Exercising Our Freedom and Intelligence: Part 2

teamsAs noted in Part 1, in a more ideal world, policymakers would be included in the team that engages in intelligence analysis of societal problems, much like citizens would be involved more directly in policymaking. Multiple interacting teams, coordinating the collective intelligence of the population, would be more consistent with the principle of freedom as non-domination (Pettit, 2014). The ideal of freedom as non-domination implies that citizens are granted a status that guards them against private power or dominium and public power or imperium. In order to guard themselves against private power or dominium and ensure social justice in the horizontal relations between citizens, the state must treat everyone as equals in providing for their freedom as non-domination, identify a broad set of basic liberties, and provide citizens with the resources and protections necessary to enjoy freedom in the exercise of those liberties.

The infrastructure, resourcing, and protection provided to citizens in this context argues for the development of a rich and contextually plausible set of demands in what the state should provide for its citizens. The provision by the state of appropriate infrastructure, resourcing, and protection to citizens implies that the state has the power to interfere in citizen affairs (e.g., to protect citizens from private power). At the same time, in order for citizens to be protected against public power or imperium, the principle of freedom as non-domination implies that people share equally in controlling the state. If the people achieve control in this way, then the legislation, regulation, and taxation of the state will not be dominating, it will be an authorized form of interference.

Depressingly, Pettit comments that in annual rankings of the world’s most liveable cities and in many political philosophies proposing different social orders, people are often treated as consumers. For example, liveability indices do not generally factor in the residents’ level of control over how things are done in government; rather, in choosing one social order over another the rival attractions of living as the beneficiaries (or consumers) of different social order are compared. As such, the design of the city and the design of the social order are not considered to be the task of citizens. This approach to design disempowers citizens. Consistent with Pettit’s political philosophy, I believe it is possible to empower citizens in the design process, in the context of multiple interacting teams, coordinating the collective intelligence of the population. As noted in Part 1, this implies the need for a better understanding of teams.

As noted by Strass et al. (2009), the processes that a team engages in prior to arriving at an analytical judgment (e.g., generating ideas or hypotheses, sharing information about alternatives, evaluating alternatives, and integrating information) are central to understanding and enhancing group judgment and decision making. Teamwork is somewhat unique, and different from individual intelligence work, because teamwork adds social processes and interactivity to the work. This added layer of interactivity implies a range of potential performance benefits and challenges.

Bringing a team together does not automatically ensure better intelligence work or better problem solving performance: nothing is given in advance – when presented with a problem, a team can perform better or worse than an individual presented with the same problem. Facilitating collective intelligence can be beneficial, if the facilitator understands how to maximize the performance of a team. Naturally, facilitating collective intelligence is a complex process as the intelligence work of a team is influenced by a host of factors. Over the next few months, I’m going to write about facilitating collective intelligence. Let’s start with a few basic observations.

What we describe as collective intelligence reflects a broad variety of coordinated activities that are bound to the local context and environment, and the key goals the group is pursuing in context. Throughout any process of coordination, in efforts to facilitate collective intelligence and collective action, groups need to focus their attention on the task at hand and specific processes that shape their ongoing judgements and decisions, and they need to adjust and adapt their focus and coordinated action as needed. As such, much like individual behaviour, team behaviour is dynamic and changeable. A facilitator needs to understand these dynamics.

Attention is a curious thing. As noted by Wooley (2009 a, b), the attention of teams can be more or less process-focused or outcome-focused. Process-focused teams focus on the steps necessary to carry out tasks and how specific, coordinated activities are arranged among members and over time. Outcome-focused teams place more emphasis on the bigger picture and the outcome or products of their work, and they use this outcome focus to drive coordination and decision making in the team. Focus can influence performance in dynamic ways. For example, research by Aggarwal and Woolley (2013) suggests that process-focused teams commit fewer errors than outcome-focused teams when working together. In contrast, outcome-focused teams may produce more innovative or creative outcomes, and possibly adapt better to difficulties that arise in their work when compared with process-focused teams (Woolley, 2009a).

Critically, the environment teams function within can also influence their strategic orientation and the focus of their attention and learning. I’d like to talk about one study in particular today, as it highlights some of the dynamic variation that team facilitators need to be aware of. Woolley and colleagues (2013) conducted a fascinating experiment that simulated two scenarios of ‘peacekeeping’. Eighty teams of three people were asked to identify the optimal location for their base of operations in a conflict zone, based on information distributed among team members and information available via computer search at their team table. They had to choose between one of three locations. While all teams had the common goal of ‘promoting peace’ in the region, teams were assigned to one of two different strategic orientations to the problem of promoting peace: offensive teams were told to restore peace by intimidating and driving out the local rebels of the region; defensive teams were told to restore peace in a completely different way: they were told to shield the refugees and civilians from attacks and protect the resources in the region.

