28 July 2021

The Unfolding Evolution of a Collective Intelligence Team – Part III

This is the third in a four-part series documenting the evolution of an actual Collective Intelligence team, and covers the departure of some team members and arrival of others. Our guest blogger and their team requested anonymity so they can tell their story openly and from the heart. Names have been changed. Read the earlier blog articles here: Part I | Part II

Note: In a few key places, Collective Intelligence founder Ian ‘Harv’ Harvey, adds his perspective to the team’s unfolding story. His comments show as a popup box when you hover over a phrase with a squiggled underline.

Part III | NEW BLOOD & A GLOBAL PANDEMIC

Out with the Old and In with the New

After the ninth meeting, a bombshell hit the team when a long-standing member quit the team in an email. It wasn’t completely out of the blue – the member had been talking about potentially leaving Collective Intelligence and it is the nature of the network that people come and go as their lives and needs change.

What struck the team was not that they had left, but the member’s parting comments to the effect that they did not gain any value from the team. The group felt that they had shared some of their biggest struggles together with the member, making themselves vulnerable, and doing their best to embody the team culture of authenticity. They also felt that they had worked hard to support this person, and given much of themselves to nurture an environment of mutual growth. The team had been stable for some time, but the manner in which the person chose to leave was a brutal blow. While some were able to take it with a grain of salt, it hurt other members of the team deeply.

This wounded and frustrated team was the one I walked into on a hot summer’s day in Christchurch in February 2020. I joined Collective Intelligence after connecting with Harv, and succumbing to his insistence that I was the kind of person who could thrive within the network. The first day of the meeting was held at the University of Canterbury’s Entrepreneurship Centre and I found it fitting that it was 20 years almost to the day since I had first set foot on that very same campus as a fresh-faced 18-year-old first year student. I took a few moments upon arriving to reflect on just how many twists and turns my life had taken over those two decades.

It was Grace’s Host Day, and her now 4-year-old start-up was moving into a new phase of development. The question we were rallying around was, “What haven’t I taken into consideration regarding the Transitional Growth Plan?”

After interviewing several people involved in various aspects of her work, the team helped Grace to realise what her particular strengths were, where there might be simmering concerns with team and board members, and where she might be able to pass along responsibilities in order to focus on company growth. She also gained a new understanding of potential markets within agriculture, shipping and logistics.

Within a day, I was thrilled to have joined the network and felt that Harv had been right – this was exactly where I needed to be at this point in my life and career. The level of trust that was immediately apparent in the team was demonstrated during an exercise where we each drew our life timelines up on a whiteboard and talked about high and low points. The fact that three out of the four women in the team felt comfortable enough to disclose that there had been incidents of sexual assault in our pasts was deeply moving.

I wasn’t the only new member of the team on that day. Tony joined the team, after his previous Collective Intelligence team had been disbanded. Teams don’t always go quite as planned, and sometimes when conflicts or roadblocks are proving difficult to overcome, the team is disassembled, and members are reassigned to other teams. As a consequence of having come from another, somewhat dysfunctional team, Tony’s impression of the network and the processes was a bit skewed. Consequently, he was a little reserved coming in.

Tony was also in the midst of a very intense period at work. As the head of a private education company, his international education division CEO had decided to step down due to stress and personal matters. Tony’s Board had asked that he step into the vacated role in addition to managing the domestic education division. Things were hectic, both operationally and emotionally, and Tony had agreed in advance with Sophia that he would need to leave the room to take a crucial call halfway through the second day. Although the team knew in advance that Tony would be super busy, it was nonetheless distracting and caused some tensions and questioning sideways glances.

At one point I asked Tony to stop using his laptop while we were in the midst of a team discussion. I am not generally someone who is comfortable in raising potential conflicts in team settings, so I was nervous and my comment came out sounding much angrier than I had intended. Multitasking during meetings is something that may be quite acceptable in some team settings, so the comment sparked a tense discussion about the use of devices during meetings and about team culture more generally. Given the nature of our team meetings as a place of openness and vulnerability, some on the team felt that there should be full undivided attention given across the two days together.

When new people join the team, it’s like adding a new spice to a dish. The flavour of the team is altered slightly, complementing some of the other spices and contrasting with others. But it takes a while for all the flavours to properly mix and really start working well together.
– Jayson

Maree had just detangled herself from her company and was thrilled to be free of it. She was looking for her next steps in her life, and at the end of the meeting she made a major announcement to the team – she was heading to a retreat in Bali the following week to rest, recuperate, and explore her relationship with alcohol. The team let her know that we were unequivocally behind her. She was delighted by the level of support from the team both at the time and ongoing, despite the cynical side of Jayson getting the better of him as he told her to be prepared to fail. Joking aside, it was great to see how Maree’s announcement opened up the conversation for others to talk about their drinking.

It was not the best start for the two new members, and we learned at the following meeting just how attacked Tony had felt in that first meeting. But before we could get there, the whole world was turned upside down by a little old virus called COVID-19.

Adapting to the Online Experience

As the pandemic ravaged the globe and New Zealand went into full lockdown a month after Grace’s host day, Sophia got in contact with the team to arrange regular online check-ins.

