Accelerate - leveraging collective intelligence...

Every organisation I work with is prioritising the ability to adapt, learn, grow and be responsive to new opportunities (and threats) that are part of the ever changing context that they work in.  One of the key ways to develop this learning agility is to foster collective intelligence.  This entail tapping into the expertise of a wide range of people in an organisation rather than the more common hierarchical process of creating strategy at the top management level and then presenting this strategy to the rest of the organisation to then implement.  

Leveraging collective intelligence actually has two significant organisational benefits; 
  1. It allows the organisation to create a wider range of smart ideas (more brains involved) 
  2. The process of doing this also builds engagement of staff since as we have discussed in earlier posts - our commitment and ownership of an initiative is often proportional to how much input we had into the creation of the initiative.  
There are many mechanisms used to foster and leverage this collective intelligence. All of these involve creating forums where people from different parts and levels of an organisation meet together and discuss the initiative within a structured process. The phrase altering the social architecture is often used to describe how these new ways of interacting are intentionally implemented.    Some examples include; 
  • cross functional teams
  • focus groups 
  • vertical teams
  • multi-disciplinary teams and interdisciplinary teams (health) 
  • design charrette (architecture and design) 
  • think tanks
  • google days (a day set aside for employees to create projects of their choice) 
  • operational process groups (Outward Bound) 
  • agile development methodologies ie SCRUM
  • accelerate teams
Generally these teams have a set project and a limited time frame (a month to a year).  However in his article in the link above, John Kotter takes these ideas even further and suggests that organisations can maximise their ability to adapt and innovate by creating a parallel operating system - a structure that works alongside the normal hierarchical structure of line management, job descriptions and efficiency.   He suggests that organisations create a 'volunteer army' where cross functional teams are created around projects that have participants from all levels and sections of the organisation.  The role of this parallel system is to generate innovative thinking through cross-pollination of ideas.  The ideas are then absorbed back into the main structure of the organisation in order to be implemented.    Kotter suggests that this 'innovative function' operates in parallel with the traditional system in order to not confuse roles and processes rather than attempt to integrate a more collective intelligence approach in the organisational hierarchy.  

My question is whether this allows the traditional structure to not adapt or innovate given that this function is delegated to the 'volunteer army'. I also wonder about the connections between the two systems and how ideas that are generated actually gain traction in the main operating system.  However I can also see the power of creating a 'people movement' within an organisation based on volunteerism, engagement, cross-pollination and the creation of useful ideas.  The concept reminds me of "The Starfish and the Spider" written about by Brafman and Beckstrom.  The Spider is an analogy for the organisational hierarchy with a head, and then legs that are analogous to line of accountability. The Starfish on contrast to this has a distributed intelligence with control and initiative coming from all parts of its body.   

The Starfish and the Spider (extract)

There book gives a huge range of cases of where starfish organisational structures are much more adaptive and competitive than spider type organisations in the same industries.   Personally, I can see the strengths and weaknesses of each organisational structure and hence I focus on creating a hybrid organisation which leverages the strengths of each system while minimising the weaknesses.   

The creation of hybrids such as this are the cutting edge of leadership and organisational development.  


  1. I love the way you have explained these two kind of organizational structures. I completely agree to the fact that star fish style of structure is more adaptable and convenient.

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