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Women And Collective Intelligence Will Solve Our Planetary Crises

The folks in charge don’t seem to be making much of a dent. Could the way women approach problems be better suited for the complicated and interconnected problems we face?

Sustainability is a so-called wicked problem. It is complex, difficult to define, impossible to solve in a linear fashion and the aspects of the problem are so interrelated that it is impossible to consider (and therefore impossible to model) all of the unintended consequences that might accompany any single "solution."

This complexity makes us anxious. The common approach in the past has been to reduce the problem to smaller parts, solve for "x," and hope that these disparate solutions aggregate positively. The nature of wicked problems is that they yield to the truth of systems—the consequences of one action are difficult to completely predict because of the many moving parts and interacting factors. The consequences are further disguised because of the time delay in large systems. For instance, the carbon in the atmosphere that is just now reaching a significant tipping point has been accumulating for a century. The time delay between human increases of atmospheric CO2 and climate consequences is almost entirely at the heart of the current climate "debate."

History and evidence shows us that in spite of the cult of heroic individualism and the lone-ranger innovator, all great innovation happens within groups. When it comes to wicked problems and implementing complex system shifts, you must bring collective intelligence to bear.

The good news is that we’ve learned a lot about what maximizes group intelligence and the innovation it sparks. IBM has been very interested in growing innovation—this led the company to conclude that group intelligence is the way that most breakthroughs will occur.

Most recently, MIT professors Thomas Malone and Patrick J. McGovern (the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence) presented their collective intelligence findings at an IBM Think event (Professor Malone is at 12:26 minutes, but please watch the entire video—the insights on collective intelligence are critical to grasp).

Per Professor Malone, the first thing to note is that group intelligence is not equal to the collective intelligence of the individuals in the group. So if it’s not individual intelligence, what make groups smarter and therefore better at innovation?

Three consistent factors:

  • The average social perceptiveness of the group members
  • The evenness of conversational participation
  • The proportion of women in the group

In earlier posts I’ve shared why women entrepreneurs are needed for a sustainable future. Beyond confirming earlier work, current studies demonstrate that the same sets of skills that lead me to believe women entrepreneurs are critical for a sustainable future—the ability to connect and read social cues, a desire to create community and seek balance, and a pre-disposition to collaboration—mean that women are needed in significant numbers in every big conversation and leadership decision related to sustainability.

Given the scope of the wicked problem we face, we may want to get a female majority at the leadership level as soon as possible. Our collective future probably depends on it.

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  • Sue Pemberton Hobart

    Women, chocolate, problem solving through group intelligence, and the nature of leadership;  what's not to like here?

  • asperous

    I think it depends on the group of woman, woman aren't impervious to bad decision making!

    I think that the kind of people that make great decisions isn't limited to gender, race or religion; discrimination is dangerous.

  • Ciao Reine

    LOL. forget all the misogynist diatribe; this sums it up like champagne and chocolate covered strawberries at brunch with the girls!

  • Jean Brittingham

    @Dvanliere In the interesting twist of fate that often happens in the 2nd party blogsophere, the provocative remark at the beginning of the article is FastCoExists', not mine. That said, what is your concern about a female majority? or a majority of any kind rather than white male. Evidence of success in these cultures is largely aboriginal but perhaps it is time for a modern test.

  • Dvanliere

    Jean - thanks for the comeback.  I am not concerned with a female majority - I work for a female owned company and very closely with the owner, and have for fifteen plus years.  I worked for some wonderful female leadership during my Air Force career, and helped foster several female subordinates to new opportunities.  I've appreciated the qualities you speak of in several female colleagues in various collaborative situations.  That being said, I was only commenting that you made the jump into hyperpace quite quickly from the importance of including female perspectives and gifts, and female involvement, participation and leadership to majority without a stepping stone evident, and I was asking for the evidence that supported that leap.  My experience has been that each situation is different, calling for unique solutions from different gifts and talents.  Mindless (or evidenceless) deference to one gift or talent as a 'possible' solution we might try (even if the opener for the blog wasn't yours) to see if it will make a dent seems just as fraught with danger as a mindless assumption that male majority is the best approach.  Thanks again.

