Collective Intelligence is the Secret to Successful Business Innovation

The saying goes “too many cooks spoil the broth” - but is that always the case?

by Charles Daniel
collective intelligence

While this memorable idiom may offer a nugget of useful advice for teams who tend towards overworking a single issue (symptom include: endless meetings, ill-defined roles and a top heavy power-structure), it does little to describe the value and richness that a large group can bring to many types of problem solving. Indeed, when it comes to innovation, we think that more cooks – managed in the right way – are actually one of the keys to success.

Introducing ‘collective intelligence’; an extremely useful term for business leaders hoping to understand more about how big teams can efficiently and successfully innovate. It’s nothing to do with your IQ, but rather your desire to work collectively to solve vast, individually-insurmountable problems. Collective intelligence is how the most successful companies in the world use deep teamwork to create significant, lasting and global change.

What is collective intelligence?

It’s been suggested that the concept of collective intelligence first originated in 1785, with the Marquis de Condorcet’s “jury theorem”. He proposed that if everyone who has a vote in a given scenario is more likely than not to make a good decision, the overall likelihood of a group choosing the best outcome actually increases with the number of members.

Of course, this conclusion rests on the potentially shaky premise that every individual member of your team is always more likely than not to make the best possible choice. In reality, this may or may not actually be the case, even with the best will in the world. While you’re hopefully hiring the most amazing people you can find, no one is suggesting you put every single decision to a group vote.

However, when it comes to innovation, you’re not looking for an immediate consensus on the ‘best possible’ answer from everyone. Instead, you’re looking to collate the widest possible range of solutions. The more suggestions, observations and ideas you collect, the more attuned you and your team will become to not only focusing on what matters, but also fine tuning a process where you can reliably generate agile solutions to brand new problems.

That’s right: you can quite literally develop your own vision of collective intelligence, through the practice of collating, selecting (and eliminating), and testing ideas, and then learning from the process with each iteration.

How can my team avoid groupthink?

You may have heard the term ‘groupthink’, which refers to a (very real) psychological phenomenon where the desire to confirm causes individuals to simply agree with the status quo, regardless of whether it is actually the best decision or not.

Groupthink stems from a fundamental desire to avoid conflict. Which means that the difference between collective intelligence (productive) and groupthink (destructive) rests in the environment in which it is generated.

So how can your company create an environment where discussion and debate around new ideas is seen as a positive contribution? It’s all about creating a space where ideas can be shared, debated and discarded without emotional bias.

This means an open door suggestion policy – housed somewhere safe and accessible, such as an idea management software – and a supportive, non-judgemental feedback culture.

It’s not about being best friends (in fact, this is one cause of groupthink), but it is about understanding what healthy communication looks like. Everyone needs to know that the expectation is on them to contribute in a thoughtful, meaningful and honest way.

Indeed, what you’re really striving for is something more like ‘group mind’: a term used by actors and improvisers to describe the feeling of being really “on the same page” as your teammates. This is developed over time, by building trust with one another. Companies with flatter organisational structures tend to do this more naturally, but it is possible for any business to develop their collective intelligence with practice and attention.

Five ways to boost your company’s collective intelligence

Here are a few ways you can start growing your employee’s collective intelligence today:

  • Design a non-judgemental feedback culture, and protect it by following the rules.
  • Build trust through positively rewarding contributions, not just results.
  • Encourage group work, both inside and out of organised meetings.
  • Share knowledge widely: run lunch and learns and send round up emails – it’s important that everyone learns what their colleagues in other areas are working on.
  • Invest in idea management software: this is the best way to encourage innovative thinking across your entire company.
  • Flatten your leadership structure: if more employees feel responsible for the business as a whole, they’re more likely to invest their individual expertise into the collective.

Capture and action the best ideas from your people.

Crowdsource, curate and implement the best ideas from across your teams to grow your business faster.