How to develop collaborative intelligence?

One of the new IDM initiatives is a ‘Rewiring Team Dynamics’ workshop which will be organized as a three day seminar in April 2015, near Brussels/Belgium. The key question is: How can we create groups that can learn from mistakes faster, more efficiently, and more consistently than competitors do?’ The background of this question is the simple observation that a lot of groups systematically under-perform. They do not make good decisions and they do not solve complex problems in a collaborative way.

Traditional Team Building

Traditional team building interventions, which are mainly behaviorally focused, do not seem to work when team members are highly developed (especially when they are knowledge workers). The top interventions advised from a behavioral point of view are:

  • foster constructive debate in meetings
  • push back when consensus forms to quickly
  • use devil’s advocate thinking
  • look for competing explanations to challenge your observations
  • get some distance, step away, and then try again in order to recognize and interpret complex data
  • use visual graphs or flowcharts to juxtapose the larger picture with the individual puzzle pieces
  • reframe situations and always examine several more options
  • use impromptu meetings when time is limited to generate more options, including unconventional choices
  • learn from mistakes by conducting after-action reviews to extract insights

The underlying message in all of the above ‘advices’ is that one needs to overcome selective perception, and this is the task of the ‘leader’. This message does not take into account many of the dynamics that have to do with how members make sense of situations and create meaning. In higher developed teams multi-polarity of vision, constructive conflict, and critical systems thinking play a stronger role.

Towards Collaborative Intelligence

What Otto Laske teaches us is that the above interventions only partially work if one does not take into account in what way team members frame issues and decisions for themselves, whether they are aware of the kind of questions they are asking, and the conceptual structure of questions. It is Otto’s profound teaching that the decision making can be improved by paying more attention to  HOW team members think rather than WHAT they think.

What they think will be predictably determined by the models they use to guide their thinking (which amounts to using ideological maps), as well as factors of corporate culture that influence the interpretation and implementation of such models. Dealing with a huge amount of complexity requires a different framing, questioning and inquiry than an execution-focused production team is typically capable of.

Existing team building and coaching approaches do not recognize that team members are upwardly or downwardly divided in terms of personal development, their minority or majority residing at different levels of meaning making. Since teams are basically conversations, what happens is influenced by who talks with whom, when and HOW. Nobody an control what everyone else is framing, choosing and doing. Results emerge from the interplay of all thought-of choices, intentions and strategies of all stakeholders, in both intended and unintended ways. The basic challenge in team building therefore is making this plurality of ways of thinking manageable. This becomes even more important if the team wants to become a self-directing team (with shared leadership).

I share Otto Laske’s working hypothesis that different phases of social emotional maturity and fluidity of thinking enable different forms of breaking through culturally dominant logics, facilitate reconciliation of opposing views, and create belonging in the form of ‘thinking together’. Differences in personal development may lead to coping differently with ambiguity and constructive tension. ‘Consensus’, from a developmental point of view, is only a phase in continuously shifting movements-in-thought. The basic question therefore becomes: ‘how can (higher developed) teams come to terms with the lack of a common ground, at the same time acknowledging the dimension of undecidability and systemic influences that will always disturb their equilibrium?’

So far the theory.  Without answering the question ‘How to go from theory to action?’ developmental theory has limited value.

From Theory to Action

Personally I think the point of departure will be three interrelated issues every team is confronted with:

  • establishing wholeness (this relates to what is taken into account in their decision making process),
  • creating an evolutionary purpose (this is about creating a sense of direction for themselves), and
  • building oneness (which is about the creation of team identity).

Traditionally one looks at group conflict from three behavioral perspectives: the task, interpersonal relations, and the unfolding team process. Team conflict can be deconstructed from these three behavioral lenses: disagreement on what should be done (task), not trusting/liking others (relationship) and not being aligned in what to do first and what next (process). The developmental point of view, in my opinion, will be successful if woven into the relevant content of a discussion the team has at a certain moment in time (and is thus experienced as being concrete rather than abstract).

The task perspective, from a developmental point of view, can be seen as a process of establishing wholeness, in which attentional support brings to the surface the bigger picture, emerging changes affecting an issue, and the common ground of opposing factors. Such a process amounts to building a dialogue around what the group (should/can) take into account in their decision making process.

Relational differences can be solved by discussing how team membership contributes to the overall identity of the team, always paying attention to the social-emotional maturity differences between team members.

The process perspective has to do with inviting team members to listen deeply and understand what are the priorities and what are the central purpose it is serving. Developmental differences in teams crucially have to do with how far team members are cognitively able to think (into) the future, and thus can move away from being fixated on the present. The sense of direction which will form the basis of coordinated action then differs dramatically. Although a challenging societal value creation mission can unite very different people, it is often insufficient to arrive at coordinated action.

IDM already has (and teaches) the toolkit required for assessing team members’ developmental levels. This is an important starting point. However we need to be conscious that many situations do not allow for concrete diagnostics. What helped me in the past in guiding teams is surfacing the core concepts they are using in their narratives, and then designing my interventions to create wholeness, oneness and an evolutionary purpose. This amounts to a process of changing the quality of awareness of a group, by creating co-sensing spaces to practice the open systems eye, inviting team members to explore the edges of their thinking by de-fixation as an intervention principle, and assisting them in navigating in a different way between levels of conflict.

You can find more information on the Rewiring Team Dynamics workshop, built on a variety of case studies, via this link.

Jan De Visch

Author: Otto Laske

I am the founder and director of IDM, the Interdevelopmental Institute. My background is in philosophy, psychology, consulting, and coaching based on developmental theory to which I have mightily contributed myself. See the blogs at