelligence and EXPAND the circle of participants WITHOUT taking more time and increasing costs.

Here’s how one Fortune 500 company did just that.

Weyerhaeuser Resolves their “CI” Paradox

Weyerhaeuser is a company built to last. Founded in 1900 by Frederick Weyerhaeuser, it has grown to become one of the largest sustainable forest products companies in the world.

Although Weyerhaeuser has a rich history of innovation and growth, its industrial business needed a boost. Over a 3-year period, it had experienced little or no growth in sales. While expenses had continued to grow with inflation, gross margins had stayed constant.

When the CFO of Weyerhaeuser’s industrial business approached my firm, GEO Group Strategic Services, the need was crystal clear: rapidly drive innovation and growth. But the complexity of the task was daunting. They had over 70 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada. The business leaders were geographically dispersed across 12 regional markets with a matrix reporting structure.

The innovation leader, Phil Leupold, recognized the value of tapping Collective Intelligence, but he was daunted by the challenge, which he saw as 2-fold: “finding the TIME and avoiding the excessive COST of physically convening a large group to Think Together. This was simply not feasible on an ongoing basis.”

Weyerhaeuser’s solution was the GEO Collaboration System. This powerful online platform enabled their geographically-dispersed, as well as the co-located leaders, to Think Together virtually.

Collective Intelligence_GEO Collaboration System_LelandRussell.comHow the Collective Intelligence Process Worked

The Weyerhaeuser process was LARGE-SCALE.  Three hundred leaders were engaged across levels, functions, and locations. The leaders were organized into 25 virtual teams. They met online weekly for fast, facilitated sessions to address key innovation issues.

Using GEO’s virtual facilitation service, a broad spectrum of thinking was captured in only 60 minutes a week. Immediately following the online sessions, the participants’ input was synthesized and reported back to the whole group.

Collective Intelligence_Large Scale_25 teams_LelandRusell.com

By leveraging the GEO Collaboration System to virtually Think Together, Weyerhaeuser’s  leaders accomplished far more in less time than they could have in traditional face-to-face meetings. They not only increased the speed and precision of idea sharing, they also achieved deeper insights and smarter strategic decisions.

There were two other significant benefits of this virtual Think Together process. First, it greatly simplified the logistics of having the right minds together. Second, it allowed a broad spectrum of thought to be quickly captured, synthesized, and translated into action.

The innovation leader summed it up this way:

 The GEO Collaboration System was a cost-effective way to tap our leaders’ Collective Intelligence. It allowed us to rapidly converge on a winning strategy that everyone understood and bought into.

A Small-Scale Example of Collective Intelligence

You may be wondering how our Collective Intelligence process works in smaller organizations. One of our recent clients, the nation’s oldest investment counsel firm, has a small co-located staff of 30. While stable and strong, theTHINK TOGETHER_A Small-Scale Example-LelandRussell.comy were fully aware of the historic sea change underway in the investment adviser industry.To sustain their success, and continue to grow, they recognized that a new strategic plan was essential. They also wanted a new approach. Their leadership team explained it this way:

The traditional strategic planning approach felt old and tired to us. We did not want to spend three days off-site in a windowless conference room filled with flip charts and markers. We had done that before, with limited impact afterwards. We wanted something different.

A professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business referred them to GEO Group. We introduced them to our technology-enabled, virtual strategic planning approach. What we delivered was similar to what we do on a large scale.

  • We engaged the whole staff in a one-hour online session each week.
  • The designs were inclusive, efficient, and customized to fit their size and culture.
  • There was a diversity of inputs, psychological safety, process clarity, and multiple iterations.

One the participants described our 12 months of work with them this way:

The designs, templates, and interactive online services have been highly effective. I am not sure anyone else could have come close to what GEO delivered.

How to Win in the New Normal

In the New Normal, you need faster, smarter strategic thinking to sustain success. A proven solution is tapping the power of Collective Intelligence virtually with the GEO Collaboration System

Regardless of HOW you do it,  THINK TOGETHER. This a Cardinal Rule for winning in the New Normal.

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To survive and thrive as a leader in the New Normal, consider these questions:

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

If “no” is the answer to any of these questions, Let’s Connect. We can help.

LAR Signature for LR.com LT Gray

Below are links to additional  THINK TOGETHER articles.

For a 2-minute video about Leland and GEO Group, click here.

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