When are many heads better than one?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

As a follow on to my last blog, why do we bother with groups at all?

Firstly, it is important to note that sometimes groups are formed as a conscious structural choice of an organisation. At the University of Kent, for example, staff members who were previously dispersed throughout colleges were collected into subject-based academic schools in the mid 1990’s. Professional services are similarly identified as functional units and sometimes co-located to provide support to the core business of the University’s Faculties / Schools. For example, Information Services, Human Resources, Finance and Research Services (among many others) each serve a functional purpose. While much could also be written about these groups, what follows is not focused on groups that are created as part of an organisational structure.

Rather, what about those groups or teams that are created for a reason beyond the formal structure? Research groups, project teams, working parties – these are groups that come together – usually over a finite amount of time – to accomplish a specific goal.

Why do we create these groups? What is the potential value that we gain? While in reality we do not always accrue significant benefits for a host of reasons we will consider, group decision making can be superior to individual decision-making in a number of different situations. Many heads can be better than one, for instance, when:6

  • Tasks require judgments about uncertain events and information available is either incomplete or uncertain
  • Concern for quality outcomes are high and potential benefits are substantial
  • Costs of errors is also high and it may be difficult to reverse or salvage a poor decision
  • Many feasible alternative solutions exist
  • Identifying the optimal alternative is difficult
  • Feedback about results will not be immediately available

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list and there are undoubtedly many more reasons that could be added. Perhaps two key factors that are common, however, are uncertainty and complexity.

So, if groups can sometimes be effective but aren’t in all cases; where do we go wrong? What are the characteristics of successful groups? More on this next time.

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