The secret to collective intelligence
A central thought in cybernetics helped me understand collective intelligence: Ashby’s law of necessary variety, as formulated by William Ross Ashby. Variety is a measure of complexity which counts the number of possible states or actions that a system can bear. Ashby’s law states that you need to be as complex as the situation you are trying to overcome. Increasing your own complexity makes it possible for you to deal with a greater variety of situations. You can do this by increasing your own possible courses of action, e.g. through more knowledge, more staff, better information processing capabilities or better methods. Ashby’s law expresses a sentiment that seems logical to us all: you need certain skills in order to appropriately respond to complex situations, otherwise the threat of chaos is too great.
What does that have to do with groups?
Ashby’s law implies that very big challenges can only be overcome by large groups. A small team cannot integrate sufficient perspectives or areas of knowledge to do the job. But unfortunately big groups are complex systems themselves—they are the source of many disruptions that need to be addressed in their own right. A typical workshop facilitator or moderator cannot be successful because a moderator or moderation team can never be as complex as the group they are moderating. Handling a large group requires appropriately complex methods so that the group can harness its full potential. Large groups can solve complex problems if the complexity of their methods keep in step with the group’s complexity.
This logic has been confirmed many times over. Management and organizations become ever more complex and capable of dealing with increasingly demanding clients, staff members and tasks. The same is true for communication too. The communication methodology must be commensurate with the group complexity level. If this is not the case the group’s possibilities become restricted by the possibilities allowed by the methodology in the same way that a race car limits the ability of the driver.
Towards collective intelligence with leverage
So how do you create a formula 1 car from a soapbox? I use leverage points that eliminate unwanted group dynamics and encourage desirable ones. These leverage points allow you to consider the totality of the problem, from different perspectives, in the right context, allowing you to minimize egotistical impulses and which let thoughts mature and knowledge arise from team members’ insights. The combination provides an in-depth understanding of your team and the questions under consideration so that you can develop an integrated strategy repertoire which everyone has contributed to and which everyone supports. The group gets to experience collective intelligence.
The different leverage points in group communication:
- Focus: What is the topic and goal of the work?
An all-encompassing, challenging approach can be enormously motivating for a group if it is structured appropriately. It diverts attention from personal conflicts which can retard the completion of the task at hand. Without focus communication is like fumbling around in the dark. Focus limits the possible topics and fixes everyone’s energy on concrete tasks and questions as well as sub-points and emphases.
- Knowledge of the topic: How do you decide?
Everyone is an expert in their area of responsibility. If a part of the group has to deal with a situation on a daily basis they are the ones who are best positioned to estimate what a decision will mean. This treasure trove of knowledge should be taken into account during the decision making process.
- Structure: How will the exchange be organized?
The structuring of a discussion makes it possible for information to be exchanged. The work of a large group must be structured very intricately in order to exclude undesirable dynamics. Every new participant exponentially increases the risk of the work ending in poor results or chaos. Possible structure elements to consider could include the arrangement of the room, rules about who speaks, the distribution of roles or topics, the rotation of responsibilities and perspectives or different process phases and their emphases.
- Feedback: How will information flow back?
Everything needs to harmonize before a decision can be made so it is important to include feedback in order for possible negative effects to be curbed. A diversity of options also improves the quality of solutions on offer. That’s why internal and external feedback need to be systematically incorporated into the process.
- Pacing: What is the work rhythm?
Time indicators help you to structure the frequency of communication and can allow you to use effects while heeding deadlines. Strict time indicators mobilize staff members and ensure an orientation towards results. You can formulate intelligent communication processes with the help of structural elements like roles and rotations. If the information processing is to be optimized then deadlines are essential for providing both tension and release for your brain. Heads that are “full” have no more space for more information, which leads to a depletion in decision making faculties.
- Traceability: how transparent is the process?
A system functions better the more it knows about itself. That means that every actor is better able to contribute more the more they understand. That means that methods are as traceable in the cooperation as the development of results and decisions.
- Parity: Will knowledge bearers be included on an equal footing?
For reliable results that everyone can believe in it is necessary that all participants have the same opportunities to voice their opinion and share their knowledge. That’s why it’s important to make sure in that everyone has equal ability to affect conditions, work phases and roles during the structuring processes.
- Redundancy: How accessible is information in the process?
It is vital, particularly in solution seeking, that all information is available at all times and in many different manifestations. This is the only way to ensure that individual sources of errors can be compensated for by the group and so that intelligent solutions can take form. In order to achieve this a clever algorithm is necessary that can get everyone to the right place at the right time in order to see, speak and hear the right things.
Every individual leverage point functions such that it excludes very many possibilities for the group. This means that the group’s focus will avoid talking about irrelevant topics. The pacing prevents people from repeating themselves with different words. When constructing leverage points it is necessary to leave as little room as possible for unintended effects.
An example of leverage points
The following example shows how the leverage points can be combined and aligned:
Draw a triangle and write the letters A, B and C at each intersection. Note on the side between A and B the number 1, between B and C the number 2 and on the third side 3. The letters are assigned to companies that are meant to provide solutions. The numbers are assigned to 6-9 people. Then all three topics are analyzed according to their present status. Topic A begins. It is discussed by people who are connected to it, that is, people who have been assigned to numbers 1 and 3. These, as with all discussions, take an hour and are structured as follows: 20 minutes for discussion (by proponents), then comes 5 minutes of constructive feedback from the remaining participants (critics) who are following the discussion. Then come another 20 minutes of discussion and 5 minutes of feedback, all concluded with 10 minutes of discussion. Attention must be paid so that proponents and critics only speak when it is their turn. In order to have an optimal flow a third person should make sure that everyone can read a summary of the discussion. This person should not influence the content of the discussion (neutrality is vital). Repeat the process for topics B and C. A 10 minute break should be allowed between each session. The participants should remain in the here and now and should make notes about new ideas or measures later. The topics are discussed according to a new schema while still focusing on the ideal vision of the future. In the last round the group should focus on measures, i.e. on how to get from where they are to where they want to go.
This process integrates all leverage points in different proportions, the focus shifts to sub-topics and phases, the topic competency should be taken into consideration alongside the roles assigned. The process is very structured, it integrates feedback, it is strictly timed, transparent and makes allowances for equal participation. Redundancy is a cost one has to consider given that proponents and critics all have access to the same information within the process.
It’s possible to change the timing and discussion periods. In my experience the proponents go silent around minute 40 and then reevaluate and digest all the information. Don’t let a few moments of silence make you want to shorten the slots though. It pays dividends to endure the silence for a while.
Try this method in your next strategy workshop. Things get more complex when you are dealing with larger groups; after all, this is the highest level of analogue communication. Once you have combined the leverage points you can make sure that the system is constantly improving. Eventually a kind of collective consciousness can form, which is an enriching experience for everyone.
More information about the approach can be found here www.gruppenbing.de (in German only).