29 April 2020

Collective Intelligence – saving the world from homophily since 2008

Recently a colleague, Gill Dal Din, posed me a question, “What is Collective Intelligence saving the world from?” I didn’t have the answer on the tip of my tongue, but it disturbed me enough to enter my subconscious, with the answer emerging 24 hours later.

It’s homophily – that’s what Collective Intelligence has been saving the world from for the past 13 years! Homophily broadly means to be attracted to people who are like ourselves.

There is a theory in sociology that we humans tend to form connections with others who are similar to ourselves in characteristics such as socioeconomic status, values, beliefs, or attitudes. These homophilic silos we create make our communications and relationships very easy and comfortable.

So why save the world from that?

Well…it can also lead to lower levels of tolerance for those who are different to us. Homophily can lead to bullying, extremism, and it has been linked to terrorism. It’s easy to feel powerful enough to bully or terrorize, when the individual feels safe and surrounded by like-minded individuals who are believing your shit.

‘Birds of a feather flock together’ describes homophily, and ‘group think’ then comes with ease. One magnificent trait of homophily is the ‘echo chamber’ effect. You can see it on social media and the TV news media at times, with people often just echoing what their mates are trumpeting on about and believing it’s true when sometimes it might not be. Just watch Fox News for 30 minutes!

I had never heard of the word homophily until I read Matthew Syed’s latest book, Rebel Ideas, which focuses on the power of diverse thinking. What gave me a real thrill was the fact he wrote openly about collective intelligence, so much so that it could have been a manual for the work our company, Collective Intelligence, does. Check out the great sketch summary of the book produced by the Visual Synopsis crew here.

The essence of this blog is a book review of the things that I have reflected upon as a result of this book. I took the liberty of emailing Syed to thank him personally. He responded by saying he was delighted there were others in this space actively practising Collective Intelligence.

Syed introduced me not only to the term homophily, but also the research of Professor Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School in New York. Phillips set up a research experiment where she created teams of 4 people to solve complex problems. She created both homogenous teams and diverse teams.

What did she discover?

  1. The homogenous teams found it agreeable to work together, because they spent most of the time agreeing with each other. They were sure of their answers as they reached a consensus with certainty. Here, homophily acts like a gravitational field, pulling people towards one area of the problem space. (NB: the following 2 graphs are adapted from Syed’s book)
  2. The diverse teams struggled, as they found it cognitively demanding, and they were uncertain if they had got the answers correct as they were more aware of the complexity of the problem. Their cognitive diversity ensured they had lots of coverage across the problem space.

Professor Phillips results showed:

  • Homogenous teams were accurate 54% of the time, and they were very confident they had got the answers right.
  • Diverse teams solved the complex problems 75% of the time, but with less certainty.

I see a lot of this within our Collective Intelligence teams. Diversity of thought is hard work and it takes skill to remain in a conversation when you disagree.

Here is a short interview with Professor Phillips talking about her diversity research.

Some examples Matthew Syed refers to in his book include the CIA and Bletchley Park:

  • The CIA: a team of intelligent people do not make an intelligent team if they all think the same, for they are just a team of clones. That’s why the CIA was not able to work out what Osama bin Laden was up to prior to 9/11, as the intelligent agents were clones of each other, and couldn’t grasp the scale of threat that a bearded Muslim man in a cave on the other side of the world could pose.
  • Bletchley Park: the opposite existed at Bletchley Park in WW2, where the teams used to crack the German Enigma code were deliberately made up of people from a wide range of backgrounds – people such as academics, musicians, crossword experts and mathematicians. Many of them said it was the most enjoyable time of their lives.

As a Collective Intelligence meeting facilitator, I have seen people from diverse backgrounds challenging each other’s norms to great effect:

  • A dairy farmer was hosting his Collective Intelligence team and showing off the extent of his empire, milking about 4,000 cows. He was rightly proud of his accomplishments. However, a city-based business person asked, “why have you structured the business with so little spread of income? While the scale is impressive, given your debt loading, it looks bloody risky to me.” A different paradigm and a clear observation from his team member. His action was to decrease his exposure to dairying – fortunately for the farmer as it later transpired.
  • The CEO of a large law firm had his Collective Intelligence team look at how to restructure the business to improve productivity. I had to submit the team’s report directly to the board chair, who was stunned that a team of lay people could critique their law firm in one day, and identify 5 critical areas to work on so accurately. That business took on the feedback slowly but surely to huge benefit as it turns out.

And here is one of my favourite quotes as a facilitator: an entrepreneur was proudly telling his team that he worked 80+ hours a week. A very astute public servant observed, “But I thought you were good at what you did?” It was such a poignant example of different world views.

Consider for a moment that humanity has evolved from times when having a dominant leader meant the tribe often fared very well, and that has become the ‘go-to’ now for centuries. As our societies have become more complex, the need for more than one or even just a few dominant voices, is no longer optimal. (NB: the following 2 graphs are adapted from Syed’s book) :

Research by the Rotterdam School of Management indicates that high-status project leaders fail more often than low-status project leaders. Why? Because there is a lack of opportunity for the team members to hatch rebel ideas due to the ‘highest paid person’s opinion’ dominating those around them. This can lead to cloning – arrrgghhhh!

However, rebel ideas are the opposite of homophily.

Rebel ideas come from ideas having sex. This means they don’t just add up, they actually multiply in extraordinary ways bringing with them whole new possibilities. At Collective Intelligence we call this ‘The Adjacent Possible’ and our company logo represents this biological phenomenon of multiplying.

Having diversity is a great start towards generating rebel ideas and nurturing the adjacent possible growth mindset. This only works if people embrace complex issues with actively open minds and people can disagree, challenge and diverge both honestly and safely.

The reason our Collective Intelligence professional and personal development model works so well, is that people from across 70+ industries and professions come together to solve and create new possibilities through re-combinations of existing ideas and practical applications. Recombination is not always given enough credit for what it produces as peering into other worlds doesn’t have the same kudos as deep knowledge or learning. However, it is super effective in creating rebel ideas. Learning from others who are different from you, works.

Collective Intelligence itself is a creation that stems from recombination, as it morphed from the model of farm discussion groups – but now on steroids. I love that irony!

So, with the world reeling from COVID-19, I am absolutely certain we need to push on with this rebel idea we call Collective Intelligence and help professionals find new ways to thrive in this new paradigm. Whatever comes at us, I believe this model can be at the forefront of a new world designed with radical ideas.

Evolving yourself to be personally resourced and developing your effective skills, has never been more important I believe. This is something that the Collective Intelligence model excels at honing in its members, as highlighted in this clip by former Saatchi & Saatchi suit, and Business Genetics founder, Ian McDougall.

For an example of the sort of effectiveness skills we are talking about, check out our “Stuff that Matters Now” podcast resource of Ian McDougall’s. He outlines the results of some outstanding research he undertook with Gen Z on the skills needed for future leaders.

I’m excited by what some members are working on, developing new paradigms behind the scenes, and looking forward to seeing those emerge. This COVID-19 virus is a disruptor of normality, a chance to examine what is working, what isn’t, what can we dump, and what can we improve. There is a bold new world ahead if we are brave enough to mix with people who are not like us.

Finally, I would love to hear what readers are saving the world from. Let me know!

A visual summary of our Collective Intelligence model – saving the world from homophily!
Evolve yourself and develop your effectiveness skills. Challenge yourself to collaborate and collide in a fun, safe and respectful space.

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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