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Turning Top-Down Leadership on it's Head with Collective Intelligence

BlogWed May 27 2020Written by Mindpool4 minute read

Rethinking Business as Usual?

Conventional business ‘rules’ state that an organization is best served by experienced leadership, capable of making all the right decisions and setting the company on a path to success. This can place an inordinate amount of pressure on one individual while at the same time eliminating business-critical input from the rest of the organization. After all, it’s the entire organization that pays the price or reaps the reward from these top-down decisions.

What this top-down leadership style seems to be missing is the powerful opportunities waiting in the collective intelligence of the organization. Collective intelligence entails that knowledge and insight from a group of people — often augmented by new technology — can provide powerful insights in everything from planning to brainstorming to decision making. It’s becoming obvious that this form of intelligence is a game-changer for organizations— with leading research institutions like MIT dedicating entire centers to its study (https://cci.mit.edu/), and is actively being used by organizations from Google to political groups (https://cci.mit.edu/genome-of-collective-intelligence/).

Collective Intelligence in Top-Down Organizations

Top-down leadership can become so focused on goals and outcomes that it fails to capitalize on an organization’s most valuable resource — it's employees. The organizations that assume this type of controlling leadership are quickly becoming outdated, not only competitively, but also to employees. In fact, a report from Deloitte indicates that 80% of generation Y to Z say inclusion is important when choosing an employer and that 39% report that they would leave their organization for a more inclusive one. Further, 69% of executives rate inclusion as an important issue (Deloitte, 2019). Leaders who approach challenges by seeking solutions from within their organization’s knowledge, expertise, and intuition, create opportunities for employees to bring their best to the table and spur a dynamic, proactive and solution-oriented culture.

Collective intelligence harnesses the combined intelligence to create a much greater and effective result than what could be found through individual intelligence. In many ways, it seems completely unreasonable to expect the board of a company to make key decisions, when critical subsets of the knowledge required to make these decisions often lie with the frontline employees and stakeholders. Collective intelligence is about gathering concrete knowledge from where the expertise resides and enabling knowledge-transfer to the upper layers of organizations. Collective intelligence software enables one to bridge the information gap often found in strict hierarchies and organizational silos.

A simple example can be used with the case of a well-known delivery business needing to address failings in their customer’s experiences. Current initiatives, including weekly meetings, were failing and drivers were becoming increasingly discontent with their positions. The organization’s leadership switched tactics, and instead began to ask one open-ended question to the entire driver-based: How can we help you deliver excellent customer service?

The impact of the results was felt across the entire organization. Customers reported vast improvements in their experiences, drivers became engaged in the business and proud of their work, and the company’s overall ratings improved. The collective intelligence of the drivers was essential in solving customer experience problems. With technology-enabled platforms for harnessing collective intelligence these processes and insights can become even more elaborate, inclusive, and most of all efficient.

Now, imagine a group of employees or an entire company, all invited (either virtually or in real life) to work through the new supply chain difficulties the organization is encountering. They start to suggest ideas and strategies for finding new sources, creating less waste, and reworking designs to use more available products. They come up with over one hundred ideas, which they then vote on to narrow down to the ten best ideas. Thereafter, they predict how each of these ideas would influence the company’s revenue if it was implemented. These are all hands-on employees who understand the practicalities of their suggestions. Their collective intelligence and local expertise provide insight, new ideas, innovative solutions, and predictions that would never have been considered from the corner office.

Not a Replacement for Top-Down Leadership, but a Supplement

Of course, the power of collective intelligence wouldn’t be complete without including the ability to coordinate and collaborate. Across the globe, neighborhoods, unique groups, employees, and people with shared concerns are using social media and other venues to create a collective intelligence that generates powerful change. Within an organization, this same ‘togetherness’ increases cooperation, shared goals, and the power to quickly mobilize for a singular purpose.

The research into collective intelligence is just beginning to ramp up, but the applications and opportunities are immediately available to organizations. It doesn’t eliminate the role of a CEO, but it does allow those at the top to make better decisions with the available insight, solutions, predictions, and judgment of the collective intelligence that’s available to them. Today, technology allows us to build highly capable and efficient platforms to harness collective intelligence and employee wisdom. These truly revolutionize modern business and unlock new avenues for competitive advantage.

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