Teams were also assigned to one of two information conditions. In the minimal information condition, all team members were given the same two facts about each of the three possible locations for their base of operations. In the hidden profile condition team members were provided with a mixture of shared and unshared information about each of the three potential locations – information that would need to be shared and integrated if the group were to identify the optimal location for their base of operations in a conflict zone. All teams could also search the computer database for information relevant to their decision.

Drawing upon regulatory focus theory, Woolley and colleagues (2013) note that individuals and teams may adopt either a promotion focus or prevention focus. Activating one focus or the other can influence attention to different needs — specifically, needs are oriented toward nurturance and achievement in a promotion focus versus safety and security in a prevention focus. Woolley and colleagues also highlight research indicating that teams adopting a prevention focus often work to avoid errors and prioritize negative information, whereas teams adopting a promotion focus tend to take more risks and focus more on positive outcomes. Importantly, promotion goals are also associated with less detailed perception and reasoning and more abstraction, whereas prevention goals are associated with more detail-oriented and concrete thinking. Woolley and colleagues proposed that a defensive team strategic orientation, where teams seek to attain goals by preventing loss at the hands of an opponent, would result in prevention-related tendencies in team members, whereas an offensive team strategic orientation, where teams seek to attain goals at the expense of an opponent, would result in promotion-related tendencies in team members.

More specifically, Woolley and colleagues predicted that teams adopting a defensive strategic orientation would perceive a broader problem scope and would adopt a stronger process-focus as opposed to outcome-focus in their team behaviour when compared with teams adopting an offensive strategic orientation. Furthermore, by perceiving a broader problem scope and having a stronger process-focus, it was predicted that teams adopting a defensive strategic orientation would search more widely any external sources of information (i.e., making more use of the computer database prior to decision making). At the same time, it was proposed that a focus on information outside of the team may inhibit tendencies to share all information available within the team, and thus Woolley and colleagues predicted that offensive teams would outperform defensive teams when the critical information for an optimal decision resides within the team (i.e., in the hidden profile information condition); conversely, they predicted that defensive teams would outperform offensive teams when the critical information resided outside of the team (i.e., in the minimal information condition).

As predicted, defensive teams reported perceiving a broader problem scope. Specifically, being prompted with a defensive strategic orientation, defensive teams were more likely than offensive teams to endorse statements such as: “We have a lot of ground to cover in order to be successful”; “More information will help us come up with a better plan”. They also reported a stronger process-focus: they were more likely to endorse statements such as: “We identified areas in which we should gather more Information”; “Members specialized in gathering different kinds of information about the problem”; “At the beginning we discussed the tasks we needed to complete in working on this problem”. Higher scores on these self-report scales also predicted wider breadth of information search, as indexed by the number of different information search terms team members entered into the computer when searching the external information database. Also, because the task did indeed have one optimal solution — the best location for a base of operations in the conflict zone — it was possible to quantify and compare the performance of teams across the four experimental conditions. As predicted, defensive teams searched for more external information and outperformed offensive teams when the critical information for a decision lay outside the team. In contrast, offensive teams, although perceiving a narrower problem scope and engaging in less external information search than defensive teams, were more successful at gathering information inside of the team and outperformed defensive teams in the hidden profile information condition, that is, when critical information was distributed among team members.

As such, the strategic orientation of a team can influence the way a problem field is perceived (i.e., broadly or narrowly), the process focus of teams (i.e., orientation to detail, wide or narrow information search) and their relative focus on information held within the team versus information held outside of the team. As noted earlier, drawing upon team members’ knowledge and skills effectively is essential for effective team performance, but so too is gathering information from the environment. Woolley and colleagues (2013) highlight research indicating a potential trade-off between internal and external information focus, particularly in situations with significant time pressure — learning from information held outside of the team is potentially resources demanding and can sometimes negatively affect team members’ ability to learn from their fellow teammates. Thus, when facilitating teams it may be particularly important to help teams to regulate not only their strategic orientation, to orient their focus to different sources of information, but it may be equally important to regulate the duration of key learning phases, such that teams have adequate time both to learn from one another and from people outside the team.

At the same time, it should be noted that transitions from one focus of attention to another in a team learning and problem solving context can be difficult, and this depends on the nature of the attention switch. For example, Woolley and colleagues point to research highlighting that changes from cooperative activity to competitive activity occur more readily than changes that flow in the opposite direction. In an interesting twist on their research findings, Woolley and colleagues ran a second experiment. This time teams had to make two decisions, switching either from a defensive to an offensive orientation, or vice versa, from the first to the second decision. They found an asymmetry in the flexible adaptation of teams. Specifically, teams moving from an offensive to defensive orientation significantly changed their information search behaviour (i.e., searching for more external information in the database before making their decision). Conversely, teams moving from a defensive to an offensive orientation continued to exhibit information search behaviours consistent with a defensive orientation. Consistent with research highlighting the primacy and salience of negative emotion over positive emotion, it appears that once a defensive orientation is created within a team, it may be difficult for teams to inhibit the sense of danger or threat and thus shift from a prevention to a promotion focus. However, adopting an offensive or promotion focus may not inhibit teams from shifting their focus of attention to threats and thus change their behaviour in relation to the environment.

