Collective intelligence for Business Agility. Say what?


Waisted another morning! Everybody knows that feeling of leaving a meeting while thinking ‘what did we actually accomplish’? Spending all morning on the outcome of an employee survey and at the end of the line, not one tangible action has been noted. In the back of your mind you have thought of several things you could have done in the meantime. Always the same colleagues doing most of the talking and hardly listen to what others are saying. Or maybe it’s the other way around: why is half of the attendees not saying anything, while now would be the chance to speak up? It seems like our thoughts are locked and no new ideas are being generated… Recognizable? 

International employee surveys show that employees want to be more involved and are actually looking for meaning at work and in work-relations. Low involvement has direct impact on productivity according to Gallup 2019. Organizational issues are becoming increasingly complex and we are no longer able to solve these matters in the ways we used to. Help is needed, like brain capacity and expertise of more people with different worldviews. This capacity is often present within organizations, but even more often insufficiently utilized. If we want to be agile in future, then we no longer can avoid deploying the collective intelligence of all employees. In this blog we will take a closer look at this phenomenon and see how things can be different. What is it? What are its preconditions and how can we activate this within our organization, department or team?

Learn from the animal kingdom 

Collective intelligence sounds intriguing and can be described as the shared ability of a group of people (or animals, plants, micro-organisms, cells and/or machines) to solve a problem. In literature we also find the phenomenon of swarm- or hive intelligence, which is considered to be a form of collective intelligence. From several scientific studies we know that we ourselves can learn a great deal from the behavior of groups of animals. In his book The Perfect Swarm, Len Fisher describes some telling examples of how animals use simple rules as a base for a multitude of complex group movements: stick together, don’t bunch up and follow the same direction. We all know and have seen the mesmerizing movements of a swarm of starlings, an endless ant trail or a colony of bees. Subconsciously they adhere to these rules without one animal being the designated group leader.

Swarm principles in our world

Principles from the animal kingdom are already being applied in our human world by deliberate choice. Areas like technique, AI and robotics are for instance experimenting with swarm principles and the flow of groups. Closer to home, one can think of the usage of roundabouts instead of traffic lights. At first sight a roundabout seems more complex and sometimes even chaotic. Its proven however, that the simple rules of a roundabout are more effective in managing better traffic flow, than the controlled flow of traffic lights, which base their actions upon old data.

Another great example is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which performs without a fixed conductor and leads itself by having ‘invisible’ leaders within the orchestra. They don’t sit in front of the orchestra but have their place in its midst. The rest simply follows them. Agile or self-organizing teams also have less or no managers, so teams have more autonomy and ability to manage themselves. Either you’re aware or not, the same principles are being applied here as well.

Humans are no animals. We have the advantage of having a brain that offers us the ability to not only subconsciously act upon old memories and thought patterns. We are very capable to develop new experiences and thought patterns with other parts of our brain. All day long we do stuff and take decisions subconsciously. That’s totally fine as we need the largest part of our brain to continuously develop and learn new cool stuff. In fact, we have a lot of creative space which we can do so much more with, then we currently do. 

Preconditions for success

You probably feel this one coming: if you want to make use of collective intelligence, than you will have to do something to make this happen and adhere to some principles.

1. Collective intelligence is a mindset

Anyone can do it, but don’t use it for window-dressing purposes. Asking questions without wanting to hear the answers, is like conducting an employee survey and shelving the outcome. Like saying; so, that was nicely done and now we can all go back to business again. Nothing changes. A manager might have the idea that she is putting a lot of attention to the outcome of such a survey and might even have started to work on improvements. The point is that her coworkers might experience this in a completely different way. You first have to correct this discrepancy if you want make use of collective intelligence within your organization. Coworkers must have faith in the fact that they are actually being listened to, that something is going to change and that they can contribute to such change.

2. Collective intelligence is averse to managerial direction and hierarchy

In most organizations there is still a workplace vs upper management relationship. Even in organizations that claim to have self-organizing teams, there is a division between coworkers and Leads. There is a situation of several levels. Collective intelligence however is averse to control. It is much more fluid, arises organic and makes no distinction between levels. Employees meet on the basis of themed topics, instead of expertise or department. The hierarchal concept of management allowing the workplace to initiate something, has to be let go off.

3. Collective intelligence makes use of diversity and exploration

The bigger the collective, the more ideas will be supported. Silo’s, working with people you see and hear every day, lead to echo-chambers. Ideas dry up and new ones are not being generated. Hence, it’s important to start exploring, so to gain new wisdoms and knowledge outside of your own team, department or organization. The greater the group, the more diverse coworkers will be in a group and subsequently the more ideas will be supported.

Usage of creative spaces and becoming a smart organization 

Don’t keep running around in circles and set people and organization in motion. By listing to each other’s ideas, new ideas emerge. Then, you will not move from A to B to C, but from A to B to K. It will enhance your organization, make it smart. It will help you to change from within and become agile. Mutual relationships will be enriched and you will be building upon trust. 

Is every issue suited?

In short, yes. The subjects or issues are endless. If you are going to start, then start with something simple. Especially in a situation where you first have to restore trust. Listen to participants so everybody is heard and all ideas will emerge. Create a feedback loop regarding which ideas have materialized and built upon that. Then, ty more complicated proposals, evaluate and improve where needed. Some example of topics to address can be, 1) change issues, 2) reorganization of department, 3) develop a customer or employee journey, 4) performance, 5) sick leave, 6) program development, 7) city council facilities issues i.e. parking policy, 8) green/clean environment, 9) purpose discovery and 10) organizational values and principles.

By making cleverly use of all knowledge within your organization, you will come to more supported ideas and solutions than you can imagine. Make change work for you. Do you want to know how the collective intelligence of your organization, department or team can be ignited? Contact me.

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Alize Hofmeester


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