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Let’s do the waggle dance


Wisdom of crowds

Many organisations appear to be ignoring the known wisdom of crowds.
Multiple examples over a long period show when many people make independent guesses, their collective average is a more accurate estimate than over 90% of the guesses of the individual participants.
So, the question must be, why are organisations being slow in adopting the collective wisdom or intelligence of groups? And, importantly, a follow-up question is, why are there so few organisations leveraging the key benefits that collective intelligence offers?
Firstly, let us better understand what is meant by the wisdom of crowds, or as some refer to it, collective intelligence, or, others still, collective wisdom. The potential benefits on offer from the collective to leaders of any organisation will become clearer.

The livestock fair

As early as in 1906, Sir Francis Galton identified a measure to quantify normal variation – the standard deviation; and described a spread around the central value of any statistical analysis. Galton was at a livestock fair in 1906 when he witnessed a contest involving villagers guessing an ox’s weight. Around 800 people participated. Galton found that the middle value of all the guesses was within 0.8% of the weight measured by the judges. This gave rise to the thought of the wisdom of crowds.
Hence a notion of the wisdom of a crowd is first touched upon; but it was James Surowiecki in 2004, who seriously expanded what the potential of this wisdom of crowds could have with his work in the field.

Together is better than one

James Surowiecki in his book “The wisdom of crowds: why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations”, published Doubleday, 2004; spoke of “together all of us know more than any one of us does.”
The fascinating insight shows that however diverse the example may be, the accuracy is consistently over 90 percent correct. Once again, this re-enforces that the collective intelligence about better decision making is gained from groups of people when compared to what may be generated from one person.

Unbelievable ‘solution agency’

Surowiecki commented on a computer experiment that used virtual “agents” (AI electronic entities) which made their way through a maze after only a few attempts.
Powerfully however it was discovered that when “their first-try paths (which were all wrong) were combined (that is, overlaid over each other on the maze), the majority decision at each turn of the maze — a path not one of the individual agents took — traced one of the shortest paths through the maze”.

Now for the waggle dance

It is the parallels with what occurs in nature that offers additional and fascinating insights into the whole notion of groups, collectives and organisations. There are potentially real value-add opportunities available to any organisation which is prepared to adopt the ‘waggle dance’.
The waggle dance is a term used for bees and refers to their figure-eight dance. It is a way for the bees to share information with the other bees within the hive. It communicates important information involving food sources – distance and direction.
From an organisational aspect, bees demonstrate very sound collective decision-making when it comes to the source of foods and their nests. While that is a significant positive, additionally, bees also tend to avoid what can be termed ‘maladaptive herding’. The notion of herding relates to a form of convergent social behaviour. This behaviour consists of an alignment of the thoughts or behaviours of individuals within a group. Often this occurs at the source and without there being any formal directive or central co-ordination. It is group controlled.

So why do bees do it so well?

It was an Austrian behavioural biologist Karl von Frisch who found that worker honey bees use a kind of ‘waggle dance’ in their communicating with each other.
Even though there exists human individuality and independence in people, nevertheless, when acting as part of a crowd, people are not fully predictable. People, in fact, to their and at times the organisation’s detriment, exhibit less flexibility than the bees.
An Article “Social learning strategies regulate the wisdom and madness of interactive crowds” by Wataru Toyokawa, Andrew Whalen & Kevin N. Laland, in the Nature Human Behaviour volume 3, pages 183–193, January 2019, examined the patterns of human social learning through an interactive online experiment with 699 participants, varying both task uncertainty and group size.
The authors finding showed that when confronted by challenging tasks, there was a greater conformity among individuals, with the rates of copying increasing with group size. In other words, the study showed that there was a greater tendency for the group to act in a herding manner when confronted with uncertainty than was objectively appropriate.

Conformity versus copying

So, this study reveals in simple terms, the tension and relevance of conformity and copying.
Hence the “Two key factors were identified for study: conformity – that is, the extent to which an individual follows the majority opinion; and copying tendency – the extent to which an individual ignores their own personal knowledge and relies solely on following others.”
The study showed people can be flexible when either conformity or copying was low. In other words, there is evidence that people are exercising more independent thought, which in turn more accurately reflects the notion of the “swarm” intelligence.
However, when the task became a more challenging task, then it showed people acting in a different light. It showed that there was greater conformity among people and also that the copying increased with the size of the group.

