June 3, 2004

News & Opinion: Think different

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 4:50 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Someone asked me the other day if my argument meant that the Borg, the Star Trek characters who share a collective group consciousness, really had a better handle on things than Captain Kirk. (I'm not a Trekkie, but it's a good question.) The answer is no, because what defines the Borg, ultimately, is a lack of individual personality. Groups are intelligent, by contrast, only when they're diverse, so that the people in them are bringing different opinions, different pieces of information, and different attitudes to bear on a problem. Paradoxically, in fact, I think crowds are only smart when everyone in them is acting as independently as possible.
This means that good group decisions aren't about compromise or consensus, but instead about aggregating a host of different individual judgments into a single collective judgment. This is, for example, what the stock market does -- compressing the judgments of millions of potential and actual buyers and sellers into a single price -- and it's what Google does, when it surveys Web pages to figure out which site has the information you're looking for.
Diversity -- at least in the sociological sense -- is something we often pay lip service to, but it's more than a nice idea. Groups that are genuinely diverse (in a cognitive sense) can also be genuinely brilliant. Scott Page (here's a Power Point presentation of some of his ideas), a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has done these remarkable experiments with computer agents, in which he's shown that groups composed of some very smart agents and some not-as-smart agents actually do a better job of problem-solving than groups made up of only smart agents (and the groups also do a better job than any single individual). And the great organizational theorist James March said that it was key for companies to keep bringing new people into the fold because even though they know less, it's likely that what they do know will be different from what everyone else in the company does. (Here's a nice blog post about March's work.)