The research is clear: Groups working together in the right ways to solve shared problems produce clever, rational, highly intelligent solutions, surpassing what the individuals could have generated alone. Groups working together in the wrong ways on shared problems produce irrational, impractical, downright dumb solutions, worse than what solitary members could have produced. Good group work engages, enables, and educates participants; bad group work frustrates, disenfranchises, and polarizes them.
You don't need me to tell you which one we're seeing more of right now in media and politics. Instead, let me share some clues to help you differentiate smart groups from dumb ones. You can use this knowledge to nudge any groups you can influence toward the smarter side. I'll do the same with the groups I can influence. Then, at the end of the week we can meet in a local pub and commence griping about those groups that neither of us can influence. Maybe, in the interim, we will have helped.
First things first: Smart groups separate fact from interpretation, and they deal in facts first. "Phil hasn't shown up to work," "I saw Phil's car in his driveway this morning," and "yesterday Phil smiled and said he doubted he'd see us today" are facts. "Phil is playing hooky," on the other hand, is an interpretation of those facts. There's nothing wrong with discussing interpretations, of course, but only after the facts are all on the table. If someone in the room saw Phil on a gurney in the ER last night, we shouldn't bother planning our response to his impermissible absence.
When the "facts first, interpretations second" sequence is violated, guesses and biases replace rational thought processes. Dumb groups do just that: they conflate facts with interpretations, creating a confusing blend of preconceived, often emotional claims. Is Phil playing hooky? Has he quit? Has his car broken down? Is he sick? Before long, fact and fiction are tied up in knots. Then, the most influential people in the group usually win support for their ideas, no matter how incomplete their real understanding may be. When the dumb group becomes convinced of incorrect information -- if they decide that Phil is on the beach, for example, when in reality he's in the hospital -- they can't help but engage in discussions that don't match reality.
Therein lies clue number one: If your group follows the "facts before interpretations" rule, it's probably smart. If your group is so quick to rush into explanations of "what's going on" that it's willing to gloss over facts in favor of opinions, you're probably in a dumb group. The fix is easy to say, but difficult to do: slow down, back up, and get all the information on the table first. Only then should the group begin discussing possible interpretations, and only in light of how well they mesh with all of the facts.
Actually, this sequencing of facts and interpretation leads into the second key behavior of smart groups: Smart groups create problem statements. Most problems begin as concerns too general to fix. Smart groups begin with facts, then interpretations, and then use both of them to define the actual problem they will attempt to solve.
Dumb groups, on the other hand, don't bother to define what they're trying to do. And that's a major problem, because you can't solve "I haven't seen Phil today." You can, however, solve "we need a coverage plan for two weeks to address Phil's sick leave," and that's a problem statement worthy of a group's time.
That's also clue number two as to whether your group is smart or dumb: If your group uses facts and interpretations to define a problem statement, it's probably smart. If it never bothers to articulate the problem it's trying to solve, you're probably in a dumb group. The fix is again simple to say and difficult to do: Disallow all discussion of possible actions until everyone has agreed on a problem statement.
At this point, the third important distinction between smart groups and dumb ones emerges. Once in possession of a problem statement, smart groups evaluate solutions based upon how well they solve the problem. Dumb groups, on the other hand, debate positions based upon how strongly members believe in them. Smart groups engage in problem solving -- they design an optimal two-week coverage plan for Phil, and then adjourn. Dumb groups engage in politicking -- they get lost in hours of tangential discussion about Phil's job performance and company absentee policy, and end up filibustering over how "we need some changes around here," all without ever figuring out how to cover for Phil.
This doesn't mean the smart group instantly agrees on the best solution. Smart, solution-centric group members often disagree over how to solve the defined problem. They don't mind! They know such diversity benefits the process, because no stone will be left unturned in the search for the best solution. Dumb, position-centric groups take the opposite approach: They feel that greater diversity equals greater strife, because each divergent opinion corresponds to one more orator in the endless and unstructured debate.
That's the third clue as to whether your group is smart or dumb: If it seeks out diverse opinions to strengthen problem solving, it's probably a smart group. If it looks for "like-minded" members to speed up the process, there's a good chance you're in a dumb group. In that case, the fix is to start over with a new group problem solving process, one that recognizes and harnesses the value in diversity and disagreement.
Should you ever find yourself in this situation - defining or redefining a group's problem solving process -- I strongly suggest you use the one presented here: facts first, interpretations second, specific problem statement third, exploration of solutions fourth. Here's a video to help you get started. Anything less would be, well, dumb.
Good luck. I'll see you at the pub.