What is collective intelligence and why does it matter?

Collective intelligence

4 min read

What is collective intelligence?

Collective intelligence is what happens when you get teams thinking together, generating insights, and making smarter decisions than they could have done on their own.

Without collective intelligence, we wouldn’t have the iPhone. Early on in its development, Steve Jobs actually tried to stop his team working on the project because he didn’t want Apple operating in the cell phone market. “We’re not good at that”, he said in 2005. It took Apple executives months to convince him otherwise.

Nor would Berkshire Hathaway have made its now famous investment in Apple. Its superstar CEO, Warren Buffett, trusted his young deputies to place their own bets, and they picked Apple — a stock he personally would have run a mile from. The investment has delivered a 5x return and now accounts for nearly half of Berkshire Hathaway’s $370bn portfolio.

Why does collective intelligence matter?

The smartest thing a leader can do is to build a business that is smarter than they are. It’s the only way to ensure that high-quality thinking and rapid decision-making are happening at every level of the organisation, all of the time.

Because, as Apple and Berkshire Hathaway have shown, getting your whole organisation thinking and acting smart is better than relying on one bright spark.

Too often leaders assume they can achieve this by hiring for IQ, but individual intelligence doesn’t translate into collective intelligence.

Having a big brain doesn’t guarantee you’ll use it well; smart people are as vulnerable to cognitive biases as anyone else. Smart leaders are even more dangerous when they are blighted by hubris and the stupefying effects of power. And even if people do think well on their own, that doesn’t mean they will think well when you put them together. You don’t have to sit in many meetings to see how — and why — things go wrong.

Collective intelligence should therefore be seen as a vital strategic capacity that an organisation must nurture to achieve enduring success. It’s the driving force behind many of the world’s most successful businesses, enabling multi-national organisations to move as fast as start-ups by accelerating high-quality decisions from the shop floor to the boardroom.

How can I make my business smarter?

Intelligence only blossoms in the right climate.

The wrong conditions can stultify even the smartest people, leading them to talk in circles, work at crossed purposes, hold back key insights because they’re embarrassed, or shoot down each other’s ideas to score points.

But create the right conditions and you can supercharge collective intelligence, enhancing everyone’s ability to apply their minds as individuals, in groups, and as an organisation.

For this to happen, three things need to occur. Every person, at every level, needs to think critically, communicate brilliantly, and focus their brainpower on solving the problems and opportunities that matter the most.

Without critical thinking — which above all comes from asking the right questions — we’re starved of the insights and ideas that will take us further, faster. Without great communication, those ideas and insights go nowhere because we can’t rally others behind them and mobilise them to act. And if we don’t focus all these efforts on a shared view of what matters most, we become busy fools, pulling in different directions.

There’s a playbook to help you. We call it the Question Driven Insight (QDI) Principle™, and to achieve collective intelligence it needs to be baked into every activity in the business. You can do this by giving people the tools and guide rails that will help make it second nature.

Our AI-powered software platform Lucia provides these tools and guide rails. It turns routine management reporting into a regular and meaningful opportunity to develop collective intelligence — by nudging people to ask the right questions, focus their thinking on what matters most, and communicate their insights so that they lead to action.

  Collective Intelligence book   How to build a business that’s smarter than you    Every company has a vast reservoir of brainpower. We’ve written a book to show  you how to tap into it. Find out more

Who is responsible for developing collective intelligence?

You. Whether you lead a small team or the whole business, any executive can create these conditions — and they should. Just as culture and recruitment are strategic issues for all business leaders, so too is collective intelligence.

It doesn’t mean extra work. All you have to do is rethink how you use your routine interactions with your team, from daily stand-ups to quarterly business reviews, and put the QDI Principle™ at their core.

How is collective intelligence different from business intelligence?

Business intelligence is about getting the best possible information on which to make decisions. Collective intelligence is about doing the best possible thinking with the information you have.

The two are therefore complementary, although collective intelligence does also improve business intelligence: by asking the right questions, you’ll better understand what information you need and how to get it.

Does collective intelligence still matter in the age of artificial intelligence?

Brains are ultimately why we employ humans and not robots, and we’re wasting an awful lot of brainpower by not using them. As long as there is thinking that only humans can and should do, there’s value in helping them do it better.

At some point, artificial intelligence (AI) may make all of us redundant, executives included — making sense of data and other information for us, and spitting out credible strategies and decisions in an instant. Until then, we need to take responsibility for our judgements.

It isn’t acceptable to shrug and say, “The computer told me to do it”. Nor is it wise to expect AI to take half-baked ideas and make them taste good. This doesn’t mean that AI won’t be useful. We just need to see it, for the time being at least, as an assistant — something that can help us think better — rather than as a replacement for the human mind.

Again, artificial intelligence is best seen as complementary to collective intelligence. If you don’t consistently apply the QDI Principle™ — asking the right questions, sharing knowledge in clear ways and focusing all activities on the right thing — then even the world’s smartest algorithm can’t help you.

  Lucia   Write great reports, every time    A thinking and writing platform that helps you to write brilliantly clever and  beautiful reports that surface breakthrough insights and spur your business to  action. Find out more

What you need to know, when you need to know it

Register for our newsletter to get a monthly compilation of our latest chair interviews, governance research, and upcoming webinars and events, along with weekly round-ups of the top news that matter to board members.