Understanding team dynamics is certainly a challenge — it is an important and often neglected challenge. Teams are certainly unique, but teams may also behave much like individuals – environmental factors can influence their motivational and strategic focus, which in turn can influence their attention, learning, problem solving and decision-making. Much like individuals can benefit from facilitation and guidance, teams may similarly benefit from facilitation and guidance. It is important for facilitators to understand teams and what teams are trying to achieve within the environment they are working. This understanding may help the facilitator to free teams from a range of negative influences, allowing the team to make best use of their intelligence to solve problems. Teams may not always be aware of the many factors that influence their behaviour. For example, Woolley and colleagues point to work on overconfidence in the business and start-up sector, whereby market entrants may adopt an offensive or promotion focus and thus overemphasize their own abilities and underestimate the competition in making market-entry decisions. This can have devastating effects for new start-ups. Indeed, the low success rate of new start-ups suggests that many teams approach their new venture with an unrealistic offensive focus. Similarly, government leaders, in their international relations, may adopt a more offensive or defensive strategic orientation, which in turn may have a profound effect on the way they conceptualise societal problems and behave in relation to one another.

More generally, I believe we need to build an infrastructure to support our collective intelligence. Making use of tools and methods to support our collective intelligence and calling upon group facilitators at critical junctures may provide a useful starting point, but a more ambitious effort involves embedding collective intelligence into our practices in education, social science, and governance, such that we can learn more about teams and collective intelligence and begin to master the key processes involved. Embracing broadly significant principles, such as the principle of freedom as non-domination and principles of democracy and collective leadership, provide a useful starting point as they generalize across contexts where collective intelligence is applied to address societal problems. Also, perceiving societal problems as a system of problems allows us to move beyond disciplinary boundaries in our thinking about these problems and propose applied social science methods that draw upon broad cross-disciplinary knowledge and diverse perspectives of key stakeholders in understanding and working to resolve societal problems. Some of these ideas were central to the vision of John Warfield.

In his book, Societal Systems: Planning, Policy and Complexity, John Warfield (1976), motivated by our inability to resolve societal problems, focused on developing methods for coping with complexity and for working collectively to resolve societal problems. Warfield notes how societal problems are identified through the aggregation of human perceptions into mental or conceptual models, and this aggregation process, guided by human values, often generates partial models of poorly understood systems. These models guide our planning and our policies in response to societal problems. But societal problems are complex and need to be understood as a system of interacting problems. Our cognitive limitations constrain our ability to understand complex problem situations, says Warfield. We have difficulties perceiving how different elements in a system interact and our mental models are often abstracted as a “mess” (ibid, p. 1). Methods that enhance our collective cognitive capacities are needed to support our ability to work together in response to societal problems.  Although Warfield was writing 40 years ago, in 1976, his words resonate today, in 2016:

“Examples of important societal problems abound – wars, crime, poverty, urban problems, regional problems, international problems, inflation, malnutrition, starvation, and disease. Experience shows how imperfectly we deal with these problems … Shortages impend in energy, food, water, affection, wilderness, knowledge, personal freedom, and wisdom. Excesses impend in pollution, population, crime, hatred, war, ignorance, and human suppression … Societal problems, being interlocked, challenge human ingenuity” (p. 1 – 3).

I’ll write more about Warfield in future blog posts. In the meantime, let’s keep Spinoza in mind. Let’s continue along this path of learning for understanding. We need to understand many things before we are truly free.


Pettit, P. (2014). Just freedom : a moral compass for a complex world (1st Edition. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Warfield, J. N. (1976). Societal systems : planning, policy, and complexity. New York: Wiley.

Woolley, A. W. (2009a). Means versus Ends: Implications of outcome and process focus for team adaptation and performance. Organization Science, 20, 500-515.

Woolley, A.W. (2009b). Putting first things first: Task focus and team performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 427-452.

Woolley, A.W., Bear, J.B., Chang, J.W. & DeCostanza, A.H. (2013). The effects of team strategic orientation on team process and information search. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 122, 114-126.

Straus, S. G., Andrew M. P., James B. B. and Jacob W. D. (2009). The Group Matters: A Review of the Effects of Group Interaction on Processes and Outcomes in Analytic Teams. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.


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