  • Innovators dilemma

    "History and evidence shows us that in spite of the cult of heroic individualism and the lone-ranger innovator, all great innovation happens within groups."
    Huh? What evidence? Groups resist, not foster innovation. It is always the individual, the outsider who drives change.

  • Dvanliere

    W.E. Deming said that "Change (innovation) comes from the outside, by invitation, only."

  • PP

    You say "Groups resist, not foster innovation. It is always the individual, the outsider who drives change"

    I reply "Huh? What evidence?"

    LOL You are good man, really good. What is the url for your comedian donation button?

  • Didier BARON

    I beg your pardon for my french language.
    Nous entrons dans une période de transition où les femmes joueront un rôle déterminant. Il ne s'agit pas seulement d'une évolution sociale mais d'un processus génétique plus, même, d'une nécessité de survie de l'espèce.
    J'écris un roman sous forme de très longue saga sur ce sujet. J'y réfléchis depuis 40 ans. Ma première question ayant été : pourquoi les déesses ont-elles précédé les dieux dans les mythes indo-européens ?
    La dernière question étant : pourquoi moi, un homme, suis-je convaincu que les femmes doivent reconquérir sans délai leur place et, peut-être, plus encore.
    Merci de votre positionnement.
    Didier Baron
    Sud Pacifique

  • MartinAS11

     Didier, The Alphabet and The Goddess par Leonard Shlain discute exactement ce sujet.

  • Jennifer Jarratt

    Women's social perceptiveness may not be quite as innate as we think. From my own past experience in working in groups, I've observed that they can share that skill with other people who consider themselves underdogs (In America, that has included African-American men) Underdogs are quicker at assessing a group situation and seeing the body language and interpreting the emotions of those they consider a potential threat. They've also developed coping behaviors.

    It's not an argument about including women in creative groups or not, just that what we see now may be a moving target as the relative status of men and women changes. Women who learn coping behaviors that terrify the top dogs are not all that common, but when they do, look out!  Margaret Thatcher anyone?

  • MartinAS11

    The 'moving target' idea makes a lot of sense.
    And IBM's 'distributed leadership' concept moves us nearer to the concept of an ecosystem's holarchy (Sahtouris), where complexity demands phenomenal communication and, of course, collaboration. Nature has been around 4 or 5 billion years longer than us after all, so is likely to be a good teacher.

  • Steve Ardire

    Great points....Three consistent factors:The average social perceptiveness of the group membersThe evenness of conversational participationThe proportion of women in the group

  • Dvanliere

    Jean, there is a good point, but it is interesting how you go from involvement to majority.  Aren't personal agendas interesting to consider?  Since FC focuses on innovation and design, what are the arguments for design of "leadership"?  I presume there is some data you can point to in terms of gender 'involvement' in innovation and the 'tipping point' leading to the idea of gender majority in leadership?  Your lead-in line "The folks in charge do not seem to be making a dent." implies that male leadership and not just lack of 'collective intelligence' are at the root of the problem and if we fix that little problem, we might be able to make a dent.  I'm not arguing for status quo in terms of gender considerations, but would just like to see you complete the argument. 

  • Don Peppers

    Be sure to read Scott Page's book "The Difference" also, because it explains that collectively good decisions are a function of the diversity of thinking in a group, but NOT of a diversity of goals or objectives.  That is, if we all have more or less the same objective, but we differ in how we think this objective ought to be achieved, then our collective decision is likely to be smarter than even the most intelligent member of our group could have decided on his or her own.

  • Joanna Rewaj

    Looking at the team sitting on the stage - the proportion of women in the group doesn't seem to be very important factor:( Shouldn't they take care more about the credibility? 

  • PP

     @ M.V. West,

    I hope you got the irony and had a good laugh.
    I don't think is so much to do with being man or woman (as you could tell) but with men and women in leadership being closer to their femininity. So far in this patriarchal culture only masculinity, and being an "alpha dog" is what seems to be rewarded more than sensitive, humane, empathetic, or even compassionate actions.  Such actions seem, ironically, to be what we expect from our loved ones but not from our leaders? twisted world...