The challenge

The challenge is for groups and organisations, to have a better understanding of what is the necessary requirements in order to reduce the risk of this maladaptive herding and at the same time increase the possibility of collective wisdom. The key question is ‘how’?
The study shows that when people are in large groups and face tough challenges, their tendency is to work against the advantages of collective decision-making. The chemistry of a people group seems to drive down and diminish the benefit of the collective significantly.
The group of people tend to become inflexible in how they operate, and the maladaptive herding behaviour strongly emerges to dominate or at least overly influence the outcome.
In the case of boards, leadership groups or teams, committees, and work groups generally, is the possible emergence of groupthink. Groupthink is something that many boards are familiar with as a challenge.
It was Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University who did research around this pattern. Janis in recognising this psychological phenomenon noted that it occurs as a part of a group of people.
He identified that groups are often influenced by seeking harmony or conformity; and they try to minimise any internal conflicts.
It is obvious what the risks are in all of this. The biggest risk of course is in having decisions which are made without adequate thought and acknowledgement of opposing views. The group protects itself and each of its members by adopting an overly polite and accommodating position. It does not sufficiently encourage and seek out opposing thoughts or views.

Group versus individual decision

Another contributor in this space is Doug Engelbart, who is best known for being the inventor of the computer mouse. Interestingly Engelbart founded the Bootstrap Institute “to boost mankind’s collective capability for coping with complex, urgent problems … in the interest of mankind as a whole.”
Way back in the 1960’s, Engelbart spoke of “Dynamic Knowledge Repositories” which were sophisticated online knowledge environments, linked to each other and offering an infrastructure. He also spoke of Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) that enabled the creation of Dynamic Knowledge Repositories.
His overall vision was far more sophisticated than this very brief description, as he imagined a notion of a global brain. The thought behind this concerns a group having access to more information and resources, and therefore can make better decisions. Again, progressing the value offered through the notion of a collective wisdom.
However, it is not without its inherent tensions. The tension is obvious when described as follows – when does the group become involved in a decision; and when are matters left to the individual?

How to address the decision tension

There are of course various elements that need further thought and consideration.
These include:

  • Are all decisions better made by individuals or by groups?
  • Are all groups equal?
  • How do you resolve any impasse between the individual decision and the group decision?
  • How do you address the refusal of a group to conform?
  • Can having a large proportion of a group refusing to follow an individual, if their leader, be accommodated and or tolerated?
  • How do you know when it is a matter for an individual or a matter for a group?
  • Who chooses the group?
  • Do some groups need to be ‘trained’?

The objective would always seem to be that the aim is to combine the wisdom of the collective and the decisive power of the individual.
People say that a benign dictator is the most efficient decision-making machine.

Controlled mechanistic systems – conformity

Management theorist Margaret (Meg) Wheatley also acknowledged the inherent capacity of groups when commenting that the group has a wisdom that individuals do not possess.
Wheatley is an American writer and management consultant who studies organisational behaviour; and her approach includes systems thinking, theories of change, chaos theory, leadership and the learning organisation: particularly its capacity to self-organise.
Interestingly she proposes –

“Western cultural views of how best to organize and lead (now the methods most used in the world) are contrary to what life teaches. Leaders use control and imposition rather than participative, self-organizing processes. They react to uncertainty and chaos by tightening already feeble controls, rather than engaging people’s best capacities to learn and adapt. In doing so, they only create more chaos. Leaders incite primitive emotions of fear, scarcity, and self-interest to get people to do their work, rather than the more noble human traits of cooperation, caring, and generosity. This has led to this difficult time, when nothing seems to work as we want it to, when too many of us feel frustrated, disengaged, and anxious.”

From an organisational perspective, Wheatley’s words have captured what is central for boards and organisations to address; and that is, the often “highly controlled mechanistic systems that only create robotic behaviours.”
The whole control and mechanistic systems are an anathema or abomination of too many of our organisations.

Finding collective intelligence

Now the question is, can your organisation gain from the collective intelligence / wisdom of its staff?
This of course still requires an organisation’s leadership team to play down their role as the decision-makers that are sprinkled across to everyone; and embrace a more dynamic and engaging paradigm.
It has never been easier because today organisations can access their internal social networks, video and or teleconferencing, and numerous online collaboration platforms. There has never been so much information and the ability of sharing this seamlessly and instantly.
This of course can be done anywhere and anytime.
Once the leadership group accepts that there is a collective wisdom, the decision is how this is to be best allocated across everyone.
Leaders now need to consider how best to harness the collective wisdom of people, especially within our very complex and fast changing operating markets.
This does of course require our leaders to be more open and receptive to listening to their stakeholders, better understanding that uncertainties are everywhere, while maintaining a sense of wholeness, inclusiveness and systems thinking.
The transformation of any organisation is possible. It, however, cannot be initiated nor executed without knowing why; and without a motivated commitment for being on the journey.

DISCLAIMER: This article is general ONLY in nature and is not advice

For more information contact Damien Smith on or 0418 325 781.