Like most of society, our team members were weathering the lockdown in vastly different ways. Some were loving the opportunity to hunker down at home and not have to commute. Others (those with small children, notably) were struggling a bit more. I fell firmly into that second category. Our first online meeting held that same spirit of unity and solidarity that many across the world felt in the early days of COVID-19. There was uncertainty, there was anxiety, there was fear, but shining through the cracks was also a sense of camaraderie. We were ‘all being in it together’, and it was great to have a group of people who could be honest and transparent with each other about how we were really feeling. We agreed at the end of the first call to meet online every two weeks, at least through the first couple of months. The second call saw me uncontrollably crying at the stresses of juggling two lively pre-schoolers with work in an inner-city two-bedroom apartment.

Others on the team were seeing significant additional pressures in their work thanks to the pandemic situation. Tony’s business is reliant upon international students, so he was suddenly experiencing a significant impending loss of revenue, and a rapid pivot. Lanie was a senior executive at the Ministry of Health, which was thrust into making rapid plans to keep a nation safe in a rapidly evolving global situation that no-one in the ministry had ever had to deal with before.

The suggestion that we might need to take Maree’s upcoming host day online sparked off a discussion around how we might possibly capture the same level of authentic connection with each of us sitting within small rectangular frames on a Zoom screen. We all knew it would be a vastly different experience without the comfort and safety of a single enclosed room, and without being able to read the body language of our teammates, who may often be directly facing each other, leaning in, or sitting back in contemplation. With the kinds of deep and oftentimes challenging conversations that teams have together, the thought of trying to recapture that experience left most of us feeling very lacklustre about a two-day online meeting.

The Healing Effects of the Mountains

As luck would have it, Maree’s Host Day meeting fell in the golden period in mid-2020, between the country’s first nationwide lockdowns in April and May and Auckland’s second Level 3 lockdown surrounding the August 2020 outbreak. New Zealand was COVID-free, we all felt immensely grateful to be living at the bottom of the world, and the meeting location was stunning, at a beautiful, big, rented chalet nestled in the South Island’s alpine village of Castle Hill. Being early July, the mountains were covered in snow, the air was still, and some incredible stargazing was done after darkness fell.

Sunlight on snowy mountains

Having had a few months’ space from her stressful and toxic previous job, Maree was doing some work helping with her husband’s business. Unsure of her next steps, she set her host day theme as, “Helping design a future by uncovering, distilling and visualising my happy place.”

Another new member was joining the team at this meeting and Maree was nervous about having a new person attending her host day. But the member arrived early to the house and the two hit it off immediately. Being part of another husband-and-wife business team, Jayson and the new person bonded over both the stresses and delights of running a business with a life partner.

It was a nice change for the team to once again be staying together in a house rather than meeting in an austere conference room and the team quickly made themselves at home in the lounge room, complete with a hearty log burner burning low. We were down two team members, thanks to the wide-reaching effects of the pandemic. Being very much an essential worker in pandemic response, Lanie was unable to take two days off work to attend and Grace was stuck over in Australia. Grace called in on Zoom and did her best to follow what was going on in the room.

Maree’s husband Darryl joined as one of her host day interviewees, and she was thrilled to have him meet the team that had provided her with so much support over the previous 18 months. Due to the remote location, Darryl was the only live interviewee and one other called in via Zoom. Maree had gathered feedback from people she respected and could rely on to provide comment on growth pathways and blind spots. It was an interesting experiment in gathering feedback about the Host pre-meeting, for the team to read before they even got there. Maree’s achieving four months sober was a massive celebration point, not least because she had done it through the stress, anxiety and uncertainty that COVID-19 had brought. She joked that it was just her luck that her Bali rehab retreat had been, “derailed by a f*cking global pandemic”.

I had been advised that a Host Day is not a silver bullet. This was good advice. I came away with a sense of responsibility to the team for having given their time and commitment to me. The feedback session was quite profound.
– Maree

Tony took the opportunity to express how the last in-person meeting – his first with this team – had felt for him. He explained that the discussion around the use of devices in team meetings, and the irritation that he had felt from other members at him having to leave the room for calls, had made him doubt whether or not he should come back at all. He brought this to the team openly and made the point that as a new team member myself, it perhaps hadn’t been my place to be dictating team culture. Fair call! The discussion was constructive, and we ended the meeting with the agreement that given his current difficult work situation that Tony – or anyone who was also struggling with urgent, unavoidable commitments – should be able to miss parts of meetings without hostility from the team provided it is discussed in advance.

The team left the mountains feeling renewed and with a deep gratitude for the way that we each were able to hold space for paradox, complexity, conflict and authentic listening.

It was a relief to be able to air my grievance with the team. They embraced it and were supportive and congratulatory of my courage. They listened with patience, acknowledged my point of view, and provided more insight on what I needed to reflect upon further. It was a mutual learning experience. If it weren’t for the way the team responded, I would not have stayed in the team.
– Tony

Key Learnings

  • Conflict can be a great source of learning, and courageous conversations are rewarded with collective growth.
  • To get the most out of Collective Intelligence, you have to be 100% present. Checking phones and laptops, sending emails, taking calls is distracting and makes others feel like they aren’t being heard. The team agreed that it should be avoided wherever necessary.
  • In-house meetings in the mountains are highly recommended.
  • People can be very different when they are on their home turf, compared to when they are visiting someone else, and it is important to see both sides of people.
  • Although it was wonderful to have team support during the April 2020 COVID lockdown, it also showed that Zoom calls are no substitute for face-to-face meetings.

Editor’s Note: We are very grateful to our anonymous blogger and their team for sharing their journeys of inner discovery with us.

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