How a Coaching approach is important to Collective Intelligence - and vice-versa ! by Laurent Terseur (Guest)

One of my strongest beliefs is that individuals and teams can dramatically improve performance in organisations by growing more Collective Intelligence. 

Research has documented that Collective Intelligence is a stronger predictor of a team's performance than its individual member’s abilities (Woolley & Al, 2016).  Collective intelligence is also often subliminally eluded to in commonly heard injunctions for teams to be “smart”, “agile”, “do more with less”, or to apply the principle of “1+1=3”, “outsmart competition”, etc. 

This, to me, would already make of Collective Intelligence a useful guiding star for Leadership and Teams Development. 

Yet there is an even more powerful good news in Tom Atlee's definition of Collective Intelligence: “The intelligence of a collective, which arises from one or more sources”.  Every drop counts in that ocean ! 

It's fascinating to consider that everyone, alone or as part of a collective and regardless of their position, can at any point in time act on increasing Collective Intelligence levels in their sphere of influence, through both individual and collective inputs. And this will both help them progress with their goals and achieve a much more overall positive influence.  

I would like to share here some things that I observed and find useful about how a Coaching approach can use the dimensions of Collective Intelligence as a frame of reference : 

  • growing systemic awareness

  • leveraging complementarities

  • developing emotional awareness

  • fostering collaboration

  • acquiring a learning mindset

I realise I might introduce some of my jargon here, but want to share the meaning behind it. To me, it's about the person in the system, literally what people do on the Monday morning to make an impact in their organisations. 


A brief touch on what Collective Intelligence is

Intelligence can mean different things to different minds.  

I will focus here on Collective Intelligence in relatively small groups, within organisations. A number of definitions of Collective Intelligence exist, however, it doesn't seem to me that any of them has reached a level of consensus at this stage. 

Two of them resonate most with me:  

  • “Collective intelligence is the capacity of families, groups, organizations, communities and entire societies to act intelligently as whole, living systems” -- Tom Atlee
    http://www.co-intelligence.org/I-fivedimensions.html

  • “Collective intelligence captures a group's capability to collaborate and coordinate effectively across a range of tasks, which is predictive of a group's future performance” ( Wooley & Al 2016)

Whilst the former emphasises the systemic dimension of Collective Intelligence and the latter its application to performance, they both highlight that Collective Intelligence is a potentiality.  

I look at Intelligence as the ability to learn and adapt, and at Collective Intelligence as the ability of a collective to learn and adapt. This ability may then vary in its intensity but arises at the minute two people or more start interacting.


Useful dimensions for both individuals and teams to use as a compass towards higher levels of Collective Intelligence

I will first clarify that I personally consider Leadership Development as an intentional attempt to increase levels of Collective Intelligence by helping individuals and teams to grow their cooperation, learning and adaptation skills.

This applies to individuals and teams with the ambition to form high-performing teams, as defined by Peter Hawkins : “a high-performing team effectively meets and communicates in a way that raises morale and alignment, engages with all the teams key stakeholder groups in a way that grows performance, and provides constant learning and development for all its members and the collective team.”(Hawkins, 2011)

So, what does it take to increase levels of Collective Intelligence ?


1. It's about understanding the System

Every individual or team is part of a relationship system, a system being “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

As Atlee points it, Collective Intelligence resulting from the system's interactions can therefore become greater (or smaller !) as a whole, than the sum of the individual intelligence of its parts.

A few examples of common situations I observed, in which the way the system is (or isn't) thought through will dramatically impact levels of Collective Intelligence : 

  • leadership teams operating in distressed environments, having for long endured a high pace of change, often combined with a significant turn over amongst the team members. Such a context can easily corner these teams into a fragmented, reactive-only mode where each team member ends up in the ropes, fighting alone his vision of the adversity. Alternatively, teams managing to keep sharing a common vision of the system will increase their resilience as they will perform as a whole.

  • leaders torn between competing loyalties as they sit in multiple and sometimes overlapping or even competing governance instances, will regain perspective and sometimes relief when seeing through the whole system's dynamics

  • individuals or teams operating transversally in matrix organisations, with often ill-defined or ill-published accountabilities, will experience and foster different levels of Collective Intelligence if they look at the whole system

So, what does that mean practically for leaders and teams?

Leaders and teams will drive up Collective Intelligence levels as they enhance their awareness and understanding of the structure, the context and the dynamics of their environment/system.

They can grow this awareness by regularly asking themselves the following questions :

  • who is part of the system, within the team as well as outside

  • who and where are the key stakeholders

  • who is commissioning the team

  • what is the team's purpose in the system : what only this team can achieve in the system

  • what are the expectations - from within the team as well as from the external stakeholders

  • where are the disruptions or changes, what is missing or not yet addressed

  • what are the synergies, dynamics and entanglements impacting the system

This needs to be an ongoing team discipline, as VUCA (1)-type environments and ever more interwoven networks require real-time adjustments.


