How Do You Harness Collective Intelligence?


Wednesday, 7.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A peaceful world requires collective measures for the prevention of war, international cooperation to solve economic and social problems, and respect for human rights. – Goran Persson

I take a lot of notes – that’s the way I learn. Notes from books, notes in meetings, notes just because I have nothing else to do and I feel like taking some notes to remind myself what I’m thinking.

I’m interested in the power of notes to support collaborative discussion and decision making. The idea of one clever person having all the answers is a romantic illusion. Real work happens in groups and some groups work well and some work poorly. What is it that makes the difference?

1. Everyone needs to be given a chance to speak

Good meetings don’t happen by magic. All too often people get together without a clear idea of what they are going to do. Loud voices dominate and decisions are made quickly, with discussion rushed through. This is not a good thing.

A deliberative approach is different – it recognises that you need time to discuss points and work through what is needed. The idea goes all the way back to the story of the round table – and having everyone having their turn to speak.

2. What are you discussing?

It’s hard to start with a blank page – some people are comfortable there but many would prefer to comment, enhance, critique or develop an existing idea or model rather than start with nothing. Amazon takes this to an extreme. Meetings start with everyone reading a memo – a piece of writing that sets out what people need to know and what they are being asked to discuss. PowerPoints are not allowed, apparently – but the problem is not the technology – it’s that setting up a meeting without some sort of preparation is simply wasting everyone’s time.

3. Is it safe to speak?

It is very easy to choose suboptimal outcomes. Let’s say you want to rate something – applicants, books, strategies – on a scale of 1-10, that should be just fine, right? Well, if you want a good result you might want to ban people from choosing 7. 7 is an easy choice – it’s better than the middle, but not too good. But you want to be more decisive – a rating of 6 or 8 forces you to think more deeply about whether this thing is in or out. In the same way people should be able to voice their opinions without fear of retaliation – and that can be hard, depending on the context. Unless dissenting opinions can be heard, however, the group will probably make a decision that will, in hindsight, have turned out to be the wrong one.


These three points: enabling voices, having a basis for discussion, and a safe space for dissenting views, need to be in place to make collaboration better. If you want to harness collective intelligence you need to help people get the thoughts in their heads out in the open where you can listen and understand what’s going on – where they can listen to each other and appreciate different perspectives. A term that’s used in the literature is “procedural justice” – a sense that you’ve been treated the right way in the session and been heard.


Karthik Suresh

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