Unlocking Collective Intelligence

Unlocking Collective Intelligence

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By Christian Greiser, Jan-Philipp Martini, Liane Stephan, and Chris Tamdjidi

Does mindfulness foster an organization’s collective intelligence? A recent study conducted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Awaris demonstrated a connection: 31 teams (totaling 196 people) that participated in a ten-week mindfulness program showed an average increase of 13% in collective intelligence, as measured by tests developed by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence

The concept of collective intelligence—the capability of a group of people to solve complex problems—is not new. But the increasing interconnectedness of knowledge work and the growing variety of problems have raised the profile of collective intelligence as a competitive differentiator. So, companies need to understand the concept more systematically and scientifically. 

One key to unlocking the potential of collective intelligence is mindfulness—a state of being present in the moment and leaving behind one’s tendency to judge. Leading companies have introduced programs to unleash the power of mindfulness among their employees. But most of these companies have not focused explicitly on the opportunities to use mindfulness to foster collective intelligence. 

Solving Today’s Complex Problems Requires Collective Intelligence

Companies today must manage rapid innovation cycles and the deep interconnectedness of knowledge work. To address the challenges, many companies are investing in setting up cross-functional, agile teams. But to transition to truly dynamic ways of working, a company must fundamentally transform how cross-functional teams interact and collaborate. This requires bringing forth an emergent property of their system: the collective intelligence of their teams

We define collective intelligence as a group’s ability to perform the wide variety of tasks required to solve complex problems. Collective intelligence is not dependent on team members’ IQ, knowledge, or ability to think logically or on the team’s composition. Instead, it is largely driven by team members’ unconscious processing: their emotional intelligence (people’s awareness of, and ability to manage, their own emotions and those of others) and emergent properties such as trust, emotional and psychological safety, and equality of participation. This description is supported by studies conducted by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and Google’s Project Aristotle. BCG’s experience across a large number of transformations to new ways of working and agile methods also points to emotional and noncognitive factors as the key drivers of collective intelligence. 

Tapping into the Power of Diversity

Diversity is among the foundational elements of a team’s collective intelligence. In this context, diversity should not be limited to gender or functional and educational backgrounds. What’s required is a diversity of cognitive styles—that is, different ways of thinking about, perceiving, and remembering information or simply different ways of solving problems or seeing the world. 

To tap into the power of diversity—with respect to both expertise and world views—a company must create an environment in which individuals are willing to risk stating their opinions and to be receptive to listening to others. This requires integrating a team’s diversity. 

Teams whose members are not well-integrated exhibit many dysfunctions. Members often lack a sense of joint purpose and struggle to engage in teamwork. The failure to properly integrate a team’s diversity can actually diminish its collective intelligence. 

Mindfulness Provides a Potential Solution 

Companies already apply approaches that foster collective intelligence. They are increasingly proficient at setting up diverse teams, breaking down organizational silos, and implementing open information systems. However, companies often do not explicitly recognize how these efforts relate to collective intelligence and thus they fail to capture the full benefits.

Most notably, companies are not doing enough to identify and address inadequate emotional safety and trust among team members. That is because most companies are not sufficiently aware of people’s unconscious interactions and do not understand how unconscious factors influence team performance. Most companies also lack the skills and perseverance to constructively address issues related to emotional safety and trust.

Mindfulness provides a potential solution for meeting these challenges. Many companies have introduced mindfulness into their organizations, primarily to help their employees maintain well-being and improve their clarity of thinking, cognitive abilities, and ability to stay calm. However, only a few organizations (progressive entities including the European Commission, Google, Hilti, and SAP) have also applied mindfulness to transform the collective capabilities of teams. 

Most people who regularly practice mindfulness have an intuitive understanding of its connection to collective intelligence. What’s more, the effect of mindfulness practice on collective intelligence is objectively measurable. Awaris and BCG conducted extensive research to confirm the hypotheses of this article. We measured the collective intelligence of 31 teams, totaling 196 people, from a large German automotive company and a political organization. We took measurements twice—before and after a ten-week mindfulness program. (See the sidebar “About the Study.”) After the mindfulness program, the teams’ collective intelligence—measured through four diverse problem-solving tasks—increased by an average of 13%. (See the exhibit.) Moreover, we found that mindfulness is significantly associated with emotional intelligence and that individual and group mindfulness scores predicted a team’s collective intelligence.

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Mindfulness practice fosters collective intelligence by allowing us to redirect our mental attention skills (for example, capabilities of the working memory or our ability to focus on the task at hand) toward more expansive, awareness-based skills. More specifically, mindfulness practice strongly influences a person’s self-awareness of the body’s internal state (interoception) and mental processes (metacognition). Interoception and metacognition help us regulate our reactions to emotions and behaviors. By improving our ability to get in touch with our own emotions, we also enhance empathy—our ability to vicariously share the experiences of others. 

By increasing self-awareness and empathy, mindfulness impacts two areas that directly promote collective intelligence: 

  • Communication and Prosocial Behavior. Team members who embrace mindfulness are better listeners and can react in an emotionally intelligent way when tension or disagreement arises. Their style of interaction encourages other team members to speak up and participate in creative processes and allows them to integrate their diverse cognitive styles. 
  • Leadership. Mindfulness training helps leaders improve their ability to self-reflect. Mindfulness is also associated with important leadership capacities such as flexibility, authenticity, and humbleness.

