COLLAGE LEADERSHIP – Part 1: The importance of collective intelligence

In this first of a two-part article I want to shine a light on the importance for leaders to consider the ‘collage’ of their leadership.  What collection or combination of things are you drawing on to see you through this phase of your leadership journey?  One thing is for certain – this cannot be a solo activity – so drawing on the skills and strengths of others is vital; and, so is drawing on their thinking.

Matthew Syed earned many plaudits last year with his bestseller ‘Rebel Ideas   – the power of diverse thinking’ in which he argues we need to embrace divergent, adaptive thinking.  Education at the moment is going through a particularly disruptive phase that is both volatile and uncertain.  Complex issues require creativity, innovation and risk taking to solve. So the question to ask yourself is ‘How much do you welcome diverse thinking?

The same experience and expertise that has been our strength can also disadvantage us when we need to find new ways.  We think through the prism of familiar patterns. Individual leaders need to accept their own blind spots.  We need to find ways around our ‘change blindness.’

Complex issues require multiple layers of insight.  With contextual familiarity we underestimate the extent to which we can learn from others.   We naturally gravitate to people like us, with similar interests and outlooks.  Cultivating diverse teams is not easy.  It can be uncomfortable; but it is necessary.

So what we need is to invite different people into the discussion.  They can bring fresh perspectives and provide a remedy to the problem of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias, in cognitive psychology is the well-known disposition to seek out information that agrees with our previously held beliefs.  We also lend more weight to information that supports those beliefs, while discarding contradictory information.

To counter this, we need to seek out opposing viewpoints and take time to understand how they were developed.  I learnt, with experience, to embrace people who ask the awkward question, and to listen more to what they had to say and not dismiss it out of hand.  Invite diverse thinking and seek out disconfirmation bias; that is to say people who will challenge your prevalent thinking.  I’ve seen schools harness the power of this diverse thinking.  People that may previously have been labeled negative or obstructive are included and in one school I know they regularly carry out pre-mortems for new initiatives.  This is a strategy in which you and your team imagine you have failed and work backward to determine what potentially led to the failure.  Having diverse thinking around the table brings new insights as to what may be required to ensure the change is successful.   This is because you then have the different blind spots in play.  Paradoxically, this can be helpful – they may both be wrong.  But they may be wrong in different directions. What you therefore get is a richer picture when you combine others deep thinking with your own.

Different perspectives can contribute to solving a challenging problem or recombining existing ideas in novel ways.

This also illustrates another important point for orchestrating our collective intelligence.  It’s not so much about one person being right and one person being wrong.  Embracing diverse thinking is a shift from either/or thinking and a move to both/and thinking.  It’s about looking at a problem through different lenses – and these multiple perspectives can prompt new insights and lead to new solutions.

Think beyond the bright idea to what John Bessant Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship calls ‘spaghetti’ knowledge.  All sorts of strands of knowledge held by people both inside and outside the organisation need to be woven together to create value. Take knowledge about how best to develop an optimal curriculum for effective learning.  There is so much knowledge that you need to know how to manage knowledge spaghetti – that is a real challenge for you.

Reflect for a moment on your own setting.  How are you making use of your collective intelligence and diverse thinking?  How innovative are you being?  The recent pandemic may have broken your old mental models and so there is an opportunity to embrace diverse thinking and challenge the orthodoxy of the way you work.

Harvard Professor, Joseph Henrich’s extensive research on human evolution, backs this up.  Henrich argues it’s not our general intelligence or innate brain -power or specialized mental abilities that explain our success as a species.  It’s our collective brain, our ability to learn selectively from each other. Learning from others can give rise to a process of cumulative cultural evolution.  As Henrich says we don’t have culture because we are smart, we are smart because we have culture.  Our ability to innovate and change arises from our interconnectedness – that’s why historically larger and more inter-connected populations tend to possess a wider range of different tools, more sophisticated technologies and more complex languages.  Our species success relies on us being a cooperative species: put simply it’s better to be social than smart!

In the current school context then the successful leader is one who openly seeks others views and promotes connectivity within and across their organisation.  The leader takes in the divergent thinking, and in so doing gets comfortable with an assortment of ideas.  Their skill as a ‘collaged’ leader then becomes more about leveraging these differences into a process of decision-making that makes optimal use of an organisation’s collective intelligence.

Part 2 of Collage Leadership will focus on the significance of connective advantage.


Further reading

Matthew Syed (2019) Rebel Ideas, John Murray Publishers: London

Joseph Henrich (2015) The Secret of Our Success, Princeton University Press

John Bessant (2012) Managing Knowledge Spaghetti,

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