On 5 December 2023, more than 150 business leaders gathered at Mansion House to celebrate the launch of Jennifer Sundberg and Pippa Begg’s new book, Collective Intelligence: How to build a business that’s smarter than you. With Oliver Shah, associate editor at The Sunday Times, we discussed the key themes of the book and asked our audience to share the questions that are on their and their boards’ minds going into 2024.
What’s the problem with superstar CEOs?
Superstar CEOs provide journalists with plenty of attention-grabbing material — bold strategic moves, multi-billion-dollar deals, world-changing innovations… and often a good deal of hubris.
This is great for headlines. But for all their merits, charismatic celebrity leaders can be bad for the businesses they lead and their investors too. Why? Because people operating at high altitude may, at some point, fly too close to the sun — and when they do, there's a good chance their business will come crashing down to earth alongside them.
So, genius CEOs need to be saved from themselves. And whilst a great board is a necessary part of the solution, it is not enough on its own. The answer, according to Jen and Pippa, lies in the collective brainpower of the entire organisation — getting everyone to use their brains and apply them to the problems and opportunities that matter most. And when you scratch the surface, you find that the most successful CEOs proactively build the conditions for this to happen, encouraging high-quality thinking at every level. They harness the collective intelligence of the organisation rather than relying on a few bright sparks at board or C-suite level.
How do you get everyone thinking?
Firstly, to do good thinking, you need a rubber duck — a technique Jen and Pippa borrowed from the world of software development and its practice of “rubberducking”.
This means articulating the problem, either out loud or in writing, to a rubber duck that needs each step explained in simple terms. A physical rubber duck on your desk works wonders as a reminder, but a figurative one will do too. The goal is to help you find the gaps in your thinking which need to be addressed. By proactively testing and challenging your own thinking, you can sharpen it. And when entire organisations do so, they unlock their potential for innovation and critical thinking.
Secondly, you need to fuel your thinking with the right questions.
Too often, we are so focused on answers that we don’t stop to consider whether the question was even the right one in the first place. This is a habit that is drilled into us at school and reinforced at work, but as Jen explained, we’ve no hope of finding the right answer if we’re asking the wrong question.
So, to get people thinking better, to spark their creativity and curiosity, we need to switch things around — and start asking more questions. Einstein, no intellectual slouch himself, is reported to have said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes working out the question at the heart of it. Once I knew the question, I’d only need five minutes to solve the problem.”
The central thread of the book is about how to build a culture of asking more and better questions at every level — rebuilding a skill we are born with, but that we lose as we get older.
“If you could focus the energies, intellect, and experience of their entire team on one question, what would it be?”
In this spirit, we asked our audience of over 150 business leaders to consider what question would unlock their organisation’s potential in 2024.
Some of the big 2024 questions on attendees’ minds.
For two-thirds of our guests, the focus was inward — with questions around talent, culture, purpose, growth, and AI front of mind.
Some questions suggested leaders were still concerned about the impact of remote and hybrid working on corporate culture. Others suggested that leaders were struggling with multi-generational teams, and unsure about how to work effectively with people who seem to speak another language altogether.
“I’m over 50. How on Earth do I communicate with 20-somethings who don't understand a word I say?”
Given the buzz that’s surrounded AI and new mainstream tools like ChatGPT all year, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that many of our attendees are thinking about AI and how to maximise its impact.
“How do we help organisations become more comfortable with adopting AI?”
Many of our respondents also raised questions around organisational purpose and the need to bring it to life not just in their own minds but for their teams too.
“If you wake up tomorrow and the business is where you want it to be, what does it look like? And how does it make you feel?”
For those looking outwards, the questions ranged from sustainability to domestic UK politics and the UK’s widening wealth gap.
“How do we close the UK wealth gap?”
What’s clear is that there’s no shortage of gnarly questions on business leaders’ minds going into 2024. They’d keep most people awake at night. But if these leaders can harness the thinking power of everyone in their organisation and channel it into these questions, they might stand a chance of finding the answers that will help them thrive in 2024 and beyond. And they’ll get a good night’s sleep too.
We’d like to thank everyone who joined us at Mansion House for sharing their time and their questions with us. Special thanks also go to Oliver Shah.