On collective intelligence

Some years ago my wife and I spent a wonderful long weekend with friends visiting wineries around Yakima WA. Rather than heading right back to Chicago we wandered west along the Columbia River to Portland for a day on our own. That always includes some quality time at Powell's City of Books. So easy to lose track of time in that massive candy store for the mind!

While getting organized to check out, deciding on a few books to carry home, my eye fell on This Will Make You Smarter, my introduction to the edge.org annual questions. That year’s question was “What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?”

The book didn't disappoint. Most of the entries piqued my interest, and a handful truly resonated, sending me off into deeper reading over the subsequent weeks and months, exploring a variety of topics via unfamiliar authors.

Chief among these was Matt Ridley's entry “Collective Intelligence”. A tightly crafted inversion of conventional wisdom, his observations about human societies provided me with an insight into how to build and lead better technology teams.

Please take the time to read his submission, and I encourage you to follow his embedded references to further reading.

My summary, cherry picking Ridley's words:

“Brilliant people...assume that brilliance is the key to human achievement...They are all barking up the wrong tree. The key...is not individual intelligence at all. Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon...the nodes in the human neural network are people themselves...each doing one thing and getting good at it, then sharing and combining the results through exchange.”

Reading and reflecting on that sent my mind reeling back through all my development projects over the years. Many were extremely successful, some muddled through enough to declare victory, and others just failed. More often than not a team's success or lack thereof could be tied back to the simple truth about engineering efforts that Ridley had crystalized for me: Engineering success is a networking phenomenon.

Having smart people on your team can help. Up to a point. But it is far more powerful to have a collaborating, knowledge-sharing team with a mix of skills, experiences and talents. A bright person who can't share, won't take feedback or must win every argument can be an expensive boat anchor. Veteran engineers trading stories and constantly re-fighting the last war can need a kick in the pants to adapt to new opportunities. Pockets of specialists who rarely interact can lead to dangerous blind spots.

To build and lead an effective engineering team you need to find the right balance of top-down clarity of direction with bottom-up collective intelligence. That requires a diverse and open-minded team. And it requires leaders to continuously inject the energy that drives the networking of ideas.