Two heads are better than one

We hear the words “collective intelligence” a lot these days. Many organisations are realising that they are probably not making the most of their collective intelligence. This means they have a potential competitive disadvantage.

But it’s competition that often gets in the way of using that collective intelligence. So many organisations operate as what Otto Scharmer calls an “egosystem”. In an egosystem everyone is looking out for themselves. They protect their own interests. So the Egos run the show. Many Egos find that getting involved in team projects can boost the sense of belonging, but also challenge their self-interest.

Looking after the Egos

Have you heard the phrase “there is no I in the word ‘team'”? But how many of you realise that it does contain the word ‘me’? If we want to use the power of the collective we need to recognise that people make up groups. Each person in that group has their own Ego. And each Ego needs to feel happy.

For Egos to feel happy they need to feel that they belong to the team, and that the team values their contribution. They also need to feel emotionally safe. This means they can express their opinions freely in front of the other team members. They also need to feel in control. So the team needs to set and uphold clear rules about acceptable behaviour.

Teams offer protection to individual Egos. In a team they do not have to take sole responsibility for an idea or a project. So if it goes wrong the team shares the responsibility for failure. They also share the rewards of success.

The shadow side of collaboration

Collaboration can mean stagnation. Individual group members can hide underneath the protective cloak of the group and won’t stand up to be counted. Collaboration slows down decision-making, as so many people get involved. If the group cannot reach a clear consensus together then that creates stalemate. Individual Egos may also jockey for position. This means they push to get their ideas accepted by the whole, rather than looking to select the best solution.

Learning from bees

As humans, we can learn from bees about collaboration. In Thomas Seeley’s book Honeybee Democracy he describes how honey bee swarms find a new hive. A number of scout bees go out to hunt for a new site. We can call this collective fact-finding. When they come back to the swarm with a possible site they do a dance to advertise the location. The better quality the site, the more they dance. However, unlike humans, honey bees don’t hold onto their positions, or points of view. Over time the scout bee reduces the amount of dancing she does for a site, regardless of its quality. It’s as if she advertises it, then let’s go of it. She doesn’t become attached to it like humans become attached to their ideas.

Seeley suggests that this is one of the reasons bees are so good at democratic decision-making. In contrast our research suggests that as humans we are generally less interested in other people’s ideas than we are in our own. We also don’t often take the time to really understand someone else’s position. We are far more likely just to make judgements about it. So we create problems for ourselves when we work in groups, because we are too attached to our own ideas and not open enough to others.

You still need a leader

Finally, collaboration is all very well, but every group needs a leader. Somebody has to be first to make a move. And make the final decision. Many consensus-based collaborative organisations fall down because there is nobody willing or strong enough to take the final decision.

Effective collaboration is getting the balance right between individual competitiveness/egocentricity and total consensus. Both have value, and both have their place. In fact you cannot have one without the other. Think of them as polar opposites, that operate like a seesaw. You need to get both ends balanced. Then they move in harmony together. The group benefits if each individual performs at their creative best. Whilst each individual benefits from the support and encouragement that the group provides.