Three Steps to Applying Mindfulness 

To use mindfulness to foster collective intelligence, a company must take three steps. 

  1. Provide mindfulness training. Mindfulness practice comprises a set of mental and emotional exercises that affect the functioning of the brain in a measurable way. Several proven methods of mindfulness training can help team members and leaders establish a personal mindfulness practice.   
  2. Anchor mindfulness in teams. Mindfulness can evolve from a practice to a state and eventually become a trait—when the various underlying skills have become embedded in a person’s mental and emotional makeup. Team interactions provide valuable opportunities to embed these skills. To promote mindfulness, organizations must clearly state that teams should practice three simple types of habits that foster psychological safety and collective intelligence: 
  • Attention and Focus. Teams need to establish specific habits that promote attentiveness. For example, a team can observe one minute of silence before the start of each meeting. In addition, how team members deal with devices, listen to each other, and speak can significantly affect the degree of presence and openness in the meeting.  
  • Care and Positivity. When people feel trust, efficacy, and appreciation, they engage and contribute. When they do not, they hold back and divert their energy to other things. As a result, demonstrating care and positivity in teamwork—noticing what colleagues have achieved and done well and appreciating their contributions—can be very important to improving the sense of bonding and community. 
  • Emotional Awareness. Allowing emotions to surface and be expressed becomes a natural part of what it means to work together. Processes for surfacing emotions include having check-ins during which team members share how they feel emotionally before a meeting, as well as regular retrospectives in which members share their feelings on the interactions within their team. 
  1. Establish metrics and track behavior changes. Just as manufacturers meticulously track physical safety on their shop floors, companies should track emotional or psychological safety in their knowledge environments. As a starting point, companies can use surveys and interviews to ask employees whether they believe the company has clearly articulated that emotional safety and psychological safety are goals and whether they understand how to create such safety. 

Learning more: About the Study 

Thirty-one teams, composed primarily of people with managerial responsibilities, participated in a ten-week mindfulness training program that was specifically adapted to the work context. The study focused on investigating whether a team’s collective intelligence can be enhanced by mindfulness training of its members.

To measure collective intelligence, we used a set of four diverse tasks developed for this purpose by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence: 

  • Moral Reasoning. Teams received a case study of a problem that presented conflicting interests among several parties. We asked the teams to determine, from an ethical perspective, the most suitable solution for all parties. Responses were scored by the degree to which the groups considered the balance of competing perspectives in the problem.
  • Creativity. Teams had to build a complex Lego structure while taking into consideration tight constraints relating to size, quality, and aesthetics. The resulting Lego structure was scored on the accuracy of meeting those constraints. 
  • Output Optimization. Teams were scored after performing a shopping exercise in which they had to maximize the quantity and quality of goods purchased while minimizing the costs of goods and time spent shopping. 
  • Judgment. Teams had to estimate and agree upon quantities for 20 diverse questions (for example, “What was the highest recorded temperature in the US?”). Teams were scored based on the accuracy of their estimations. 

The selection of the tasks was based on Joseph McGrath’s model of group tasks. This ensured that we covered major aspects of collective intelligence, such as decision making, task execution, generation of innovative ideas, and negotiation. 

In the first session of the program, we randomly assigned one, or in some cases two, of the tasks to each team. We scored each team’s performance of its task. During this initial session, we also conducted an individual assessment of each team member’s mindfulness (using the “Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire”) and emotional intelligence (using the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test). 

In the final session of the mindfulness program, we repeated the process. We asked each team to perform one or two of the tasks that it had not previously performed. We then scored its performance on the new task and conducted another assessment of mindfulness and emotional intelligence. 

At the conclusion of the study, we used the arithmetic mean of the improvement of teams’ performance scores for the four tasks to determine the increase in collective intelligence. We also correlated the results of the individual assessments of mindfulness and emotional intelligence to determine the extent to which these two attributes are associated and predict collective intelligence.  

About the Authors

Christian Greiser is a managing director and senior partner in the Düsseldorf office of Boston Consulting Group. You may contact him by email at greiser.christian@bcg.com. Jan-Philipp Martini is a consultant in BCG’s Düsseldorf office, supporting clients around the world on enterprise-wide agile transformations.  You may contact him by email at martini.janphilipp@bcg.com. Liane Stephan is a co-founder and managing director of Awaris. You may contact her by email atliane.stephan@awaris.com. Chris Tamdjidi is a co-founder and managing director of Awaris and is responsible for the organization’s efforts relating to neuroscience research and technology. You may contact him by email at chris.tamdjidi@awaris.com.

Is anyone listening?

Is anyone listening?

Abe Winter gets as much work as possible done between 7 and 10 a.m., while his colleagues are just getting out of bed or otherwise occupied in spin classes. It’s a race against time. Once his co-workers begin logging onto their computers from the train and strolling into the office, Winter, who works for an app developer in New York, knows his window of productivity is closing.

