March 30, 2022

Collective Intelligence: The Key to Unstoppable Teams

Remember team assignments in school? I do. I was that kid that did all the work while the others goofed off.

The key to effective team work in school was simple: if you had one of the hardest-working classmates on your team, you were golden. If you were that person (like me), then you carried the load for distributed "credit."

Despite the occasional team project, in school, we learn, work, and are graded individually.

Work is a solo sport too. We are hired and promoted, honored and recognized, for our individual skills and accomplishments.

But no matter how smart and accomplished, there's ony so much one person can do alone. A Deloitte survey of 245 C-level executives showed that 65% identified collaboration as a crucial workplace skill. But only 14% were satisfied with their company’s current ability to work well together. And that was before the pandemic sent many people home to work remotely, some for good.  

If we didn’t learn teamwork at school, then how can we meet the needs of the current (and rapidly changing) workplace?

Collaboration doesn’t just happen when you put people into groups. It’s a specific set of skills that help us work together to achieve something no one person can do alone. It’s when the whole is more innovative, more productive, and collectively smarter than the sum of its parts.

Effective collaboration depends on the collective intelligence of the team.

That's not just some fancy made-up term. Science tells us that collective intelligence is very real and very measurable. Just as IQ measures the ability of individuals to perform certain tasks, collective intelligence predicts a team’s ability to solve problems together. The findings of this seminal study (Anita Williams Woolley et al.) are fascinating.

Unlike our school experiences, the most collectively intelligent team is not the team with a single smart and hard-working member. It’s not even the team with the largest number of individually smart people or the highest average IQ.  

The most collectively intelligent teams are the most socially sensitive - the ones where the members are most attuned to the feelings and perspectives of the others. They are balanced turn takers, with each person (not just the loudest person) contributing evenly to the conversation.

Finally, the most collectively intelligent teams are diverse.  According to the study’s findings, teams with higher proportions of women tend to be more collectively intelligent. The smartest teams don’t manage their diversity - they succeed because of it.

In short, when teams are both diverse and have well developed skills, stand back!  They are unstoppable. The most collectively intelligent teams also have the most honed social or relational skills, skills that help them listen and ask questions, debate and disagree, and be open to each other’s different perspectives and divergent experiences.

We can’t build these skills individually or simply hope that they will magically happen when we come together. These skills live in the spaces between colleagues, so they must be built - and practiced - together.

We would never ask a professional sports team to play without practice.  A sports team’s excellence is more than knowing when to pass the ball.  It’s knowing from experience and repetition where the others will be, and how they will respond when the ball is passed.

But we ask business teams to “play without practice” all the time. If you want your teams to have that sixth sense - of where their colleagues are going and when to pass the proverbial ball - you have to invest in connecting the spaces between them. That's where the real wisdom of your organization is hidden - just waiting to be put to work.

If you successfully do this, the reward is immense: growth, innovation, inclusion and productivity. Collective intelligence is the key to being unstoppable.

Image Credit:
Josh Calabrese via Unsplash
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