Planting Seeds for Organizational Intelligence
Jane took a deep breath as the meeting alert popped onto her screen. The whole venture was dependent on the development of a new software platform. The management team couldn’t agree on how to go about it, let alone what they wanted the platform to do. She was not looking forward to more of the finger pointing and bickering that characterised the last few meetings. The endless chain of “But you said…” or “You never said…” went nowhere and only served to entrench the opposing sides.
Following another fruitless meeting, Jane decided to try something radical. She decided to ask non-managerial volunteers from each of the teams, including those not directly involved, to define the problem and to propose solutions to the problem. Not only did this independent group resolve the problem faster than anyone had hoped but, to everyone’s surprise and without being asked, the group continued to meet regularly and surface new problems and propose solutions to the management team.
Often, we get stuck in defensive positions, particularly when bringing together managers from different areas. Things can go wrong for a range of reasons: they don’t have the necessary technical knowledge, their diverse perspectives prevent them from agreeing upon a shared approach, or they are too far removed from the action to generate solutions. By empowering the new group to tackle a critical problem, Jane not only brought in different ideas but also facilitated novel connections across the diverse teams involved.
In effect, Jane had increased the venture’s “organisational intelligence”. Or put another way, its ability to learn and remember. In our own brains, learning depends on forming and consolidating new pathways between neurons. A similar process occurs in organisations, as Steven Johnson sets out in his talk, Where Good Ideas Come From. Instead of connections between neurons, organisational intelligence comes from trusted connections between people.
We believe that it’s possible to promote organisational intelligence by systematically bringing together people from across an organisation to speak to one another. Not only will it be an opportunity to transmit ideas but it will lead to greater creativity as each reexamines what they know from encountering someone from a novel area. As Emory Gregory Berns, Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University has said in Neuroscience Sheds New Light On Creativity,
Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganise perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with. They may have nothing to do with your area of expertise. It doesn’t matter. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be cross talk.
If we build upon Jane’s example of inviting staff from across the organization to respond to a particular challenge, we can systematically begin to set up these encounters on an ongoing basis. When looked at from this perspective, each new meeting of colleagues from across the company is a seed planted, which with careful cultivation, can sprout and grow into the next innovation.