Published: 18/08/2005, Volume II5, No. 5969 Page 28

In an experimental study, Martin Kocher and Matthias Sutter used a numberguessing game to compare the behaviour of individuals and small groups. Their findings suggest that groups are not smarter decision-makers per se, but that they learn faster than individuals.

Many important decisions, like those about an organisation's strategy or spending plans, are not made by an individual but by small groups, such as a board, management executive team or senior clinical leadership group.

But understanding how groups work in order to get the best out of them is not a simple task. Help is at hand, however.

Ranging from Hobbes and Adam Smith to modern work on traffic flow and market trading, and across economics, sociology and psychology, Philip Ball's Critical Mass: how one thing leads to another shows how much we can understand human behaviour when we stop trying to predict the actions of individuals and look at the impact of numerous individual human decisions.

In Group Communication, Peter Hartley shows how we can improve the chances of making successful group decisions. One particularly informative section explains why innovations often come from groups on the fringe or even marginal to the field in question.

Hartley shows that a small number of people in a group can successfully influence the rest when they are seen by the wider group as agreeing among themselves; maintaining their opinion over time; acting as a result of genuinely held principles; and being reasonable.

Food for thought when you are trying to get your point across and you feel as if nobody is listening. Next time I will look at why, when leaders are at the peak of their success, they are most vulnerable to failure.

Dr Jay Bevington is associate director of board development at the NHS Clinical Governance Support Team.