6 Ways to Make Groups Smarter, from Sunstein & Hastie

This post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from the writings of Cass Sunstein & Reid Hastie, Making Dumb Groups Smarter, Harvard Business Review, December 2014. 

The Problem

Groups often fail to live up to their potential as decision-making bodies. Instead of aggregating the knowledge and wisdom of their members, they end up making bigger errors than individuals would.

Why It Happens

Group members take informational signals from what others say, even when the information is wrong or misleading. Reputational pressures can cause them to silence themselves or change their views in order to fit in. As a result, groups often amplify errors, stampede towards bad decisions, foment polarization and extremism, and ignore information that isn’t widely held.

The Solution

Leaders can structure group deliberations to make them more likely to succeed. One very simple way is to let the others speak first. Another is to assign specific roles or areas of expertise to members of the group. The key is encouraging individuals to share their diverse knowledge rather than to suppress it.

Here are six ways to quickly make groups smarter together, starting with the simplest.

  1. Lead By Example – Leaders and high status members can do groups a big service by indicating a willingness and a desire to hear uniquely held information.
  2. Encourage Authenticity – Promote critical thinking and encourage information disclosure from the beginning, even if it goes against the grain, and members will do a lot less self-silencing.
  3. Reward Group Success – Identification with group success in making a correct decision – not just individual success – is more likely to ensure that people will say what they know, regardless of whether it fits the party line.
  4. Assign Roles – Assign specific roles that are known and appreciated by all members. One person might have medical expertise, another might be a lawyer, a third might know about public relations, a fourth might be a statistician. In such a group, information aggregation would be far more likely because every member would know that each of the others has something to contribute.
  5. Appoint Devil’s Advocates – Appoint devil’s advocates, and urge them to adopt a position that is contrary to the group’s inclination. Those who assume that role can avoid the social pressure that comes from rejecting the group’s dominant position, because they have been charged with doing precisely that. But be careful with this approach – authentic dissent does far more to improve group performance.
  6. Establish a Contrarian Team – Related to devil’s advocates, but even more effective, is to appoint a “red team” whose mission is to construct the strongest possible case against a proposal or plan. Red teams are an excellent idea in many contexts especially if they sincerely try to find mistakes and exploit vulnerabilities and are given clear incentives to do so.