2. It's about leveraging Complementarities

Complementarity of the members is a key to effective teams. “A team is a small number of people with complimentary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993)

These complementary skills - and strengths -  will combine with each other to create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts, by enabling the team to share and allocate tasks in an optimal way, taking into account the nature of tasks as well as each members' skills and credibility.  “…credibility is reflected in member's reliance on one another to be responsible for specific expertise such that collectively they possess all the information needed for their tasks” (Williams Wooley & al, 2016) 

 So, what does that mean practically for leaders and teams?

 Dedicating time and attention (or not) to the identification of these complementarities will impact levels of Collective Intelligence, not only when selecting members of a team, but also during its lifetime. I'll mention three typical applications I could observe :

  • A fast-growing company in which each Director has on-boarded a specific transversal accountability and leads that space on behalf of the whole team, continuously strengthening their individual credibility vis-a-vis one another.

  • A program I was asked to design, to support the heads of support functions of a high-performing matrix organisation. Over the years the cost agenda had significantly streamlined their resources, yet transversal projects were booming, spreading the daunting taste of having to deliver more with less (or more shared) resources. That management team hardly had time for activities other than fire-fighting, let alone to talk to each other. But they all shared common projects and internal clients, and each of them had the knowledge of a portion of the institution that was totally unknown to the others but could help them.

Investing in getting to know each other, and learning to ask for and provide help to one another, was the key to unlock the synergies resulting from their complementarities in skills, knowledge and style, and turn isolated functions into one powerful cohesive infrastructure team.

  • “It's my time management”...or is it ? I observed many leaders struggling to create more impact and trying to squeeze further their time management, hoping to create more bandwidth. But there is only so much one can do in a day. Instead, the discussion took a completely different perspective when they started thinking their team complementarities through. If making an impact is down to moving selected important rocks, whilst at the same time dealing with the “day-to-day” rocks, quite an epiphany can happen when the team manages to find who is good at carrying which rock, or helping others by clearing the path.


3. It's about building Emotional awareness

Research has documented the link between Collective Intelligence and a group's performance, evidencing in particular a correlation between the level of social sensitivity of group members and their performance (Williams-Woolley et al, 2010). 

Tom Atlee also defines resonant intelligence as a form of “intelligence that grows stronger or fuller as it resonates with other sources or forms of intelligence, or which deepens in empathic response to life”, making the point that experiences of high Collective Intelligence in groups are almost always accompanied by powerful experiences of resonance and a strong sense of “flow”.

So what does that mean practically for leaders and teams ? 

If I think of the effective teams I have been given to work with, they all would have scored high on the following dimensions : 

  • quality of communication, both in terms of frequency, directness and relatedness - it's ok to listen to each other in these teams !

  • sense of sharing, belonging and being one - they would easily pass the “late lounge” test and still feel as one team even when on their own

  • levels of empathy - sharing the joy as well as the pain - it's ok to care for one another in these teams!

Interestingly, these teams often had started with less empathy - it takes time, efforts and bumps to build up. The larger the organisation, the higher the pressure, the less clear the structure, the less supportive the context, the more volatile the environment, the more efforts it will take to grow and protect that form of Collective Intelligence. 

Useful questions to be regularly brought in to enhance emotional awareness can be:

  • How do I feel in this collective ?

  • How are others likely to feel in this collective?

  • Are we sharing our emotions and what drives them ?

  • What is missing, that would create more relatedness?

  • What would make us grow more empathy ?

  • Are we feeling as one team ?

  • Are we still feeling as one, even when separate ?

  • What is needed for this collective to share and bond more ?

  • Is it clear what makes each member's success important to the rest of the collective ?


4. It's about fostering Collaboration :

Similarly, research has evidenced that groups in which a few people dominate the conversation are likely to be less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking (Williams-Wooley et al, 2010) 

At the same time, “Politeness is the poison of collaboration” according to Edwin Land...Collective Intelligence doesn't equal avoidance of confrontation. Team members need to feel it's ok to air their opinions so they feel considered and then will feel committed to the teams' decisions. 

To me, fostering collaboration in a collective means creating the space for each member to fully contribute , for optimal cross-fertilisation to happen and also looking for the combination of individual and collective tasks that maximises the pool of strengths of this specific team for each situation. 

So, what does that mean practically for leaders and teams ? 

Collaboration transcend and make great orchestras. Each musician has an outstanding mastery of their instrument, yet the quality of the overall harmony will rely on the group to cooperate and find the right flow, pushing the right note at the right time, anticipating each other's input.

I have observed many teams struggling with the right distribution of conversational turn-takings. Some typicalexamples are 

  • senior teams, often welcoming a collection of competing strong personalities and egos. The best solo artists in the world certainly have egos to deal with, but they preferably avoid singing over each other. They agree on the greater good (delivering outstanding performance and unforgettable emotions), accept that each voice or instrument nurtures one another, and they put time and efforts in learning the partition and rehearsing until they have achieved the perfect harmony.

