Jay Gordon Cone asked:
Note: This is the first in a series of articles on how your team can incorporate the principles of collective intelligence.
What is collective intelligence? It’s the capacity of a group of individuals to tap into the power of collaboration in a way that produces outcomes that surprise even themselves. The key word here is “surprise”: a team that successfully leverages its combined wisdom can generate genuinely new solutions that aren’t traceable back to any one individual. Your team’s interactions can produce fresh ideas that the group is passionate about, resulting in a dramatic performance improvement.
When your team employs collective intelligence, you can:
– Increase team members’ ownership of decisions, and their commitment to agreements
– Realize potential pitfalls sooner, and be able to navigate around them
– Tap into team members’ discretionary effort because they’re committed to the success of the team
– Transform a moderately successful team into a high-performing group that’s “greater than the sum of its parts”
– Produce truly new ideas that could only have emerged through the collective knowledge of the members
These outcomes are what separate collective intelligence from “groupthink,” a word used to describe unproductive group processes that produce predictable or flawed outcomes. Groupthink happens when team members acquiesce to ideas they don’t fully support, either to please superiors or avoid rocking the boat. The result of groupthink can be a stale idea backed by only a few members of the group.
So how can you prevent groupthink? You can promote two important elements: openness and interlocking success. Openness, of course, is when everyone on your team feels comfortable verbalizing their own thoughts and inquiring into the thinking of others. Interlocking success means creating a situation where every individual’s success is tied to the achievement of others. In cases of true interlocking success, no team member can be successful without ensuring the success of everyone else. Improvisational acting troupes are often told, “Your job is to make everyone else on stage look good. If everyone does their job, everyone looks good.”
Here’s an example of how these two elements can help foster collective intelligence. A team I recently coached was scheduled to make a presentation to an executive committee. Everything was going smoothly, except that one team member repeatedly insisted on presenting a segment that others thought he shouldn’t. In a private discussion, I discovered he was up for a promotion and wanted to appear as an expert on that subject. To resolve the situation, I facilitated a session that allowed team members to express openly what each of them needed to feel successful. When he revealed his motivations, others on the team shared similar aspirations. This openness allowed the team to find a unique solution: the individual wouldn’t need to present that specific segment, because all team members agreed to support each other by “talking up” their colleagues’ skills to executives. The result was a successful presentation, and a satisfied and engaged team.
Where individuals come together for a shared purpose, the possibility of a self-organizing collective intelligence already exists. Encouraging collective intelligence to emerge is less about imposing a process and more about removing barriers. In upcoming articles, we’ll consider approaches to facilitating collective intelligence to raise your team’s productivity and involvement to new heights.
In the meantime, you can read more about collective intelligence at MIT’s
Center for Collective Intelligence, or on Wikipedia.