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Collective Intelligence and Lean

How to Harness All of your Team’s Brainpower

There is a theory called collective intelligence that says groups of people are smarter than individuals.

Let’s look at a simple example of how this works. Imagine I listed the names of several states up on a board, and asked a room full of people to rank order the states based on size. Individual rankings tend to be all over the map. Some people do OK, but others are way off.

Collective Intelligence Example

If I averaged out the rankings, though, collective intelligence wins out. The group answer would likely be closer to reality than most individual estimates.

The same holds true in Lean improvements. Collective intelligence can drive some great improvements. The trick is to unleash it while preventing groupthink, the tendency of groups of people to latch onto one belief.

Four Tips to Unleash Collective Intelligence

  1. Collective intelligence needs people to go beyond their normal boundaries. Groupthink tends to focus on traditional beliefs. Break this obstacle by getting people outside of their comfort zone to come up with new ideas. For example, make every person come up with 7 ideas during brainstorming sessions. The variety of novel ideas this generates gives teams more alternatives to look at.
  2. Collective intelligence requires participation from everyone. Don’t let shy people keep quiet or assertive people take over the conversation. Collective intelligence depends on full participation by the whole group.
  3. Collective intelligence requires experimentation. When your team comes up with ideas, try them out. The benefit of collective intelligence is not limited to a conference room. Several people mocking up a fixture, for example, can come up with more ideas and identify more problems than an individual could alone.
  4. Collective intelligence requires discussion. If people are afraid to speak up with ideas, collective intelligence doesn’t happen. Facilitators and team leaders should manage discussions to prevent judgment about people, and create an environment where people are open to having their ideas dissected.


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