Creating Collective Intelligence

Several years ago, Google ran a study to determine what made teams effective, and later published the results, including sharing a summary in a New York Times article. While one might think that an effective team depends on having the most capable individuals, Google’s researchers discovered that the members of the team mattered far less than how they interacted. The most effective teams rated highly in psychological safety, where team members all felt welcome to contribute in conversations, rather than team discourse being dominated by the smartest or most powerful.

I see this as evidence that collective intelligence outweighs individual intelligence. No matter how brilliant somebody is, they have only one way of seeing the world that is rooted in their own experiences. A team which can bring multiple perspectives to bear on a problem is going to be more effective in anticipating and planning for potential outcomes. And this is part of why diverse and inclusive teams are more effective; they bring additional perspectives, which can help to anticipate risks unseen by the culturally dominant perspective.

If we think of this from a cognition perspective, what makes our human brains phenomenal is not that we have exceptional individual neurons. It’s that our neurons have been wired together such that they share information widely to create a diverse set of mental models that can handle an ever changing set of situations. Our intelligence comes from the structure of interaction and communication between neurons, not from the neurons themselves. Similarly, creating collective intelligence is less about the individual people, and more about structuring the interactions so that people can share and compare their observations and reasoning.

But that’s not what typically happens today. Far more common is what Riane Eisler would call the domination system of colonialism and capitalism, designed to “benefit those on top at the expense of those on the bottom”. Instead, we can move towards what Eisler calls partnership systems, characterized by mutual respectful and caring relations, where “Leaders and managers facilitate, inspire, and empower rather than control and disempower”. My theory is that such partnership systems enables greater collective intelligence and better results.

I have recently been seeing evidence of this shift across multiple domains.

  • Psychological safety, as discussed above. When creating a team, leaders are more often taking the time to establish norms of communication, and to empower team members to speak up when they are not followed. If somebody is dominating a conversation, how do others gently remind them to give space to others? Who pays attention to when members haven’t offered input, and create space for them to share?
  • In their book Beloved Economies, Jess Rimington and Joanna Cea explore alternative economic models to late-stage capitalism. The most striking insight to me is that capitalism inherently concentrates power and decisions with those that hold the capital and their designated proxies (e.g. CEOs), who naturally want to maximize their profits. To re-orient organizations towards creating benefit for all, they recommend principles like: “Share Decision-Making Power”, “Seek Difference” and “Source from Multiple Ways of Knowing”. In other words, don’t take over the existing power structure, but change the structure entirely.
  • In his book Designs for the Pluriverse, Arturo Escobar draws upon post-colonialist political theory and Latin American feminist thinking to re-imagine design to include more stakeholders. Escobar critiques the modernist designer who comes in with their own perspective and imposes it on others without understanding their context. Instead, he shares the work that he and others have done to seek out all the people affected by a challenge, and learn from them before design begins.
  • The same applies to urban planning. In the mid-20th century, there were many attempts to redesign cities to be more modern and efficient. They all failed. Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities offered a new perspective that great cities were emergent from the interactions of all the different populations and communities. They could not be designed top-down because no designer could encompass all of those perspectives. Johanna Hoffman offered a similar perspective in her Long Now talk on designing resilient cities, which was one of the inspirations for this post, as I realized she was describing the same pattern.
  • This perspective has started to become more prevalent in charity work. When grantors use their money to exert power over grantees, they are imposing their context and worldview, and treating the grantees as less than equal. Instead, there’s a growing movement to just give people resources and trust them to do what is most effective for them. Give Directly is the most well-known, and I’m involved with SV2, which recently adopted a policy of unrestricted grants, and invited three of its grantees to join its board of directors to include their perspective on organizational decisions.

I also see coaching as a reflection of this idea. One of the core principles of coaching is that the person being coached is whole and complete as they are, and that they have what they need to figure out their lives. So in its purest form, coaches don’t need to “do” anything; instead their job is to create the space to elicit people’s own thinking. They are partners with the client, not teachers or mentors who know better. What can make coaching transformative is that people are given the time and space to hear themselves think, rather than being constantly pressured by others to deliver productivity.

This productivity mindset is the evolution of the colonialist mindset, which viewed everything in the world, including people, as resources to be used for the benefit of the colonizer. This then evolved into capitalism, where people’s primary role become to increase the wealth of the capitalists through their production. This created the individualistic mindset of the modern American who thinks of everything in terms of “how does this benefit me and make me money?”

This post is me exploring the possibility that the individualist (née capitalist née colonialist) mindset has reached its useful limits. Instead, I wonder if we can let go of the idea that individuals are the fundamental unit of humanity, and instead explore the idea that humans are better together and can create collective intelligence through new structures of communication and interaction.

And, of course, these structures aren’t new at all; they are the oldest forms of interaction in indigenous human tribes. Humans got enamored with the pursuit of efficiency and productivity and scale, and lost sight of what actually works for humans.

I’ll admit that I find these ideas personally threatening. I’ve spent most of my life convinced of my own specialness, where my intelligence and ability to see different perspectives made me uniquely qualified to solve problems. Will I lose significance when I’m one of the collective, rather than the brilliant individual? And yet, one of my strengths is seeing patterns across different domains, and I am seeing this pattern of creating collective intelligence through inclusive communication structures showing up in all the ways I described above. Now that I think about it, this is a long-time interest of mine; back in 2004, I wrote about different management structures, where companies like W.L. Gore created collective non-hierarchical organizations.

What do you see that supports or challenges creating more inclusive structures to enhance collective intelligence? What examples do you have of more equal partnership structures, where decision making and power is shared? How do you see this potentially applying in your own life?

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