Fostering Collectively Intelligent Teams

By Moneer Barazi, MBA, PMP

Management is the art and science of getting results through people. Yet, many leaders often focus too much on desired results that they forget who accomplishes them to begin with: people. The actual results organizational leaders obtain depend first and foremost on their teams and the well-being of those teams. Even the best plans will fail if they are not matched with apt team performance. Despite great management efforts, negative and dysfunctional team dynamics can appear and derail progress.

Management efforts represent a top-down force that attempts to raise the team’s output levels, often in the form of instructions, key performance indicators, and guidance. But even though good managers can raise their team performance levels, those teams need to have an intrinsic force driving them from within to deliver, which is usually a bottom-up force. Naturally, when those two forces are in harmony (aligned), and both are driving the team forward in a healthy way, we have what we can call a collectively intelligent team.

Definition of collective intelligence

Collective intelligence is a trait that some teams exhibit, and it draws upon ideas from multiple fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and computer science, among others.

Glenn (2013) defines collective intelligence as an “emergent property from synergies among three elements”. Those elements are: (1) the data/info/knowledge, (2) software/hardware, and (3) experts with insights or conceptual knowledge. Those elements continuously provide feedback which leads to more timely knowledge and better decisions than any of those elements singlehandedly. And based on his definition, Glenn suggests that the approach to generating collective intelligence is to simply improve the integration among those three elements (Glenn, 2013).

According to the Handbook of collective intelligence, collective intelligence refers to a group of people who are working together in ways that seem intelligent.

The trait of intelligence can be better understood by its outcome rather than its nature since when it is present in teams it leads to adaptability, high competence, and most likely innovation.

Intelligence, in general, manifests itself in thought and behaviour. As such, I am suggesting the following definition for collective intelligence which focuses on the behavioural aspect of intelligence.

Collective intelligence is when a group of agents perform a series and a combination of behaviors that together lead to the emergence of an intelligent collective response, i.e. more benefits than what would be obtained by single-handed individual efforts.

Linear vs. elliptical thinking

Managers are not the sole actors on their teams; they are one of the actors. Linear cause and effect thinking needs to be dropped in favor of a more advanced thinking that acknowledges that most phenomena are far too complex to be captured in a simple “cause (y) leads to effect (x)” statement. Because of this way of thinking, most management approaches are hierarchical and focus primarily on top-down management tasks and procedures. There is a need for a more integrated framework that considers bottom-to-top effects as well. In reality, most phenomena are elliptical and are hardly ever linear, and our thinking needs to adapt. This applies to team performance just like it applies to some other variables.

Shifting the level of analysis

The scientific theory of management focused initially on the individual and maximizing his or her performance. However, today, more emphasis is being placed on improving the performance of the group as a whole, and now we are concerned with analyzing group performance more than individual performance.

Psychological tests also have primarily focused on the individual. For example, psychometric testing involves tests such as OCEAN test which uncovers where the individual stands on the five main personality traits. Other psychometric tests like Myers-Briggs, or IQ test, are also used to discover key individual characteristics. Abilities and functions such as cognition, memory, and behavior began with the assumption that they were individual functions.

Today, phenomena like cognition, memory, behavior, and even intelligence are increasingly being studied at the level of the group, as opposed to the individual. Now, we have theories regarding distributed cognition (Hutchins), collective memory, emergent collective behavior, and collective intelligence. This level of analysis requires more advanced analytical and modeling tools that can meet its level of sophistication.

Complexity theory has come to the rescue and provided a better explanation and interpretation of the reality of groups such as organizations. The idea of emergence is particularly useful. Below we will discuss factors that lead to the emergence of collective intelligence in teams.

Collective intelligence:

Teams are founded on the idea that working together in a group yields better results, both in quantity and quality, than working separately and single-handedly. However, this is not always the case. For teams to operate at optimal levels, they need to have collective intelligence.

Below we discuss some guidelines to help managers foster more collectively intelligent teams.

The factors underlying the emergence of collective intelligence can be categorized in three different categories based on their nature, although many factors fall somewhere between one or more categories and are not exclusively linked to one category:

  1. Team interactions

Team interactions lead to the emergence of collective behavior, which in turn determines the team’s performance. For those interactions to be beneficial, they need to include the following elements or ground rules:

  1. Based on an extensive research carried out by Google to assemble the perfect team, the findings concluded that there needs to be a high level of psychological safety on the team, allowing team members to express their views comfortably without fear of reprisal. Those views are much needed since they can enrich the perspective and lead to more carefully thought-through decisions.
  2. The team’s group norms need to encourage two contradictory traits. Those norms need to allow for both divergent and convergent modes of thinking. We need people to think in novel ways and to dare express unconventional views. However, we also need team members to withstand the tension arising from conflicts of views and opinions and reach a consensus. A prominent example of this is Switzerland. Although it takes a long time to make decisions, when decisions are made they are made with conviction and almost everyone aligns with implementing them.
  3. Effective communication is also needed since misunderstandings and misdirection can often occur on the team with severe consequences. We need team members who have both encoding and decoding skills to improve communication and reduce the noise as much as possible.
  4. Equal turn-taking in speaking should be a ground rule, and it allows for giving each member the chance and time to express their views, ensuring team members do not talk over one another and listen to each other equally.
  5. The team needs to cultivate a convergence culture, where different contributions from different team members converge and culminate in superior value and results.
  • Leadership:

In most teams, especially more centralized ones, the effects of the leaders’ behaviors are magnified because of the level of authority they have. In particular, negative attitudes from those in senior positions can prove to be poisonous to the organization. Below we will explore some of the aspects in which leaders can help their teams develop collective intelligence.

  1. Leaders need to provide a more decentralized structure, especially in organizations that work in domains that require high skills and expertise. People need to be given the room to make decisions and provide contributions, with more space for creativity and intrinsically-driven performance.
  2. Leaders should provide a positive and supportive work environment with meaningful work. Poor work environment conditions will most likely lead to poor productivity.
  3. Leaders need to provide clear structure and roles to help people understand what is expected of them. However, clear should not be mistaken for rigid. While roles and responsibilities need to be very clear, there needs to be flexibility in regards to them in order to give team members the chance to understand what it is like to be in other roles. This would help them collaborate and cooperate more effectively.
  4. Leaders need to also develop ambidexterity, which is the ability of the organization to maintain two contradicting states. This is essential since developing collective intelligence often requires maintaining and managing two opposing states. For example, creativity requires open and flexible structures, whereas implementation of creative ideas requires more rigid and closed structures to ensure proper execution. Both are indeed needed to get ideas to stand up on their feet.
  5. Leaders need to set developing collective intelligence as a goal of their knowledge management efforts. Knowledge management for collective intelligence helps ensure every team member has access to the data or information they need at the time they need it. It is worth noting that knowledge management for collective intelligence is a new area of research, and more elaboration on this topic will be made in other publications.
  6. The strategy crafted be leaders needs to set a clear direction with no ambiguity. It needs to state the objectives in a simple and concise manner that avoids any confusion and ensures team members are aligned behind it.
  • Individual traits of team members

It is not enough to have positive interactions and positive leadership; team members need to display some specific traits that would help in developing collective intelligence. Those traits include the following:

  1. There need to be some extra-milers on the team. Extra milers are those team members who tend to contribute beyond their original scope of work and go the extra mile. They help other team members and even coach them sometimes to perform better. They might also advocate for equal burden sharing and thereby balance the workload allocation. While this trait is generally positive and leads to benign team dynamics, sometimes it can be daunting for the extra miler, and in extreme cases, it can have a toll on the team as well.
  2. Members, or at least the majority of them, need to have an internal locus of control. Having an “internal locus of control” is a psychological term that simply refers to having a strong sense of initiative. Simply put, people who are highly proactive and take responsibility have an internal locus of control, whereas those who do not adapt well with their environments and often have excuses for not doing so have an external locus of control.
  3. Critical thinking is a must if teams are to be collectively intelligent. This is crucial because groupthink can sometimes lead teams to make disastrous decisions with bad ramifications, and critical thinking is the antidote to groupthink.
  4. The team needs to be moderately, not excessively, diverse. Moderate diversity involves cognitive diversity which helps team members to view problems from different angles, and allows for different interpretations of reality. However, although moderate diversity is encouraged, extreme diversity can lead to lack of cohesion and excessive polarization of views and positions.
  5. Team members need to be socially sensitive and perceptive to cues from others. Having more women on the team helps in achieving that. Acquiring people who have the ability to understand others’ emotional and mental state is also a contributor.
  6. The team needs to endure the tension it takes to navigate through complexity and tolerate the uncomfortableness which is often associated with transitioning to a higher performance level. Teams with members that cannot tolerate tension are more resistant to change and usually do not challenge the status quo.

The above factors are broad in nature. Fostering collective intelligence on your team requires a change of culture, which is often an elusive endeavor. Organizations as complex systems have path dependency and their initial state can largely determine how they evolve in the future. For this reason, carrying out change needs to be incremental and persistent. Complex systems tend to move from one “attractor” state to another, and to enable change we need to lead our teams through those different states with patience and perseverance.

The nature of work in organizations is changing, and a new management paradigm is emerging. Lean management, agile project management, and other movements in their core have collective intelligence as a common denominator. The different roles of managers, as well, revolve around helping teams cultivate and sustain collective intelligence. Teams who have high levels of this trait are often self-organizing and reduce management and support costs, making it financially feasible. Perhaps, the interdisciplinary field of collective intelligence would soon become the new management philosophy for the next era.


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