The gurgling pings emanating from his devices, sporadic at first before turning into a ceaseless bombardment, serve as a final countdown.The 34-year-old still has to put in a full day during normal business hours, but his role unofficially morphs from programmer to communicator as he spends his time responding to Slack messages with incomplete phrases and emojis rather than composing complex symphonies of code.

“I’ve given up on being 100 percent productive,” Winter says. “Engagement has become the primary goal.”

Recent years have seen a number of workplace innovations meant to open the channels of communication and collaboration, allowing ideas to flow more freely and information to be on demand. Open floor plans and digital messaging platforms were meant to bring employees closer together. As it turns out, many experts fear these modern adaptations often have the opposite effect, carrying us farther apart.

Indeed, in one of the greater workplace ironies, studies now suggest that today’s well-intentioned forms of communication are driving some workers to the brink of quitting.

The reasons for all this, of course, are wide ranging, but experts think the problem may center around the very foundation that communications is built on: empathy. With so much noise around us and rapid-fire message apps on continuously, we are less likely to see a colleague’s point of view and more apt to be judgmental and impulsive.

Rather than considering whether someone might be in a workflow before asking a question, we ping without pause—and expect an immediate response. Instead of engaging meaningfully, we isolate behind headphones and keyboards. We work from home. We check out.

Recovering the human component in our communications

When it comes to corporate communications, there are three main forms: 1) company to employees, 2) employees to company, and 3) employees to employees.

These days, workers message one another by text or other messaging services, management is making important announcements via the intranet, and employees give feedback through surveys.

Certainly, with the help of technology, a lot of these communications are far faster and more efficient than in the past. But critics say most firms employ a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t take into account a person’s role and duties.

And the more ways to communicate there are, the more the workplace can seem fragmented. “Employees may feel like there are so many channels and they don’t know where to get answers,” says Robyn Hannah, senior director of global communication at Dynamic Signal, a Silicon Valley-based company that offers mobile enterprise platforms.

“We’re forgetting different employees work differently. We need to modernize and streamline how we communicate with employees, so they feel informed, prioritized, and connected.” But not overwhelmed. 

Dynamic Signal releases an annual analysis; this year’s was titled, “The Crumbling State of Employee Communication.” Data shows 33 percent of employees are so frustrated with poor communication that they want to quit. And an About.com survey found the top three reasons people don’t like their jobs are related to communication.

“Companies are starting to acknowledge that communication is critical, but it doesn’t always get credit for top- and bottom-line impact,” Hannah says.

And while companies may be coming to terms with the importance of internal communication—many are raising the prominence of chief communication officers—the next step is translating that awareness into design-oriented, research-driven best practices.

Open floor plans. Initially seen as a cost saver, executive planners continue to be drawn to the unburdened architectural aesthetic and idealistic claims that they foster creative collaboration. But the downside has been well documented: a published Harvard Business School study, for instance, found that when employees moved from individual cubicles to an open floor plan, face-to-face interactions decreased 73 percent, and employees spent 67 percent more time on email and 75 percent more time on instant messaging apps.

“You end up sitting in the staircase” just to find quiet, says Jose Fermoso, who has worked at several Silicon Valley tech and media companies and experienced the shift away from cubicles.

Digital natives entering the workforce today are used to having near-constant access to a virtual microphone with which to broadcast their thoughts anytime, anywhere—something they view as an inalienable right. Within modern communication constructs, the loudest too easily silences the best. A false sense of intimacy is created, while meaningful collaboration is replaced by the adrenaline rush of quick hits.

“Leveraging digital tools and platforms needs to operate in service of authentic human connections, not in place of them,” Hannah says. “The rise of technology and democracy of communication requires us to train people differently.”Open-concept offices likely aren’t going anywhere. That isn’t the point. The point is to recognize how open-concept spaces, whether physical or virtual, influence communication.

Acknowledge how today’s workforce operates and design communication norms that aid productivity and nurture real relationships. If we accept that more people are going to work remotely, whether that be several blocks or continents away, then the question becomes: What does it look like when technology is leveraged in service of humanity?

Plenty of successful globally distributed firms have answered this question.Sam Yen spent 13 years at SAP, a software company based in Germany, before going to work for JPMorgan Chase earlier this year. As chief design officer, it was his responsibility to weave an innovation mindset into the company culture. Often that meant working with teams spread out across the world from Palo Alto to Bulgaria, Dublin to China, Israel to India. Even in situations with globally diverse teams, Yen cautions against an overreliance on technology.“It always comes down to empathy,” Yen says, “making sure you’re taking time to listen and understand where people are coming from.”

Get people together in a social context before they actually work together, and create opportunities for employees to see one another as people, each with a backstory and a future, advises Yen. Opt for the silent brainstorm then give everyone an equal amount of time to share their ideas, so one voice doesn’t drown out the rest. Make sure immediate teams are on the same rhythm. Spend time designing the most effective workflow: When is it necessary to Slack someone? Or would an email, phone call, or video conference be more appropriate? If employees will be working remotely, invest in dependable telepresence.

The real problem is, I don’t think managers understand how employees get work done,” Winter says.”