Jonah Lehrer—our opening keynote speaker at WEC 2012 in St. Louis—wrote in a recent New Yorker article that "the increasing complexity of human knowledge, coupled with the escalating difficulty of those remaining questions, means that people must either work together or fail alone."
It's true. Most of humanity's challenges are so complex today, it takes a group effort to work on them. The days of individual problem solvers are over. It's a new time, when collaboration and connections are tantamount to survival.
Part of the group process, though, is empowering individuals to realize they have important ideas to share. It does no good to have a group working on a challenge if the individuals aren't aware of their own knowledge.
Dr. Bryan Bonner, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, believes the first step to building successful organizations is simple: self-realization by each participant of his or her unique knowledge and experience.
Bonner co-authored “Leveraging Member Expertise to Improve Knowledge Transfer and Demonstrability in Groups” with Dr. Michael Baumann, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas in San Antonio. The study, published in February’s edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, concludes that “for groups to be successful, they must exploit the knowledge of their (individual) members effectively.”
“It doesn’t take much. All you have to do is have people sit there for a while and think, ‘What is it I already know about this, and how can that help find the solution?’” Bonner said. “People find they often know more than they think they do; they realize that they might not know the whole answer to the problem, but there are a couple things they do know that might help the group come to a solution.”
The researchers used 540 University of Utah undergraduate students, assigning half to three-member groups on one hand, with the remaining 270 participants working as individuals. Their task: arriving at estimates closest to the correct answers to such questions as the elevation of Utah’s King’s Peak; the weight of the heaviest man in history; the population of Utah; and the minimum driving distance between Salt Lake City and New York City.
“We solve problems by using the many examples, good and bad, we’ve gathered through hard-won experience throughout our lives. The problem is that we’re not nearly as good at applying old knowledge to new problems as you’d think,” Bonner said. “Research over more than a century has tried, without much success, to figure out how we can do a better job.”
Bonner and Baumann, however, are convinced their study shows that “although the sheer amount of brainpower it takes to consistently and effectively transfer learning from old to new is beyond many individuals, groups of people working together can actually be very good at it.”
And that's where meetings come into play. They are a catalyst for change, for igniting new ideas, for giving your worldview a good, hard shake.
"The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together," Lehrer wrote. "It is the human friction that makes the sparks."