Thinking alone – crowd sourcing – tapping into the group brain?

The body is more than a pile of sticks - group brain is more than a pile of brains (picture copyright by perpetualplum on flickr)

I love reading books by great thinkers, who (that’s how I imagine it) sit in their cabin in the forest, have amazing ideas that they slowly work through (or that hit them like lightening) and that they put on paper in solitary contemplation. And while most of us might not be at that level of genius, there is something to be said for solitary, in-depth thinking within the confines of your own brain. No matter how difficult that is getting with the increasing disturbance through social media (and social friends…).

Now crowd sourcing seems to be at the other end of the spectrum, solving problems by tapping into the minds of millions, letting everyone who wants contribute and improve the outcome. That makes it possible to integrate more diverging views, knowledge from more different domains and something we vaguely call collective wisdom.

But then, a lot of crowd sourcing is actually facilitated by mechanisms that help us pile our individual thoughts on top of each other, compiling contributions of single minds in front of computers (or cell phones or whatever). That is great for developing and maintaining something like Wikipedia, where we need a compilation of the true and tested knowledge of all known phenomena of the world, based on some kind of majority agreement.

But I wonder: Is it also the best approach to solving messy unclear problems, finding amazing innovations and unusual leaps forward? Or: How can you help a group of people not just pile their thoughts on top of each other but actually multiply what one person can come up with by helping them truely think together and (at least for a few hours) tap into their combined group brain?

I have found that a lot of group facilitation techniques are exactly about this, getting groups to the point where their sum is more than just a collection of the individual parts. And if you have ever suffered through a boring meeting of intelligent people, you know that just putting all the experts in a room and hoping they will come up with something amazing, will not lead you far. So what are the things that help you tap into the group brain?

1. Combine structure and freedom. In Net-Map we have a very simple structure of 4 steps (write actors on cards, draw links, write goals next to actors, set up influence towers) that moves the discussion forward and helps participants focus on the issues of interest. But beyond these steps there are very few limitations with regards to what people can discuss and it is this discussion around the map drawing in which the most interesting discoveries are made.

2. Don’t stay on the surface – explore your assumptions. The most frustrating group discussions are those where every participant assumes that the others share their assumptions while that is not the case. Talking about influence for example, let’s say I assume influence comes from being rich and you assume influence comes from having the best ideas. If we try to develop a strategy for becoming more influential together without ever looking at these assumptions, I will find your approaches unbearably naive and you will find me terribly cynical and all we get out of this is increased frustration and disrespect for each other. When we set up influence towers while doing a Net-Map, group members often have the most heated debate around the question of “What makes someone influential”. But these debates are heated in a good way, they are engaged because they point to the heart of the matter. And as participants unearth their assumptions, they show “where they are coming from” and start connecting to each others way of thinking in a more constructive way.

3. The fact that I am right doesn’t mean that you are wrong. Now this is the most difficult and the most rewarding challenge of developing a group brain. It means achieving true inspiration by breaking down the boundaries between my way and your way of thinking. We are trained in the kind of debate where we want to win, where, while I listen to you I make a list of counter arguments in my head to see how I can beat you. Try holding this thought in your brain instead: “We can disagree and both be right.” Feels a bit painful? Especially if this is about an issue you deeply care about… Sure, because what you feel is the crumbling of walls between you and the person you disagree with, and walls give you such a great sense of security.You know who you are and what you stand for. But they are also really in the way if you want to see what the world looks like.

In the groups I work with people tend to have very strong assumptions about what makes someone influential over a certain issue. Alone each of them will focus on one strategy and gather more money, learning, connections, black-mail material or whatever they think makes them influential. And they will tend to form coalitions with people who follow the same strategies, built on the same assumptions because this is just so comfortable (Isn’t it funny how we think a person is so clever when what we actually observe is just that they share our assumptions about the world?). If a group can learn to entertain the thought that I can be right and you can be right even though we disagree, they can start seeing that different people in their system gained their power through different means. And that an influencer coalition that combines these different influence sources can be so much more powerful than one that only includes one and fights with everyone else. Sure, you have to see where your boundaries are and maybe you don’t want to start collecting black-mail material… not because it doesn’t make you influential but because you don’t agree with it on ethical grounds.

4. Don’t force agreement, encourage respectful exploration. In the end, a group of diverse inspired thinkers will not (and should not) agree on everything. If you want to use the group brain to the fullest, don’t restrict it by the pre-condition that afterward everyone has to hold hands around the camp-fire and sing Kumbaja, don’t force people to end up with one common story if that is not where they are. Your goal (as a facilitator or participant) is rather to be connected with respect, trust and insight while staying diverse. You want the individuals to continue doing in their own brains what is best done in solitary thinking while trusting that they can share even their craziest ideas with the group and they will together cook a great meal out of this. Some things sweet, others bitter. Some pure, others mixed and spicy.

O.k., this is it for today. A friend of mine once said that reading my posts is like hearing me think, and this post is truely one of those, my attempt of making sense of what I see by writing it down and sharing it with you. It would be great to hear what you think, does this relate to your experience? Are there other things that are crucial when trying to activate the group brain? What are the things you should by all means avoid?

One Response

  1. I would add something to your last point: beware of conformism. Sometimes is not even necessary to deliberately force agreement – as a facilitator – since the group members are inclined by their culture to conform and not used to stand apart expressing a different view. This may lead to a false perception of consensus and cohesion that is not actually solid when confronted with hurdles. Thus as a facilitator it’s important to make sure that even the shyest have his word heard and legitimised and to spice up the conversation with some provocative and controversial questions can be a good antidote to conformism.

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