  • at the other end, more junior teams can easily be dominated and inhibited by one or few bullying team leaders or members, making the team's Collective Intelligence plummet as the conversation is taken in hostage

  • too often, team Leaders and members don't pay enough attention to leaving the space for other's contributions. Here it will be key to remember what is the impact that the team wants to create, that earns the loyalty of its members - particularly in matrix organisations. And then, back to our previous example, if the impact is about moving key rocks, some heavy rocks require two or more pair of hands to be moved, some require only one, other ones only can be moved in a second step, etc.

Teams willing to foster more collaboration, will find it useful to implement the discipline of regularly reviewing common tasks, communications and accountabilities, screening and defining :

  • what is currently shared by this collective, that earns the loyalty of its members

  • joint or separate ownerships,

  • timing, and in particular sequences of actions, by whom, in which order...

  • separate, majority or consensus decisions


5.  It's about Learning and Maturing

Collective Intelligence is also about the willingness to grow a learning mindset as a team, so as to stay fit and adapt to the ongoing change.

It also involves a notion of stewardship and moral awareness and the ability to factor in the bigger picture and longer-term implications of the collective's decisions (or non-decisions...). 

So, what does that mean practically for leaders and teams ? 

From my observation, high-performing teams create the discipline of learning together with both a clear purpose and the acceptance that, as change happens permanently, they are on a permanent learning curve.

They also implement the discipline of regularly using noticeable events or stages of development to review : 

  • how the situation benchmarks against the team's purpose (if a development serves the purpose, its challenges are part of the learning curve ; if it doesn't, it's a different conversation)

  • what has been done differently by the team, or could have been done differently;

  • what has been learned

  • what can be done differently

They also explore how the collective can get out of its comfort zone in a constructive way, are creative to bring external stakeholders or sources of inspiration to help the collective identifying their blind spots and expand their thinking.

Collective stewardship is commonly the seat of tensions between the pressure for immediate short-term performance and the need to take into account the longer term implications. Amongst the typical challenges are the disconnects between ambitious corporate values and their practical translation in day-to-day behaviours and decisions, generating either a lack of adoption or a genuine frustration in the absence of clear leadership expectations. Again, adopting the discipline of looking at it as a learning curve can make of it a great opportunity for a team to grow its Collective Intelligence.


In Conclusion

As organisations evolve in more and more VUCA (1) environments, and as the top-down, command & control type of leadership is being shelved by new information technologies and the resulting loose, lateral, networks leadership, I believe that Collective Intelligence is both a useful compass and a great outcome for leadership development, applicable to any team at any point of their life and performance.

I like the idea that it is not about offering pre-formatted tools, but instead, about encouraging people to create their own questions, which will work in their context, and just being mindful of Collective Intelligence dimensions as rich, thought-provoking sources of inspiration.  

I also am very encouraged by seeing Collective Intelligence as a quite universal lever, available for everyone to pull. I find it very powerful to think that everyone, individually or collectively, can act. 

I will continue with this exploration, and hope the ideas discussed here will stimulate readers to exchange on the different ways to use Coaching to increase levels of Collective Intelligence. 

Interestingly, I also experience it works the other way round : focusing on these dimensions of Collective Intelligence is a quite powerful way to inform a Coaching approach...

 And what do You think ?

What about you ? 

  • Do you look at Collective Intelligence as an inspiration to your leadership or coaching practice ?

  • How practically do you use it?

  • Do you see useful ways to bring it in your practice ?

- - - – 

(1) VUCA : Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous

References :

  • “Collective Intelligence in Teams and Organizations”, Anita Williams-wooley & Al, Collective Intelligence Handbook, MIT Press, http://cci.mit.edu/CIchapterlinks.html, 2016)

  • “Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups”, study, Anita Williams-Wooley et al, SCIENCE magazine, 29/10/2010, vol 330)

  • “Leadership team coaching”, Peter Hawkins, 2nd Edition, Kogan Page, 2011

  • “The discipline of a team”, John R. Katzenbach & Douglas K. Smith, Harvard Business review, 1993

  • The co-intelligence institute website, Tom Atlee, http://www.co-intelligence.org

  • http://www.merriam-webster.com

How to connect with Laurent Terseur

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Laurent Terseur is a former senior executive with a genuine care for people and over two decades senior experience in multi-cultural, highly competitive corporate environments, first as a group treasurer in pharmaceuticals and manufacturing, then in sales and leadership roles in the corporate and investment banking divisions of Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan and Barclays.

Laurent is an APECS Accredited Executive Coach and an ICF Professional Certified Coach. He coaches individuals and teams, English as well as French native speakers. His practice integrates insights from cognitive neurosciences and systemic coaching, and is informed by his track record in building highly collaborative and effective teams, his business acumen, and his multi-faceted understanding of matrix organisations. 

He can be contacted at laurent.terseur@gmail.com